I’ve been reading your columns for a year or so. In fact, it was my ex who introduced me to your column. She also introduced me to lots of other wonderful things, like the benefits of going for a walk in the woods and how therapy can be helpful to people who don’t particularly think they need it.
I loved her and I do love her. She is beautiful, and she is in love with being alive. She is talented and self-motivated. She is affectionate and tender-hearted. She expresses her feelings in an unselfconscious way that I’ve never seen before or since. She is a wonderful human being. The thing is, we just didn’t work. Our now-ended relationship was fraught with conflicts and disappointments, but now that it seems to be over, all I can think of is when–that’s when, not if–we’ll get back together and how we can fix things when that happens. How can I stop thinking this way?
We’ve broken up and gotten back together before. Even after I moved out this last time, we’ve seen each other for no less than 3 separate periods, which were always bittersweet and beautiful, and ultimately abruptly ended. She would text when someone she knew passed, or I would see her at a music festival and call her sounding like the saddest boy who ever lived, and we would see each other again for a time. This most recent time, she broke her foot and I spent about 3 weeks taking care of her, and our tentative “I love you’s” and nervous closed mouth kisses break my heart to think about them now.
The way that ended was when we talked about how something of mine was still left in her apartment. She asked me to come get them, and we set a time for this. I recently received a promotion of sorts at work, with increased responsibilities, a change in hours, and a raft of new people to help train. A couple of these people were my own friends whom I had referred to the position. I really want to keep this job and be perceived as a valuable presence, so I’ve probably been working too hard and taking on too much responsibility in order to make an impression. Between the long hours of work (and worrying about work when I wasn’t there), recent car troubles, and taking care my ex, I felt really worn out the day before I was supposed to go get my things. I texted her to reschedule. She asked why I was canceling so suddenly, and I explained, to which she responded that she didn’t like that I had time for everything and everyone else but not for her. She mentioned that I’m working so hard to make sure everything goes right in my life, but don’t have time to clean up the messes I left her with. I ended up telling her that she can’t lay this guilt trip on me considering how much I have helped her lately, and told her to leave me alone. She was on the mend and in much better shape than when she initially hurt herself, so I thought it was “right” for me to assert my needs and tell someone who was bringing me down to leave me alone. I haven’t heard from her since.
Keep in mind, I was just asking to reschedule, not trying to cancel. I really just wanted a day of rest. This was how many many many of our fights would play out. It’s like we don’t even hear each other. I think, now, in retrospect, that though her words were saying that I was inconsiderate and selfish, the meaning was that she was lonely and needed reassurances from me.
The thing is, even if we talked again and I approached her with this knowledge in the back of my head, I think it would eventually descend into the same situation. Because I’ve been there before, again and again. Even so, I can’t help but want her, and miss her, and feel like I abandoned her. I can’t help but think about the time we read one of your advice columns together, where you urged someone in a bad relationship to stick it out. The metaphor you used was of a partially-constructed house, and how, if they left now, they’d be driving by that half-built home every day for the rest of their life, never knowing what it would’ve been like when it was completed.
She is genuinely one of the most caring, understanding, and loving people I have ever known. Each fight–and there were many–felt shocking and surprising. The speed at which we would distance ourselves from each other makes my head spin just to think about it. I know that we didn’t work together, but I feel like if I just accept that we will never work, that we can never be together, I will fall apart. So I go day to day anticipating the time when we will, by some magic, be together and happy, because the alternative reality is too harsh for me to bear. I’m driving by our half-built house thinking “it’s almost finished” and ignoring the fact that the budget is depleted, the workers have all fled, and that each day that I’ve seen it since construction ended it has fallen further in on itself. I don’t want to think this way. I want to be realistic. I know that if I hang onto this hope, I only set myself up for even more crushing disappointments. Help!
It’s Still Good
Dear It’s Still Good,
Yes, it’s possible that this pattern will happen again. But it’s also possible to change what you do when this pattern emerges, to acquire a repertoire of words you can say that is well-learned enough that you can access it when you are stressed and upset, and then taking a minute to think of what to say before you lash out. It’s about being extra considerate.
What happened is behavior. Behavior can change. You can’t stop the emotions but you can learn to avoid escalating; you can learn to give when giving is the only thing that will work.
Wow, that’s a nice metaphor you remember. It is relevant. Because you bring to the relationship a set of stuff that is good enough to start with but it’s not enough to complete the relationship. You have to learn new behaviors specific to this person and this relationship. That includes learning to navigate through these difficult situations when each of you is at a low point and each of you needs something from the other and neither of you feels like it’s right that you should be the one to give in. One of you has to give in. One of you has to be selfless and not get what you want for the time being. In this conversation on the phone with her, in my opinion, that person was you.
You have to hurt for her sometimes. That’s as blunt as I can be. She will make you hurt. You have to be the bigger one at that point and accept the hurt. Until she herself learns to moderate her own selfish needs, you will have to be the one who hurts. That’s the price of keeping her.
Maybe you don’t want to pay that price. That’s up to you. What I’m saying is that it’s within your power to keep this relationship, and keep her, if you can just put your feelings and your pride aside now and then and meet her emotional needs, however unreasonable and ill-timed they may seem.
Yes, you were tired and yes more than anything in the world you wanted things to go your way and they didn’t. Yes, you needed some attention and you weren’t going to get it from her. Yes, it sucked. But that’s how relationships are sometimes. You were both at a low point and you were both needy and one of you was not going to get what you wanted.
It was unfair and will be unfair in the future. It’s not going to even out. When she’s low, she’s maybe not going to make the noble gesture just to make you feel better.
But you can learn to shift gears and buck up. You can ask her to hold on and then you can take a deep breath and think it through and let your emotions settle. You can say, “OK, I understand this is a disappointment and you know what? I don’t want to disappoint you. I love you and I want you to be happy. I do have a lot to do and it is a little inconvenient but I am coming over and I am bringing flowers.”
Or something like that.–ct