Skip to main content

How to be human: how do I know when there's no second chance?

How to be human: how do I know when there's no second chance?

Share this story

Leah Reich was one of the first internet advice columnists. Her column "Ask Leah" ran on IGN, where she gave advice to gamers for two and a half years. During the day, Leah is Slack’s user researcher, but her views here do not represent her employer. You can write to her at and read more How to be Human here.

Hello Leah,

I'm coming out of a three-year relationship. I really love this girl, but she says that even though she loves me, she wants to be alone. I have a very hard time understanding what she means. She wants to keep going out and seeing each other, but she doesn't want a relationship. She states that she wants to fall in love again with me but pushes me away anytime she even remotely feels something. I want to be with her but avoid a situation where she doesn't want to buy the cow because she gets the milk for free. What can I do to be with her? Or should I just walk away?

Best regards,

Hey A.,

You know one of the things that drives me the craziest about relationships? Beyond the insecurities and the fights and the ups and downs? It's that, no matter how long two people have known one another, it can still be so intensely hard to just be honest with each other.

I don't just mean you and your ex-girlfriend. I mean everyone! In relationships, with friends, in family situations, at work, just about everywhere. Being honest with another person, especially about your feelings, is terrifying. It's super hard. And by honest, I don't mean just saying whatever's on your mind, no matter how unpleasant or potentially hurtful. But just as there's a difference between "full disclosure" and "honesty," there's also a difference between "I'm going to tell you what I think you want to hear because I'm afraid to hurt you" and "I need to be honest about my feelings, even if it's hard."

First, let's talk about what's going on with your ex-girlfriend. I have to hand it to her, she was honest, at least at first. It must have been very hard to be honest after three years together. That's a big change. But you know, maybe she wasn't totally honest, or at least she wasn't totally clear. Or maybe she was clear, but when she saw how much it hurt you, she backed off a little bit.

It can be so intensely hard just to be honest with each other

The truth is, when it comes to what's going on with her, we don't really know. We can only speculate, which one of my favorite least-productive activities! Let's do it now and get it out of our system. Why she's doing this? Maybe she wants to be single but is afraid after three years of being alone. Maybe she's afraid of hurting you and thinks cutting things off altogether is somehow worse than what she's doing. Maybe — and as with all of them, I can say this one from experience — she's afraid of saying goodbye to you forever, and she's afraid breaking it off with you entirely will make you walk away. But we don't know! We may never know! It's infuriating, and I've never even met her! I'm frustrated for you, because boy have I been where you are.

Okay, now that we've wondered what she's doing and tried to get a handle on it so we can figure out what you should do, let's set that aside. It's like we're baking cupcakes, and that's the batch that cratered when they were baking — little sad volcanoes with burned edges and sunken, undercooked insides. Let's put in a new batch that uses a better ingredient, which is what we do know.

What is that? Ah, one of the most underrated of all ingredients in a situation like this: what you want.

Whenever a friend of mine has come to me with a situation a lot like this, I tell them a variation on the same thing. It's something I learned from a friend years ago and finally understood only recently. In relationships, we — all of us! you, my friends, people I don't know, definitely me — spend a lot of time basing our choices on a lot of things well beyond our control. Sometimes this is good and necessary, because relationships can't always be all about you. In fact, they shouldn't be all about you — they should be all about you and your partner and all the complicated and interesting differences that you have to work through. But in a situation like this, it's an endless path to heartbreak. You are basing your decision on what you think she wants and how you think she's going to react, and you're also basing it on a fear we all have at various points: the fear that if you are honest about what you want, she will go away forever.

Alas my friend, that is what you must do now. You know what you want with your ex. You want to be with her. Not hanging out as friends. Not kind of with her, but waiting for her to fall in love with you again while she doesn't give you the chance to let that happen. Not anything other than her boyfriend. And so you must tell her, honestly and with as much kindness as you can: I love you, and I want to be with you. I know you want to be on your own. The situation we have now, where we kind of hang out but don't, where you kind of want to fall in love with me but push me away? This hurts. I'm letting you know I can't do this. If you're letting me know you can't be with me, not in a relationship, then I think we need to break up for real and take some time apart so we can both find what it is we're looking for.

I know, it sounds awful. But you can do it. Best of luck.


Hi Leah,

I never really thought I would ask someone I've never met for help, but you seem like a nice person, so I'll give it a shot. I'm 17. I'm a senior in high school. I live in Florida. What's bothering me is a girl. When I first saw her, I immediately recognized her as a glowing star in my life. She was different in some way I couldn't comprehend. I now try to see her as much as I can. Here are some important details about her. She's 17, and has a 9-month-old daughter. She's a foster child under the care of my church's youth pastor and his wife, who also have two children of their own, and recently took in a two-week-old infant. She's upset with the restrictions in her household, so much that she plans on leaving when she turns 18 to live in Texas, where I assume she's from.

Now I don't know what her situation was, or how it led to her becoming a foster child, but I do know that I care about her a lot. Her "dad," the youth pastor, has expressed to me his discontent with her decision to leave. He says she's used to having breakfast, her own closet, someone buying diapers for her child, etc. He tells me she's leaving behind a good life full of opportunity. I don't know what to think. I don't want her to leave, I don't want her to get hurt, I want her and her child to have a good life, with someone taking care of them. I feel like there's nothing I can do. I don't even think she likes me in the way that I like her. I used to be deathly afraid of children. I love being around her daughter, holding her and making her laugh. I don't know anymore. The future is too cloudy for me to work something out. If she leaves, I'll be devastated. I know I'm about to start a life of my own, but she's the only thing good in my life for the foreseeable future. She shows me where all my beginnings are. How can I communicate any of this to her? Is there going to be a happy ending?

Thanks so much,


Hey overwhelmed,

Well, this is certainly a heck of a situation.

Thanks for thinking I'm a nice person. I try to be, but I also try to be fair and realistic and honest. What I'm about to tell you is probably not going to be the most fun advice, but it's real and from the heart, so I hope you take it that way.

You have fallen for a young woman who has a lot going on in her life. I don't mean, like, wow what a busy person! I mean, holy shit, this girl has a lot to deal with. She's 17, she has a baby, she's in foster care, and she wants to get the heck out of Dodge. I'm going to assume there's even more going on that I don't know about and that you don't know about, which all adds up to many lifetimes worth of intense and possibly difficult experiences packed into only 17 years. She has so much to deal with.

I think it's lovely that you care for her well-being, and I am delighted that her baby has helped you get over your fear of children. These are wonderful things. It's also wonderful, if very hard, to have such powerful feelings for someone who may not return them or who may not be in a place where returning them is even an option. And it's really hard when you add in the worry that you'll never, ever feel this way again.

But, overwhelmed, as hard as this is, I'm going to sneak in right where you say, "I don't know what to think and I feel like there's nothing I can do" and leave my advice there.

If you care for this girl's well-being as much as I think you do, I want you to put your feelings for her and your concern about her decisions on a back burner. Not just a back burner but a burner in another kitchen. She has a lot of pressures on her right now, some external and some, I imagine, internal. She's got so much to figure out, and some big decisions ahead of her that will be hard and that she may or may not mess up — decisions that are based on a lot of information you don't know and probably will never know.

A lot of worries come from wanting to be that person who can provide comfort and care

I'm sure you've expressed to her that you're worried, and that's great. But I think a lot of your worries — what's going to happen to her? will she have someone take care of her? — come from your desire to be that person who can provide comfort and care. You want her! That is a nice feeling, to want to care for someone and be her support. But she's not choosing that. She's choosing to leave. So the thing you can do for her is respect that.

I know, it's hard, because you're hearing a lot from her foster dad's perspective. But that's his side of things, and you don't entirely know hers. If I were you, I might limit how much you talk to him about her situation. It's going to push you more toward wanting to do something in a situation where you really can't. It might also make her feel like you're taking his side, or like there's even more pressure on her than before, even if that's not true. And to be really honest, his perspective might be right but it might also be skewed. We don't know what it's like for her in that house!

Here's the toughest thing I think you need to do, overwhelmed. I say this as a person who has felt like you do now, like a person I'd fallen for was beyond super special. They were the super special-est, the most miraculous thing, the best thing in my life, and I'd never feel that way again. I'll even tell you the truth: I've felt this way many times, long after I stopped being 18. So I'm not here to tell you "ugh, you're just 18, you'll get over it." But what I will tell you is that, while you'll never feel exactly the way you feel about her, you'll feel something differently but equally — maybe even more — powerful about someone else. Yes, it is impossible to imagine. Yes, I sound like my mom right now. But I promise you, if you let this girl go and live her very complicated life, and if you try to be nothing more than a friend who supports her and is there for her but does not pressure her in any way, you will find someone whose light makes your whole life glow sooner than you think.