Q: I just signed a lease with my boyfriend, and I feel like the walls are closing in on me. I am panicking. I am filled with anxiety and dread. I put the decision off as long as I could, and I thought that the act of signing the lease would make me feel better, but I am still freaking out.
I don’t know if I love him. I don’t know if this relationship is really going to last, or if I want it to. It’s my first long-term relationship (we’ve been dating for two years), and when I express my doubts to my boyfriend he tells me it’s all a normal part of being in a long-term relationship. He says no one ever really knows if they’re in love, and no one ever really knows if a relationship is going to last, and that nerves and doubt are all normal. He thinks I’m afraid of commitment.
A: As a former (still-kind-of-recovering) commitment-phobe myself, I can’t tell you how much I empathize with this question. It’s hard for anyone to decipher what The Line is in a relationship, the point at which staying with a person tips into not-worth-it territory. And it’s doubly hard when commitment itself acts as a filter, distorting how you view the situation. Are your expectations too high, or are you settling for something because it’s better than the alternative? Is this just what life is like? Is this what relationships are like?
Your boyfriend is (half) right; it is incredibly normal — especially in your first relationship — to wonder whether everyone else has these kinds of doubts, and how much credence you should give them. Rest assured, if there were obvious answers to your questions, you would have already found them.
From the outside, it seems like both things — a fear of commitment and a less-than-perfect fit with your partner — are at play here. Let’s start with the more urgent one, your current relationship. I’m not telling you that you must break up with this guy (although I do spot a handful of red flags from a few short paragraphs), I am simply suggesting that how you feel about this relationship and the ways you describe it do not sound all that jazzy. All relationships are underwhelming from time to time. There are days and months when all of us get bored with our partners. That’s totally fine, if frustrating.
You, however, didn’t mention a single positive thing about your current partnership. Most people, when they write to me about whether they should end their relationship, throw things at me about their partner’s goodness, begging me to understand that it’s not easy to leave. “She makes me so happy.” “I don’t know what I’d do without them.” “He and I have so much history; I can’t imagine my life without him in it.” The words you used about your relationship included “anxiety,” “dread,” “doubts,” and “freaking out.” That is… not great.
If you set out to describe your ideal relationship in three paragraphs, I highly doubt it would resemble what you wrote here. Now, this letter is merely a snapshot of your life. This isn’t the day-in, day-out. This isn’t everything. On top of that, as I said before, relationships are cyclical. Maybe when you wrote that letter every word was The Absolute Truth, but you don’t recognize yourself in it today. But I want you to hear something: Doubt is normal, questions are normal. Misery is not.
People do know that they are in love. I know without a shadow of a doubt that I am in love with my current boyfriend, and that I wasn’t ever in love with my first boyfriend. When I traveled to Rome recently, did I fleetingly wish that I were single so I could find a handsome Italian to start a life with? Yes!!! Duh!!! However, at no point did I wonder, “Do I really love my boyfriend?” If, after two years together, you still have questions about whether you love your boyfriend — and it sounds like your boyfriend might too, based on his responses? — that strikes me as a red flag.
That’s not to suggest he sucks or that you are broken. To me, it’s a sign that this is not a good fit. Which is sad, sad, sad. But staying together is not going to mitigate that sadness. Unfortunately, the only remedy for that particular heartache is to separate and let your lives grow different directions, to let your hearts fill up with good, easy things that don’t come laden with doubt and anxiety.
Now, let’s get to the second part of your conundrum — commitment phobia. Staying with someone for two years seems like a commitment to me, so even if you are scared of making long-term decisions (a reasonable fear, in my opinion), you seem to be doing a pretty dang good job of pushing through. My concern is this: Please only push through the fear for things that are worth it. Because, yes, maybe moving in with someone will always feel a little itchy, but it shouldn’t feel like grief. I’m not saying I didn’t mourn the “loss” of single, independent Sophia when I moved in with my boyfriend. I did! (All of sudden I’m never going to have my own room ever again? What the hell kind of deal did I make?) But those feelings represented maybe 5% of my emotions around moving in together; the rest was like a high-pitched dolphin squeal of excitement. A sleepover every night with this person I’m so into? Hell yeah!
Commitment is frightening — we can’t know the future, but we’re tasked with making choices about it regardless. It’s like picking what’s behind doors No. 1, 2, or 3, but instead of a car or a goat or money, it’s versions of your life. The stakes feel very high! As soon as you choose something, you’re stuck. That isn’t strictly true, of course — life has infinite possibilities still in store for all of us — but committing to one thing often feels like losing out on others.
There’s one big question in front of you now. What do you want your life to look like? Does long-term love matter to you? Is commitment something you actually desire? The answers do not have to be yes. Some people find they don’t actually want the things we’re all taught to want. Some people practice nonmonogamy for those reasons; some people don’t have long-term or exclusive partners at any point.
If you find that you do want commitment, but that you are frightened of it, I want to reassure you that someday, someone will come along who will make it so clearly worth it. It will still be scary, and even kind of sad, because commitment to one option so often means that you can’t choose other, also-cool options. But it will also be exciting.
There are no right or wrong answers when it comes to what you do next. There are only clues as to what might make you feel happier or better about the direction of your life, and those are worth listening to. When are you happy? When are you miserable? What do you dread? You don’t need to stick with something simply to prove that you can. You’re allowed to say, “I tried this, and it isn’t what I want.” And that’s heartbreaking, but it’s also rather brave.
It’s A Pleasure appears here every Thursday. If you have a sex, dating, or relationship question, email Sophia at BustleSexAdvice@gmail.com.