Talking to the Man in the Mirror

A few years ago, a friend of mine got engaged to his long-time girlfriend. Everyone celebrated and congratulated, but among our friends there were quiet rumblings about whether or not they were making the right decision. They clearly cared for one another, but their relationship didn’t seem destined for greatness, and many of us were skeptical about their chances of making a marriage work. So grave were the concerns that we agreed they couldn’t be left unsaid. It fell on me to approach my friend about it and make sure he knew what he was getting into. So one weekend afternoon as we were driving to Virginia Park to play some hoops, in the lull after a lengthy discussion about the greatest starting five in NBA history, I asked what had made him pop the question.

He ticked off a bunch of reasons: he loved his fiancé very much; she had long been wanting to settle down and start a family; he wanted to make her happy; he was financially stable and liked living in Ann Arbor; it seemed like the right thing to do. Notably absent from his list was any mention of wanting to spend the rest of his life with his fiancé. It seemed to me that he had plenty of reasons, but not the one that counted most.

I pulled the car over, told him what I thought, and put the hard question to him: “Is this what you really want?” He sat quietly for a moment, and then confided that he had been under a lot of pressure to get engaged from both his fiancé and his parents. He had been so thoroughly swept up by other people’s agendas that he hadn’t adequately considered his own. He wasn’t sure what he wanted. I implored him to figure it out.

It turned out that after meditating at length on his engagement, he discovered that he really did want to spend the rest of his life with her. They remain happily married, perhaps much more so because of that self-check. I talk a lot about empathy and compassion for others, and about understanding one’s partners, but the truth is that understanding our partners won’t help us much if we don’t understand ourselves. No one – no partner, no friend, no silver screen romance, no advertisement, and certainly no love advice columnist – can ultimately decide what you want or what is right for you. Only you can do that. And once you do, getting it is that much easier.

I have gazed deep into my own soul and discovered that what I really want right now is to answer some of your questions! Let’s go to the mailbox…

Dear Davy,

My girlfriend and I have been together for just over two years. Most aspects of our relationship are wonderful. We are in love, we have fun together, we have strong emotional and physical connections, and we are honest and respectful with one another. However, over the course of our relationship she has become very possessive, and the problem is getting progressively worse.

At first it just felt like she wanted to spend a lot of time together, but lately it seems like she is intentionally keeping me in confinement. She gets moody when I spend time alone with family or friends; sometimes she is even reluctant to hang out with my friends when we are together. She has openly asked me to devote more time to her. I care about her and enjoy spending time with her, but I don’t want to seclude myself from other people in my life. I want to be sensitive to her needs, but I worry that I can’t meet her demands.

How much time is reasonable to devote to my girlfriend? How can I balance the time I spend with her and the time I spend with others?

Sincerely, Adam in Ottawa

Hi Adam, thanks for the great question!

I have friends who are joined at the hip with their partners; they do everything and go everywhere together, and they are perfectly content that way. I also have friends who are able to maintain potent, meaningful relationships with their partners despite only seeing them a few times a month. There are no hard and fast rules about how much time together is reasonable; that depends on the relationship and the individuals in it.

Your girlfriend’s attitude about this, though, feels somewhat disrespectful. You show class by being sensitive to her needs, but your relationship can’t stand unless you (and her) are sensitive to your needs as well. Clearly, spending time with the people you care about is important to you, and your girlfriend needs to recognize that. I’m a firm believer that couples should make a priority of spending time together, but as individuals you must also make a conscious effort to have time apart. Strong, intimate connections with friends and family outside of a romantic relationship are critical to one’s well-being within that relationship, and it worries me a bit that your girlfriend only wants to spend time with you. Perhaps she would likewise benefit from nurturing relationships with friends and family apart from you.

As is the case with many relationship issues, the two of you just need to have a frank conversation about this. Tell your girlfriend how you feel and what you need, and continue to listen to and respect her needs and feelings. I think you’ll find a compromise keeps you together without keeping you together.

Dear Davy,

I’m 18 and I just got out of a relationship, but I’m having mixed feelings about how it ended. Towards the end of the relationship I started to question my sexuality and no longer wanted to be intimate with him. I continued to be physical even though it did not feel right, and it eventually lead to our break up because he sensed that something was wrong. While he was understanding when I told him that I was questioning my sexuality, he came to the conclusion that it was my way of saying that I wanted out, so he ended it first.

This is where the mixed feelings come in. I still care about him and I wonder if breaking up with him was the right thing to do. I’ve thought about leaving open the option of being friends-with-benefits because we had many firsts together and I don’t want to lose what we once had, but at the same time it doesn’t feel right. Should we just stay friends or be friends-with-benefits? Was breaking up with him the right thing to do?

Nicole in Ontario

Hi Nicole!

To answer your first question, I’ve got to advise you against pursuing any friends-with-benefits scenario. Navigating relationships successfully is like any skill, you have to learn the basics before you can move on to the advanced material. Friends-with-benefits is definitely graduate level, and I would be especially wary of the idea given the lack of balance in your current situation. Telling him that you’re questioning your sexuality and then continuing to be physical with him is misleading and unfair, as you hold all the cards in that situation. There’s nothing wrong with being uncertain about what you want, but wielding that uncertainty over others is just hurtful.

As for your second question, there’s a saying from an old Zen koan that translates roughly to “All that I have is already lost,” which reminds me that change is a natural part of being alive. Friends and lovers come and go. Almost every relationship you will ever have is temporary. Some people find that depressing, but I think it’s really a beautiful testament to the human capacity to learn and grow. You will never again have the relationship that you had with this man, but you will have many more relationships, the splendors and joys of which you can’t even imagine now.

I say this not to make light of your situation, but to point out that your future relationship with this person is going to take its own course, and you need not fret over whether you made the right decision. Listen carefully to your own heart, and you will know the path to take.

All right, the NBA playoffs are on, so I have to get moving. Keep sending me your questions about love, sex, and relationships, and I’ll be back soon to shower you with more second-rate advice. If you’re getting married and you don’t know why, meet us at Virginia Park in Ann Arbor at 5:30 p.m. any Monday or Wednesday afternoon.

Much love!

About Author:

Davy Rothbart is the subject of a documentary film titled My Heart is an Idiot, Davy Rothbart is the creator of FOUND Magazine, a frequent contributor to public radio’s This American Life, and author of the story collection The Lone Surfer of Montana, Kansas. He writes regularly for GQ and The Believer, and his work also appears in The New Yorker, The New York Times and High Times. He lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan.