It's A Pleasure
How Do You Know When It's Time To End A Relationship?
Commitment from someone you don’t actually fit with will never make you feel full.
Q: I’ve been with my boyfriend for seven years, and I love him. I’ve never felt like this with anyone else. He makes me laugh, and I enjoy spending time with him. In an ideal world, he’d be the guy I’d marry. However, I find myself having doubts about our relationship. I feel like we’re not compatible. He and I have different opinions on drugs, and in recent years, he’s been going out more and partying more. I’m 29 and he’s 30. I want to settle down soon, or at least feel like we’re heading toward that same direction, but he seems to be heading more and more toward the partying lifestyle. He’s also overall not very attentive toward my feelings, wants, and needs. If he wants to do something, he’ll do it — regardless of whether I like it or not; he’ll only not do it if I have strong reasons to back it up. I’ve invested so much into this relationship, and I’m not ready to let it go. I can tell he cares about me, but overall I don’t feel very secure in this relationship, and I don’t feel like I trust 100% that he won’t cheat on me. Logically, I know he’s not the kind to cheat, but because we’re so different and he constantly puts himself in scenarios where there are alcohol and drugs involved, I can’t help but feel like he might accidentally cheat on me or find someone else more attractive/compatible. I just feel like we’re very different people with different core values. He wants freedom and adventure, and I want family and stability. At the same time, I’m holding onto hope that things will work out between us; I’m also tired and don’t want to start over again with another person. Would you be able to provide some advice on what I can do or how to know when to quit a relationship?
A: There is an extremely pervasive myth out there that people are something that can be invested in, like a 401(k). Not to go a little too far but I think, perhaps, capitalism has convinced us that any use of time is an investment, something done — often begrudgingly — with either the hope or the assumption that it will turn into something better down the road. And we so often feel owed that outcome. The real world, as in the real world, as in nature as in humans — not the real world as in office jobs — doesn’t work that way. If you spend all summer tending to tomato plants and the bunnies come and eat them, you’ve made a poor investment. Sophia, please, what do rabbits and tomatoes have to do with me?
This relationship is not an investment. You weren’t putting a down payment on a good life by spending your time on this guy. A relationship with someone isn’t about strategically planning how to be with a person who’ll bring you the most return for your efforts at some point down the road. It’s about building something with someone, it’s about creating a life together that you both want, that makes you both feel good. You cannot be in a relationship with someone hoping that it will magically contort itself into being exactly what you want if you simply put up with it and stay. (I’m not saying that waiting certain phases of love out doesn’t have its benefits — it can — but this is not that.)
Right now, to be frank, it seems like you want long-term commitment and security from a person more than you want love or intimacy or even happiness. That isn’t evil or bad of you! But you write as if a husband is an achievement and once you secure one, you’ll be able to be content. I am not pooh-poohing marriage or stability — they can feel wondrous and be an important part of what brings you joy. But they cannot make you happy, and trying to force a relationship to that end point will not work. Commitment from someone who gives it begrudgingly, or from someone you don’t actually fit with, will never make you feel full.
Picking a partner isn’t a shopping excursion where you need to pick out the right bird for a Thanksgiving dinner. You’re choosing a significant other again and again every day by talking with them, by loving them, by building a life together that you both actually value. What you’re doing right now is not preparation for the future, when you finally start living. This is your life. This is it. You’re living it! And you don’t seem very happy with your partner.
You two do seem to have, if not different values, different priorities right now. That isn’t bad, that isn’t good; it just is. I think you both love each other, but I’m not sure if you guys like one another very much. It certainly seems like your communication is severely lacking. If you do decide to stay in this relationship, you absolutely must change that. I strongly recommend couples therapy. You might roll your eyes at this, but it could help to find out why your partner loves going out and partying. I know it sounds silly — Sophia, he wants to go out because it’s fun, you dipsh*t. Sure, but what makes it fun? Is it that he has a lot of responsibility in his job and this is one place he feels he can let go? Is it that he feels like he missed out on parts of his youth and he’s trying to relieve them? Is he missing excitement?
And then, there’s the stuff you need to discuss with him! You’re holding so much in, probably because both of your attempts at communication in the past have been frustrating and hurtful. But the lack of truthful, honest, excruciating talks has led to the only thing that can fill the void: assumptions. You are assuming a whole heaping boatload about this man that you’ve been with for seven years. Part of these hypotheses are that drugs and alcohol make people cheat. They don’t. I want to be unequivocal on this point: Drugs and alcohol do not lead to cheating. I have had a lot of drinks in my life, and I’ve never cheated. Millions of people across history have cheated while sober. Please, do yourself the favor of unlinking the two. The only thing that makes people cheat is this: They want to cheat. If you don’t trust your partner, you need to figure out what it is about him and yourself that makes you believe that. What makes you feel insecure? What could your partner be doing to reassure you or show he cares more? What do you feel you’re lacking? Someone who wants to cheat on you but doesn’t have the option because they’re sitting at home is not better than a partner who wants to cheat on you but has the chance because they go out. If you honestly think he wants to be unfaithful, you shouldn’t be with him. There is no such thing as accidental infidelity. Unless your boyfriend is going to masquerade balls with your identical but evil twin, that isn’t a thing. I’m not suggesting that you can’t put up boundaries with a partner or ask for them to do certain things that make you feel more secure. I’m suggesting that if your partner wants to cheat, they will, and that’s the problem. Not the option, the desire.
I think you need to work through that thought process and that self-doubt whether you stay with this person or not. So far, it doesn’t seem that he’s given you any reason to think he’s cheating other than… not being around you. The problem, as I see it, is that this guy doesn’t make you feel loved, and neither of you know how to ask to be cared for in the ways you need. And those ways might be incompatible, which I think you both kind of suspect, so you avoid talking about the topic even more, because it’s only going to lead to the conclusion that you two probably need to break up.
And I think you do. This relationship has given you a lot — it wouldn’t have lasted for seven years if it didn’t. You two both loved one another, and that isn’t erased by this ending. You’re right that you two don’t have the same timeline or values right now, and that’s a perfectly good reason — a great reason even — for this relationship to end, but I urge you to learn from it. Learn what went wrong and what you could do differently to be with someone that actually is on your timeline, yes, but also to be with someone that you trust — not just someone you trust to not cheat, but someone you can open up to, to talk to, to expose your wants and needs and insecurities and fantasies to. None of these seven years was or is a waste. It’s your life. You can’t waste your life; it’s impossible. But you can make choices that will lead you to new, happier, fuller directions. And I hope you do that.
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.