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Auntie SparkNotes: Do I Need to Put More Effort into My Relationship?

Dear Auntie,
I’m 24 and still dating my high school sweetheart. We love each other and are talking about marriage once we can get a place to live together (right now, we’re both employed but living with parents, and I’m still in college), but sometimes I feel like I’m not good for him.

A few years ago, I had a breakdown and went through a massive depressive slump (I had undiagnosed anxiety that just kind of exploded under academic pressure). It was so bad that I had to drop out of the college I was attending at the time (I managed to recover, and I’m finally finishing my degree at a different school). He was supportive of me throughout all of that, and honestly the fact that I knew he loved me and would be sad if I was gone was one was one of the things that kept me from suicide on my worse days. Even now, I like to spend time with him when I’m stressed out because just being with him is calming.

Here’s the problem, though: despite my best efforts, I don’t think I’m very good at the whole relationship thing. For example, I’m bad at keeping track of time, so there’ll be times when I say I’ll be at his house at 12:30 and don’t get there until 2. When he was just out of college and looking for a job, I suggested things to him and helped him type his resume, but I feel like I could have done more. His mother has a bit of a temper and yells a lot, and I try to defend him if she goes off on him, but I don’t want to yell back, so there’s only so much I can do (I do comfort him afterwards and calm him down if he’s really angry as a result). And the idea of sex makes me uncomfortable, especially outside of marriage (there are so many things that could go wrong), so we haven’t done it (he says he’s fine waiting for me to be ready, and I do want to have sex with him, just not yet. We are physically intimate, just not in the tab-a-into-slot-b variety).

The worst part is I’m 99% certain that he’d disagree with my assessment of myself and say I’m just fine the way I am, despite all my flaws. I have anxiety, so all my doubt might be it manifesting. Do you think that’s the case, or do I need to put more effort into my relationship?

Here’s the thing, Sparkler: what I think doesn’t matter. It’s up to you and your boyfriend to decide if your relationship dynamic is one that works for you, because you’re the only people for whom it has to work.

But for that same reason, your discomfort with the current state of affairs does matter—because regardless of what anyone else might think, it means you think that something’s not quite right. And while you’ve cited a lot of issues here, from your inability to shield Boyfriend from his mom’s outbursts to your fear of physical intimacy, they all trace back to the same common root: you’re taking more than you’re giving, and you feel weird about that.

And y’know what? Perhaps you should! Not in the sense that you’ve been doing something wrong, but in the sense that you have more to give than anyone is giving you credit for. Once upon a time, you were going through a mental health crisis that necessarily tipped your relationship balance, so that you could focus on getting better while your boyfriend focused on supporting you through it. And for as long as you were suffering the acute effects of an anxious breakdown, of course it made sense for you to get a pass on stuff like working through your intimacy issues or showing up to things on time. But once you were in a better place, it sounds like the balance never fully tipped back, no? Instead, you settled into a dynamic in which you’re just sort of coasting along, always feeling like you’re not doing enough—and more importantly, in which nobody ever suggests you step up to do more. It’s interesting that you describe your boyfriend’s undemanding attitude as “the worst part”; it suggests that nothing about this situation bugs you quite so much as the low expectations set for you therein.

The good news is, you don’t need anyone’s permission to start exceeding those expectations in a way that rebalances that give-and-take dynamic to be a little more equitable. For instance: if you know you have an issue (e.g. fear of sex) that Boyfriend has been patiently waiting for you to resolve for years, take the initiative to start working on it. If your mental health crisis created a dynamic in which his feelings tend to take a backseat, make a point of asking him how he’s doing and letting him talk more. And if you know that you’re not naturally punctual, then make a schedule and set an alarm and start honoring your commitments by showing up when you’re supposed to. (Side note: If you do only one thing, please do this, okay? Showing up 90 minutes late to meet someone is not acceptable behavior for an adult. You need to learn to manage your time so that you’re not wasting other people’s.)

None of this is to say that there’s something objectively the matter with you, or your relationship as it currently is. And if you were content with the role you’re playing, there’d be no need to change it. But since you’re clearly not comfortable, taking the initiative to change things just a little might be all it takes to make you feel less like a leech, and more like an equal partner in your relationship. So give it a try, and see what happens.

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