It's A Pleasure
Help! I Love My Boyfriend, But I’m Struggling To See A Future With Him
You’re not evil for having needs in a relationship that your partner cannot meet.
Q: I’ve been in a relationship with my boyfriend for five years and we moved in together officially early this year. (We were essentially living together during COVID lockdowns.) It’s the first relationship I’ve had where there hasn’t been an element of emotional or sexual abuse, and I love him a lot. He treats me so well, is very caring, affectionate, supportive, and we share a lot of core values regarding politics and general beliefs and other big things. We have fun together and I really enjoy spending time with him. However, early on into our relationship he got ill and he’s been struggling with that for a while now. It really limits his ability to go out and do things with me and even his own friends. He hasn’t been to a doctor yet about it and so it remains undiagnosed as to what is actually wrong. I’ve found this part of our relationship very challenging as I’m a very outgoing and active person. ... On top of his illness, he’s a homebody at heart. He’s pretty introverted and likes to be on his own and his ideal day is watching TV or playing games. I don’t mind these activities, but this has become the main way we spend time together. Having so many different interests does mean we have our own lives and we aren’t joined at the hip, but I’ve been getting an increasing feeling that maybe we aren’t actually very compatible. At first I thought the dynamic was all right, he gives me so much freedom and I can go off adventuring and know that I’ve got my stable rock waiting for me at home. But now I feel like something is missing. Being independent is good, but there are so many things I want to do with him, experiences I want to share with him, and I often feel this sense of loss and restriction. It feels like we want two different relationships sometimes. Recently, I’ve been struggling to picture our future together — which in the past few years wasn’t the case; we would talk about houses and weddings and all of that — and I have been feeling a lot more anxious and almost numb about the relationship. But also the thought of leaving him and not having him in my life makes me literally feel like I might throw up because everything on the whole seems good. He treats me so well and we’ve built a lovely life together and I don’t want to throw away a good thing. I’ve always felt that if someone loves you and treats you right you’ve hit the jackpot, and I feel so guilty for feeling like this isn’t enough now. I’m just feeling so lost, guilt-ridden, and confused right now.
A: Love isn’t enough. It’s tempting to view it as everything. No offense to Lennon-McCarthy, but it’s not all you need, in life nor in a relationship. It’s a lot. It’s the good sh*t. It’s the stuff that binds us all, it’s the space between moments and atoms and any other poetic thought you can have. Love lives up to all of the art that’s made about it and the songs sung about it and the chicken noodle soups made with it. But it’s not simply enough. Which is, of course, an excruciating and often unacceptable truth. What do you mean, it’s not enough? I love this person. OK, but you can’t live with them. You can’t be happy with them. You can’t be fully alive with them and only them as your partner. That doesn’t negate how you feel about them. (Even though it feels like it does.) It just means you need something else, too. Not more, not better, just different. You’re not evil for having needs in a relationship that your partner cannot meet. It’s devastating, it’s depressing, it’s gutting when that happens. But it’s not your fault.
There are all kinds of common explicit examples of when love isn’t enough — one person wants kids, the other doesn’t; one person wants to live in rural Idaho and the other can’t be more than two miles from a Zara without getting hives. Love can’t bridge those gaps; it can’t make two people want the same things. And you might find that this is the case with you and your partner.
If you choose to leave, there will be moments where you both question if you could have done more to make it work. You’ll ask yourself that question. And you’ll find the answer in the new, full life you build afterward. You’ll find it in the new people you meet and the new experiences you have. In the meaning you create and make, and in the things you miss and adore about your ex. The truth is you can’t have it all in life; you can’t have this partner and this life and another one later that you try a different way. You only get one. I’m not saying I’m in favor of you leaving. (I’m in favor of you working hard to make life what you want, and you will get it wrong a couple times along the way! I promise!) I’m telling you, though — promising you even — that you will have laughter and love and joy again. First, it will feel like you got your insides scooped out like a pumpkin, sure. But you’ll get through it, like all of us do when we lose love, or have to let go of it.
Before you make the decision to do that, however, I urge you to talk to your partner first. Sometimes, things have gone too far, the feelings of being “done” with a relationship have already seeped into the cracks and you can’t un-ring the bell. The desire for something new outweighs the desire to put in the work to make what you have better. (Of course it doesn’t seem appealing to put in work. Of course it’s more fun to imagine a scenario in which you leave this relationship and everything falls into place and your next partner matches up with you on every single level with absolutely no effort on your part. It’s fake, but it’s appealing.) Despite the amount of work seeming daunting, I still encourage you to face it. When people say relationships take work, this is it, right here. It’s the showing up and not leaving until you’ve exhausted all the efforts you possibly could have made. If I were you, I’d talk to your boyfriend about your concerns, about your feelings. I would tell him that while you know he is responsible for his health, that you are worried about him, and that you feel like it’s impacting his life and your life together. Tell him how it makes you feel to not do things together. Ask for some things that you want! Find middle ground. Invite people over to your house, do activities at home that aren’t screen-centric, go get a drink at a restaurant near your place. It doesn’t have to be exactly in his comfort zone or yours. It can be a little stretch for both of you.
There are many couples who operate on very different social levels and schedules. There are plenty of couples who navigate that, and it’s not an incompatibility, or at least it’s not a deal-breaker. There are ways to live full lives that aren’t always together, and in those lives, sometimes each partner is sad about it. It’s not like people who compromise are happy about it every minute of the day, every day of the relationship. No, sometimes it does suck that your partner doesn’t want to put on a suit and go to your work party and then go out dancing all night. Sometimes it’s a bummer when your partner isn’t up for movie night every night. It sucks some days, it’s allowed to suck some days, but it can work if you both talk about it and discover small compromises.
But again, you’re absolutely allowed to walk away. It seems to me like there may be some level of personal sadness or even depression on your end — I’m not a doctor and I’m going off of very little info — but when someone uses the word “numb” that always raises a flag to me that something deeper might be going on. You aren’t required to wait and see if this gets better or different. You aren’t required to stick it out or pay in your own mental health so that someone else doesn’t get sad. You should walk away when you think you have nothing left to give to this relationship. If that’s now, if your love for him isn’t enough, that’s OK. Good things are coming no matter what you decide, they’re going to take effort and sadness and compromise most likely, but they’re possible.
It’s A Pleasure appears here every Thursday. If you have a sex, dating, or relationship question, email Sophia at BustleSexAdvice@gmail.com or fill out this form.