Welcome to It’s Complicated, stories on the sometimes frustrating, sometimes confusing, always engrossing subject of modern relationships. (Want to share yours? Email pitches to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
I was standing by baggage claim in O’Hare Airport, holding the two oversize duffle bags I’d haphazardly filled with all my belongings during my last days in San Francisco. I shifted my weight from one foot to the other, trying and failing at relieving my nervous energy. I reached toward my throat, grabbing the necklace Jarrett gave me years ago, hoping to quiet my fidgeting hands. Any second now, he’d walk through the airport doors, and my new life — our new life — would start.
I came to Chicago in hopes of fixing our unraveling relationship. Jarrett and I had dated through most of college, ending things after graduation when our jobs took us to separate cities. We spent a year broken up and then two years doing long distance before he finally convinced me to move to his hometown of Chicago and be together for real.
I didn’t love Chicago, but the long distance had taken a toll on me — it involved a lot of fighting, crying, lost trust, and words we couldn’t take back. Visiting him always felt like entering a bizzaro world where I didn’t quite fit. And I was tired. Maybe proximity was what we needed to erase the miscommunications and misunderstandings of the past two years. Maybe a move meant my anxiety over our future would dissipate.
So I gave up my job, apartment, and friends for this new version, moving across the country to a city I didn’t love for a man I did. One flight later, there I was, pacing back and forth past the tourists looking for cabs and the friends embracing in reunion, waiting for him. After what seemed like eternity, I looked up and saw him walking toward me.
“Hi,” I said.
“Hi, sweetheart,” he said, pulling me into a hug. I felt myself tense, start to pull away, but I willed myself to relax. Our hello kiss felt stoic, with no overriding passion to quell my nerves.
At that point, it didn’t matter that we had known each other for more than six years. In a lot of ways, we felt like strangers..
* * *
Long-distance love stories generally end with the couple reuniting and living happily ever after. But for us, the aftermath proved more difficult than the distance. And we aren’t alone. According to a recent survey, 20 percent of people move at some point for a significant other. Of those couples, 23 percent break up.
Those first months, I sensed us role-playing a healthy relationship. We walked on eggshells around each other, keeping all the things we’d built up during the distance — the fears, the emotions, the expectations — to ourselves. At the same time, I couldn’t shake the feeling that our newly shared apartment was not the blank canvas I‘d hoped for. I was keenly aware of all the things that made it feel more like his than ours: the shoes by the door, the papers littering the coffee table, the bad art on the walls. I’d moved into a life in progress, one I was expected to become part of.
And I quickly learned that many of the roadblocks in our relationship hadn’t been caused by distance, but by the new people we were growing into. Even with the distance closed, our lives seemed to run on two parallels, impossible to intertwine. I wanted to talk about it endlessly; he wanted to stop dwelling on it and focus on moving forward. So we fought each other and against the understanding that our relationship might not work.
Part of our issue, says Rachel Moheban-Wachtel, a New York City psychotherapist specializing in relationships, was that we were insisting on applying an old relationship to new lives, which came with new anxieties, outlooks, and insecurities.
“People don’t realize we don’t learn how to be in a relationship,” she says. “We just bring ourselves and our dysfunctions into it.”
One night, a few months in, he approached me as I cleared the dishes. As I rinsed the remnants of dinner down the drain, I felt his arms encircle my waist.
The silence was heavy. I silently begged him to say whatever it was, tired of always being the one to bring up the negatives. I was still miserable in Chicago, a fact we’d addressed so many times that we’d lulled each other into an awkward stalemate.
“I hope today was okay,” he offered finally, bending his head and kissing me quickly on the neck.
I turned back to respond, but he was already on the couch, flipping through his phone. I finished loading the dishwasher and crawled beside him on the couch. He wrapped his free arm around me. I reminded myself that this wasn’t easy for him, either. I could give him some credit.
“I don’t like it here,” I finally said.
“Sweetheart, it’s been five months,” he said. “I know it’s tough now, but it will get better.”
“How can you say that?”
“I just know.”
I wasn’t reassured. In fact, his comment only made me more incensed. “This is your home, not mine,” I reminded him. “I came here for you, something you wouldn’t do for me.”
He closed his eyes. “Please don’t. How long are you going to hold that over me?”
I knew I should stop, that I was being vindictive, but I needed to hear the irritation in his voice. Part of me wanted him to suffer. “Oh, I can play this card forever,” I said.
“Fine. If you don’t want to be here, no one is forcing you.”
He left the room. I heard the tap running in the bathroom, the familiar sound of him brushing his teeth through a closed door. Why did he do that so loudly? Everything he did was wrong, including, now, his refusal to let me scream at him. He was all I had here, in this place that he’d brought me to, so he had to be everything, punching bag included. It felt like the least he could do.
I walked toward the bathroom as he exited, our shoulders brushing. I wished he would reach out, grab me, tell me we would be okay. But he kept walking. He was angry, too.
My eyes welled as I started the shower. I hated his silence.
I wanted us to keep talking, to figure out how we ended up here. I wanted to dissect every fight, every time he made me laugh, every missed telephone call, every I miss you, every night curled up together, every angry text, every plane ride. I wanted confirmation that yes, this was the right path and yes, this made sense. I wanted to remember why we fell in love and why we both kept fighting so hard.
And somehow, slowly, I did. Eventually, our fights revealed themselves to be productive, a sign that we were on the right track rather than a giveaway that we were doomed. We learned that our actions and words left marks, so we began to tread more carefully. When I screamed and cried, asking why he even wanted me here, we grew closer — because after the yelling and crying and hateful words, we started talking. We talked about our anxieties, about feeling insecure and unloved. We discovered that we never stopped loving and respecting each other.
“It’s okay if you fight and you argue,” Moheban-Wachtel says.
“The most important piece is making up and being able to sit and talk about it.” And we did. I knew for sure we would be okay after I complained about Chicago for the millionth time, and Jarrett just squeezed my hand, comforting me instead of going on the defensive.
That was years ago. We’re still in Chicago, still together.
And I’m still learning that it’s impossible to have all the answers, and okay not to. By now, though, I know that we’ll figure it out together, mapping out a life that finally feels like ours.