Welcome to Tough Love. Every other week, we’re answering your questions about dating, breakups, and everything in between. Our advice giver is Blair Braverman, dogsled racer and author of Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube. Have a question of your own? Write to us at email@example.com.
My boyfriend and I live an hour and 40 minutes apart, and he decided it was best for us to social distance ourselves until it was safe to see each other. I agreed, because we both thought that the quarantine would end relatively soon (six to eight weeks). When things started getting scarier, I suggested we eat meals together over Facetime. He said sure, but it never happened. I also said we could go for a hike. We don’t need to hold hands or hug or kiss, and we could even wear a mask. He said we could, but we never got around to it. I was waiting for him to make an effort and say, “OK, this is what my girl wants, so maybe I can meet her halfway.” But nothing, no effort whatsoever. It seems like, for him, a phone call at night for 40 minutes is sufficient. We had a big fight one night and kind of broke up, so I decided to go to his place to apologize (might’ve had two glasses of champagne) but I created something way bigger. He was not happy to say the least. My plan was to stay outside, but as he walked into his house I followed, because I was still talking and didn’t realize it. Otherwise I should’ve stayed outside, and of course alcohol blurred my judgment. After that, we didn’t talk for three days. Finally I messaged him. He said he doesn’t know if we should continue if this is going to become an issue. This wouldn’t have been so bad if he would do something special for me, like drop dinner at work when I’m working 16 hours a day at a hospital twice a week, or think of ways to keep the spice going. We’ve only been together for six months and he told me he’s never had a girl who cared for him this much. If he doesn’t make an effort now, does he even care about our relationship? Why can’t he sympathize with my needs if he loves me? Am I overreacting?
This relationship isn’t working, and if your boyfriend had written to me first, I would recommend to him that he cut ties with you completely. You’re in a pandemic, in a high-risk group because of your workplace, and you drove for almost two hours—drunk, it seems—to your boyfriend’s home and then walked into it, completely violating his request for a safe distance. So in multiple ways, you knowingly risked other people’s health against their will, which is—in my book—a full-on relationship dealbreaker. And being drunk isn’t an excuse, though you’re using it as one; in this context, it’s yet another red flag.
I think you should take time away from this relationship, maybe permanently but certainly for a few months. You’re unhappy, he’s unhappy, and you both need—and crave—different things. You are overflowing with love, or something like it, and you need somewhere to put it, and you want it returned to you. The scarier things get, the more you want to be cradled. He wants respect, and more space than you’d prefer, and in return you’re pushing through his boundaries.
I know that breaking things off seems like the opposite of what you want. You want to be closer, not farther apart. But in order to build intimacy like that in the long term, you’re going to have to work on yourself first.
Your breakup conversation should be firm and concise. Here’s your script: “I really care about you, and this shouldn’t be a surprise, but it doesn’t seem like this relationship is helping either of us right now. I think we should take some time apart.” Then, as impossible as it feels, hang up and put down the phone.
Now, you know all that love you have, the love you’re pouring into a partner who isn’t returning it in the ways you wish he would? It’s time to pour that into yourself. To work on healing whatever’s empty, whatever’s broken, so that you’ll be ready to love someone, and be loved, in healthy and sustainable ways when the time is right.
If you’re not already talking to a therapist, it’s important that you start. A professional can help you sort through your feelings and where they’re coming from, plus give you skills to deal with new stresses—like the fact that you’re working at a hospital during a pandemic. You should have someone on your side who’s dedicated to helping you understand what it is you need, why you need it, and how to communicate those needs responsibly.
Talking to a therapist, tending to your emotions, is also the first step in your new mission: to treat yourself with the same love and intimacy that you’re longing to get from a partner.
When you’re not at work, cook or order your favorite meals. Rewatch your favorite movies or shows, and reread your favorite books. Wear your nicest clothes and take gorgeous selfies. Write in a journal. Take long showers or baths. Do something physical that makes you feel good, whether it’s running or yoga or dancing around your room. Try a hobby you’ve always wanted to try.
That hike you wanted your boyfriend to take initiative on? Take it yourself. If it helps, you can give yourself a mission, like to identify at least three trees and flowers, or to take photos of interesting things you see along the way.
Decorate (or redecorate) your home. Move your furniture around, make art and hang it on your walls, plant houseplants—whatever it takes to make the space really yours, so it feels like your home is hugging you back.
I know that when you’re brokenhearted, things like this can sometimes feel empty, as if you’re going through the motions of self-care without getting the warmth that ought to come with it. But these activities are gifts you’re giving yourself, even if you’re not ready to accept them yet. When it’s hard to love yourself today, you can love your future self by giving her a clean space, art on the walls, exercise, and new hobbies or books or TV shows to sink into. You can give her the kind of thoughtful care she deserves.
And you can think, really think, about what you want love to feel like. Love that makes you feel treasured and safe and stable and optimistic. A partner can’t give you that feeling if you’re not ready, but when the time is right—and it will be—you’ll be able to let someone in. Not to fix you, but to join you.