Hello, Internet! Welcome to Ask Dr. NerdLove, the only dating column to post into Valhalla, shiny and Chrome (never Firefox) forever.
This week, we’re doing things a little differently. Instead of covering a number of letters, we’re taking the time to conduct another post-mortem on a reader’s relationship to find out what went wrong, what could have been done to save things and whether it’s even worth trying again.
These are rarely pretty, often uncomfortable… and sometimes absolutely necessary. A little hindsight can be what makes the difference between another failed relationship or making sure you don’t make the same mistakes a second time.
Scrub up because it’s time to dive in.
Hey Dr. NerdLove,
So I just got out of my first adult relationship, and man was it complicated. I’ll break it all down before I launch into my actual question/issue, though. It’s gonna be long as fuck, but I hope you don’t mind. It’s quite the story.
We had mutual friends in college but I was too shy to ever ask her out or actually talk to her. It wasn’t until after we had both graduated that I had the nerve to say something when I stumbled across her online dating profile. We hit it off right away, texting for 5 hours a day every day. Our second, third and fourth dates followed our first almost immediately and both of us were really happy. We were in the typical honeymoon phase where we put everything else on the backburner to explore the new relationship. We opened up to each other, she became “my first” (I wasn’t hers), and eventually we realized it was love.
Then, about 6 months into the relationship a few things popped up. 1) neither of us wanted to continue living at our parents’ houses and neither of us had friends we wanted to live with. Plus we figured we’d always be over at one or the others’ place so it was senseless to live apart. We decided to move in together.
And here we come to the first major crossroad in your relationship. Moving in with someone is a fairly serious step - even if you’re both absolutely twitterpated with one another. When couples move in for the first time, it’s frequently under the assumption of “well we love each other, this will be perfect!” instead of spending time working out the pros and cons of what it will mean for the both of you. The idea of sex on tap and reducing your rent by 50% is lovely at first until you realize how much living together is going to turn your relationship into a sanity stress-test. Even when you’re spending long-weekends together, the fact that you have your own places to retreat to when you need space gives you some much needed breathing room. Qualities you may find appealingly cute at first become murder-inducing when you’re dealing with them every day. Your honey-bunny’s neatfreak tendencies are adorable right up until you’re having your fourteenth fight about rinsing out the recycling before pitching it and you’re wondering if shoving their body into the garbage counts as organic refuse or bulk-pickup.
And then there’s the fact that living together can seriously complicate leaving the relationship. If things go wrong, you’re now stuck having to untangle your finances and living situation. Worse, you may not be able to afford to leave… and whether you realize this or not, you may well find yourself prolonging your relationship past its natural expiration date.
2) she had some health problems crop up that would put her on medical leave for work from 3 months. In that time she’d need to focus on getting better. But her parents promised to support her for that time so that we could still get our own place. I was providing for myself.
As unromantic as it is to say, a relationship with someone who has a serious or chronic health condition means putting some serious thought into what you’re signing up for. Health issues are a potential conflict that can disrupt even the most loving and devoted of relationships. Movies make it look easy, with everyone charmingly photogenic even as they’re breathing into a cannula and with the patience of the Buddha himself, and the disease can be ignored until it asserts itself for dramatic effect.
In reality, it’s an emotionally exhausting, frustrating and often maddening experience, both for the sufferer and for the caretaker.
But then again, you’re about to discover this first hand.
Long story short, just when we thought she was better at the end of the 3 months, something else cropped up. This problem went unsolved for 2 months before her doctors decided surgery was the best option. Preparing for that process was another 3 months.
Case in point; part of a relationship with someone with a medical condition means accepting that you’re going to be both boyfriend and caretaker and that those roles will frequently conflict with one another.
And then there’s the personal toll that people are rarely prepared for. This tends to come in two forms.
So she’s been housebound for 8 months and in that time a lot of things happened. First and foremost, her natural anxiety and depression (which I was aware of before and was being managed properly at the onset of all this) spiraled out of control — as I imagine it would for anyone. She had good days and bad, and I tried to be there for her through all of it.
This would be the first form. The Fault is In Our Stars, Love Story and other stories of couples working through a health crisis rarely cover just how emotionally punishing dealing with medical issues can be, especially if you have other issues on top of it. You’re left feeling betrayed by your body, irritated and frustrated at an inability to do things you used to be able to… and then there’s the newfound and incredibly uncomfortable levels of intimacy that may be required from your partner. Just being helped to the shower and bathroom can feel humiliating - even if it’s only temporary - because you feel like you should be able to do it on your own instead being shuffled along like an invalid or an infant.
Then there’s the anxiety that comes with dealing with your partner. You worry that they won’t find you attractive after this. You worry that they really wish they were out of this relationship but are sticking around because of a sense of obligation. You may well feel an uncomfortable mix of emotions - wishing they’d just up and leave you already and fearing that they will, all at the same time.
Second, we both stopped seeing friends and family as often as we once had. For her it was a health thing, but I never wanted to leave her alone, sick, and miserable. I made some time for friends but I turned into the group flake pretty quickly. She almost never asked me to skip seeing friends though — it was almost always my decision.
This is the other form. When you’re the caretaker, your life now revolves around your partner in ways it didn’t before. Again: movies tend to neglect to mention how frustrating and isolating this can be. Even the most devoted partner is going to need space for themselves and when you’re dealing with someone who’s enduring a long-term or chronic illness, that space can be difficult to find. After all, it’s a little difficult to go catch a movie or grab a beer with friends when you have the responsibility taking care of someone who needs your help.
This can be similarly isolating because, quite frankly, we tend to expect caretakers to just suck it up and deal. It’s easy to see those desires for space and time as selfish and irresponsible - how can you complain when your partner s dealing with X, Y and Z? Except getting that space is key to being able to take care of them. It doesn’t do anybody any good for you to destroy yourself emotionally in the cause of caring for someone. Taking those little breaks - finding ways to get a little time to yourself - can be the difference between recharging your batteries and throwing your hands up and saying “fuck it”, leaving your now ex-partner in the lurch.
Third, our couple activities were limited to Netflix binges and the apartment complex’s pool. While we were still pretty regular with sex, it created some problems. I got complacent with the way things were and stopped trying to plan dates because she often couldn’t go.
Wait for it...
Even making a nice dinner sometimes turned out to be a bust because she was too sick to eat it.
Wait for it...
She started to resent me for treating her more like a best friend and making her feel the same way about me.
Boom goes the dynamite.
This right here is the moment the relationship ended.
It always felt like we’d work it out and resolve to do better but in retrospect I’m wondering if she just tried to ignore the waning feelings.
At this point, you’re trying to resuscitate a dead relationship, pounding on its chest and yelling “DON’T YOU GIVE UP ON ME!”, all the while the EMT behind you is trying to tell you it flatlined five minutes ago and you need to stop.
The fact that you didn’t break up at this point wasn’t a sign that you saved the relationship, you just got its limbs twitching and decided to pretend it was alive instead of undead. It’s shuffling along like a zombie that craves “date night” instead of brains and one of you is going to need to put two in its dome.
Fourth, I became more of a caretaker than a boyfriend. I was constantly reminding her when to take meds, what the doctors wanted and everything else you can imagine. I just thought I was being supportive but it annoyed her a lot, and it took me until after her surgery to shake her behavior.
Remember what I said about the stress being the caretaker puts on you? This is what I was talking about. Couple this with the guilt at feeling resentful and having needs of your own and you’re setting yourself up for a meltdown of your own.
Fifth, the whole thing was a stressful clusterfuck. I started seeing a therapist to try and cope better (learned I had a naturally codependent personality which explains some of this stuff), but it was such a drawn out and exhausting process.
This is one of the smartest things you could have done. Good on you for going and getting help.
Anyway, she was all ready to have her surgery and we thought we’d finally cleared the hardest part. The surgery would force her to undergo some pretty drastic lifestyle changes, and we both agreed that I’d need to make the changes too if we were going to stay together. Eating right and exercise would be really important going forward.
“My girlfriend’s a vegetarian, which pretty much makes me a vegetarian.”
Even under the best of circumstances, being dragged into lifestyle changes by a partner rather than choosing it for yourself is a great way to make you hate life and cause any number of fights when you’re not following it perfectly.
So she had her surgery and there were complications. She spent the next 5 months in and out of the hospital/ER for varying lengths of time. Some of the time she was home she stayed with her parents so they could keep an eye on her, which was good but meant I was basically living in three places — her parents’ place, our apartment, and the hospital.
It was hell for all of us and there was no stability. I found it impossible to change my eating habits or find time for the gym with everything going on, and she would frequently bring it up. Sometimes she was supportive but other times it felt like a warning to get my shit together.
I’m torn here. On the one hand, this is an incredibly stressful, and quite likely literally painful time for her. On the other hand: you’re busier than a one-legged man in an ass-kicking contest trying to take care of her and yourself and maintain things like, y’know, a job. Not following an imposed and - let’s be honest - involuntary diet and exercise regimen is kind of understandable and you really deserve to be cut some slack here.
NerdLove’s Rule #567: just because you’re sick doesn’t mean you get to be an asshole.
Anyway, she finally started recovering and our lease was just about to run out.
Oh god please don’t do what I think you’re about to do...
Since I didn’t want to get another place without her and she still had a bit to go before getting back to work, we decided I’d move in with her parents.
Oh shit you did it.
Congratulations: you’ve gone from being two rats in a tiny cage to being four rats in an even tinier one. Moving in as a couple with your parents (or her parents) requires a pretty sizable house to keep everyone from being up each other’s asses. And since you don’t mention her Uncle Moneybags, I’m guessing this was no palatial estate...
I had a good relationship with them and we thought it would work. I started eating right and started saving up for a gym membership, but I didn’t get much time to prove I was finally ready to make those changes.
Not going to lie here: you were never going to get that time. That zombie relationship was starting to rot to pieces.
About a week into it, though, she started pulling away from me. There was constant distance and I couldn’t seem to close the gap. She started reconnecting with her friends and texting all the time (which was great), but it was almost at the exclusion of us talking.
See what I mean?
It’s one thing to want to reconnect with friends - that’s an important part of a happy, healthy, long-term relationship. It’s another to do so at the expense of the relationship with your partner.
Meanwhile we hadn’t had sex or been very physical since just before her surgery (5 or 6 months ago) and I had no idea when that would end.
It’s not going to end.
Eventually we got into a fight and some truths came out. She didn’t like that I hadn’t made those changes yet, she wasn’t attracted to me much anymore, she wanted to be “free” and independent, she didn’t like I stopped seeing friends, she didn’t like that I stopped trying to get a job I really wanted, she didn’t like that I had put a project on pause due to the stress of the situation, and she wasn’t sure if she wanted to be with me anymore. Apparently she realized it a couple months after her surgery but couldn’t bring it up until then.
All things that she could have brought up before things got to this state. I’m going to be blunt: this is less “clearing the air” and more “rationalizing the impending break-up”.
So she put us on a “break” and defined the “rules” poorly.
“On a break” is the break-up equivalent of “just the tip”. “No, no, just this little bit, just to see how it feels… oops, don’t know how that slipped right in!”
I violated enough of them that she was done.
Let’s be real here: you were set up to fail. No matter what you did, something would have given her the excuse she wanted to pull the trigger on you. This way though, it gets to be your fault…
And around that time I was ready to break up too — if only because I knew she didn’t love me anymore. We sat down and talked at the end of the week and agreed on pretty civil terms that we needed to break up. At the same time, we also acknowledged that maybe in a few months when we both got our shit together again we might want to try again. Who knew, right? But I’m skeptical.
As well you fucking should be. She has no intentions of getting back together with you. This is the “we can still be friends” softening of the blow.
So, long story short:
On the one hand, I really miss her. But on the other, I wonder if we’ve just been through too much to make it work again.
We went through a fucked up situation that most couples don’t deal with until after later ages (we were 23-24) and marriage. It brought out some bad in both of us that sapped the spark from our relationship. We went too fast to begin with and had to deal with too much.
That is what I’m saying, yes.
Right now I’m just trying to focus on being me again and making changes for my own health. I’m seeing friends, eating better, exercising, and pursuing my passions again.
Good. That’s what you need to do.
I’m sure she’s doing something similar (in addition to, I think, already going on dates with other guys).
Yes. Yes she is.
I don’t know what’s going to happen in time, but do you think we’ve just been through too much to try again and do it right this time?
Part of me can’t shake the feeling that if the circumstances were more normal for people our age, we’d make it all the way. The feelings were that strong when things were good.
Thanks for your help,
Real Long Story
Here’s the thing about exes: getting back together with them is almost always tempting because they represent the known. The familiar. They’re like putting on a perfectly broken-in pair of jeans. Except to do so you have to ignore the fact that those jeans are falling apart and are being held together by good intentions and duct-tape rather than (wait for it) relationship material (BOOM!).
You miss the good times. That’s understandable. But those good times didn’t last very long and, let’s be honest, were pretty well outweighed by the mountains of shit the two of you had to climb.
Could you have gone the distance if things had been different? Maybe. It’s impossible to tell; all relationships end until you’re in the one that doesn’t. But speculating on “what ifs” is pointless. Circumstances weren’t different and if the two of you were to get back together again it wouldn’t be as the bright-eyed innocents you were when you started. You’ll be the couple who went through Hell and didn’t come out the other side.
You’re different people now and there is no way to forget everything you two went through. You’re going to be much happier rebuilding your life and moving on to someone else.
Your ex is your past. It’s time to look to your future.
Do you have a story of caring for a partner? Did your relationship survive health issues> Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments and we’ll be back in two weeks with more of your dating questions.
Ask Dr. Nerdlove is Kotaku’s bi-weekly dating column, hosted by the one and only Harris O’Malley, AKA Dr. NerdLove. Got a question you’d like answered? Write firstname.lastname@example.org and put “Kotaku” in the subject line.
Harris O’Malley is a writer and dating coach who provides geek dating advice at his blog Paging Dr. NerdLove and the Dr. NerdLove podcast. His new book Simplified Dating is available exclusively through Amazon. He is also a regular guest at One Of Us. He can be found dispensing snark and advice on Facebook and on Twitter at @DrNerdLove.