WHAT IF MY RELATIONSHIP HAS AN EXPIRATION DATE?

Dear Bear,

I have been seeing a man for about 7 months. I got out of a (5 year) long-term relationship about two months before I met this man. Many people view our relationship as a “rebound” relationship, and at first, I did too. But obviously I have some very strong feelings.

The problem is that he is an international student and will be returning to his home country when his program is completed in two years, and my program has only about a year, maybe a year and a half to go. As a result, it seems as though the unspoken agreement between us is that we have an expiry date. I say unspoken because I have attempted to shed light on this topic, asking his opinions and feelings but I am often met with indecision or guilt.

I am now trying to take a more cavalier attitude and just enjoy being with this person, reaping the benefits until I graduate. But, I don’t know how to do this. I don’t know how to be with someone and hold back. By not giving the other person, and the relationship, everything I have I feel like I am being deceitful, or betraying the other person, or that it is my fault if/when things don’t work out. Is this the case? Or in the real world, the world of normal people, do I need to get better at holding back? How do I reconcile this with myself?

• • •

Dear Brave Correspondent,

Your letter just feels packed with important questions, actually: Am I in a rebound relationship and is that bad? Can I be in a relationship that one of us doesn’t feel “serious” about? Am I supposed to be feeling fewer feelings to be in this relationship? What interests me about all of them is that they all gesture at this idea of A Relationship as this monolithic thing, this single way of going about it.

Let’s talk first about rebounds. One of the theories is that the rebound relationship can’t be a Real Relationship because you’re not ready for that, poor and broken-hearted as you were. Sometimes, I think this is true—I think that for some people, the last thing they need right after a breakup is a new sweetheart. But for some folks, especially people who left relationships in which they didn’t feel valued, or seen, or heard, a new relationship isn’t a terrible idea at all.

The key piece about the first relationship after the end of a previous long one is this: It has the capacity to show you what you were craving.

Maybe the new person is basically a version of the previous person, because you like what you like. If so, you are probably the one who got dumped, and you have found a different lanky guy who works with his hands and doesn’t like to talk about his feelings, except this one is a pastry chef and not a landscape architect. But if you were restless and unhappy with your previous partner you’re likely to veer in a wildly different direction: Maybe the new dude showers you with compliments and likes to sit up late and talk, talk, talk. Is he going to be Forever Guy? I don’t think it’s out of the question. We meet people who we come to love at all sorts of inappropriate times and in all manner of unlikely places, whether we want them or are looking for them or not—I met my husband in a time when I was 100% certain I didn’t ever want a domestic partner, ever again. I had close and intimate relationships I was tending very diligently—some sexual and some not—but I was really getting so many of my needs met.

One of the things that jumps out here is that it seems like you are also getting a lot of your needs met. You’ve found companionship and intimacy with this guy, and you really like him, but he’s not willing (at this point) to have a serious talk about what happens in two years. And here is where all the questions collide: Should you persevere and try to woo him into marriage? Call it a rebound and cut your losses? Something else? Where do all these feelings go? I’d say, Brave Correspondent, that “collision” is the right word here. There’s a LOT mixed up at the intersection of all these questions.

Beyond that, let me just say that there’s nothing in the world wrong with your feelings, and you definitely don’t need to have fewer of them, and also fuck “chill” and the horse it ambled indifferently in on. There are plenty of rewards in the world for a keener, and also plenty (thank Gd) for those of us who are full of feelings and enthusiasm. If this dude isn’t comfortable with a lot of feelings, that’s probably a bad sign for you. I would say that he doesn’t actually have to have a lot of feelings himself, because sometimes a more-reserved person and a more-expressive person can do very well together (says the New York Jew married to a Brit from the north of England). But I think he does need to be comfortable with people who have a lot of feelings, or you’ll spend however long trying to fit yourself into a smaller piece of space to accommodate and that’s just a recipe for relationship disaster.

So. Who are you, and where are you in your life? Are you feeling partner-need or taking things as they come? Are you comfortable seeing this guy and also dating around elsewise? Can you let yourself go ahead and do this thing and love him without knowing for sure if it’s all going to end in heartbreak (spoiler alert: we actually never really know that)? Or are you more comfortable feeling like everyone’s acknowledged to be at a similar feelings-place? Some of that’s just your sense of risk-tolerance.

I don’t think you have to either secure a promise or break up. I also don’t think you need to hold back feelings you want to express. Really, I think you should be exactly how you are in this relationship, also holding the recognition that healthy relationships cause both or all parties to move, gently and in a positive way, closer to our sweetheart(s) in the ways we’re most different. Late Guy and Obsessively Punctual Guy work when the former starts setting an alarm ten minutes before he needs to leave the house and the latter learns to take a deep breath and accept that their person may come skidding in breathless three minutes after the actual start time but before the lights go down. If you’re apart in some ways in this relationship —and it’s fine and maybe even good if you are—maybe now’s the time for a check-in: are you moving toward each other, even a little, in the ways you’re most different? If so, that seems like a pretty good sign. If you’re just trying to move toward him and he’s not making any steps in your direction, that’s a red flag.

Some portion of this might also be a mismatch about event horizon—maybe two years feels approximately forever in the future to him but pretty soon to you. Sometimes, in these circumstances, I have found that it can be useful to decide on a time to decide. You fix a date ate some future time—probably later than desirable for one person and sooner than ideal for the other but within everyone’s tolerances to avoid total loss of cabin pressure—and you talk about it then. Until that, you don’t. Taking a break from discussing an emotionally charged issue can feel like a real relief to everyone, especially when you have a known time that you’ll get to talk it all through.

In the end, though, the key thing here is that you don’t need to compromise. You can let this one go if you feel like he’s trifling with you or you can choose to keep him around and enjoy his company. There’s nothing wrong with your feelings, however big they may feel in relationship to his expressiveness or lack thereof. Most importantly, Brave Correspondent, is that you get to decide – does being with this guy make you feel larger, better, more expansive? If so, my advice would be to carry on and enjoy. But if he makes you feel smaller, or less, or as though he would be more comfortable if you were smaller or less, I would take that as a good sign that you should go a different way.

Live big, do everything, say what you feel, and when someone who’s up to speed comes along I think you’ll know, Brave Correspondent. You’ll know by the frisson of delight up the back of your neck and the urge to begin new projects together—or, at least, that’s how I’ve always known. Hasn’t failed me yet.

Love and courage,

Bear

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