On and off long-distance relationship

-- Question for John --

I have been in an on and off long-distance relationship for 5 1/2 years. Should I move on or hang in here for a little while longer? When I ask him does he want to break it off, he gets upset, and says, whatever! And he asks why did I ever come back into his life anyway, if I was going to leave again. I’m confused…

We lived together for about 1 year and had a lot of arguments, so I asked him to leave. He moved out of the state and I ended up moving to the same state to be closer to him. We got along better, and we got engaged, then I had a death in the family and was devastated and moved back to the state I came from and withdrew from the world for about 1 year. I felt like he was not emotionally there for me and I needed him to physically be there but he said he couldn’t. I broke it off with him and we didn’t talk for 8 months. I moved back to the same state he was in (again) and called him. He seemed glad to hear from me. I stayed there for about a year and we saw each other from time to time and he said he wanted to be back in the relationship. I moved to another state (because of my job) and he said at the last minute he wanted to come and then he changed his mind. It has been 7 months since I moved and he rarely calls (maybe 2-3 times a month.)

He has not made an effort to come see me, he hardly ever answers his phone when I call, and when he does call me, it’s when I am asleep (late) or when he knows I am not at home (at work). I don’t understand! I ask if he was going to move here and he said he has things he wants to do first and he’s fine doing what he’s doing right now, and he said he doesn’t want responsibility right now.

He said if I am there when he’s ready that’s fine and if I’m not then that’s fine too. He gets very defensive when I bring up the question of him moving here. I feel very hurt, alone and I feel he really doesn’t want to be in this relationship anymore, but doesn’t know how to tell me.

-- Answer from John --

There are apparently deeply-set abandonment issues operating for both of you in this relationship. Each of you has probably put up some emotional barriers to try to insulate yourselves from the pain. To break through walls like these requires motivation and action. Right now each of you is tending instead to look at the other person as the source of this pain over distance. I do not know if you or he is really motivated at this point in time to work on the relationship. That would take a concerted effort. And as long as you are not in the same location, such effort would indeed be hard to apply.

I have worked with some couples who are long distance and who come to our weekend couples retreat to sort things out. Tangible progress is usually made and relationship healing happens. I am telling you this not to advertise this retreat for you. But rather to illustrate the kind of dedicated work that is required to make a breakthrough. It includes getting to the real roots of the emotions that are sitting behind the defensive patterns, and dealing with and overcoming the fundamental fears that operate in all relationships and hold couples back from true intimacy. This is not easy or comfortable work.

It probably would take that kind of dedicated approach to move the relationship you have out of its stagnated and stuck place. Anything short of that is not likely to bring down the walls you two have by now cemented into place. And it would take the efforts of both of you to do this.

I point out the work ahead of both of you if you choose to try to turn this into a vibrant, healthy relationship. And I also will point out that it requires two people to do that work. Sometimes issuing an ultimatum of “do this work or I am out of here” — or simply the “I am out of here” and wait to see if that shakes the other party into waking up — is the final way to see if you have potential partnership in making these kinds of changes. It is indeed a last ditch effort. And I only recommend you make it if you are ready to carry it through — one way or the other.