Moving out on September 7, 1998…
Dear Breakup Girl,
I have been with my boyfriend for almost 4 years. The first year, we were at different colleges on the East Coast 20 minutes apart, so we spent most weekends together but that was about it. Then we both graduated and moved to California, about 2 hours apart. We didn’t specifically plan to relocate together, it was mostly fortunate coincidence. After about 2 months of this, we found a place together, then lived together with various other housemates for almost 3 years.
On the outside, we look like a perfectly happy couple, and in many respects we are. But problems with housemates put a strain on our living situation, and this has spilled over into our relationship. We have some living style differences (he stays up until 3 AM, I have to work 9-5; I’m messy, he’s neat; he has good financial sense and I don’t, etc.) and each of us has character traits that irritate the other. I have thought long and hard about these things and have decided that I can live with them all. But he has some serious reservations about a few of mine (in particular, I can have a quick, sharp temper and he has a hard time dealing with that) and isn’t so sure he can live with them.
To complicate matters, this is his first real relationship. So he feels like he has no basis for comparison as to how happy he ought to be or as to what he ought to want out of a relationship. I’ve been in a few other relationships, so this is not a problem for me: I believe that this is a basically good relationship and worth saving. But he is not so sure.
For about the last year, he’s been satisfied enough with the relationship to want to continue with it, but not satisfied enough that he’s willing to make any sort of long term commitment. We have talked about this many, many times, but no kind of resolution has ever come out of it. Then, back in March, I discovered an advice columnist called Breakup Girl. Maybe you’ve heard of her. She’d written this really interesting column on space, which I read, and thought about. Not long after, my BF and I were getting into one of these discussions, and I brought up the idea of having some space. He agreed to think about it. About a week later, he came up with the idea of living apart. He suggested that it might be a good way for him to get some space and be able to think about the bigger problems in our relationship without getting distracted by all the minor day-to-day irritations involved in living with someone. So we discussed that for a couple of months, then agreed to try it.
I moved into my own place at the beginning of July (the first time I’ve ever lived alone), he will be moving with one of our former housemates later this month. We’ll be living about 20 minutes apart (again! but it should be easier this time since we both have cars now). We haven’t really decided how much time we’ll spend together, probably as much as is convenient. And yes, we are still having sex. This wasn’t my idea, but I’m basically OK with it, especially as I agree with him that it might save our relationship in the long run. (More fair to say, I’m OK with the concept; we haven’t been living apart long enough for me to say for sure that I’m OK with the reality.)
Now he’s starting to talk seriously about having an open relationship. This has come up before, as a way to solve the “no experience with other relationships” problem, but we’ve always decided against it. In theory, I think it might be a good idea; in reality, I’m not sure I could deal with it at all. Also, it’s starting to feel like maybe he’s trying to break off the relationship gradually, which I definitely do not want. I’ve told him many times that, if he wants to break up, he should just do it straight out, and he’s promised that he will. I believe that he’s not doing this consciously, but could he be doing it unconsciously?
I really love him a lot, and I would be perfectly happy with the relationship if only he were happy with it. Sometimes he is happy; he claims that the subject of how things are going only comes up when he’s feeling pessimistic and he does have optimistic times. He says he loves me very much too, and I have every reason to believe it. His most important consideration in all this is that we can stay friends, whether or not we stay together, so he is being very careful about not making any decisions too hastily. But this state of limbo is driving me crazy. And since he takes a very long time to make decisions, there is no real end in sight. And so, despite my wish for a long-term commitment (yes I’d marry him if he asked, on the condition that we get these things resolved), I’ve been fighting the temptation to just break up with him and get it over with.
So that’s the situation. My basic questions are: a) Is this not-living-together thing a good idea, or a big mistake? b) Is it possible for a once-monogamous relationship to become a successful open relationship? c) Should I give in to temptation (ie break it off myself)?
Thanks for listening, BG. If nothing else, writing it all out to an impartial party is cathartic.
Without going too far into the realm of the personal, let me just say that the “living style differences” you describe should probably be the least of your worries. As far as those traits are concerned, you two sound about as different as the Breakup Folks, who, the last time I checked, were living happily ever after (or, at least, as the email I’m about to get will say, “as happy as we can be without the joy of grandchildren”). “Differences” like those are the kind of things that, if you’re SURE about the person, get downgraded to liveable-with annoyances; if you’re bottom-line ambivalent, they’re upgraded to Reasons Why This Won’t Work.
And speaking of “won’t work,” the phrase “open relationship” leaps to mind. Now, where did I just hear that? Oh, right, your letter. Um, NO. Either break up, or don’t — easy for me to say, I know — but as far as BG is concerned, an “open relationship” is an open wound. One with lots of Why-isn’t-he-home-at-8-AM? and Whose-bed-have-her-boots-been-under? salt pouring in. I’m sorry, I just can’t see it working. As anything but a stalling tactic that actually makes matters worse. (And, this being the 90s, “unsafe.”)
Sorry, I’m answering your questions out of order. That was (b). Okay, here’s (a). In the small picture, the living-apart thing is not a bad idea at all — space, distance, yadda yadda yadda. But in the big picture, I’m not so sure. You said it yourself: the state of limbo is driving you crazy. Sleeping together probably isn’t helping; people’s schedules being what they are these days, what you’ve got set up is probably not that different from when you did live together, just with a lot more driving. Here’s BG’s bold statement (one I’m sure I’ve made before): breakups make you wicked sad, but limbo EATS YOUR BRAIN; and sad is less bad.
So, as far as (c) temptation goes, well, I guess I’ve just led you there.