My boyfriend and I are approaching our four year anniversary. He recently called me and asked if he could vent to me about what he’s been feeling. He got diagnosed with anxiety and depression this past summer, but stopped going to therapy when he went back to school; so, I was glad he wanted to talk to me.
He told me that he didn’t know if he was in our relationship because he loves me or if he is just trying to keep me happy. He explained how he isn’t happy anymore and he doesn’t know why. He explained how nothing I did or said, or don’t do or say, wasn’t the issue. He explained how he sees how excited I am when we finally get to see each other and he doesn’t feel that same excited. He said he doesn’t want me in a relationship where I love him more than he loves me.
I’m heartbroken and completely lost. We started dating my freshman year of high school, which was his junior year of high school. We’ve been through so many obstacles of growing up, changing, learning, distance, and communication between different colleges that are four hours apart. I know he explained that none of what he is feeling is my fault, I just don’t know what to do. I can’t lose him; I love him. I thought he would be the person I grow old with.
Please, help me figure out what to say or do. He’s coming to visit for our anniversary and I feel like I need to be ready to defend our love.
— On the Edge of Heartbreak
This is one of the most painful places to be: stuck between what it is that you want (to stay together) and what it is that your partner wants (seemingly, to be apart). Throughout our intimate relationships we are faced with this conundrum in big and small ways: What do we, as a couple, do when we each want different, contradictory things? This stuckness is what convinces us to shut parts of us down to “save” the relationship. It coaxes us to the couches of couples therapists, and is most clearly visible at the end of relationships.
The traditional love narrative tells the story of partners perfectly synched who share more than they don’t and use compromise as the true glue. But this story never teaches us how to handle difference — the ever-present THING that makes our relationships exciting and robust.
So how do you do this now, Heartbreak, in a moment of emotional panic and pain?
If you trust that what your boyfriend is saying is true (and that there isn’t someone else waiting in the wings) then the feelings he’s sharing are about him and not about you. They affect you, yes, but they aren’t your fault. The minute we play the victim to our partner’s feelings, we swallow them up and our partners are left feeling unheard, alone, and like you just proved their point: you’re not as connected as you once were.
While it may be tempting to go the route of pleading for him to stay, a wiser approach is to adopt an attitude of curiosity about what has changed for him, how he’s feeling, and what he really wants. Turning toward empathy rather than arguing for your side moves you closer to understanding him and making your relationship better. In the end, you want your partner to stay with you by choice, not because you made the best argument.
Rather than shouting “Don’t leave!”, say “Tell me more about that.” Rather than “How could you?”, try “How long have you been feeling that way?” Rather than “You’re such a jerk!”, try “Wow, that (difficult feeling) sounds really hard. If I felt (same difficult feeling) I would ____.”
Assure him and yourself that you, too, will have a chance to share your hurt and feelings with him. But for the first bit of your conversation, try to make space to really hear his side without internalizing what he says as direct statements about your value as a partner. This will help set an example for him to really hear you, too.
Yana Tallon-Hicks is a pleasure-positive sex writer and educator living in the Pioneer Valley. She has a website bursting with sexual advice, resources, and workshops at yanatallonhicks.com.