DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: My boyfriend and I (a man) have been together for just over two years. I feel like we moved much too fast at the beginning of our relationship. We said the L word before even having been together for 2 weeks, and we moved in together after 6 months. I have also been having doubts in general about whether I wanna stay in this relationship. (I’m pretty sure I’ve already made up my mind, but I don’t know how to go about it.)
At the beginning of the year, we took some time away from each other, thinking that would help, and it did for a hot minute, but now we’re right back where we started. I think this relationship has reached its natural conclusion, to use a term learned from you. I think it might be useful to note that he loves me to the point where he’ll have me in any way he can get me, which I think is extremely unhealthy.
Recently, he’s started telling me not to masturbate. In his defense, I don’t get horny very often, which means we don’t have sex as often as he’d like. Now, I’m the kind of person that if you tell me not to do something, that’s only gonna make me wanna do it more. He doesn’t really tell me what to do in other aspects of life, but this is kinda the straw that broke the camel’s back for me.
The only thing that’s keeping me from pulling the trigger is myself. He’s become such a strong and constant presence in my life over the last two years and I’m terrified of starting over.
I’d love to hear your two cents.
Caught Between a Rock and a Hard Place
DEAR CAUGHT BETWEEN A ROCK AND A HARD PLACE: So there’re two things here I want to focus on, but let’s start with the obvious: you’ve already decided that you’re going to break up with him. The only question is “when” and “how”.
But before we get to that, I want to zero in on the “told me not to masturbate” part because I think this is an indicator of a disconnect in your relationship. This may be one of the reasons why it’s reached its end, it may be a “final straw”, but I think it’s also a sign that there’s possibly some communication issues going on.
Normally, I would say that demanding that one’s partner stop masturbating (or looking at porn or whatever other harmless-yet-emotionally-fraught-habit comes up) is a fracture point outside of some sort of chastity-play scenario. Demanding veto power over what a person does with their own body is demanding a surrender of control that most people aren’t going to be cool with. In fact, that’s part of why the Proud Boys and other groups make such a big deal about restricting masturbation; it’s demanding that you give up your bodily autonomy to someone else.
However, in this case, context is key and there’s some important context here: you have a lower sex drive than he does and he’s feeling neglected, sexually. In this case, I suspect that the issue is less “I demand that you give up your right to masturbate so that I may control your actions” and “Look, we’re not having much sex as it is, I would appreciate it if you didn’t jerk off and lower the odds of us having sex even further.” Now, if that’s what he meant and he didn’t phrase it as clearly as he could have… well, that’s a communication snafu in and of itself. But if it is a case of his asking for you to do something to up the odds of the intimacy that he feels is lacking… I honestly don’t think that’s such a big ask. And under those circumstances, a reflexive “I shall INCREASE THE THING” becomes kind of inconsiderate. Either way: that’s the sort of thing that needs to be discussed openly and clearly. Misunderstandings can end up being the metaphorical pebble in the shoe for relationships.
But again, you’ve already decided that you’re out the door, so it’s a mostly moot point, although I’d say pointedly jacking it is going to be actively disrespectful even as the relationship is coming to an end.
And that’s really the issue here: what’s the best way to end a relationship that’s all but over anyway?
My overall philosophy about break ups is relatively simple: try to avoid as much unnecessary pain as possible. It’s more or less impossible to end a relationship without some pain — there really isn’t a good way to say “I don’t want to date you any more — but a lot of the pain of a break-up is often something that can be avoided. Part of the process is making it as quick and clean of a break as you can. Long, lingering break-ups are soul-crushing, especially when the person being broken up with doesn’t realize how long it has actually been going on. A lot of folks find out that their ex was ready to hit the eject button a lot earlier than they actually did, and that retroactively poisons the relationship. Now they’re left having to wonder just how many “happy” memories they have actually involved their partner dying to be away from them.
The same goes for trying to be friends afterwards. While, again, I’m firmly on the record that being friends with one’s exes is a mark in a person’s favor, a lot of folks try to do the “we can still be friends” far too early — often as soon as the break up is official. This tends to be a huge mistake, albeit one that usually comes from a place of good intentions. 99% of the time, neither of you are in a place where you can be friends yet; you need time to heal, distance from the relationship to get perspective and a chance to rediscover who you are, now that you’re no longer part of a gestalt whole. When you try to make the immediate leap from “lovers” to “friends” with no time between, you often either just continue the same dynamics that broke you up in the first place… or you get one person who’s done and ready to move on and another who thinks that this is a temporary measure and that there’s a way to get back together again. That second one is especially prevalent when one person started getting over the relationship before it even ended. As a result: you get a lot of hurt feelings, a lot of (not unreasonable) accusations of unfairness, bad faith or manipulation and no small amount of heartbreak on top of heartbreak.
All of this is why I think that if you’re going to do this, CBRHP, then you should do it quickly, cleanly and definitively. That means being absolutely clear that this is a break up, not a “break”. It also means being firm and direct: you’re ending things because this relationship is no longer right for you. I know there’s the temptation to soft-sell the break-up, but honestly I find that this backfires more often than it helps. Giving some squishy reason why it has to end — you’re not in the right place right now, you need to explore options, what-have-you — tends to give the impression that this is a temporary situation. It also gives the impression that you’ve got second thoughts but you’re doing this anyway and leads the person being dumped to try to plead for more time and to try to kick the can down the road… usually in hopes that the dumper will stay, after all. Not only does this turn into a laborious “slowly-peeling-off-the-bandage” process, but the truth usually comes out anyway and causes more hurt down the line. Making a clean break means being willing to own the one-sided-ness of the break-up. Yeah, it may make you feel like the asshole… but how long are you going to stick around in order to avoid that? Another month? Six months? A year?
The same goes for being terrified of starting over. While I absolutely get that fear… again, how long are you going to stick in a relationship that isn’t working for either of you just to avoid that momentary discomfort? How long are you going to keep your boyfriend living a false dream, just because you are worried — understandably — about being single again for the first time in a while?
Here’s my suggestion: make your preparations now — both for ending things cleanly with your boyfriend but also to give him as gentle a landing as you can. You want to be in a position that you can cut ties as cleanly and quickly as possible after saying the words “I’m breaking up with you”. That means arranging the logistics of your leaving in such a way that you don’t drag things out and have an extended series of mini-break-ups after the fact. That may well mean having made arrangements to stay somewhere else — either until you find a new place or he does, assuming you’re still living together after your time apart. It also means giving friends — his or mutual — a heads up that your ex is going to need company and TLC (as much as one can give during a pandemic and quarantine, granted) because you’re about to end things with him.
Now you may not be able to get everything in place right off the bat. Don’t let that be an excuse for putting off the break up. The longer that lingers, the worse it’s going to be all around. And when you do end things: try to be as compassionate and respectful as you can. You may be doing something that needs to happen, but it still hurts and it’s going to suck for everyone. You don’t have to tell him that this is because you think you two moved too fast, or that you think his feelings for you are unhealthy. You don’t need to run down all the reasons why you’re ending it. All he needs to know is that this is no longer working for you, and you’re ending it. A unilateral break may feel unfair, but hey: relationships aren’t like launching the nukes. It doesn’t take two people to turn the keys; if one person decides it’s done, then it’s done.
The more respect you can treat your boyfriend with as you end things, the greater the odds that you and he can find a way to be friends again afterwards.
It sucks and I’m sorry it’s come to this, CBRHP. But the clean break heals the fastest, and that’s the kindest thing you can do for him right now. It may not feel that way right now, but it’ll make all the difference down the line.
Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, firstname.lastname@example.org