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How to be human: 'It's just this one thing with how we communicate...'

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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 a Senior User Researcher for Slack, 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.

Hi Leah,

I'm 25 and was in a relationship for five years. I loved my life with him so much. It was literally picture perfect. We respected each other, loved each other, and boy did we have fun. But behind closed doors, our biggest problem was his inability to open up and communicate with me. This constantly had me wondering if he was even in love anymore and of course constantly had me asking and nagging. It led to most of our fights. He wasn't perfect, but neither was I. I was so involved in his life that I lost sight of mine. I needed his approval for everything I did — and I admit, I might have lost my independence and confidence when I was with him.

Three years into the relationship, I simply asked him through text if he was happy. I got a very long response with hurtful things I've never heard before. And he left me just like that. From one moment to the next for six whole months. That was the hardest pain I've been through. I obviously never got over him, so when he looked for me, I let him back in my life. He said he meant none of those things. We have been so good since our break up, or at least I thought. I wanted to marry him and have a family soon. But out of nowhere, at the peak of my happiness, he did it again. The week of our breakup I knew something was wrong but he wouldn't speak up. It drove me so crazy that I decided to break it off for him. Hoping I was wrong, he took it and ran after sending another really long hurtful message. He said that I've completely overwhelmed him. That he can't ever change and that he will always be this "dry" guy that I put him out to be. He was tired of all of our arguments and made the decision to finally move on for good.

Rather than letting me process the whole thing since it was the first time in five years he's been so honest, he completely wants nothing to do with me. And again, from one moment to the next my relationship is over. He goes cold turkey when he makes up his mind. Again, horrible unexplainable pain. I keep over-thinking the last five years of my life and I wish he would talk these things through with me. Why does he treat me like a complete stranger? It's been a week now and I can't seem to accept this. Why do I hold on to hope that he will realize that all I wanted was for him to talk to me when something was wrong? He never gave us a chance to fix anything that needed to be fixed because after he admits things, he disappears. I feel so betrayed. How can I pick myself up after this time? It seems so much harder. Specially when all I want is for him to regret this and come back to me. But then, I can never trust him again.

I can't help but feel guilty sometimes thinking I should have loved him for who he is without trying to change him. Did I do this?

Best regards,

K.

Hey K,

Have you ever wished you could write a letter to your past self? I mean literally: Write a letter your past self would receive full of present-self knowledge so you could save past-you from a lot of unnecessary heartache? Sure, I realize the impossibility of this given the limitations of time travel and also the fact that if you warned yourself you might not end up learning all the knowledge you’d end up putting in the letter. But that feeling of wishing you could go back and save yourself? It’s real, isn’t it. When you come to moments in this letter that feel painfully honest or maybe even unfair, please know I’m speaking from a place of deep knowledge — and please know I’m also talking to myself.

Now, I’ve known a lot of guys like your ex. It’s tempting, and easy, to say, "Ugh, fuck that guy, what a jerk." But I don’t know if he’s a jerk or if he handled things poorly. It sure sounds like he did, but then again, it also sounds like he handled it in the way a person might if they’re not good at expressing their emotions and they get pushed to do so until they reach their own breaking point. It’s a tricky thing when a friend gets their heart broken like you have. We all want to comfort the heartbroken and tell them how lovable they are and how they should forget that person, what an asshole who doesn’t deserve them. These are all important sentiments on the road to getting over heartbreak. But the thing about this, and about your letter, and about this whole column, is that I don’t really care about your ex at this minute. I would help him if he wrote me, and I bet there’s a lot he could have done better, but you wrote me, so right this minute I want to help you.

In fact, I am going to start with the toughest and most honest part. K, I don’t think you lost your confidence and independence when you were with him. The problem is that you didn’t have the confidence and independence in the first place, not really. If you’d had confidence and independence, one of two things would have happened: either you’d have felt confident that he loved you, even if he didn’t always express it in the precise way you needed to hear, or you would have left your ex when you realized that his way of loving you didn’t give you what you wanted or needed.

You know that feeling you get when you want someone like your ex to tell you if they still love you? I know it well. It’s a weird clawing feeling in your chest, a panicky scramble, the sense that you’re teetering on the edge of an abyss and only hearing "I love you so much" will place you safely back away from danger. Or that moment when you ask if they’re happy, but not because you really want to know how they feel but because you need them to say yes. Or when you want to know what they’re thinking, and you ask ever so casually, and then you’re hurt when it’s not "I’m thinking about you." None of these acts are criminal, or even much more than annoying when isolated and very, very occasional. But when they’re repeated over and over, and when it seems as if no answer will ever suffice, they’re a sign of something much deeper at work within you.

The other day I was talking to a friend about certain types of anxieties and behaviors in relationships, in particular anxieties in relationships like yours. Some of us are people who, when we’re made anxious, we move closer — we want information, communication, reassurance, compromise, common ground, LITERALLY ANYTHING TO PULL US OUT OF THE SPIRAL. Some of us shut down and retreat as far as we possibly can, avoiding the person, the conversation, the relationship, the entire thing. And of course there are the people along the middle of the spectrum, who experience bits of either (or both) of these, but know how to express them in healthy, mutually supportive ways.

When you get two people like the TALK TO ME / LEAVE ME ALONE duality in a relationship, which is a much, much more common combo than you probably realize, you end up with all kinds of drama and hurt and blame. Those are the friends who complain about their relationships so much that you say, "Why are you together? Like, are you ever happy? I only hear about fighting." And then the friend says, "We love each other so much! I really am happy! It’s just this one thing with communication."

But you know what? THIS ONE THING WITH COMMUNICATION IS KIND OF THE BIGGEST THING. It’s at the heart of any relationship. I once described my relationship with an ex as "two hurricanes who bashed into each other most of the time, and when they’d get tired and rest there would be a beautiful rainbow." It was exhausting. It took me three years to figure out how exhausting it was and finally end it. It took me another five or six to figure out that while a lot of it was his behavior, plenty of it was mine, but the biggest problem was the dynamic between us. A dynamic I have repeated many times in my life. I realized that a lot of that pain could be avoided by becoming truly confident and independent, so much so that when relationships like this pop up, I end them quickly. Or, even better, I’m emotionally healthy enough that I attract other emotionally healthy people, who exist somewhere along the center of that relationship anxiety spectrum.

You, my darling K, are in a tough spot. Not simply because you are the heartbroken one, but because the anxious one who pushes for communication is almost always the one who is labeled as "the crazy one." You’re not crazy, and it’s a shitty, offensive thing to say, one almost always leveled at women. Both you and your ex each need to learn why it’s hard for you to communicate in ways that are mutually supportive, why you need so much reassurance and why he feels pressured, pressured, pressured until BOOM.

A relationship shouldn’t be "a lot of fighting about communication and expressions of love, sprinkled with occasional happy moments and brunches where you convince your friends your relationship is good." But take it from me: You will be in relationships like that, with people like your ex who are as good at withholding their feelings as you are at needing to be reassured, until you find a way to be happy with (and maybe even by!) yourself.

The hardest thing for those of us on the "please tell me" side to accept is that when someone absolutely shuts down, like in a breakup, we have to accept it. You can’t make the other person talk. And you know what? Even if you could, nothing they say can make this better. Because what’s wrong is inside each of you, and in the way the two of you connect — or fail to. The very last line of your letter is, "Did I do this?" Human relationships are complex. They’re layers of interaction, love, desire, need, fear, and more. They don’t exist in a vacuum and each one doesn’t set the experience-o-meter back to zero. You bring yourself to each relationship, which means you bring all the ways you’ve learned to love and to connect, even if those ways aren’t totally healthy.

Here’s the last thing: It is okay if you aren’t ready to hear all of this. It’s ok if you say, "This is bullshit. I am secure and independent!" It’s okay if it takes you another 15 years until you decide you don’t want to feel so horribly anxious about whether someone else loves you. Hell, it’s okay if you never decide that. If you are at all like me, you will always need a little reassurance about how loved and lovable you are. But you can find ways to understand this need, to be gentle with it, and to find people who will be gentle with it in return. I want you to have this, K. I want all of us to have it.

Lx