DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: I have an issue of, I guess, becoming less of a nerd. Let me explain: I (31f) have been married to my partner (35m) a few years now. When we started dating 7 years ago, we shared a lot of traits. Our best year together was when we lived abroad, worked in the same company so that our ”together-time” was during the lunch break, so then after work both of us played games for the rest of the day, separately or together.
Something changed after we bought an apartment though. Because it was ”my own nest”, I wanted to become more organized. I started pursuing more hobbies and dreamed of travel. You can see where this is going. I feel we have grown apart and there is nothing to talk about anymore. I guess my question is… how do I know when to break up? Or am I just being selfish?
There are a few things that make it difficult. On the one hand, he is the type to always be loyal and not let me go. I tried breaking up once and he just scoffed it off. Our day-to-day life together is good to ok. But I’ve started to feel better when I’m alone or with friends. He is also bad at communicating or being vulnerable; in important discussions he will become anxious and mix words up, and take multiple minutes to form words. He’s not very self-reflective either. I feel stuck. If I knew he’d get better at communicating it would be different. I’ve also thought of having a family in the future, but with him? I don’t know.
DEAR NERDLESS: On occasion, I’ll hear from folks whose relationship early on was founded on loving a lot of the same things. Of course, over time, people grow, people change and their interests change… but when their tastes in pop culture or hobbies or games start to diverge, they begin worry that this says something bad about their relationship.
But while shared interests and commonalities are part of what bring us together, they’re not what keep us together. Or at least, not exclusively. In fact, relationships can often be strengthened by partners having different interests, different social circles, even separate vacations. Part of what sparks that passion and desire for togetherness in the beginning of a relationship is novelty and mystery… things that are difficult to keep in a long-term relationship, particularly when you both live together. Having separate lives, where you both are able to do your own thing on occasion, can have a huge benefit to your relationship. Not only does it keep the spark alive by helping maintain that feeling of “can’t see enough of you, there’s always something new to discover,” it also means that you have less pressure to love all the same things… or to worry about what it means if and when you start to have interests your partner doesn’t share and vice versa.
However, I don’t think becoming less of a nerd is your issue here, NL. The problem seems to be about communication and feeling connected to one another. If you’re always together, then it’s very easy to start feeling smothered or to want time to yourself. Having space of your own can be vitally important in a relationship, especially during the COVID pandemic. Being able to feel like you have a life that isn’t defined by what your husband wants or enjoys is important, just as it is for him. There’s no reason, for example, that you couldn’t travel with friends, even if your husband would rather stay and keep the home fires burning.
Similarly, there’s the lack of communication and vulnerability. I have to wonder if whether the issue is that he isn’t bad at communicating and more that his way of communicating is frustrating you. Sometimes there can be a disconnect when our partners don’t necessarily have the same communication style that we do. Some people get heated and vehement, even when they aren’t actually upset or angry. Others get flustered and tongue-tied when they’re dealing with strong emotions and react badly when they feel like their partner’s being overly aggressive. That doesn’t mean that either of them are bad communicators, just that their style of communication is in conflict.
You say that he starts to get anxious, mix up words and needs to take time to collect his thoughts. That leads to an obvious question: have you been giving him that time? If you’re having important discussions, especially about things that are vital to you or to him, then it can be important to factor his communication style into the discussion. If someone, for example, tears up when they feel strong emotions, that doesn’t mean that their partner can’t get upset at them or have those tough conversations. It just means that both parties have to take that into consideration as part of the discussion.
All of this is part of why when I tell people to have an Awkward Conversation, that they should carve out time specifically for it and to take turns while the other listens without interrupting. Amongst other things, this gives everybody the opportunity to focus their thoughts without feeling like they need to reply right away. Knowing you won’t be interrupted takes a little of the anxiety out of trying to express yourself and makes it easier to be clear and ensure that you’re understood. And, of course, easing that anxiety means that people who get flustered are better able to keep their cool and not rush into a response.
There are a couple things that strike me as a little odd; you say that he scoffed off your breaking up with him. What exactly does that mean? Did he just not accept the break up and you went along with it? Or was it that because he didn’t immediately end things, you had time to think about things and realized that maybe you didn’t want to break up? The way you phrase it as a complication is confusing; it’s a little hard to tell whether you mean that this is a good thing, or you’re worried that he’ll be able to somehow veto your decision to divorce him.
Now it does need to be said that it sounds like you’ve already decided that you’re ready to end things and you’re just looking for the reason to pull the trigger. If that’s the case… well, again, there’s not really anything else to be said. All 50 states and the District of Columbia have no-fault divorce laws, which means that you don’t really need a casus belli; you just need to decide that you’re ready to not be married any more. And honestly, if you’re just asking for permission to do what you already want to do, then hey, permission granted. It doesn’t really sound like it’s warranted yet from what you say, but I’m also not the marriage police. If you want out, then the kindest thing to do would be to end things, as quickly and cleanly as possible. It’s better for the both of you; you don’t feel trapped in a marriage you want out of and he’s no longer married to someone who doesn’t want to be with him any more. Ending it quickly means that he doesn’t have to wonder what happened as your dissatisfaction curdles to into contempt, which will end up hurting even more than a speedy end to the marriage.
But if you aren’t standing there with your hand hovering over the relationship eject button… consider talking to a couple’s counselor. Having a third party help mediate some of your issues can make it easier for you both to hear and understand each other, as well as bridge the communication gap the two of you seem to have. And if it does turn out that no, you really are ready to leave, a counselor can also help you negotiate the end of your relationship and make it as painless as possible.
Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, email@example.com