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How to be human: how much should I sacrifice to make a relationship work?

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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'm not really sure where to start on this one, I guess a brief background and then the crux of my issues. I'm currently dating a guy I've known for five years, but we've only been dating for the past four months of those. We dated briefly when we first met, but things didn't work out, and he ended up dating someone else for most of the past four years. I had been dating someone for about a year and half, whom I met in DC while I was living out there. That boyfriend (now ex-boyfriend) had the chance to move for his work to the city I grew up in, and where most of my family lives, several states away. I moved to come back, thinking that it would be worth it, but I gave up what was the job of a lifetime. I was doing things I couldn't do many other places, and had the potential to work there for a very long time and grow substantially from it. But I moved for love, and it opened up a can of worms. I came back to my home city, and within a month we had broken up, because I started hanging out with the guy who is now my current boyfriend. We went through a stressful and turbulent couple of months where he went back and forth on breaking up with his now ex, and in the end, he did. And he then spent a few months just getting over his ex by hooking up with people before we started dating.

That's not to say everything has been peachy since though. He has depression issues, as do I, and those have been getting in the way of a lot of things. He currently has very little to no sexual desire towards me, and that's been the case since we started dating. And he's admitted he doesn't know if that will change or not, and that it was like that with his ex, as well. We've entered an open relationship with pretty strict rules in the hopes of making things more interesting, and so far it hasn't really resulted in anything. Add to that, the relationship has felt rather one sided, which he and I have talked about, but in the end, it feels like he takes advantage of me and the fact that I seem to care a lot more about him than vice versa (not that he doesn't care).

On top of that, my current work place, while really cool, doesn't really compare to my old place of employment. And I know that if I asked my old employment to hire me back, they would. My lease is up in five months, but I'm confident they'd also let me work remote until I could move back in that time. My current boyfriend is someone who I essentially had a crush on for the four years I've known him, and now that we're dating, I feel like I've been more stressed and emotionally down than I was previously. I know he's on depression medications, and trying to work on things, but I don't know if that'll be enough to get us to a good state. And I feel like I'm not doing what I want to do at my current work, I actually really loved my old job, and my friends have commented on how much more animated I am when I talk about it. The negative side of going back is that I do have a much smaller friend basis in DC, and I'm further away from my family. And I'm pretty sure if I went down this road, my current boyfriend would end things and the friendship would be strained at best. I'm usually the selfless one and willing to bend over backwards for others, and I don't tend to do selfish things... like quitting my job and moving back to DC and potentially destroying a relationship and friendship. So there's my dilemma.

Sincerely,
Torn

Hey Torn,

You know how when a friend is in a sticky situation and they come to tell you about it, your first thought is, "Oh, honey" and your second thought is, "Here we go again with the same damn thing," and then your final thought is, "If you could only hear yourself, you'd see how clearly the answer is staring you in the face!" You are well acquainted with this feeling. We are all well acquainted with this feeling.

A thing about friends — and by friends I mean all of us — is sometimes we get so caught up in the narrative of our patterns that we can no longer hear what that narrative sounds like. You know, like when someone is really upset about something and they tell you about it, after which they blurt out, "This did not sound so dumb in my head!" Narratives about bad patterns allow us to justify actions and burrow into bullshit behavior we know is bad news.

So the point of all this is that right now you're that friend. It's okay! We've all been there. That's why I'm here. My job is to gently take you by the shoulders and talk some damn sense into you.

"If you could only hear yourself, you'd see how clearly the answer is staring you in the face!"

First things first: Go back and re-read your letter. Pay particular attention to the person in the first half of the first paragraph. Do you see that person? That person is you, who was living in DC, having a hell of time at an amazing job. Focus on that image for a second. You have already successfully lived in DC doing a job that made you happy.

Next, re-read the whole middle bit about your relationship. Read it out loud and pretend that friend is telling you about this relationship. Oh my god, Torn, can you even imagine? "I've been dating this person for four months and he's depressed all the time and has no interest in sex and I feel like he takes advantage of me. In fact, I don't even know if he really likes me." You would tell that friend exactly what I am about to tell you: PLEASE BREAK UP WITH THIS PERSON IMMEDIATELY.

You are four months into a relationship and you are miserable. Yeah, I know, he's working on things. You're trying an open relationship. You liked him for years. But my darling, if this relationship is this much of a bummer after four measly months, imagine how heartbreakingly awful it's going to be after four years. Or forty.

When I was younger, I used to think relationships that started out this way would somehow get better. Like, you know, we were getting all the crappy stuff out of the way. Or it was just a bad patch and magically things would turn around. But just as people have patterns, so too do relationships, and the relationship that starts out with literally nothing going well is the type of relationship that is not going to get better. It is going to get worse. You know why? Because no matter how much two people love each other and no matter how blissful the beginning, real life looms. Even in the happiest relationships there are bumpy patches, whether between the partners or in their lives beyond the relationship. Think about how much you invest in your boyfriend, emotionally and physically. Now imagine years of this as the newness wears off and you have to figure out how to interact as two long-term partners. WIll all that work be yours? Or hey, if your boyfriend loses a job or worse yet a parent, imagine how much more will be required of you. Or, god, imagine something bad happens to you. Is he capable of being there for you in the shitty times?

I'm not saying your boyfriend is a bad person. I'm sure he's not. In fact, I sincerely hope he's able to get healthier and happier because it sounds like he's got a lot of shit going on. I don't want you to dump him and make him feel bad, I want you to separate from him with kindness so you can both go work on yourselves.

You see, what I'm saying is: He's not the right person for you. In fact, no one is right now, because you too have something pretty serious to deal with.

This brings us to the end of the letter, the place where your pattern comes out into full view. What is that pattern? You say it very clearly: Being the selfless one who bends over backward for other people. Except I don't think that's it entirely. You've told me about two relationships for which you sacrificed your happiness. I think that's what's happening: you're sabotaging your own happiness. You're afraid of really going for this whole life you say you want, but rather than admit that to yourself, you're looking for a narrative that allows you to feel like you're doing the right thing, and it's everyone else who is keeping you from this life. First, you gave up your job for another person! Then you gave up your job again for yet another person! It's never entirely on you.

Except it is.

Torn, there are a lot of things I wish I had been able to hear many years ago. So what I'm telling you here, especially in this next part, I'm telling you from the bottom of my heart. I'm telling you from a place of knowing that includes a lot of regret.

Stop standing in the way of your own happiness. Stop finding reasons to leave a job you love, or to not return to it. Admit that you're scared, that maybe being in DC is hard and lonely because you're far from friends and family. Be real with yourself about the fact that facing big success is, horribly enough, sometimes harder than dealing with failure. You have created multiple failures in your life because those failures fit this narrative you have of yourself as a selfless, bending-over-backward type person. And because those failures are easier to deal with than facing the fear of doing the job you love and running the risk that you'll fail at that. You can handle these versions of yourself. Whereas the possible version of yourself that you bailed on in DC and keep running from? You don't know that person, and goddamn if you'll let yourself meet them.

Stop standing in the way of your own happiness

A horrible trap many of us fall into is talking about some big dream we have, or some big thing we want to be doing, but when the opportunity stares us in the face we find a way to run from it. Then we convince ourselves — using that ol' narrative — that we obviously didn't want it enough. Or we weren't right for it. Or we were, you know, not selfish so we couldn't go after it.

All these things are bullshit, Torn. Going after your dream isn't selfish. It's especially not selfish because you don't have anyone you really have to put first right now besides yourself. You don't have children. Your family, while far away, does not seem to actively need you right now.

Repeat after me: Living your own life is not selfish. Going after a dream job is not selfish. And most importantly, dreams and possible success are scary and weird and intense, but oh man are they worth exploring. I hope you do.

Lx