Every week, Daniel Mallory Ortberg answers additional questions from readers, just for Slate Plus members.
Q. My boyfriend’s illness is pushing me to a breakup: I’ve been dating my boyfriend for about nine months now. He’s very caring and supportive, and we enjoy spending time together. We’ve met each other’s families and have talked about moving in and getting married in the future.
There’s one aspect of our relationship that has been consistently bothering me: My boyfriend tends to succumb to symptoms of the common cold (a runny nose, congestion, fatigue) about once a month. His illness usually puts our dating plans on hold for about three to four days while he stays home (sometimes taking off work) to get better. I try to be a supportive girlfriend by giving him space to recover, even offering to bring him medicine or relax with him, but he usually prefers to sleep it off.
I’m starting to feel frustrated. I feel like he should suck it up and still spend time with me, even if it’s just lying on the couch. I hate that our relationship is on pause when he’s sick. I like to be active and I feel like he’s dragging behind. My love languages include quality time, and I feel like I’m dealing with a 34-year-old child who falls apart when he has a cough. My boyfriend also isn’t the healthiest. I believe that his tendency to get sick and be fatigued is a result of his poor diet and lack of exercise. I’ve tried to encourage him to make healthier choices and switch up the fast food every day for a veggie stir-fry. We cook healthy meals together, and I try to lead by example with my own health. His reluctance to take his own health more seriously makes me feel as if he doesn’t care about our relationship and our time together. If we continued dating, I would expect him to prioritize his health more so that he is around in the future for me and our potential children.
I know he loves me and would do anything for me, but this is hard for him. I’m worried a health scare is the only thing that will make him prioritize health, and I can’t imagine spending the rest of my life dealing with a man who can’t take care of himself or who can’t suck it up when he has the sniffles. I don’t want to give him an ultimatum—“Get healthy, or I’m gone”—but something needs to change. What should I do?
A. First, here’s where you and I agree: I think it’s a little unusual that your boyfriend gets coldlike symptoms every month, and I think it’s worth making a doctor’s appointment and scheduling some tests to see if there’s anything more serious going on. Now, here’s where you and I differ: If you have to make plans without your boyfriend three days a month, I don’t think he ought to “suck it up,” nor do I think he’s disrespecting your “love language” by sleeping off a cold for a few nights. If he doesn’t want company while he’s hacking and sneezing on the couch, and he doesn’t want you to bring him anything, treat those nights as opportunities to spend quality time with some of your friends, or even yourself. Telling someone to “suck it up” doesn’t make a cold any less miserable or even go away any faster, and it sounds like 27 or 28 days out of the month, you’re able to see him as much as you want.
It’s also a pretty serious leap from “My boyfriend gets regular colds and likes to sleep when he’s sick” to “He won’t prioritize our children someday.” I think you need to slow down when it comes to making assumptions about the future. Or, at the very least, turn some of those assumptions on yourself—if your response to someone having the sniffles is to “suck it up,” how are you going to care for your own future children when they get sick? Little kids with a cold can’t just walk it off, and they don’t care what your love language is—when they get sick, they need to be looked after, not scolded.
You can encourage him to see a doctor, give him his space when he’s sick, and encourage him to join you in veggie stir-fry night without trying to remodel his entire diet, but if you can’t imagine yourself happy with him without making over his entire relationship to food and health, then maybe you should do him and yourself a favor and end things now.