Tell Me About It

Am I wasting my boyfriend’s time by staying with him?

Not arguing is nice, but it is important for couples to thrash out their differences

PROBLEM: I am young, 21, in college, and am studying a good degree. I have a good network of friends and family, and also a boyfriend of three and a half years, who is also 21. He has many qualities which make him a brilliant person, he is funny, intelligent, and kind. He is also a student and has a wonderful family. He is my best friend.

However, I find myself beginning to wonder if I want this relationship to proceed any further. There is nothing wrong with him, and we don’t argue. However, sometimes I worry though about our future. For example, he says he does not know if he would ever want to leave Ireland, something which I have always dreamed of as I have family abroad, or he wouldn’t want to raise children in the Catholic tradition, something I always presumed I would do.

On the one hand, I know we differ on several serious values, but on the other, we have a good relationship and we are young. This is our first serious relationship. Am I too young to be worried about our different values? I feel like there are two roads I could take – with the risks very large and personal. I am worried that if I stay, I am wasting his time, but if I leave, I could destroy what I have and be taking it all for granted. He does not see the point in discussing these issues in detail or committing to anything in particular because he says we don’t know what could happen in the future and what our circumstances will be like.

Am I overthinking my future?

ADVICE: You have a really good situation with college, friends, romantic relationship and ambition all aligned with you, however it is also a time for you to want to expand and stretch your horizons and this is a very natural desire. You speak as if this is an either/or situation and yet I’m not sure if this decision on your relationship is actually in front of you yet. As a couple, it is your job to challenge each other and stretch each other beyond your unquestioned positions and now might be the time that this is happening.

You say you do not argue and while this makes for a peaceful life, it might be important that you thrash out your differences so that you feel heard and understood rather than demand the need for agreement on everything. John Gottman’s extensive research on couples found that 69 per cent of all couple disagreements never get resolved and this does not impact on their success as a couple – in fact he found that “how” couples argue is a far greater indicator of a successful relationship. What this means is that arguing, and disagreeing is an important part of a relationship, but it is not required that you merge into one position on many issues. That said, the issues you speak about in terms of your future are important ones and will have to be discussed fully in due time.

You say you worry that you are wasting your boyfriend’s time, and this is another important aspect of relationships: that we often feel we are responsible for the other person. We need to question this assumption as it puts our partners into the position of children, as if they did not have the capacity to make their own decisions or understand what they are getting themselves into. Your boyfriend is responsible for his own choice to stay in the relationship and he must also carry the consequences of his desire not to talk to you about your worries about the future. The chances are that your fears for the relationship will grow without his engagement and challenge and so it is important that the conversation be on-going.

A relationship of 3½ years is a long one and it is natural that the couple should take stock and question where they are at and what happens next. As you are both going to finish college soon, you do need to look at what both your ambitions are and how you can accommodate these. These might be difficult conversations and it might be a useful idea to book some couple sessions with your college’s student counselling service: this would give the discussions an importance that your relationship deserves, and it might break the pattern of communication you have had so far when trying to talk about the future.

Whether you two stay together or not, you both have had a long and wonderful experience of love and connection and this will serve you both well in your lives to come. Making a decision now based on fear of future difficulty is not smart; but there are issues you need to talk about (not necessarily resolve) in this moment and it is okay for you to demand this.