I’ve been reading your blog for about 18 months now and really enjoy your work! I particularly like your clear reasoning and hope that you can help me with an issue, even though it might not be one of your major topics.
My problem concerns the relationship between me and my girl friend, Rachel, so here is a little bit about it:
We have been together for about 15 months now and in the past 2 months I have started to feel a little disconnected with her. I’m afraid that I might not be in love with her anymore. I do not feel the high I used to get when I met her and have gotten a little bit indifferent to her problems.
Yet still, I feel that she is a very important person in my life and I want to be there for her. Also I feel that I have found a person who I share a lot with, be it interests in life or values as to what is important to each of us.
Now I realize that things do not stay as they were in the beginning of a relationship forever and that not everything your partner does is cute or lovable after over a year of being together. However, I imagine a relationship to be more than being two good friends who have sex with each other. I feel that there should be something like the spark that is there in the beginning of a relationship. Maybe not the same feeling, but at least something similar.
I talked to her about it yesterday and she proposed that it might have something to do with the fact that she was so busy in the last months. She is in the 4th year of her PhD and has to publish two more papers within the next half year (one of which is submitted, at least). Further, she has had to go to lots of conferences lately. So she is really stressed and tired most of the time and we can hardly do anything nice together. Pretty much all we do together is watch TV and have dinner. I have tried to help her out, so she is a little less stressed. She proposed that her pulling the energy out of me was what might have changed my feelings, but I am really not sure.
On the one hand that is plausible to me, but on the other hand I’m not sure this is really the issue but that my feelings might have changed independently of that.
For example, I feel less attracted to her. Actually, I think of one of my coworkers during sex sometimes. Now this seems to be merely about sexual attraction for me. However, it tells me that my feelings for my girlfriend are not as strong as they used to be and that something is wrong.
So, ultimately, I am afraid that I do not love her anymore. I do not know whether this is just temporary, because my girlfriend was so consumed by her work and we did not do any fun activities in the past months; or whether this is about me being in the process of ceasing to love her, in which case I feel like I should break up with her. And yet the mere thought of ending our relationship hurts very much and it does not feel like the right thing.
I am having a really hard time trying to sort out my feelings and get a clear picture of what would be the right thing to do. Maybe one thing worth mentioning: This is my first real relationship with someone, my past ones being more like either wholly sexual relationships or a love that couldn’t be because I fell in love with a girl that was in a relationship. So, needless to say, I have no experience to help me in my decision.
Thank you already in advance for helping me out. I hope the topic isn’t too far from the topic of your blog.
Obviously, I cannot tell you, Edward, whether you should break up or not. Were you to raise these issues to me in a live consultation, I would focus primarily on asking you questions to guide you through a clarification of your own values, priorities, feelings, experiences, goals, beliefs, etc., so you could get a clearer idea for yourself of what to do.
What I can do is just lay out some philosophical considerations and questions that I think it would be valuable to incorporate into your thinking in a situation like this.
The first thing to keep in mind is that, as far as I can tell, there is no rush to make a decisive choice. It is counter-productive and a waste of time and energies for people to hang on to a relationship because of the inertia of familiarity and comfort with the status quo even when deep down they know it is wrong and have known that for a while. But your feelings have only been waning for what sounds like a short period, so there’s no need to prematurely worry about that problem. For the time being at least it sounds like the first thing you should keep in mind is what my dad reminded me when I contemplated leaving graduate school (and the scholarship paying for it) after my first semester: “You can always walk away, but you can’t always come back.” You can always end the relationship, but you can’t always regain it. So, it’s best to be really sure before you walk away.
And rather than fear that you may be wasting time (yours or hers), remember that especially if your months with her are numbered, they’re precious. This has been a watershed relationship in your life. This is one of the special ones. She is one of the special people in your life for good, unless something surprisingly takes a turn for the terrible. You will ideally have a fond place in your heart for her for the rest of your life. So even if this proves short lived, savor the time you have with her. Don’t take it for granted. Don’t waste it–especially if it is nearing the end.
But there is no need to assume it is nearing the end. It is normal for people in long term relationships to go through the lulls you describe and the 15 month mark you’re at is a perfectly normal place to be experiencing it for the first time. The loving feeling might come back if you give it time. Many people in long term relationships do experience such rebounds of feelings repeatedly. You already know you’re capable of chemistry with her, because you’ve had it, and you feel confident that you have the important ingredients on paper that make sense for a long term relationship. Don’t be hard on yourself for not feeling it for the time being. Don’t try, counterproductively, to force your feelings. You don’t want to turn feeling for her into a chore you have to do.
So, while your waning feelings may be a natural and healthy symptom that a finite relationship has run its course, it may be worth it before concluding that to first see if you can wait out your current feelings of lost excitement and see if you can have the new experience for you of rebounded desire connected to a more maturing, enduring kind of love. It’s possible, at least in theory—many couples experience it, so it’s probably worth a shot since you care so much about her. And if the feelings just never come back there’s no shame in just accepting that your first foray into “real love” was successful for a time but not ultimately the right thing. That does not have to mean that you are hopelessly unfit to commitment without boredom. But first I would give trying to see if feelings come back through a willingness to actively prioritize Rachel as special works. You have never had a committed long term relationship before so it is probably worth seeing if for the first time you can not only fall in love but also fall back in love the way people in long term relationships often need to. This is unexplored territory for you and so probably worth the emotional experiment if nothing else. That’s my guess about where the most potential growth and self-discovery is for you right now, going on what you said in your letter.
Consistent with not demanding of yourself any particular feelings, remember that a committed relationship is about highly prioritizing someone else’s needs and happiness irrespective of how you feel any given day. Love is easy when it’s motivated by passion but we need to be willing to still behave lovingly even when we lack that particular propeller and need to rely on our sense of commitment instead. Should the day come that you become convinced the relationship is not right, then you don’t have to remain committed. But for as long as you are with her, give it all you have and do not become resentful if, for certain periods and for understandable reasons, you need to pick up some slack while she’s got more on her plate than you do. Focus on the value of who she is and what your relationship means to you and just do the right things by her out of appreciation for all that, without keeping a scorecard.
You will know you’re in trouble when you find yourself promising her lots of your energy, and trying to convince yourself that you will come through like someone that loves her, but winding up implicitly falling through over and over again and pushing her away in the process. This may be starting in that you say you’re already becoming a bit indifferent to her needs. If that starts coming out in behaviors of talking up to yourself and her just how enthusiastic you are about coming through for her but no longer following through like you are now, then that could be a bad sign.
The first priority I think you have here is to honor your relationship with her while you are still in a relationship with her. I would advise against indulging in fantasizing about your co-worker while you are with your girlfriend, unless that’s something she is comfortable with. Presuming that Rachel’s feelings are typical, she likely would be hurt to know that you are resorting to sexually thinking about someone else in order to become aroused for sex with her. Unless it’s a mutual activity like watching pornography together or stimulating one another by sharing fantasies or stories of your encounters with others, or it’s something you talk about and both feel okay about, etc., she would probably feel some sort of rejection or jealousy to know that secretly you are arousing yourself with the thought of others when you are with her. And while these fantasies are, I am assuming, hidden in your mind right now, they are likely still objectively a form of betrayal to her, whether she is aware they’re happening or not, since she probably wouldn’t like it. Your times being sexually intimate with her should be about the two of you connecting and, while there may be healthy ways to bring in the thought of other people or maybe even bring actual other people into the situation, mutuality is important to that being healthy.
And this brings me to a broader point. If your previous sexual relationships with women have been focused around sex and not love, your mind may be simply habituated to moving on after a certain amount of sexual familiarity. You may be prone to boredom or have created an expectation of a short cycle with any given person. If long-term monogamy is a goal of yours, it is conceivable that a rehabituation of your mental habits may be in order. You didn’t mention whether you are also watching pornography on the side. It could be that in your mind your girlfriend has a lot of competition for your sexual mental space and, as only one inevitably imperfect flesh and blood person, she may not be able to satiate you if your mind is habituated to incessant variation. While there is nothing inherently wrong (and much potentially recommendable) about sexual variety in partners or fantasies over the course of one’s life, if you want your sex life with your girlfriend right now to be its most exciting so that that can contribute to feeling excited about her generally, then you might need to discipline yourself to focus less on sexual prospects outside of her in order that your brain more closely associates its sexual pleasure with her and revolves its excitement around her more and appreciates her more. Alternatively, you might just give up on passion with her for a period, fantasize about others when she’s not around, and then with that out of your system return to a full time focus on her after some mental space. But I worry that that has more risk of taking you away from her emotionally rather than back to her where you sound like you want to be.
From your descriptions of previously only loving in cases where you couldn’t have someone and not being in love with the people you could have, it sounds possible that you feel generally more excited by the prospect of what you can’t have than what you can. Whereas long term monogamy–assuming this is your ultimate goal, whether with Rachel or someone else down the road–is going to require you learning to be excited by what you have.
If you’re worried that if you don’t resort to fantasizing about your coworker you’ll not even be able to perform sexually and risk making your girlfriend feel worse that way, I think that that’s a risk worth taking. That might force a conversation you need to have. It’s worth being proactive about talking to her about ways to counter monotony in the bedroom. Those skills of communication and collaboration will be key if you want a long term fulfilling sexual relationship with a woman (monogamously or not) for many years.
The next thing to consider is what is really going on when you think about your shared interests and values. Those are great things to build a relationship on. But, of course, in countless cases they only work on paper. Were any of us set up with any number of people who happened to share our interests and our values, how many would actually also have chemistry with us? Chemistry is the key intangible variable. You have to figure out whether you can have it for the long term. If you don’t, what works on paper may not be enough.
But I take it you did have chemistry for a solid 13 months and now the pressures of life are intervening and overwhelming. So, there’s hope that that’s all that is changing things. But there are a few things to think about. First of all, the pressures of life will keep intervening. She or you may regularly be too busy to spend a ton of together time for long stretches in future years. So, I doubt it’s a good idea to just think about this as a stage you can get through barely before going on to being happy in the future again because things are just easier again. Were I you, I would see this as an opportunity to develop and test long term effective techniques and habits for maximizing the value of your time together during the inevitable periods in which life is tough and demanding on your relationship.
Analyze the time and the energy each of you do have and ways you can make more out of it. If you have time and energy she doesn’t have, you can also think of ways to use that to make things better for when she does have time. Pitch in to minimize her chores that might eat at her free time and energy, prepare special activities for when she’s available to enjoy them, etc. Also consider ways you might be able to rearrange your schedules so that you capitalize on periods of peak energy (maybe in the morning?) or inevitably unproductive periods of the day. Even if you’re going to watch a lot of TV and eat a lot of dinners there are ways to make that time more special by being more deliberate, even if it’s just choosing better what you watch or what you eat! And there are low energy but highly rewarding ways to spend quality time if she’s very tired.
If you believe that the connection you have with her is precious and hard to replace and that the ways you line up are much more than a paper calculation, and it feels so wrong (as you describe) to imagine not being with her, then proactively work on weeding out her competitors from your sexual imagination and start deliberately making the most of what time and energy she realistically has for you. Concentrate on what you have. You don’t want to wind up letting her go and only then intensifying your feelings again because you can’t have her. Even if this is ending, you had might as well savor her while you still have her in your life so in the meantime concentrate on that as a way to appreciate her again. Knowing a good thing is going to end intensifies it for us. If after a few more months of that you wind up feeling like you are going through the motions for someone that you fundamentally don’t care enough about to put so much concentration into and someone whom you are no longer sexually and romantically excited by, then you might reconsider taking a break and opening up to seeing other people. And then you will figure out whether you miss her enough that you really do care after all, or are ready to genuinely move on from her. And she’ll work out the same. But in that case, be prepared for the possibility she finds she can move on while you find that you can’t. So remember again, “you can always walk away but you can’t always come back.” That has to be forefront in your mind before deciding to break up, even provisionally.
This was an installment in my Friday’s Philosophical Advice column. I am an American Philosophical Practitioners Association certified philosophical practitioner and I have a PhD in Philosophy from Fordham University. If you have a problem you think I can help with write to me at camelswithhammers at gmail dot com with the subject line “Philosophical Advice” and if I feel comfortable advising you, and can get to it, I will answer it here on the blog. All identities of those writing in for advice are kept strictly confidential. I use pseudonyms for all the letter writers when reprinting their letters, responding to them on the blog, and discussing them generally.
As a philosophical practitioner I help people reason through their beliefs, values, priorities, identities, emotions, ethical dilemmas, life decisions, existential quandaries, religious or post-religious struggles, love relationships, interpersonal conflicts, search for meaning and purpose, and struggles in any other areas of life in which some conceptual clarification, logical consistency, theoretical sensitivity, and emotional intelligence can be helpful.
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