You’ve got embarrassing, tricky, and otherwise unusual life questions. We’ve got answers. Welcome to Is This Normal?, a no-nonsense, no-judgment advice column from HelloGiggles, in which we tap experts to find out exactly how typical (or not) your situation is.
Dear Is This Normal?,
My boyfriend and I have been together for about three years, living together for one. Things were going well, but then we had to self-quarantine together, and now he’s driving me nuts. I can’t stand the way he eats ice cream, the way he washes dishes… Even the way he breathes is starting to make me feel crazy. I feel so bad because I love him, and I know that a lot of this has to do with the fact that we’re in such close quarters, but I can’t tell the difference between cabin fever and genuinely starting to dislike my boyfriend. How do I figure this out? I’ve heard of couples wanting space, but I’ve also seen couples that are completely obsessed with one another, and seem totally fine being together all the time. But we’re not like that… At least I’m not like that! Is it normal to need space in a relationship while self-isolating?
Overwhelmed and Annoyed
Dear Overwhelmed and Annoyed,
When I first read your letter, I could sense the anxiety. I think we’re all feeling it right now: this sort of fragility that accompanies uncertain times and makes us feel as though we’re walking on a tightrope. We could be doing great one minute, but just the slightest gust of wind or misstep, and we’re sent tumbling through the air, grasping for something to hold onto. It sounds like your boyfriend’s typical human activities: washing dishes, eating ice cream, even breathing, are the things that are sending you flailing off the tightrope. I’m also assuming that you’re a responsible person and social distancing, so maybe your boyfriend is the only person you’ve seen for the last two weeks. Honestly, I’d be concerned if you weren’t starting to go a little crazy.
Even if we weren’t in quarantine, and you and your boyfriend still had access to the outside world, I would think this is normal. Living with anyone can be a test of patience—but with a romantic partner, you’re more often than not sharing a bedroom, bathroom, and all the other typical spaces in the home. In addition to space, you’re also sharing responsibilities: keeping things clean, keeping groceries stocked, etc. Our romantic partners are arguably our most intimate relationships. And while there is a lot of beauty that grows from that closeness, there is also a lot of conflict.
As for whether or not you’re experiencing normal annoyances or you’re genuinely realizing that your boyfriend isn’t the best partner for you, I can’t answer that for you (I wish I could), but I do think it’s important to note that things everywhere are currently a little tense and that said tension can warp one’s perspective. So I would be very, very careful using your annoyance as reliable evidence right now. Your feelings are valid—more on that below—but they’re also demonstrative of an objectively difficult time in this world.
“In this stressful time, it’s important not to make any impulsive or rash decisions, especially about your relationship,” notes Dr. Sam Rader, a psychologist who owns a group psychotherapy practice in Los Angeles. “When things get ‘dicey’ it doesn’t mean you need to end it.”
As for the difference between cabin fever and genuine dislike? In my experience, I’ve known a partnership wasn’t working when the “gut feeling” of something being wrong came up even during the happy and neutral times (as opposed to when we were fighting, annoyed with each other, or in the middle of a global pandemic). Is there a pattern to the moments when you’re frustrated and annoyed? Were you feeling this way before quarantine? When was the last time you took space for yourself? How do you feel after doing so?
I encourage you to find moments for yourself and then check with your feelings. Go on a walk, read, journal, meditate, take a long shower, perfect your skincare routine—do anything that feels soft and neutralizing so that you can clear your mind. That will at least start to release some of the mental clutter you might be experiencing.
This also might mean talking to your boyfriend. Pick a time where neither of you is tired, stressed, or tipsy. (This is coming from a person who learned the hard way that alcohol does not make a difficult conversation easier.) Give him the ol’ Liz Lemon compliment sandwich—Honey, I love you, but I’m going for a walk for some “me” time. I’m looking forward to seeing you for dinner.
“Whether it be space, time alone, a certain meal cooked or a chore to be completed, needs need to be expressed since your partner doesn’t have a crystal ball,” says Dr. Rader. They cannot read your mind and can’t expect them to know what you are thinking.”
FYI, I’d be giving you this advice even if you weren’t in quarantine. Living with someone is tough, and it’s very valid to need your own space. There’s a reason why boundaries exist, and they continue to exist throughout all phases of a relationship. There’s a quote out there: “Boundaries are where I end and you begin” (it’s also a Radiohead song), and I think that idea is a good thing to keep in mind when we’re thinking of boundaries. The “I” and “You” need to be separate in this scenario and it sounds like you need to spend time strengthening your “I.”
Also, if your boyfriend wasn’t there, would you miss him? Lots of people are alone during isolation, and that provides a different set of rewards and challenges. If you were alone, maybe you’d feel differently. Are you grateful for him, despite the way he breathes? I encourage you to ask yourself these questions when he’s not around and when you’re not stressed.
As for the couples you see who are glued at the hip? Don’t let their image be the barometer for what’s normal. What’s normal is what feels good for you and your partner. It’s romantic to associate relationships to fusion and to idealize codependency, but relationships are much stronger when each person is their own person and then both people come together to form a sturdy and cohesive unit. And to get there, we need to take space.