Get Ask Polly delivered weekly.
My boyfriend and I met in New York and fell in love. At the time we met, he was planning an eventual move upstate to start a Ph.D. program.
We’d been together for about six months when I asked him to apply to a Ph.D. in our city instead. I loved our life in New York and wasn’t sure I would be able to make a happy life upstate for five years, or be long distance, especially for so long. He applied, and was accepted, but then came speculation about whether the two Ph.D. options were equally good (both Ivy League, for what that’s worth). He became hesitant.
I took the decision process incredibly hard, feeling like my worth was being weighed, like the possibility of daily life with me was just a small variable in the equation of his ideal next five years. But he’s moved around a lot in his life, has friends and family he’s often traveled to see and worked to keep up with, and he didn’t think it was a big deal to move or be long distance.
He chose upstate and I was devastated, though I’ve come to understand how much miscommunication got us to that point.
That was two years ago. We’ve always argued a lot, but this is something we can’t seem to get over. We still fight about it. I tried moving there, didn’t like it, moved back to New York, found distance hard. We’ve broken up and gotten back together, and the idea of breaking up has resurfaced again recently after several bad fights. He’s not overly enjoying the Ph.D. anyway, has become depressed, and is considering leaving to come back to New York, but can’t for another six months to a year, for various academic reasons. Meanwhile, we fight too much because we’re both unhappy, and he gets more depressed, and I get more irritable.
Yet when I visit him there or he visits me here, we’re happy together. We’ve shared wonderful things in our three years, we love each other, we don’t want to break up.
But we don’t like our lives right now. I can’t stand feeling torn between places. I want a life and a home together. He worries, fairly, that even if he comes back I won’t ever forgive him for the years he was away. He feels I’m stuck in the past, in an idea of what could have been if he’d stayed. I keep taking out my sadness and fear on him by lashing out angrily, which he takes extremely hard. We both feel guilty. The fighting takes a huge toll. With the strain of everything and with his remote location, we no longer see each other’s families often, our shared life in New York is eroding, and it feels more and more like we lead separate lives.
I thought by now, a few years in, we’d be living together, spending holidays together, know each other’s families well. I know I’m deeply loved, and I deeply love him. He travels every few weeks to see me, is in touch by text throughout the day; we write letters. But for a while now I haven’t had what I expected from a life with a partner, and I’m trying to understand if that should matter.
He works and works to make this up to me, to show he cares, but nothing is enough, and that seems wrong and destructive on my part. This simply isn’t what I want from a relationship and he has his own sense of not having what he wants either. We are tempted to think it’s circumstantial and temporary — but we got ourselves into these circumstances and I worry the effects of these years aren’t ever going to go away for us.
My question is whether a point comes when far too much has happened to ever expect to get over an old hurt and thrive together. Should we end this simply because it’s too hard right now — and stop trying to devise a future that better suits us?
Building a life with someone is very difficult, and honestly, the challenges you’re describing are the tip of the iceberg. I know that you’re struggling with this distance, and I have empathy for that. But you love this man and he clearly loves you and is committed to you, too. You have no complaints about his love. You have no complaints about his commitment at this point. He made an extremely difficult but arguably rational decision to put his academic preferences over your joint lives. He figured you were close enough that you could make it work. He even took the extra step of applying to programs in the city, but after that, he obviously felt strongly that the upstate program was the better one for him. I think it’s a testament to his underlying belief in the relationship, and a testament to your belief in and love for him, that you’re still together and you’re still trying very hard to make it work.
Now he’s considering moving to be closer to you. You have to wait six months to a year to be living in the same place — the place that you strongly prefer. The end to this struggle might be in sight. So why are you still making noises like this one extremely difficult, conflicted decision on his part scarred you so much that you’ll never be able to have a healthy relationship with him?
You say that when he was trying to decide where to get his Ph.D., you felt like your worth was being weighed. And from your letter, it sounds like you’re saying that most of your current relationship problems hinge on your boyfriend’s choices in the past. He’s committed, but somehow it’s about how he didn’t commit quickly enough. He loves you, but somehow there’s this feeling that if he loved you more, things would be different now.
Living apart offered you an opportunity to feel more independent, to face your own issues, to ask yourself what you truly want from a life partner. Instead, you remain focused on some parallel imaginary timeline where you two would’ve been building the perfect life together if he hadn’t moved away. In your letter, you don’t mention a single personal struggle of yours that’s separate from your boyfriend. You seem to be squeezing your personal issues into a very tight narrative about how everything that’s tough right now is tough because of his decision to move away.
The story you’re telling yourself is inaccurate, and it’s hurting you.
Before you move forward with this relationship, I think you need to reckon with your low self-esteem and fear of abandonment in therapy. You have to face your inflated expectations of yourself and everyone else, which spring from conflicted feelings about your own self-worth. You write, “I haven’t had what I expected from a life with a partner,” but it’s not clear how you feel your boyfriend is falling short. And even if he stayed in town, things wouldn’t have been perfect. If every time your boyfriend tries to figure out what’s best for him, you treat him like he’s behaving selfishly and scarring you irreparably, you’re going to face a rocky road ahead. As far as I can tell, he doesn’t treat your needs and desires as if they’re selfish, the way that you do with him. He respected your choice to stay in NYC. He supported your choice to move upstate and respected your choice to leave because you hated it there. Unless you’re sidestepping more of his offenses in your letter, he’s been good to you in ways that you aren’t good to him.
I know it hurts to hear that, but I have to say it because I want you to admit how ashamed you feel about how blaming and angry you’ve been toward him. You’re ashamed of what a bickering mess the two of you are together. You don’t want to be this broken. But this is reality. You ARE living in the past.
And now you have to humble yourself, by facing the specter of a life that will never come close to perfect. Feel that in your bones. Take a minute, and breathe it in. It’s time for you to learn to treasure this disappointing, fucked-up, lopsided day and milk it for all it’s worth, in spite of its flaws.
All of this is predicated on the assumption that you love him deeply and he loves you deeply and you truly see yourselves as a pair. That sounds like it’s the case. If that IS the case, and you know it in your heart, start there. Call him and tell him, “I am so incredibly grateful to have you in my life. I understand why you moved upstate and it’s my intention to put that in the past for good. We’re in this together, and I want you to be happy.”
You have to be more generous with him, Distant. That will sound like self-abnegation at first, but listen: Your generosity with him needs to spring from a new generosity with yourself. Even though you’re laying out this story about how he screwed up, it’s also crystal clear that you’re too hard on yourself. You expect too much from yourself, and that leads you to expect too much from others. You want a million friends, closeness with both his family and yours, the perfect home, the perfect life, the perfect love. You want to be a perfect person inside of that perfect picture. I know you’re thinking, “No, I just want happiness and a good, happy life together.” But that’s not true. You don’t want there to be bumps in the road. You’re in denial about what a great, happy life looks like. You think it should be smooth sailing, or someone is to blame.
There is no smooth sailing, except in pop songs, Instagram accounts, and pharmaceutical commercials. A good happy life is an imperfect, improvised, hilariously messy life. That’s what you don’t understand yet. You can’t feel your way forward because you’re not letting yourself be vulnerable about what you truly want. You’re trying to be tough (to protect yourself), and you’re looking back in anger and telling stories about what he did (also for self-protection). You’re telling yourself that if he had never moved upstate, you would never have become this blaming, angry woman. That’s not accurate. Your tendency to blame and get angry was born years before he moved away. People were probably inconsistent with you as a kid. Maybe you felt disappointed and hurt a lot. You wanted unconditional love and stability and you didn’t get that. You want to fix that now. But you won’t fix it if you keep seeing your life through such a black-and-white, rigid, regretful lens.
Take a minute and look at your life: You already have fixed a lot of what you set out to fix in your life. You (very healthily!) chose someone who is ALL IN. The question is, can you rise to the challenge? You think rising to the challenge means BEING LESS ANGRY and BEING PERFECT AND LOVING AND GOOD. But that’s not the immediate goal. The goal right now is walking right into your anger and looking at its sources. You say you felt like your worth was being weighed when your boyfriend decided to move away. Does that feel familiar to you? Do you often feel like people don’t value you enough? You won’t make sense to yourself or anyone else until you take a hard look at those questions.
No matter what happens from this moment forward, you have to decide that you are worth a lot. You have to learn to give yourself some of the acceptance and support that you clearly crave. You’ve attached all of this trauma to your boyfriend’s move because you’re not that good at showing up, flawed and broken, and letting the world take shape around you without forcing it into the shape you feel you need in order to feel happy and secure.
I’m not saying you didn’t try. But now that you’re both depressed and anxious, things are tough. Yes, your story is that your boyfriend is the only one who’s depressed. But is that true? Do you let yourself have feelings at all? Are you allowed to have needs, inside your story of what’s wrong? You have to look closely at these things. And now, he’s about to move to be with you, but you can’t stop fighting. Doesn’t that seem strange?
It’s not strange at all, actually. You’re both freaking out about your commitment to each other. You’re both worried that you’ve signed on to a life with a sinking stone. You’re worried for a good reason. Because everyone is a sinking stone in a bad partnership, and sometimes even in a good one. Everyone is a sinking stone when they blame each other for what’s going on inside themselves.
Instead of blaming each other, forgive each other for being stuck in this tough place. People often fight a lot when they’re on the verge of a huge life decision. My husband and I fought a lot the year before and the year after we got married. After we had kids, we often panicked that it would transform the other person into someone who was unfair and mean and selfish. We were paranoid and had trouble communicating about tough issues without getting pissed off and panicky. But we fought less and less as we learned to work together and trust each other in the years that followed. Now obviously, there are couples who should break up because they fight too much. But I think you guys are getting a very typical kind of cold feet at this moment. You’re each worried that you’re too much for the other person. You have to demonstrate your belief to each other right now. You have to build a joint religion of “You are not too much for me. I’m in this for the long haul.”
But you have to be able to say that to yourself, first. You have to be able to look in the mirror and say to yourself, “You’re not too much for me. I’m in this for the long haul.”
Have you abandoned yourself? Are you focusing on your boyfriend’s words and actions instead of figuring out what you need independently? You have to take care of yourself. If you want to share your life with someone else, you have to let down your guard and be vulnerable and forgive yourself for being broken.
Building a life with another human being means working with what you have. What you have is someone who loves you a lot but is (justifiably) worried that you’ll blame him for anything that goes wrong, moving forward. Instead of getting on the phone and making every conversation about what he’s doing wrong and how his decision will never stop hurting you, you need to start solving some of your problems together. Pitch some solutions: Let’s visit your family this weekend, even if you have to do some work while we’re there. Let’s figure out a way to have a date over Skype once a week. Let’s stop blaming ourselves and each other for living a life that’s less than perfect, and create something beautiful and flawed out of these fucked up raw materials we’ve been given. Let’s get creative. Let’s be brave and dare to love each other in spite of huge flaws, in spite of great difficulties, in spite of trying circumstances.
Can you be brave? Or do you want to hide inside of a fantasy of what could’ve been, only to feel less and less safe and more and more angry?
It’s time to stop clinging to your rigid ideas of how the world should be, and work with how the world actually is. Because true, lasting love is a rapidly unfolding catastrophe. True, lasting love is the most beautiful, intensely satisfying mess you will ever make. You are a trainwreck in sync with another trainwreck. And even as the flaming wreckage flies all over the tracks of what you once imagined perfect love should be, it feels better than you ever imagined it could. The point is to be as vulnerable and as brave as you can as the wheels come off. The point is to hold hands as the brakes fail and the flames rise into the sky. You are in this together.
Get Ask Polly delivered weekly.
All letters to firstname.lastname@example.org become the property of Ask Polly and New York Media LLC and will be edited for length, clarity, and grammatical correctness.