Are we growing apart?

My boyfriend and I have been intimate; we even live together. But lately I feel as if we are drifting apart. I do not know if it's because of his job (since he works full time to support himself and he's also paying for his degree) or it's me. Although he is away on a trip for work right now, he never even calls me to tell me he misses me. He calls for me to do the work he left behind here for him. He used to be one of my dearest friends before we started dating and now I don't know what has happened. He says that I nag to much. Do you think I should give him space? I do not want to be in a relationship where I am being taken for granted and I really do love him.
Sarah replies:

It's not at all unusual to find that our relationships change the longer we are in them. This is going to be true in our family relationships, friendships, and romantic relationships. As individuals, we are constantly growing and changing. Things get even more complicated when you consider the fact that our relationships are also growing and changing! So let's talk about a couple of scenarios regarding what might be going on here.

First, it could just be that the two of you and your relationship are changing, but your communication hasn't caught up yet. Like I said, we change as individuals and our relationships change. When we are first in a relationship, everything is new and exciting. We're really learning about our partner and our relationship (and by extension, we're also learning things about ourselves because we get to sort of "see ourselves through someone else's eyes"). This tends to be a really fast-paced time where we do a lot of experimenting to find out what works and doesn't work for us on many levels (communication, intimacy, physical closeness, etc.). The longer we're together (especially if you're spending lots of time in very close physical proximity to your partner), the more we learn about one another. We start doing a lot of self-disclosure (telling the other person personal and often private information about ourselves and a variety of topics). So we're telling about ourself and learning about the other person. We sort of start to get used to one another, which is different than that first part of our relationships where we were getting TONS of new information all the time. Sometimes this can feel like we're getting stagnate in our relationship or that we're even growing apart, but this isn't necessarily the case. It's just different than what you have experienced before and it takes some time to learn how to operate within the new structure.

So, what do you do about this? You sit down with your partner and talk about the way you're communicating. Unfortunately, most people don't take the time to talk about this, but it's a really important part of keeping your relationships healthy. Start off by talking about what each of you need in this relationship. Does he feel like he needs more space? Do you feel like you need more attention? Then, discuss what that actually means in practice. So, for example, if you're feeling hurt because he is not calling when he's out of town, how often are you wanting to talk? Every other day? Once a day? And, what do you need those conversations to look like? The more specific you can both be about what you need, the better off you'll be. Often, we find that we aren't very good at actually communicating our needs to our partner. We tend to make assumptions about it. We assume that because we sound upset or feel upset about something, our partner will know what's going on and know what it is that we need them to do about it. However, this is usually far from the truth (unless your partner is a psychic, and even then I wouldn't count on them getting it right all the time). Once you both know what it is that the other person is needing and wanting, you can figure out ways that will work (in real life) to address those needs. This may mean that you don't always get exactly what you want, but it should be possible to find a good compromise. So if your partner is feeling like he needs more space, once you establish what that means and how much time apart he needs, the two of you can figure out how to deal with that. Perhaps you need an afternoon or evening apart once a week or a couple of times a month. It's all about negotiation. Remember that these conversations are best had when things are calm and neither of you are upset (in general or about any specific issue). So talking about this over the phone when he's away and has just called to ask you to do something is probably not the wisest idea. This is also not going to be a one-time-and-we-fix-all-the-problems-forever kind of thing. No matter how long you're with somebody, the relationship will still be evolving. You've got to make it a priority to sit down on a regular basis and do a sort of check up on your relationship and your communication. If there are things that are working, then that's great! If there are things that are not working (either issues or ways of communicating), then it's time to renegotiate and find something that DOES work.

Secondly, the issue could be that this relationship is just not a good fit for either of you. Even if we are intimate with someone (however you define that) and living with them, that doesn't guarantee that the relationship is one that will continue forever. The vast majority of people will have many romantic relationships over the course of our lives. Obviously, not all of these are going to be long-term. Sometimes things seem to fit really well in the beginning, but once we've been together and we spend that time self-disclosing, we find that it's not such a good fit after all. In and of itself, this is NOT an inherently bad thing. We've got to have relationships and try things out in order to find out what works for us in any type of relationship we have. Nobody looks forward to this happening and of course we are sad when we find that a relationship is not going to work. However, it's much better to realize that something just isn't working (and isn't fixable) and get out of it rather than staying when nobody is happy. It's not fair to you or your partner if the fit really isn't good, but you're both hanging around being unhappy.

So what do you do about this? Well, again the solution starts with communicating. Unless your relationship is abusive, begin by doing some of the things we discussed above. Talk about your needs and how you are communicating with one another. Try to figure out what's not right and address those issues. Are there things that can be done to fix what's going on? You may have to try a few different things in order to figure out how to make this work. Maybe living together right now isn't something that's working out. It may be a good idea for one of you to move out (for a while at least). Or perhaps you need to spend more time on the other relationships in your lives (like with friends or family) than you have been. It may even be a wise idea to seek some help from a relationship counselor or couples therapist. Sometimes we can get a better handle on things when we have someone else who can observe from the outside and help us learn to talk to one another in truly effective ways. However, you also want to have in your own mind what your "make or break" issues are and where the "point of no return" lies. If you reach either of those points, then it's time to get out. (If this is an abusive situation, in any manner, then I'd encourage you to get out immediately. An abusive partner is not going to change by talking, they're a danger you you. So you should get away as quickly and completely as possible.)

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