Welcome to “Dear Guy,” TED’s advice column from psychologist Guy Winch. Every month, he answers readers’ questions about life, love and what matters most. Please send them to firstname.lastname@example.org; to read his previous columns, go here.
My boyfriend and I have been together for almost two years, and I know that he’s the man I want to be with. But we live less than 10 minutes away from each other, and I haven’t seen him in over four months (and this has nothing to do with quarantine).
We don’t spend time together, we don’t talk, we don’t text. There is zero communication. And although I’ve constantly expressed my discontent and although he promises he’ll do better, nothing has changed. It is like the worst long-distance relationship I’ve ever had.
I don’t know what to do, and my sadness is turning into anger. Can you help?
Dear Long Distanced,
You’ve been dating your boyfriend — “the man I want to be with” — for two years, and you’re worried your relationship has stalled. Your boyfriend lives 10 minutes away, yet you haven’t seen him in over four months. You say it’s “like the worst long-distance relationship I’ve ever had.”
I’d ask you what exactly you’re getting out of this, but you’ve already told me: Sadness, discontent, and anger.
So instead I’m going to give you questions that you (or anyone who’s in an unsatisfactory relationship) should ask yourself, and then make suggestions about how to answer them. These questions are also relevant for your future relationships — as a recent study found, we tend to go for the same type of person over and over again. The researchers found a significant degree of personality similarity between people’s past and present romantic partners.
Question #1: “Why have I settled for so little?”
The answer that most of my patients in similar situations will give when I ask them this is: “Hope”.
Even though they’re aware they’re not getting what they need, their partner promises to change which gives them hope. However, what predicts whether a person will change in a relationship is not what they promise but what they actually do.
With that in mind, here’s my suggestion:
Ignore everything that your boyfriend has said and base your answers to the following questions solely on his actions.
Based on actions alone:
- How serious is he about you and about the relationship? Hint: He lives ten minutes away and hasn’t seen you in four months.
- How much does he miss you? Hint: He doesn’t even call or text.
- How does he feel about you? Hint: He knows how upset you are, promises he’ll change but makes no effort to do so.
Question #2: “What red flags did I miss?”
What people fail to recognize about unaddressed relationship red flags is that they tend to have two distinct aspects: There’s the problematic behavior itself (for ex., your partner raises their voice in an argument), and there’s also the justification that we make to excuse it (for ex., it’s because they’re really stressed at work). Identifying our part in maintaining this dynamic — that is, our justifications — is just as important as identifying our partner’s problematic behavior.
Here’s how you can identify and address relationship red flags.
- Make a list of the problems and issues in the relationship that are important or meaningful to you (for ex., your partner is critical of your friends).
- Try to recall the first time the issue showed up. The first sign of many relationship issues can often be traced back to the first dates or soon thereafter (for ex., you arranged a dinner for them to meet your best friend but they barely said two words to them).
- List the various explanations you’ve made to excuse the issue (for ex., they’re shy; it takes them a while to warm up to people; I can’t expect them to like all my friends). If you have trouble recalling your thoughts at the time, it’s fine to use a more recent example.
- Keep the list of your justifications/excuses/explanations because you’re highly likely to continue making the same excuses.
- When you catch yourself making similar justifications, don’t be hard on yourself. Instead, take it as a sign that you must now address the issue directly and think through how best to discuss it with your partner.
Question #3: “Is my relationship fixable, or is it too late?”
Relationship dynamics are like cement — they’re hard to change after they harden and they harden fast. People do change their behavior but they typically do so only if the relationship is important to them; they understand the issue is very important to you; and in some cases, they understand that not doing so could mean losing the relationship.
But I want to be clear: Threatening the end of a relationship is something that you should do only as a last resort and only if you’re willing to actually end the relationship should they fail to change.
Here’s how to assess if your partner is willing/able to change.
- Choose a crucial issue — for you, Long Distanced, actually seeing each other in person and regularly could be a good option.
- Decide on your minimum standard for that issue (for ex., meeting at least once a week and communicating every day, even if via text).
- Present that expectation to your partner. Tell them as specifically and clearly as you can that either he meets it starting now or you’ll have to break up with him. Once you set the standard, you have to be willing to walk away so make sure it is reasonable and one that it’s the actual end result you want (not an intermediate step).
Long Distanced, don’t ignore your feelings and concerns; act on them. Find out if your partner can change. If they can’t, find someone who makes you feel more loved, more respected, and who is willing to work with you to create the relationship that you both want.
Please send your questions to email@example.com; to read his previous columns, go here.
Watch his TED Talk about heartbreak here: