I’m in my late 20s and have been seeing a woman in her late 30s for a few months. This isn’t an age question, though — on that level, I think we’re very compatible. Just giving you an idea of where we’re at in our lives.
Things have been complicated from the beginning. We were bandmates and best friends beforehand, and both cheated on our significant others. Me, on my gf of about 10 months who I was sort of over anyway, and her on her partner of 5 years (and wife of almost 1 year).
I broke up with my gf and after about a week of spending every night together, she decided to break it off with her partner, too. We’ve only spent a handful of nights apart in three months. I’ve brought up the relationship thing and she keeps saying she’s not over her ex and wants to deal with it before she tries to give everything to someone else. She wants to do this right and not repeat past patterns of doomed to fail relationships. Basically we’re in a relationship without being in a relationship. We’ve both said that we don’t want to sleep with other people. She’s just not over her ex, and doesn’t want to feel like she’s losing her autonomy. I’ve been pretty good at playing it cool and not making her feel suffocated. I like my independence too, and I’ve been careful not to pressure her.
Last week I (drunkenly, of course) slipped up and told her what I’d been holding in pretty much since we started seeing each other: I’m in love with her. Like hardcore in love. Like I want to spend the rest of my life with this person. She knows I want a relationship, and that’s part of the problem. I feel like I’ve given her all of the control. I’ve told her I would wait because she’s worth it. And that’s true. If this is the person I’m supposed to spend my life with, I would rather wait a year for her to tell me she feels the same way than go back out and date a sea full of bad matches. However, I worry that this sort of lopsided power dynamic will prevent us from ever truly being equals. The other thing is that it’s terrible when we go out and are so obviously into each other and then people find out we’re not officially together and it involves a lot of explaining and seems to not do justice to the very deep and intense connection we have.
My underlying worry, however, is that I will be waiting and waiting for someone that enjoys my company and comfort while she’s navigating through a breakup but who will ultimately move on. She does as many nice things for me as I do for her, so it’s not like she’s taking advantage of me. But she keeps emphasizing that it will be a long, long time before she feels she can trust her feelings and be ready for a relationship and let that guard completely down again. I understand that. It took me almost a year to completely get over my first love, but I did continue to date during that time.
There is that insecure part of me, however, that feels like if she felt as strongly for me as she says she does, she wouldn’t be dragging her feet so much. Her ex is already in love and in another relationship and I’m sort of jealous. At the same time, however, I feel like it bodes well that my girl is taking the time to “do the work” and get herself to a healthy place rather than covering up her pain and jumping into something right away. Now I’m catching myself trying to be careful I don’t let any pet names or overly affectionate language slip through. After dragging my feet for years, I’m finally ready to plan a future with someone. The problem is that she is not in a place where she wants to plan anything with anyone.
Do you think I should keep waiting on someone who is emotionally unavailable to some extent, or should I cut ties and wait for someone else who can give me what I know I deserve?
Anna says: You said as much, but for all practical purposes, she is with you. You’re never apart. You make music together. You make sweet music together, if you know what I mean. Monogamously even. Your affection outwardly confuses your friends (This is obviously the most telltale sign of coupledom). It sounds like the two things that are missing is the label and the trust. The former is mostly a formality. The latter is what you should think long and hard on.
There’s a lot of worry in your letter, about power dynamics and vulnerability, feeling like she’s using you as a rebound, and that you are self-censoring when around her. You can’t get around the vulnerability part. There isn’t another way to approach love — big, transformative love, that is — besides putting your heart on the chopping block. It might get flayed, or it might not. We can’t know. But it’s impossible to do so without being vulnerable. However, it HAS to be a two-way street. It troubles me that this great, all-consuming love you express is also filled with so many shadowy doubts. Are you happy enough to stay in a situation that doesn’t fulfill you? Are you content to put your romantic life on hold knowing that nothing might come of your efforts? If it wasn’t you involved, but a friend, would you advise them to be with someone who makes them feel dis-empowered?
You say she’s “doing the work” of getting over her ex, but I’m not sure what that means exactly. Usually such work implies taking a break from dating, remembering you have friends and hobbies you’ve been neglecting, cultivating a life independent of love and longing, etc. It doesn’t sound like that’s what your would-be gal is doing. It sounds like she jumped head first into a relationship with you, while paying lip service to some kind of preconceived formula for getting over someone. If she really wanted to focus on that, then she’d sever those romantic ties with you. Or she’d be able to say, “To hell with rules. This makes me happy. I’m going for it.” This isn’t a condemnation, by any means. Your waiting and perseverance might well pay off, but those gut warnings that plague you are there for a reason. They are saying be wary of anyone offering you the bare minimum of themselves and pretending like it’s a fair deal.
You’re ready to grow a relationship that has a future. She is not. Why waste your time on anything less than? Besides, the kind of love that has staying power is a much different beast than the kind of love we are willing to tolerate in the hopes that things will change in our favor. In fact, it’s not love at all.
Hailing from the rough-and-tumble deserts of southern Arizona, where one doesn’t have to bother with such trivialities as “coats” or “daylight savings time,” Anna Pulley is a professional tweeter/blogger for Mother Jones and a freelance writer living in San Francisco. Find her at annapulley.com and on Twitter @annapulley. Send her your Hook Up questions at email@example.com.