Friends with Benefits?
Hi. Cliché as it probably is, I'd like to ask your advice about a relationship issue. My long-term girlfriend and I recently broke up and she moved out. After a bit of a break, we have entered into a sort of exclusive "friends with benefits" contract until we graduate university next year. I'm not sure whether to continue this or if I should break it off - and if so, how. We literally made a promise to each other to stay like we are until graduation. We are both still very young. Neither of us intend to make it into a normal relationship again in that timespan.
On one hand, I really enjoy the benefits and we still have lots of fun. I really don't want to give our ambivalent relationship up.
On the other hand, we do still fight and it is difficult sometimes - but we always patch it up. What concerns me is that late last year I developed anxiety and it was centred a lot around her. It was the root cause of our break up. I felt that she couldn't give me enough; she felt that I asked too much. Although it is substantially less, I do still have problems with anxiety and some of it is tied to her.
What do you think? Should I break it off? And if so, how can I? It's very difficult, as we have made this promise (which I really intend to keep) and I enjoy it so much, and we study the same course and have mutual friends so would see each other often. I am very true to my word and don't want to back out. But do you think I have to, because of the anxiety?
It’s very easy to keep a relationship going longer than it should. Lots of people much older than you do this regularly – staying “friends”, even continuing to live together post-breakup! – because ending a relationship is miserable and this can feel like a way to make that a little bit easier. The bad news: this doesn’t work.
You defined your current arrangement perfectly. It’s ambivalent. And things that are uncertain cause stress and anxiety. A successful, all-parties-are-happy “friends with benefits” arrangement is hard to pull off – even more so when you used to be in a serious relationship.
I’d advise making an appointment with a therapist, which is something that your college should be able to provide. Anxiety can have many sources, and it might not be your ex that’s the cause, although it sounds like she’s a contributing factor. Do this as soon as possible - anxiety can be a life-ruiner and it’s important to nip it in the bud as far as that’s possible. In the meantime, take a break for a few weeks from your ex – avoid gatherings where she’ll be, don’t talk to her in class – and focus on yourself. After some time, reassess. Do you feel better? Less anxious? Do you find yourself able to focus on other people as potential romantic connections? I’m betting you will.
We all make promises in relationships that we can’t keep. No one can blame you for not “keeping your word”: relationships change and it’s impossible (and pointless) to make someone stay in an arrangement they don’t like. Don’t let her make you feel guilty for taking a break. And, if she does, you’ll know that she’s prioritizing her own needs over your wellbeing. Is that someone you want around?
You say that in your relationship you felt she wasn’t giving you enough. Staying in a “friends with benefits” arrangement when you want more is like getting instant coffee when you’re used to espresso – it feeds the need, just enough, but it’s not really satisfying. You’re young, you’re going to have other relationships with people who can give you what you want. You may not believe this right now, but it’s true. So start stepping away, slowly, and fight through the pain. You’ll come out the other end stronger and happier.
The Decision Coach