My friends and family love Derek and think we’re a great match. He is thoughtful, responsible, and understanding, and we agree on all the important issues. We travel well together and enjoy a lot of the same hobbies. I really have no problems with him or our relationship outside of minor domestic things, and we’re great at communicating. Ours is the most functional relationship I’ve ever been in. However, our relationship is getting sort of boring in the sex department and our 10-year age difference has contributed to my feeling a little settled down since he’s not as active as I am. Additionally, I have been battling unresolved issues with my ex, “Gerald,” 27, for several years now.
I met Gerald when I was 21 and we dated for a bit before he decided he was too intimidated by me and we broke up, which was really upsetting for me as I had liked him for quite some time. We continued being friends and I ended up moving across the country about five years ago to a big city from my smaller hometown. During another break up of mine, we ended up speaking quite a lot, got very close, and formed what I now think was an intense emotional relationship that lasted for about two years that we never really defined because neither of us wanted to move to each other’s city to date each other. When I visited my home town, usually about one to two times a year, we would inevitably hang out and it always caused emotions to come up that were difficult for both of us to deal with. We would usually stop talking for a few months and then resume texting each other four to five days a week.
I just went back to my hometown and Gerald and I spent some more time together. He has not dated anyone seriously since I moved, it’s obvious that he is hurting, and I miss him too. I cannot help but think I am seriously romanticizing what we had since we never truly dated in person as adults. He is also very introverted and has a hard time getting close to others, so I imagine he is also romanticizing things. I can’t get him out of my mind and feel deeply guilty that I am still having these feelings as Derek’s and my relationship gets more serious. I also know that Gerald and I don’t have a future as we will still not move to each other’s cities nor will I engage in a long-distance relationship. I am trying to not talk to or think about him, but it hurts since we do get along well and have known each other for so long. Any advice or direction would be appreciated. — Romanticizing My Ex
You have one man who you say is a great match for you, and, indeed, he sounds ideal. But you’re hesitant about taking the next step with him because: sex has gotten boring; you feel too settled with him; you are romanticizing an ex who dumped you years ago and with whom you know you have no future. Sounds like classic avoidance of intimacy to me. Why not work on the boring sex with Derek? Communicate with him about why and how you would prefer staying more active? Instead of wallowing about feeling sedentary or whatever because your boyfriend is ten years older than you, get moving. I mean, Derek is 38 not 68, so I don’t really buy that he can’t keep up with his 28-year-old girlfriend. What is it that you’re suggesting that he doesn’t have the energy for? Can you do it without him? Persuade him to give it a try if you can be willing to try/do something he enjoys doing? This is called compromise, and it’s certainly not unique to relationships with an age difference.
You’re at the point in your relationship when you have to put some effort into maintaining and growing it. Guess what? All relationships demand that effort — even one you might have had with Gerald. But you’re not going to have a relationship with Gerald because he’s not the guy for you. If he were, one or both of you would be willing to move for the other. You are not each other’s unicorn. You are merely distractions for each other. He’s distracting you from the relationship you want to avoid either because you’re lazy or you’re afraid of being hurt (or both), or because deep down you don’t think Derek is the guy for you either. You need to figure out what it is you’re avoiding and deal with that shit. Leave Gerald out of it though. In fact, lose his number and block him every way he can reach out to you. He’s distracting you and holding you back. Imagine the depth of feeling you might have were you not funneling so many shallow thoughts and feelings toward him. Seriously, what a waste of time and effort! Save that shit for someone who actually wants something real with you, not someone who dumped you because he was “too intimidated by you” (what a crock of shit, seriously–sounds like he just wanted to bang other women), and keeps you on a line for years because he, too, is avoiding something in his life.
With Gerald, you talk about all these emotions and how “difficult” they are and yada yada and how you have to take breaks for months on end from even interacting because the emotions involved with even communicating are too much. Doesn’t it sound like you two have issues dealing with intimacy? (I mean, you say he can’t even get close to anyone because he’s so “introverted” [that’s not what introverted means, by the way], which further suggests how much he is using you and your weird emotional affair/friendship/whatever it is. He can feign closeness with you without actually having to put in any effort at all. In fact, as soon as it feels too intense, he (and you!) back off. For months. How convenient. That’s not the way real relationships work.
You want a real relationship that brings real joy and fulfillment? It sounds like you could have that with Derek. But in order to feel the joy and fulfillment, you have to be willing to feel the full range of emotions involved in a serious relationship, including the frustration, anger, boredom, and moments of feeling inadequate or misunderstood. I’ve heard grief described as the receipt you get for the love you shared or had for someone. Grieving is payment for love. And, in a similar way, all the stuff you’re avoiding — with both of these men — is the payment you have to make to love and to be loved deeply. You aren’t making the payment, and as long as you keep avoiding it, you will fail to feel the depth of love in a romantic relationship that you could.
We know you aren’t meant to have that romantic relationship with Gerald. I can’t say whether you’re meant to have it with Derek. But I can say that you won’t figure it out if you keep funneling your energy to someone else rather than deal with the nitty-gritty, sometimes messy and uncomfortable stuff that a real, true relationship requires of you. If you aren’t at a place to put in that effort and to get a little messy, then at least be kind and let Derek go. But if you think you are willing to put in the effort and get a little messy to see what this payment for love might give you, start by letting Gerald go. You’ll be doing yourselves both a favor, and, ironically, it may be the biggest act of love you could give him, saying good-bye once and for all.
I think these two columns could also help you:
If you have a relationship/dating question I can help answer, you can send me your letters at firstname.lastname@example.org.