Every week, Daniel Mallory Ortberg answers additional questions from readers, just for Slate Plus members.
Q. Guilty girlfriend: My boyfriend and I have been together about three years now, and the last six months or so have been long-distance because I am in graduate school. At first, he wanted to break up instead of being long-distance, but after spending some time thinking things through, we decided to stay together. I acknowledge that I fought harder to stay together than him, and we planned at the end of my two-year program to move somewhere we’d both like. Recently, he’s gotten the opportunity to go into a new career in our home state and is talking about staying there! I never agreed to that! I always was upfront about moving away, and I’m afraid he might have misconstrued my missing him as homesickness.
He talks about me moving back, after I’m done, and starting his career there. I don’t want to! If it weren’t for him, I wouldn’t even visit. I hate that place, I dislike my family and friends there, and there aren’t opportunities in the career I want to go into. What on earth can I possibly say to him? After I convinced him to stay with me, after he’s spent his vacation days and hundreds of dollars visiting me even though he doesn’t like where I live, how could I ever break up with him? The answer is I can’t! But I desperately don’t want to live there again, but I feel obligated to stay with him after he’s spent so much time, money, and effort on this long-distance relationship that he wasn’t excited about in the first place to help me achieve my career goals through more school. Now I can’t even give a little to help him with his? Every time I’ve tried to live in that place as an adult, I end up suicidally depressed. I can’t live there, I can’t! But he’ll never get an opportunity like this somewhere else, and I don’t want to lose the man I love. I wouldn’t even know where to start to talk about this.
A: Everyone who breaks up after trying a long-distance relationship does so after investing a certain amount of time and money in the experiment. Your boyfriend knew that when he agreed to give long-distance a shot with you. Sure, you might have pressed harder for it, but you didn’t trick him into it—he made a decision to try something out, and you’re not now permanently bound to one another against your own wills or inclinations just because you both bought a few Southwest tickets.
Right now you do not have to decide whether or not you and your boyfriend are going to break up. There’s still another 18 months left in your program, and there may be lots of other places you’re both willing to consider moving to. All you have to do is communicate the relevant information about what you know you can’t do: “I’m worried that when I’ve talked about how much I miss you, you’ve thought that meant I also missed our home state. It’s been a really difficult place for me to live in. I don’t have any friends there, I have a really tricky relationship with my family, and there are no job opportunities for me there. How important is living there to you?”
It may be that it’s just one of several options he’s considered, and you two will be able to end the conversation feeling braced and full of possibilities; it may be that you’ll need to let him know that it’s a deal-breaker for you, and you two will have to have a tougher conversation. But don’t tell yourself that you owe it to him because he “wasn’t excited” about being in a long-distance relationship at the beginning. He decided to stay with you of his own free will! He wasn’t tricked into it. You didn’t bargain him into doing it against his judgment by promising him a free “Get whatever you want next time we disagree” card. He hasn’t earned the right to tell you where to live just because he’s flown out to see you sometimes. I don’t think this energy is coming from your boyfriend; I think you’re being really hard on yourself, and you can expect kinder, more open-minded treatment from him. But you’ve got to talk to him first.