Dear Carolyn: Long story short, boyfriend is going through a rough time (his dad died unexpectedly last year, his mom is in hospice care with a terminal illness). We’ve been together for almost five years and we’re in our early 20s, but I’m not sure if I want to be with him anymore for reasons that would probably be two columns long.
We’ve talked and he really wants to try to make the relationship work, but I wonder if I am too emotionally distant from the relationship for anything to even work. I’m afraid of stringing him along and then breaking up with him once he’s gotten over his mom’s death, but I’m also afraid of just ending things now while he is so emotionally low. I guess maybe I could stick around to wait and see if things get better, but I just don’t know.
Conflicted: That’s just awful. For him especially, of course, but it’s awful for you, too.
It’s natural to think of this as a stay-or-go quandary, but in their classic forms — going as you break up, or staying as you recommit to being his girlfriend — neither one of them seems valid here. You don’t just bail out on someone who’s in crisis, but you also don’t (essentially) lie to that person, either, by pretending to feel what you don’t.
In fact, your sticking around as his girlfriend while your relationship clearly isn’t working could be adding to his distress right now, as opposed to comforting him, because he already knows you have one eye on the door. Anyone who’s been in this relationship limbo can speak to how draining it feels.
Just as it is for people who are dealing with a loved one’s illness, the best path for you might be to forget roles and expectations and appearances, and just be present for the person you love. You may not feel a girlfriend’s worth of love for him, but you do care — as only a longtime companion can, I imagine, with all the history and familiarity that implies.
So be his familiar, supportive companion . . . who happens not to be his girlfriend anymore. You’ve already talked about this, so you won’t be blindsiding him when you tell him you can’t pretend to be someone for him that you’re not. Plus, you want to hold his hand through this and are making a genuine offer to, so you won’t be abandoning him and, perhaps most important, the authenticity of this role means you won’t be lying to him. You can sustain this as long as you both want and need.
I expect it will be easier for you to be his rock — and, eventually, for him to take refuge there — without the lingering question of “us.”
Will he do a happy dance at all these valuable parting gifts? Of course not. Assuming he doesn’t default to false hopes, he might even say he doesn’t want your support or friendship or anything from you, and cut the tie completely.
If he does that, though, please do assure him that your offer is genuine and that he can contact you day or night. When the falling out of love has already happened at an indecent time, you find decency in how kindly you proceed from there.