I'm a young male in a two-year relationship. We felt our spark near the end of college; he was a smart, serious exchange student from Europe, and I was the shy, sensitive type. After graduation, I moved back home to California and he enrolled in a graduate program on the East Coast — so we've spent more time admiring and supporting each other from a distance than together. Lately, he has expressed frustrations about living apart for so long, and he criticizes me more often. At one point he even said we have more of a strong friendship than a romantic relationship. Recently over video chat, he told me he plans to visit a "friend" in another state. Upon further questioning, I found out he'll be visiting his ex. I didn't even know they'd been talking — but I let it slide. I thought it would be better to dig deeper in person when he visits me in late July. I'm feeling insecure, anxious, and unsure of how to handle this. Shouldn't he have mentioned something before making such a plan? Should I be OK with him flying to meet his ex?
I'm happy to talk with you about this. Let's look at this thing from every imaginable angle and try to guess what your guy is thinking and anticipate all possible outcomes and wring our hands obliviously together.
But can I ask you one question first? Why are you talking to me about this instead of him?!
Long-distance relationships are crazy-tough. No sex, hugs, or hand-holding. No walks, dinners, or nodding off to sleep listening to each other's breath. About the only thing you can do — and you've got to do it good, I mean like do it till it hurts — is talk. And you and your state-hopping honey aren't doing enough of it.
He has the answers you're looking for — the ones I don't. He knows why he's criticizing you. He knows why he's going to visit his ex. And he knows why he didn't tell you about it sooner.
Look, I know relationships feel tenuous at a distance and you don't want to break anything from afar that could only be repaired up close. But asking the tough questions has to be better than another month of wondering if your smart, serious exchange student is really a sneaky, secret pants-chaser.
At least if you clear the air now, you can devote your precious, upcoming in-person time to the fun stuff.
I am at a loss as to how to repair my confidence and self-esteem. I'm a college student, but doing poorly in school and finding social situations increasingly awkward. I'm unable to make friends or any real connection to people. I find myself at a complete loss for words in even the simplest situations; recently I could not even go up and talk to this girl at the laundromat when she obviously wanted me to. I'm going to try to do some volunteer work to improve my conversational skills, but can you suggest anything else that will help me get back on my feet?
I supposed it depends on what knocked you off your feet in the first place — and since you tell of "repairing" your confidence and an "increasing" awkwardness, I assume your self-esteem was once in decent shape. I'll bet your school has a counseling office where you could unload and get some valuable advice even as you work on your conversational skills: win/win! I've gone running to therapists for far less important reasons, believe me — and you'd be amazed how good it feels just to state your problem aloud. (Did it feel kinda good just to type it to me?) Honestly, they can just sit there and nod at you and you'll be halfway healed just from having given voice to what plagues you. Try it!
Meanwhile, volunteering is a really smart idea. It's brave of you to push beyond your comfort zone like that and it takes real sensitivity and self-awareness to express your feelings the way you did above.
Hold up. Did you hear that? You're smart, brave, sensitive and self-aware! No wonder laundromat girl is into you!
In fact, if there's just one thing I had to criticize about you, it would be your clothes. They're so dirty. Really, really filthy. And, um, they smell. So get yourself back to that laundromat, mister. You've got work to do.
Send me your dilemmas via email: ToughLove@TheWeek.com. And follow me on Twitter: @ToughLoveAdvice.