Here's the Thing: Should I break up with my boyfriend?

A BIG CUTIE PIE:

🌭folks, get ready— its a long one!!!🌭

I love my boyfriend—but I'm not sure I should. When we met, we were both hesitant at first to pursue anything, partially because we live several hours apart from one another and partially because we both have had dating histories which were rocky at best. We agreed that we would just see where things went. It quickly became abundantly clear that we were way more compatible than we expected, in pretty much every way. This, of course, turned into serious feelings. I brought it up to him that I felt like we were way past casual, and he agreed. We officially defined the relationship, and it was great. Except, that was the first conversation when I noticed what seemed like reluctance on his end. He asked how he should refer to me, like what would be the appropriate gender neutral term, and expressed discomfort with the word 'partner' because he felt it was too serious. I didn't really think anything of it because, to me, partner does sound rather sober. He was cool with S.O., though, so it was fine. We moved on.

It's become very obvious to me that I'm in love with him, something which I didn't expect to happen, especially as soon as it did. I've never been in love before, so I was cautious about prematurely labelling my feelings as something so serious, but the more I sat with it and the more I talked it over with friends, the more sure I was. I didn't know if he was in love with me—we'd only been together a month and a half at that point—but I felt loved, and I was bursting with the revelation, so I told him. He blinked at me. He said that he thought he felt the same, but he wasn't sure, and he didn't want to say it until he means it. He tells me other things, things which I feel are more serious than "love," like how I'm the best thing to ever happen to him; that's a big fucking statement! Still, though, he hasn't said the L word (granted, it has only been about three weeks since I made my profession, but how can he still be so unsure when I've known how I feel for at least a month??).

He seems to have assigned a lot of weight to the word love, and there are all these things that he feels need to happen before he can say it (like the passage of a greater amount of time, me meeting his parents, etc). I have a hard time understanding that on an emotional level, although I comprehend it intellectually. While it's true that he's the first person I've been IN love with, I love and have loved a lot of people. I'm realizing that I love freely and easily. To me, this is a different kind of love, but it's still fundamentally the same thing. Love is big and important, but it's also fluid and hard to define, so why can't we just trust how we feel?

As we've been together longer, he's begun to stress more, and I feel his anxiety pulling him away from me. I think he got caught up in the excitement during the first month or so of our relationship, and now he's having to grapple with the depth of his feelings, as well as his own insecurities and self-worth issues. He's not commitment-phobic, precisely, but commitment and intimacy are frightening and overwhelming to him, and I'm really struggling to understand what's so difficult about committing to me when he tells me all the time how amazing I am and how much he appreciates me. We're both only in our twenties; I'm not asking for a ring, or a baby, or to move in together, or to get a dog together; I only for sure want the latter two things in that list, and not for like two or three years. I'm just asking that he make the effort to trust me as I have made the effort to trust him.

I want us to continue having fun together, learning about each other, and enjoying ourselves. I know he's trying, but sometimes I feel like some straight woman fifteen years into her marriage whose husband doesn't touch her anymore. I feel like I initiate physical touch way more than he does—and not just sex (which we're barely having because of his anxiety), but basic shit, like hand-holding and putting an arm around the other person. He also has asked me not to tell him I love him anymore. At first, after I said it, he told me he liked hearing it and that it was fine for me to say it as long as I didn't expect him to be ready yet to say it back. It was a bit deflating, but it didn't really bug me at the time because, as I've said, I felt loved. A couple weeks later, though, he'd developed a panic around it, and me expressing my feelings and care for him somehow wedged us further apart. Now, I can't say those words to him without fear of pushing him, so I'm not saying it.

It's not like I'm in a dry, affection-less relationship with some apathetic douche. He's struggling so hard with himself and his insecurities and anxieties because he wants this relationship to work; he could've quit on me, but he hasn't. He expresses care for me, tells me when he misses me, and shows me those small kindnesses that matter, the sort of thing that makes my life just a tiny bit easier. When he's in a good mood, we have so much fun together. We have the same sense of humor, the same political views, the same sexual proclivities, and he lets me win every argument. We spend a lot of time just cuddling, which I value so much. It's just that I'm now always worried I'll accidentally set him off, and he'll shut down on me.

I want to respect his feelings and his boundaries, so I don't push, but is that unfair to me? I'm not getting the validation I want out of our relationship right now. The thing is, I don't think that means I'll never get it again; he's made every effort to be transparent with me and we've had extremely open conversations about what we each need/want from the other. Still, I am borderline aggressively supportive and extraordinarily loyal, and have been known to stay in relationships (romantic or otherwise) well past their expiration dates because of these traits. From my position inside the relationship, I can't tell if that's what I'm doing right now, but God, it sounds bad if I try to talk about it: "my boyfriend is great, and I love him. He does have issues with intimacy and commitment, so I'm not supposed to tell him that I love him, but he's not an asshole, I swear." If one of my friends said that to me, I would call bullshit. I feel tempted to use the "you don't get it. The good stuff with us is just SO good" defense, which is so fucking tired, or the "you haven't seen what a good guy he is the way I have" cliché. I don't want to talk to my friends about all of this, because I don't want them to write him off. I know how this all might sound, but he's not a bad person, and he's not manipulating me.

Still, I wonder if I'm wrong to be in this relationship. Am I setting myself up to get hurt? Will he ever be able to offer me the emotional security I need? I just need perspective, and I don't feel like I can get that from my friends, all of whom are heavily biased in my favor. I know this is a crazy long email and there's a lot going on here, but please help. I'm not someone who deals well with uncertainty, but right now, I'm very uncertain.

SOPHIA:

First things first: get yourself a nice mug of hot chocolate and sit on a cozy chair, set a timer for 17 minutes and take a little break from thinking about this. Once you’re done, come back and follow all of my advice and post publicly about how brilliant it is JK JK JK. But do take a little breather. This is overwhelming as hell to have to deal with. I’m exhausted just reading about this, I cannot imagine the bone-deep level of tired you’re dealing with. The good news— and there’s a lot of it— is that you can put the problem down because it is not an Emergency-Emergency. It’s a problem that you’ll need to do something about in the near future. That does not mean you can’t take some time off from it. So do that, and in fact, do that as often as you can.

You know when you’re at a concert and your friend is coming back with drinks and you keep your elbows out to leave enough space for when she comes back? You need to put your elbows out right now in your life and create some space for other things other than this problem. And for the same reason as the friend-coming-back-with-drinks example: when the problem comes back, you will be ready. You will have space for it. You will also have context for the issue of if your boyfriend really fits in your life right now in the right ways because you will actually be living a full life when you’re apart from him rather than living life perched on the eggshells that he’s scattered all around.

I do not for a moment think that your boyfriend is a bad person, or that he has intentionally hurt you or made your life a delicate dance of trying to appease him. Regardless of his intent, however, his impact is exactly that. He’s wound you fucking TIGHT so that you’re bending over backwards IN CASE that helps his anxiety.

I do not think that ANY OF THIS makes him a bad person; you do not need to convince me (or anyone) else that he isn’t cruel or manipulative. I do, however, think that he’s not managing his mental health well right now, and I do not know how long a relationship can last under these circumstances. I don’t know if he’s seeing a therapist, but if you two want to stay together he almost certainly needs to. A lot of people are in relationships with folks with mental health issues. A LOT. People with mental health issues are great partners, parents, siblings and friends all the time, so this is not to suggest that dating someone with anxiety— even severe anxiety—is impossible or improbable. But when those relationships thrive and are healthy, it is because the person with mental health issues gets care and works hard to manage their health. He is not doing that. Your relationship is not healthy.

Let me write that out again so that you remember it: your relationship— as it stands now— is not healthy.

Will it be healthy in the future? Quite possibly! But you need to be really, excruciatingly honest WITH YOURSELF AND THEN WITH YOUR BOYFRIEND about what it would take for your relationship to be healthy for both of you. Both. Of. You. I know I’m repeating myself a lot here for emphasis but that’s because I don't want to put every single word in bold. This shit is important. Love and happiness and compatibility are very very very separate ideas that we’ve mistakenly conflated over the years. You can love someone and not be happy with them. You can love someone and not be compatible with them at this stage in your life.

You must love yourself enough and care enough for yourself to walk away from relationships that do not serve your own health. It sucks sooooo much to have to pick yourself over another person. It feels good in so many ways to give and give and give to the people we love, even when—and sometimes especially when—the giving requires a lot. Beware, however, because while giving energy/support/help to someone is a prerequisite of love, giving is not love. Giving yourself to someone, trying to Elastigirl-bend and stretch yourself into a version of a person they won’t leave is not love. Sacrifice is not love. (NOTE: I only mean romantic love here; there are lots of types of love—especially parental/care giving love—that have different boundaries).

Hopefully, we’ve established that what you have right now is not a healthy relationship— even if it has very many good moments!!!!!! (think about an old tire swing with a rope that is rotting and might break but which could be very fun to swing on). The next part that I need to address: I don’t know that your boyfriend is ready for a relationship, and not just because of his mental health. It would be impossible for me to parse out what is and is not because of his anxiety; it would be like trying to take food coloring out of icing. It has quite literally colored the whole relationship. Fucked? Yes. Unfair? Also yes.

He says that you’re the best thing that ever happened to him because you are caring for him and bending to his every need. Of course he has specific needs as a person with severe anxiety. I have only ever had general anxiety, and it warps a lot of life. But you cannot warp other people with you. That is not fair.

I do not think he can handle commitment or the action that love requires at all right now, let alone long distance commitment and love. Long distance relationships need to be MORE SOLID than regular distance relationships. They need to have an end point. They need a lot of planning, communication and mutual support because they are hard as shit and they suck. You two are wildly unready for this, despite how much you love him. You cannot love him enough to out pace his anxiety + long distance + rocky dating pasts if he is not doing the work on his end. And the sad news is that he is not. I don’t know if it’s because he’s not ready for this relationship because of his mental health or if he is not ready for this relationship and he is dealing with that poorly because of his mental health. I don’t know. I don’t know that you’ll ever know.

NOTE: Just because someone doesn’t deserve the pain of heartbreak does not mean you should stay with them. That is not a valid reason to stay in a broken relationship. Even if the badness of the relationship is 100% Anxiety’s Fault, that does not make it not a bad relationship. I’m sorry; this is a truth universally acknowledged to be BULLSHIT!!!! and also UNFAIR!!!!

I know I’ve strongly “hinted” that you should, but I’m not here to tell you to break up with him. It is your life. You love him. You two have great moments. Those are not small things, and they should not be dismissed by anyone who talks to you about this situation.

If you decide to stay and wait you need to figure out YOUR boundaries and desires, your wants and needs, what would make you feel cared for. And you need to ask him to try. And he needs to try. And if he cannot do those things for whatever reason, you need to come back to the table and talk again. Maybe you decide to take a break while he works on his mental health for a bit and while you build up a life that is about you and not about caregiving.

Right now, you do not have a partner, you have someone you’re caring for. That happens now and again in long term relationships, where one person needs more and then later, it’s the other person’s turn to need more. You guys are only a few months or weeks into a relationship; this should be some of the most “easy” times in terms of expressing and feeling lust/love/like-like/whatever word he wants to use. This relationship (as it stands now) has nothing in it for you, even if this person has a lot that is great about them.

To bring it back to the very beginning though, you do not need to decide today. You can set this problem down for a moment or a day or a week and it will be ok. You will know when this relationship becomes too much (maybe it won’t ever; I don’t know. Maybe you can handle walking on eggshells for years). You will know when you’ve reached a point where you cannot go on. But I strongly encourage you to make big, brave changes well before that time. Because then it will be an emergency-emergency. It will be your mental health and well being on the line.

❤️ Best of luck!!! Do the scary things!!! They’re almost always worth it!!! Exclamation points!!! ❤️

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Sophia Benoit writes this very newsletter; she also writes about sex & relationships for GQ, tries to write about Fleetwood Mac for GQ, avoids writing by tweeting at @1followernodad, works full-time as a researcher for Lights Out With David Spade, and has had bylines in The Guardian, Reductress, Refinery29, Allure, and The Cut. You can reach her or yell at her at 1followernodad@substack.com.