Am I too young for my life?

My great open relationship leaves me free, so why do I feel hemmed in?

Published April 19, 2012 12:00AM (EDT)

                                                                                                                                                                                                                         (Zach Trenholm/Salon)
(Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Dear Cary,

At 23, I've been lucky enough to find someone I'm crazy about, and who is crazy about me. I'm constantly surprised and reassured by how happy he makes me, how open he is to discussion about problems that pop up, and the fact that we still have a playful rapport after two years. He's a little older than me, 26, and is pulling his life together in a way I'm not. He's started a promising business, files his taxes, and has generally started to live out the frightening but accurate 26-35 age bracket. I'm nowhere near that kind of togetherness, but neither of us resents or disapproves of the other person's state. We are both in a happy and respectful open relationship, both because we both enjoy it, and because it reassures us that we can make changes and adjust over the course of what we both assume will be a long relationship. We have avoided living together to respect each other's space, and generally try to reduce codependency in any way we can. In other words, this relationship is rad, and we'd both be happy for a long time.

So here is my problem: I feel too young for what this relationship has become. I often find myself wishing I had met him five years later, or 10. I'm not so naive that I'd insist he is the only one for me, there's no one like him, that I would never find anyone this good again, etc. I'm old enough to know there are plenty of other people I could love. But I want to be with him, and it seems silly to jump such a sturdy ship just on principle. Like everyone else, I grew up with a narrative of "you're still young, just have fun," and I recognize that's good advice. If we break up, that's great advice. But this relationship also feels like a rare blessing, and throwing a tantrum about the fact that it came early is ungrateful. I don't feel trapped -- I just feel ... preempted, as if someone gave me a house when I still hope to travel.

I don't know how to make my peace with this, and it often makes me freeze up around him. I want to treat him fairly, and be fully present in this wonderful relationship. Is this something I should worry about, or am I just throwing a major gift back in the face of the universe?

Happy Brat

Dear Happy Brat,

You may find it useful, as a habit of mind, when you have these mysterious, free-floating thoughts or emotions, to glance back at them quickly, as though you had passed something while riding the train and are trying to see what that was that caught your eye: Was it a dog, or laundry hanging in someone's backyard, or a man smoking a cigarette on a porch? What was that that caught your eye and entered your consciousness? It may be a memory of something your boyfriend did that irritated you, or a desire for an experience that you are afraid to pursue, or a secret insecurity your boyfriend may expose, or a wish that someone would say something nice to you and tell you that you're loved. When such feelings arise, adopt the habit of quickly looking back to see what you were just thinking or seeing, and see if you can pinpoint what it was that gave rise to your feeling of unease. That may bring you closer to your own inner world, and allow you to articulate more skillfully the mass of swirling emotions and thoughts that we call conscious life.

If you do have real worries, they are rooted in some material condition or experience. You will feel better if you can locate the source of your concerns and verbalize them.

What you are experiencing may have a concrete source that you have not yet articulated to yourself. You may be fighting off feelings of sadness about finishing school. You may feel anxious about how to live now that the structure of university life is over; you may be missing that strict set of rules and steps. You may feel anxiety about the future. That would be natural.

You may be feeling some obligation to your partner that he has not set for you; even though you have an open relationship you may feel he has expectations he is not articulating, or you yourself may have a desire for a closeness and commitment that you are afraid to express.

So I strongly suggest that when you have such notions as you have described, you take the courage, in the moment, to look for the concrete roots of your feelings. Underneath these ideas may be powerful emotions.  In fact, there may be emotions that you are holding at bay by the very act of abstracting them.

Now, a related matter is your freedom. Freedom can be a source of anxiety. It necessitates constant decision-making, which can be exhausting. It's hard work knowing that your life is your own and that your choices determine your happiness.

Since you are free and must make your own decisions, it's good to have a scale by which to judge which choice is best. One such scale is the scale of increasing options vs. decreasing options.

Certain actions will diminish your options and others will increase them. For instance, at this point, since you have an open relationship, breaking up with your boyfriend would not increase your options, but decrease them. So don't do anything to mess up the relationship right now. Just let it be. Let it become what it is going to become.

If the relationship ends, you'll be one of the first to know. Meanwhile, if there are no concrete problems facing you, then there are no concrete problems facing you. You will know when there is a problem. You will find yourself in a hospital or in a jail, or at a funeral, and the nature of the misfortune will be clear. But if you are walking down the street on a sunny day, or eating dinner in a colorful cafe, or making love, or walking your dog ... that is not a problem.

Finally, do not worry about being too young. That problem will solve itself. Soon you will be old. Then you will have regrets.

There is no reason to hurry.

By Cary Tennis

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