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How to be human: how to break up with a rebound

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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 askleah@theverge.com and read more How to be Human here.

Dear Leah,

I don't have the world's most complicated situation other than that I am in a relationship where I am really struggling to love my partner.

We have known each other for about six months, met through the world of gay social media, and I met my previous boyfriend around the same time. The previous boyfriend and I dated for a few months in what was a wild honeymoon period and things just fizzled out as some relationships do, but I wasn't ready for things to be over. I was quite upset and my current partner consoled me through the breakup process, and was a Godsend when I was feeling bouts of crippling anxiety.

Slowly as I started to recover emotionally I began to feel liberated, until he told me that the entire time I had been dating my previous boyfriend that he had a crush on me and had been fantasizing about me. This was something that obviously I felt quite confronted about, and had to be as honest as I could in saying that I wasn't ready to go back into any kind of relationship.

As time went on he became more and more affectionate towards me and began to act as though we were in a relationship. Slowly I became more comfortable with this where we are now at the point where I have agreed that we're exclusive, but I feel as though I am often trying to force myself to carry on in the relationship.

He has a very low self esteem and is often comparing himself to models in magazines, becoming dissatisfied that he doesn't have a six pack or doesn't have the latest clothes or hair and is always picking on his body when it's fantastic and there is nothing wrong with it. I am really struggling to love him because I'm worried that he doesn't even know how to love himself. I'm trying to be there and encourage him but my relationship feels weighed down, confined to focusing on the negatives of his life rather than the positives (he has started a great new job, has friends and he is incredibly popular among our social circles). One main reason is that his negativity has started coming across to me, picking on my body image as well.

Is it wrong to not love someone because they keep putting themselves down with nonsense?

Sincerely,

Loveless Jerk

Hey LJ,

I'm going to do the thing I do sometimes, which is cut to the chase and then go back a little and unpack all the pieces. Cool? Cool.

You don't want permission to not love someone because they're insecure, you want permission to break up with your boyfriend. My darling, you do not need my permission or anyone else's. If you don't want to be in a relationship with this person, don't look for a reason why. Don't create a story about how he wasn't good enough or you couldn't help him. Be okay with the fact that you don't love him, and maybe never did. Be okay with that, even if it is hard and deeply honest, and it will allow you to end things swiftly and with as much kindness and compassion as you can muster.

Okay! Now we've gotten that out of the way, let's pull out all the pieces so we can understand how they fit together.

I think the reason it's hard for you to love this boyfriend is not because of his insecurities and negativity — more about that in a minute — but because he was a rebound. You feel guilty knowing he was so kind to you and loves you so much, and that you let it get this far without gently putting an end to it.

So you do what many of us do when we feel guilty: you try and make it his fault. The reason you don't want to be with him is because he's this flawed person and those flaws are driving you apart. Don't feel bad, I'm right there with you! And the truth is another person's problems — insecurity and negativity, depression and anxiety — they can really wear down a relationship. This is especially true if they don't seem to work on their problems.

It's weird how intense this can be in romantic relationships. I bet you have friends who do this too. Friends who are insecure, compare themselves to models, and never feel good enough. Maybe not constantly but enough that you say, "You are amazing and fabulous, and I wish you saw it! How can I help?" Maybe they accept the help and maybe they don't, maybe you sometimes bitch to another mutual friend about how they're making you crazy, maybe you tell them gently that they need to get help because it's more than you can handle, but for the most part you don't stop loving them as a friend.

Insecurity and anxiety can really wear down a relationship

And hey, I've been there many times, doing this very thing — taking someone's flaws and blowing them up, huge. Looking at them like you're examining your own pores in a mirror and getting annoyed and disgusted. Using that huge distorted view to give yourself a reason to not be with someone. The sad thing about this is how, some years after the fact, you feel guilty about it. You think about how someone else did this to you, or how you were insecure and you wished someone hadn't been mean about it. You get that we're all human, and we make allowances for each other the best we can. It's not your boyfriend's problems that are making you stop loving him. The problem is that you never really did.

I think you like your boyfriend a lot. I think you care about him as a friend. But I think you're not trying to make things better, or you're not telling me, "this is a last resort, I can't handle this anymore." You're using his problems as a way to wiggle your way out, because being honest about how you feel is uncomfortable and hard.

You and your current boyfriend got together after you'd been in a pretty bad place. In fact, he was there to support you in your time of intense anxiety — and, I bet, some doses of insecurity, too. Now, I don't tell you this to make you feel guilty, like your boyfriend cared for you and why can't you care for him. I say this because I want you to think about why he did that. Sure maybe he's one of those people who likes to fix people, or likes it when someone needs him. I don't know for sure, but I'm going to guess the following:

Your boyfriend likes you. He liked you when you were with this other person, he liked you in your shitty devastated state, and he likes you now. The reason I'm pretty sure of this is because you don't say he's tried to change you or fix anything besides your heart. He lifted you up when you were down, because your happiness means something to him.

Now, it's okay that you don't feel the same way about him. It's okay that his happiness isn't something you want as much as — god, maybe even more than — your own. It's okay because you're not required to like him or to be in love with him, even if he's in love with you. That's not even a mean thing to say, it's simply the truth, and I've said it here before, only to people who were in your boyfriend's position.

You're not required to like or love him, even if he's in love with you

I'm going to bet if you were with someone you loved, and they had these problems, you'd come to me saying, "Hey Leah, how can I help this person?" My advice would be different — maybe you could help them, maybe you couldn't. If you were with someone you loved, you'd want them to be okay, and you'd say to me, "It's hard but, man, what can I do? How do I help? How do I not give up?"

Of all the things I wish I could make the human brain do, a big one is this: I wish I could make it handle difficult and uncomfortable situations without immediately wanting to find blame outside its own boundaries. Like, I wish I could keep your brain from making this your boyfriend's fault for being human. I wish I could have made my brain stop from getting upset at someone for their flaws, when the truth was that I never fell in love with them and didn't know how to get out honestly and kindly.

LJ, you can break up with this guy. You don't need to find a reason other than "I'm not in love with him." I give you the permission you should have given yourself. I'm also giving him permission to be insecure, because lord knows a lot of things in this world make it hard for for any of us to accept how good and beautiful we are. Yeah, he has to love himself, but in that chicken-egg story, it helps to have a person out there who you love and who loves you just as you are. A friend, a parent, a lover, anyone.

When you're ready to be in a relationship, you'll find someone whose flaws don't make you crazy, maybe even someone who you love just as they are, flaws and all. You'll help each other. And your (soon-to-be-ex) boyfriend will find someone who feels the same about him. Maybe that will help him feel like he's on stable ground, which will enable him to be a little less insecure. We all want to know we're accepted and loved. I think you know this, so let him go find someone who feels that way about him.

Lx