“Ask Kai: Advice for the Apocalypse” is a column by Kai Cheng Thom to help you survive and thrive in a challenging world.
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My partner and I have been together for four years and have lived together for over three. We decided to move in together out of economic necessity/fleeing an unsafe living situation. But since quarantine together, I’ve realized that I’m unhappy with our relationship, and I have been for a very long time.
I have never broken up with somebody before—I’ve always been the dumpee—and I am terrified of doing it, especially now in apocalyptic times. We have pets together, an apartment of things, so many memories, and I love them, but I think I may not be in love with them anymore. How do I listen to my gut to figure out if we can save this or it’s time to end it?
Better Off Alone?
Dear Better, beeate
A relationship is like a living thing: It blossoms, grows, changes its shape, ages, fades and returns to the earth to become something new. Relationships have a life cycle, which means they go through stages, though not always in a predictable way. A key aspect of managing relationships is understanding when struggle is a sign of growth, and when it’s a symptom of deeper, structural issues. Another way of phrasing that might be: If you persist in your relationship, is it possible that you will emerge with a deeper, healthier intimacy? Or do you believe that staying is only prolonging the inevitable and preventing both you and your partner from moving towards what you really want?
A pandemic is, of course, not the most convenient time to be asking such questions. Ironically, however, COVID-19 is causing an entire generation of romantic partners to re-examine our relationships, most likely because times of crisis are when relational certainty and honesty matter most. In Canada, legal professionals working with divorce and family mediation are reporting a 20 to 60 percent increase in inquiries about their services. And this doesn’t even factor in all of the non-legalized romantic partnerships that might be going through a rough time!
All that is to say, if we’re going to be trapped in a studio apartment with someone for an indefinitely long period of time, we really, really need to know how that person feels about us. Perhaps even more importantly, we also need to know how we feel about them.
I should preface any further comments by noting that safety comes first, of course. If you’re worried that exploring the foundation of your relationship might compromise either your or your partner’s safety, then I would strongly recommend seeking out the resources—both professional and informal—that will allow you to have deep, potentially difficult, conversations with minimal risk.
In the context of the pandemic, that could mean ensuring that there are places you can go if you need some time apart. Do you have friends that have spare rooms or couch space? Are there outdoor spaces near your home that you can use to take breaks from one another? Fortunately, finding personal space is becoming somewhat easier now that restrictions on public spaces are easing and expanded social bubbles have become a possibility. An equally important resource would be a network of friends and/or professionals (counsellors, social workers, conflict coaches/mediators, and other helping professionals) that can support you as your feelings evolve and you start to have difficult conversations with your partner.
If and when your living situation feels stable enough, I would advise you to take stock of your own feelings. What, exactly, are you unhappy about in your relationship? Is it something that you’re not getting from your partner that you think you might be able to get from someone else? Or does it have more to do with your own life journey—things you’d like to do and experience, but can’t within the current parameters of your relationship?
If the answer isn’t immediately apparent, I might suggest journaling about this. Write down, in as exact words as possible, what you feel is missing from the way things are now. You don’t have to be 100 percent clear, but you should be able to get into at least some specifics about what you want, such as “more/less sexual activity,” or “to feel more appreciated,” or “to have more new and exciting experiences.”
This will give you a “map” that you can use to help you figure out what actions to take next. It will also help you to draw a clear distinction between things you and your partner can work on together and things that are yours to work on alone. This distinction is crucial, because trying to get something from your partner that you can only get by working alone (and vice versa) can be disappointing and hurtful.
If you are having trouble imagining how to start thinking about this, you might consider what therapists and coaches sometimes call the “miracle question”: Imagine that a miracle has happened in the middle of the night while you are asleep. When you wake up, your relationship situation has improved. What do you see, hear, smell, taste, touch, that lets you know the miracle has happened? This visualization exercise can help us to get perspective on the future we desire, rather than staying stuck on the aspects of the present that aren’t working for us.
Once you have some clarity about what it is that you want in regards to your relationship, I would suggest making some time to discuss how you are feeling with your partner. It may be tempting to avoid this conversation—or even to use the pandemic as an excuse not to have it. After all, is an apocalypse really the time to bring a potentially very stressful conversation? To this, I would respond that COVID-19 has already been with us three months. It may be with us for much longer than that, and we may need to learn how to keep moving forward in our lives within the shifting context of the pandemic.
Better, you and your partner both deserve honesty in your interactions with one another. While you don’t need to share every single thing with your partner, if you’ve been consistently unhappy with the relationship over an extended period of time, this is something that probably needs to be talked about. Buried feelings of serious discontent in relationships rarely magically resolve on their own—if hidden for too long, they can erupt with unintended consequences.
While it may be hard for your partner to hear about how you’re feeling, it will likely be much easier for them to find out in the context of a careful, compassionate conversation rather than suddenly during argument or an abrupt break-up. I would suggest setting a specific time with your partner to talk about how things are going in the relationship—what’s working and what’s not, for each of you. I would also suggest taking things very slowly. You don’t need to get to the bottom of this in one discussion, and it would probably be counterproductive to try.
Instead, try working with one emotion or idea at a time. Make sure to acknowledge and validate whatever your partner is feeling, and expect the same treatment in return. Use your written list of what you’d like to change about the relationship as a starting point for exploring how things could look different. Even if this doesn’t end up making you feel happier in the relationship, taking the time to talk things over will honour all of the good things that you’ve had together: Your home, your pets, your memories. Potential endings are much less painful and less frightening when the good is acknowledged as well as the bad.
I think it’s important to note as well that we don’t need a “reason” to break up beyond the fact that we are no longer happy in the relationship. A romantic relationship is meant to feel good (not 100 percent of the time, because that’s not possible, but certainly the majority of the time), and if it doesn’t, then you are allowed to break up. The dominant culture teaches us that romantic relationships are supposed to last “forever,” and the added layer of bonding over trauma, as many queer partners do, can make breakups feel morally bad somehow, like we are being disloyal. But we are allowed to break up with people, even when there is nothing technically “wrong” with them or the relationship. We are allowed to leave to seek our own happiness.
I know that it’s scary—terrifying, in your words—to contemplate ending a relationship, particularly right now. You mention that you moved in together as a result of economic necessity and to get out of an unsafe situation. If I’m understanding correctly, that might mean that you associate this relationship and your partner (however unsatisfying it may be) with safety and stability. You might fear hurting your partner. You might worry that you can’t make it on your own.
I would invite you to consider, Better, that it takes courage to be kind: Kind to your partner and kind to yourself. Relationships change as they grow, and that forces us to grow as well. Kindness to your partner might mean being honest and gentle with them, offering them an opportunity to get insight to your feelings and respond to your struggles. Kindness to yourself might mean giving yourself the chance to reach beyond survival—yes, even during the pandemic apocalypse—and toward fulfilment and happiness.
Courage doesn’t happen overnight, of course. Courage requires care, and self-compassion. Courage is fear that has named itself and stepped in the direction of love. Nurture that love within yourself, Better. Take your time. You deserve to find a relationship that satisfies and enlivens you—and your partner deserves to be with someone who feels satisfied and enlivened by them. You might be able to discover that in one another, or you might need to create a good ending for your relationship so that you can start anew. Either way, it begins with the courage to take the first step.
Need advice in a hurry? In our video series “Ask Kai: Quick Tips for the Apocalypse,” Kai Cheng Thom offers concrete suggestions to help keep your relationship happy and healthy in these harrowing times. In our latest, Kai explores what Pride is really all about, and how we can still celebrate and protest in the midst of a pandemic. Watch the episode below.