I feel terrible about leaving but I have to go

My boyfriend has done wonderful things for me, but I cannot stand to be in this relationship any longer.

Published May 25, 2007 10:44AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I can hardly believe I am desperate enough to write an advice columnist, but here I am. You seem to be the thinking person's columnist, and a dreamer like myself, so this is a last resort.

I have been in a relationship with a man -- let's call him Jim -- for just over four years. Six months into our relationship, I left my home and moved a few hundred miles to be with him, with the understanding that if it didn't work out between us I'd be taken care of. At the time, I was working a few part-time jobs, scraping by as I had been for several years. My life was not what many would call idyllic, but it was mine all the same. At any rate, I had few qualms about this move. I loved Jim, and his family gave me a job, he bought a house for us, they helped me buy a car, etc., etc. We genuinely enjoyed each other's company (and still do to a degree). He also afforded me the opportunity to get into therapy, get on medication, go back to school and get healthy, mentally. I don't know how I would have been able to do these things without his support.

So what's the problem? Well, to put it simply, Jim is an infant. Not chronologically, of course, but behaviorally. I have my own theories as to why this is. First, Jim is an only child (I am not) who grew up rather spoiled. Consequently, he seems to have great difficulty thinking about anyone other than himself. He wants what he wants, to hell with everyone else, and he usually gets it. This spoiling and sheltering have continued into his adult life. He has never had anything bad happen to him. I don't think he has a clue what pain is; he has never had his heart broken or lost someone he cared for. He has never had to take care of himself financially. This is very different from my life's experience. (We are both in our early 30s.) I find myself wishing for something bad to happen to him, and I hate myself for that.

It is virtually impossible to have a meaningful discussion with him, or even an intelligent one. (He is quite intelligent, by the way.) He grew up as the jokester, the class clown, and that is the only way he knows how to function. Our conversations generally consist of me trying to talk to an adult and him spouting an endless stream of quips, dumb punch lines and movie quotes. I am an extremely emotional woman, and I often feel like a fool just for being myself. I don't wish to change this aspect of my personality, and even if I did it probably wouldn't be possible. I know that he sometimes gets embarrassed by my openness, my fiery personality, although I've been like this from day one. It might be better for me if I saw some kind of passion in him -- for me, or for anything -- but I don't think he has it in him, and I resent him for it. And then there is our nonexistent sex life, and the fact that he doesn't ever touch me so much as grope me, like a teenager who has never been with a woman. I've tried to explain more times than I can count that I have more than three body parts, to no avail.

So I find myself in a pickle. I've realized that I need more from someone in a relationship. I've realized he's unlikely to change, and that we both deserve someone who can accept us as is. I love him dearly as a friend and don't wish to hurt anyone. But I feel desperately that I need to get out. I've tried telling him this but can't get him to be serious long enough to get it out. I find him charming and amusing, but I want an adult relationship, and my looks aren't going to last forever, so I'm afraid if I don't get out now then I never will. I know that he loves me in his way, but the only time he shows me is when I am in the hospital or some similar situation. I don't want to wait until I'm on my deathbed to get what I need, and I'm getting too old to ignore these things.

Finally, there is a man I'll refer to as Bill whom I've known for about a decade. We have been in contact with each other for the past few years. This is someone whom I have a great deal in common with, great respect for, who understands me and I believe appreciates me as a woman (rather than as a little sister). There has been no discussion of a romantic relationship between us until very recently. We've seen each other only once, and Jim was with us. The attraction is almost too much to bear. I am fairly certain that Bill's the one for me, and I know that he feels the same way. He lives on the other side of the country, but I figure I can worry about that little issue later. I am afraid to let Bill get away a second time, and the timing couldn't be worse.

I have a tremendous amount of guilt over this issue. I have never cheated on anyone, and never would, but it's not even about that. I feel so indebted to him for all the reasons I've stated. He has made my life immeasurably better, and I will be eternally grateful. But that doesn't change the fact that I am terribly unfulfilled in this relationship. I am a romantic and an idealist. I guess the question is, How do you know whether you're settling or just being realistic? And how long should a reasonable person hold onto their romantic ideals?

Advice, please.


Dear Confused,

I am a little hurt that you write to me only out of sheer desperation. Am I such a low creature as that, the one you turn to only before the hit man or the dealer? Is writing to me truly among life's most distasteful measures to which one hopes never to be driven by circumstance or fate?

That is a most disagreeable revelation. And yet here we are: You've forsaken all the world's level-headed sages for a fellow dreamer, the reprobate, your screwy kindred spirit.

But I have a surprise for you, of a sort.

If you were hoping I would merely commiserate with you and explore the rich and varied territory of your high-minded paralysis, you are out of luck today. It is Thursday and I am out of empathy. I must tell you bluntly that what you have to do is simple: Absent yourself from the person with whom you wish to end the relationship. Remove your body from the space in which the relationship takes place. Cease the regular communications through which during previous periods of physical absence the relationship has been maintained. Do those things and the relationship will be over. No physical proximity, no regular communication, no relationship.

Despite all the fine moral measurements to be made regarding services and sentiments rendered and returned, you've simply got to go. Sadly, things are not working out. If the promise still holds that if things don't work out you'll be taken care of, see what kind of taking care of is involved and whether you want to partake of it. But do move on, physically, concretely, books and furniture included.

A speech enumerating the ways in which the relationship could have worked had various initiatives of yours been implemented, lamenting the final unavoidable reality and wishing the departed relationshipee success in future romantic couplings might be made but is not wholly necessary, nor is crying or the rending of garments. Such things may occur anyway without your full encouragement; they are at such moments beyond one's control. But there is no substitute for the concrete actions necessary to end the relationship.

As to the various, manifold and acute emotions that are likely to follow upon this change, attend to them as they occur. None will be so overwhelming as to incapacitate you, though there may be some of greater intensity and duration than you would prefer. You may experience loneliness and sleep disturbances, and you will feel occasionally like you are going to die right there on the spot. These things happen and people put them in songs. I'm not saying you should put them in songs -- just that they are emotional, intense, poetic, personal, and that is why they are put in songs. They are not medical, legal or financial or they would be in textbooks. They won't put you in the hospital or jail or foreclosure. These feelings will not affect your income or your credit rating. Nor will they adversely affect your physical attractiveness to others; in fact, they may improve it, for reasons that will become apparent once the separation has occurred.

As to the other man, it is suggested that you first extricate yourself fully from the relationship you are in. Regain the self-sufficiency you had prior to moving. Then see about Bill.

The tone I have taken today feels a little 18th century. I assure you it is nothing but a shelter for the heart, for by Thursday I have nothing left to feel. I am running on the fumes of earlier empathy, with little more than cunning prose and poses to get me through. I am coasting, as it were, late week; if there were in the pile a letter undemanding of emotional resonance or empathy, it would be the first one to pick. But as you might imagine there are precious few of those. You are not the only one who waits to write until you are at the end of your rope.

You may want to do this perfectly or not at all. But you will find after a while that you aren't perfect enough or strong enough or come to think of it possessed of free time enough to do this perfectly. You will not be able to fully experience every nuance of emotion related to this necessary decision. You will have to just skate along through parts of it, doing the best you can, in the same way that I am skating along right now, doing the best I can.

Get out of the relationship and regain your independence. You know you have to go. So go.

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