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Is my boyfriend going off me, or is this about his friend's death?

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kirsty asks:

Me and my boyfriend have been together 6 months. I'm 14 and he's 15, and we are sexually active. But lately he doesn't text me the same as he used to, I have to ask him for hugs and kisses whereas he used to give me them all of the time, and it seems that he's avoiding me. His friend died last week: I don't know if that's the reason, but I love him so much, I don't want to lose him. Is he going to dump me?

Heather Corinna replies:

A friend dying is usually a really big deal, especially when you're young and death isn't expected like it is when we're 60, 70 or 80. While young people can sometimes feel like their lives are going to be short, I think it's safe to say few people actually expect anyone's life to end when they're young. The death of someone our same age, especially at a young age, can be earth-shattering, both because of the loss of that person, and because of the feelings it can trigger in us about our own mortality.

My personal advice when you're dating someone who is mourning is to give them plenty of latitude, and not to make any sort of big evaluations about your relationship or demands of them during that time. You can absolutely offer support and care to that person, but we all deal with a death differently. Some people will want a lot of care and attention, while others will just want to be left alone, even if they really like or love the people offering them support. And when we're dealing with something as huge as death, if someone around us has their own issues, is making a lot of demands of us, or is expecting us to behave as we did before the death, it can just feel like too freaking much to handle. You can let him know you're around for him during this time if he needs you, but it's also good to ask what he wants and needs. It may be that he wants some time to himself, or time not to worry about a relationship right now, and that's valid if that's the case, and something we just have to give people we love sometimes, particularly during or after a tragedy.

If you need support of your own in the meantime, or more time that's all about you, rather than look to someone in grief for that, it's better to look to the other people in your life you're close to.

A week is not a lot of time at all to have passed when it comes to grief over a death. We'd rarely expect someone to get over a breakup in a week or two, let alone the kind of loss death is. So, by all means, the death he is dealing with could be part of what is going on.

At the same time, with any romantic relationship -- heck, any relationship, period -- it's sound not to expect the same kind of attention or intensity as the relationship goes on as we will often experience when it first starts. Over time, people may not give as much constant attention as they did at the beginning. But someone who is starting to withdraw from sharing basic affection, or who starts avoiding someone else may be a bit bigger than that, and may, indeed, be in the process of withdrawing from the relationship or may be having some feelings of conflict about it.

Personally, I don't think breakups should be a matter of someone dumping someone else, where one person is active and the other passive. Ideally, good relationships have lots of constant communication. When you're so young, and new to intimate relationships, that's something that may not be so easy, and may be something you're both learning, but it's important, if you are going to have intimate relationships, to really work on that.

Rather than waiting around to see if someone is going to get dumped, or dump someone in one shot, without a gradual process of shared communication, in a healthy relationship what you want to do is to earnestly talk about how you're feeling when there is conflict, or anyone is feeling like the relationship isn't going as they'd like or feel good about.

When it has been at least a few weeks since his friend's death, and some time has passed for him to do his grieving and have the room to work through that, then it is a good idea to talk with him about this. I'd not suggest framing it with questions like, "Are you going off me?" or "Are you going to dump me?" Instead, what you can do is voice what you're observing and how you're feeling about it, and voice what your own wants and needs are (as in, "I really need to have some basic shared physical affection from a boyfriend, rather than having to always initiate it myself or ask for it."). You can say that you have been feeling like he is withdrawing from you in some ways, or showing less interest in you. You can let him know that this makes you feel like he might be having mixed feelings about the relationship, and ask him to tell you how he has been feeling, and what his wants and needs are. Then you two get to talk about this more deeply from there.

Since you mentioned you're sexually active, if he is withdrawing from everything else, but the sex is still going on, it might be best to take that off the table for now. Having sex when he's not being affectionate otherwise, not giving you the other kinds of attention you need, is likely to leave you feeling pretty lousy. And unless a person wants a relationship that is only about having sex, it's generally not emotionally healthy to have that be all that's going on in a relationship. I know that sometimes, too, it can be tempting to keep going with the sex if that seems like the only way to get some time, care or attention, but given how you're feeling about the relationship as a whole, and given that he's already dealing with something really heavy right now, I'd suggest setting sex aside until he has had more time to grieve and you two have worked the rest of this out some more.

Also, if the sex has stopped? Do be aware that it may not be about you: it may be about his dealing with this death, so try not to take that personally if things have been going that way.

One thing I do want to point out is that six months is actually a long time for a romantic relationship to last at your age. On average, teen relationships will frequently not last past that period of time. That doesn't mean yours won't or can't, especially if you both still want to pursue it. I'm also not saying that his behavior means the relationship is ending: I'm not psychic, so I can't know that without talking to him or having way more information. Rather, it's just wise to come to young adult relationships with some understanding of the fact that they will probably not be lifelong romantic relationships, and may not even last months. When people are young, they are often growing and changing so much, and still in the thick of finding out who they are, so relationships can feel like they don't fit more quickly than when you're older and are changing less often and have a better sense of who you are. Too, younger people also are often just learning how to be in close relationship, how to communicate and manage relationships in other respects, so it can be tougher to sustain those relationships. I know that's not the easiest reality check to do, especially when things can feel so eternal sometimes, or you want them to be.

Bearing that in mind, and giving him some room around this death, I hope is a couple weeks you can initiate the kind of talk I've suggested and that it goes well for you. One last thing I'd suggest bearing in mind is that we don't always stay in the same kind of relationship with someone for years and years, but that doesn't mean we have to lose them, either. If people like and love one another, but find that a friendship fits better than a romance, or vice-versa, there doesn't have to be any kind of loss at all. While it can be disappointing to have a relationship change sometimes, the goal with people we care about really is to be in relationships with them that fit us all the best, that feel the most right, and to just have one another in our lives. What role we play to one another is ultimately less important than if we're there for each other and can have the people we love in our lives, period.

By the way, are you okay in terms of dealing with his friends death? Even if you two weren't close, and that person wasn't your friend, that death could be having an impact on you, too, and might be part of how you're feeling about the relationship now yourself. In other words, that loss might have you feeling insecure or in need of extra care and attention; it might have you extra worried about any losses of your own, like the loss of this relationship. A death in a community can have an effect on everyone, even on people who weren't close to the person who died. So, I'd also check in with yourself and see if you're okay in all of this, too, and if you need some extra care, and your boyfriend isn't available for that due to his own grief, you can always talk to friends, family, even a school counselor about your own feelings.

written 24 May 2009 . updated 13 Jan 2014

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