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How to be human: it’s not you, it’s them — no, really

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. How to be Human runs every other Sunday. You can write to her at askleah@theverge.com and read more How to be Human here.

Hey Leah,

I’m a 25-year-old male and I don’t really know what to do about my girlfriend (22). I have been in a relationship with her for five months now. Getting to know her was lovely and exciting. I knew quite early (after two months) that I wanted to be with her. She happily let me know she wanted the same. What made us friends were our interests in sports, philanthropy, the endearing way we communicated, memes (so millennial) and just being there for each other despite and when things went south. What made me love her was her passionate and caring side, and the way she treated family.

Despite our different backgrounds, things were going great. We are both students, so we try to fit each other in our busy schedule whilst not neglecting school and work. We communicated every day, go on weekly dates, and we even had two small vacations together. Things were splendid… until the last few weeks. I know that things change after the “honeymoon phase,” but this felt more like a steep decline. She cancels on dates, started being rude and declines to see me (“busy”), even when I’m willing to drive to her place. She started not being really active in conversations and not really responsive in any way of communication I’ve tried over the last few weeks. I could handle my girlfriend not having the best day, but this has been going on for almost a month. We did not even see each other during the holidays. I started thinking about the things I may have done wrong.

After a few days of not really talking, we met and I asked her about the way she has been acting. She said that “it wasn’t me,” but she’s dealing with anxiety about her future. School, work, and health issues are the headlines of her stress. She is also thinking about job opportunities abroad. I partly knew about the issues she was facing, but I didn’t know it impacted her that much. She said that she had to focus on her main issues. She was sorry about the way it made me feel and that she will be more considerate, but I don’t see any significant changes. I try to be there for her, because I really love her. Every time I try to text her, it feels like I’m bothering her. And if I keep a little distance she sends a one-off text to ask me how I’m doing. I would love to be the person she counts on while she’s having issues, but she keeps shutting me out and it is having an effect on our relationship. I keep wondering if she still cares, and the things that made me love her seems quite far off now.

I tried asking her out, help her with school, and show her things she’s interested in. She had a lackluster response. Meeting with her seems like a big task. I still want this to work because we had a great time, but she’s taking my efforts for granted. I’m like: “what should I do while you’re trying to figure things out, and where do I fit in?”

I don’t want to be the guy that complains every time, but this is really bothering me. If it continues like this, I’ll have to end it, but I really don’t want to. What more can I try to save our relationship?

Sincerely,
S

Hey S,

She’s right, it’s not you. It’s her. And since it’s her, she should be able to be honest about what’s going on, so it’s too bad she’s not doing that.

Now, I know how this must sound: Like I’m a mind reader and I know exactly what’s going on with your girlfriend. I’m not! And I don’t. When I say “what’s going on” I mean in the context of your relationship, because your girlfriend is doing something I am very familiar with. I’ve been on both sides of your current situation, and I’ve watched friends behave like she’s behaving and feel like you’re feeling. Your girlfriend is pretending to be someone who wants to be in the relationship while acting like someone who doesn’t want to be in the relationship at all.

I’m sorry if that isn’t what you wanted to hear. And while I think it’s unfair of her to do that — just like it’s unfair when anyone else does it, including me — I don’t think she’s a total jerk. It’s hard to break up with someone, especially someone who is decent and kind and seems like a real catch. Maybe she’s afraid to hurt your feelings, or maybe she’s so overwhelmed by everything going on in her life she doesn’t know what she wants right now. I don’t think this has anything to do with your differences in background. You say she’s got a lot going on that’s affecting her more than you realized, and she’s kind of disappearing into herself to deal with all of it. So maybe that’s it. Or maybe she’s using that as an excuse. Or maybe she thinks dumping you will hurt you, not realizing that it hurts more to be pushed away like this. I have no idea.

All I know is that your girlfriend isn’t being a very good girlfriend to you, and she’s not doing the fair thing and making things clear either by showing up or by ending things. Again, it sucks, but we’ve all done it. That’s partly why I wanted to answer your letter, because this situation is so universal. I hope that doesn’t make you feel like I’m diminishing what you’re feeling. When I feel bad, there are few things I dislike as much as someone saying “everyone feels bad when this happens!” or “we’ve all gone through this!” My response is always, “Yes, I know that, but right now I’m talking about me.” So I want to acknowledge how crappy this must feel, to be so excited about someone who seemed equally excited in you... only to have them back away almost overnight. And how extra crappy it is to feel as if you’ve been pushed into breaking up with someone you want to be with!

You know, since I already brought up (and apologized for) universal themes, let me say something else I love about your letter: I love that it was written by a guy, about a woman. Why? Because of the stereotype that only women feel like they’re being needy, wanting more from someone they love. And the stereotype that only women sit around thinking about their relationships in detail, wondering what’s going on and what they’ve done wrong and whether they’re asking for too much or being too annoyed and wanting to be a support for someone who seems only to push them away. Sure, a lot of women do and a lot of men don’t. Yes, women are socialized to fit into the spaces made available for them, rather than take up all the space they want. The sense that they’re asking for too much is often based on very different power dynamics and social expectations. But men do feel this way, too. Frankly, people of all genders and sexualities feel the way you do and behave the way she’s behaving. It’s part of being human, no matter how you’re conditioned: Sometimes you fall for someone who can’t return the favor, and sometimes you’re the person who realizes they don’t want to be in a particular relationship but doesn’t do anything about it.

Okay! Back to you, S.

Your situation probably feels tricky because this relationship is so new and so recently full of promise. How could she change so fast when she seemed to be so excited to be with you? Friend, I have been there. And since I’ve been there, I know this will be hard to believe right now, but I’ll say it anyway: After five months, you shouldn’t be where you are right now. You’re trying to salvage potential, and that’s an impossible task. If you can, look beyond the potential and focus instead on the very real situation you find yourself in. You’re dating someone who isn’t showing up AT ALL.

Here’s a secret that I wish were much less of a secret: Relationships are not based around one person’s needs. It’s okay for her to focus on her main issues. It’s okay for her to need to take care of herself and not have space for another person right now. It’s also okay for you to need more than she’s able to give. You’re not being the guy who complains every time: You’re being the guy who’s fitting himself into the small spaces she’s providing for you, and then getting reasonably upset when you realize how cramped and uncomfortable those spaces are. Stop that! You are already a person who’s aware of what he wants and needs in a relationship, and you know you’re not getting that right now.

It must feel like your girlfriend has all the power here: She’s the one who’s backing away, and you’re the one who’s feeling needy and demanding. I’ve written about this before. It’s such a frustrating dynamic! I want to reiterate it because I want you to be okay with how you feel. Why? Because I can see you building a case in your letter, a case for how you’re doing all these things, and did you do something wrong, and is she ever going to show up?? I’ve built that case before. It never turns out well, because it actually makes you feel even more fed up and when she hears it she’ll feel more defensive.

Focusing on the idea that “hey, I want this thing, and I’m not getting it” probably seems very selfish, rather than focusing on the list of things you’ve tried and the list of things you’re willing to try. Especially when she’s dealing with so much in her life. But it’s not selfish to be a person who says, “I am not getting this important thing I need from our relationship. I know you may not be in a place to give it to me, so please be honest about whether you can or want to so I can figure out whether being in this relationship is healthy for me.” Neither of you have the right to demand the other person behave how you want them to, but both you have the right to acknowledge what you need. Listen to what she has to say, and listen to how it makes you feel. If your gut tells you that she won’t follow through again, listen to that. Don’t eye your list and say “Well, maybe if I try one more thing...” It’s not up to you to save the relationship or fix it. It’s up to both of you! And you can only honor that if you’re honest with yourself and with her about what you need too.

Lx