Advice

Miss Information: Is a decade a dealbreaker?

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Have a question? Email erin@nerve.com. Letters may be edited for length, content and clarity.

Dear Miss Information,

A few months ago, I began dating a coworker. I’m twenty-four and she’s thirty-four, but our age difference doesn’t seem to be an issue. We have a ton in common and have shared intense discussions about love, life, and our relationship potential. (She is supremely neurotic, but also absolutely lovely.) One night recently, for whatever reason, I began crying uncontrollably while we cuddled in bed. I’d never done that before. She was slightly put off by the whole thing, but we talked about it and made up. I think part of the reason it happened was I’m not sure about our future. When we’d been hanging out a lot (but hadn’t yet made a serious commitment), she made out with another guy. Things seem to be progressing, but I’m just not sure where we stand. Any ideas on how to better solidify our relationship? — Young But Not Restless

Dear Young But Not Restless,

It’s good you’re thinking about why you cried, and your hypothesis makes total sense. The early stages of a relationship can be a lot of fun — what with all those hormones floating about — but they also can leave us feeling vulnerable and moody, filled with feelings and questions that custom dictates we can’t act on. In a society that runs on equal parts “Why wait for anything?” and “Go ahead and express yourself, little Timmy! Why not?” it’s a difficult message to swallow. Sometimes we crack and wind up looking like nutjobs. A person who flees at the very first instance of freakout, especially if it’s a relatively minor one like yours (or mine, as I wrote about a while back), is probably not worth your while. Your Lady of the Cubicles chose to stick around. Which bodes well, unlike her smooching that other dude.

If you want to figure out what’s going on, first I’d ask something open-ended like, “What are we?” You may be thinking of this as a boyfriend-girlfriend situation, whereas she may be thinking of it as simple dating or random screwing around. It sounds like you’ve already had some discussions about it, but are her words and actions in alignment? Are yours?

I’d also ask about the age difference and the fact that you’re coworkers. What are her concerns? Do you have any of your own? Either or both may be affecting your sort-of girlfriend more than she lets on. Being the older woman dating the younger guy can be a hell of a lot of fun, but there are sometimes social consequences. She might be worried about what others are thinking, especially when those others are coworkers. I don’t know your exact situation, but I’m guessing she’s put more time into her career than you have, and has more to think about. Not that you necessarily don’t. You have parents to answer to. Roommates. Friends. And if you really like her, that inner voice that asks, “What if I’m just a fuck-toy?” Often the younger person in a relationship will feel like their needs aren’t as weighty or important, so they censor themselves. But don’t do that: your feelings are just as important as hers.

I’ve dated a couple of younger guys, some at times when I’ve wanted a relationship, some when I haven’t. If you want a relationship, know that you might have to work a little harder to convince her. She’s got a whole lot of people telling her the opposite, as well as a big, stupid media machine that makes a huge deal out of age difference. Then again, I can’t assume she’s not just using you for sex and that pulling the Serious Switch will turn her off. You just have to keep talking. And waiting. You haven’t been dating that long. Give it a little more time to unfold.

Dear Miss Information,

A good friend is having relationship trouble with her boyfriend. She accuses him of not giving her enough attention. He’s in college and has a job that he takes seriously. She lives with him in a house he shares with male roommates. I’ve never seen him be mean to her, or say anything to intentionally hurt her feelings. But she’s unhappy. They’ve talked about breaking up because it would be for the best, but she says she doesn’t know what she’d do without him. She thinks she’ll go crazy if that happens. So, they stay together. I don’t know how to handle all this. I want her to be happy, but she seems so set in her ways. I’ve tried talking to her, and she’s not taking my advice. What should I do? — Concerned and Burned

Dear Concerned and Burned,

There’s not a lot you can do, unfortunately. Friends will cry and carry on and repeat destructive patterns and it’s your job as a friend to be there. But, as with any job, there are limitations and caveats. My day job — advertising — requires I put up with heaps and heaps of hot, steaming bull. Yet my boss knows that there are only so many times I will rewrite an inane and inconsequential banner ad before I start demanding hardship pay in the form of late-morning arrivals and paninis from the ridiculously overpriced place next door.

I’m all for you supporting your friend. You just need to set up some boundaries so that you don’t always stress out. When you start to feel anxious, what’s the trigger? A barrage of instant messages while you’re trying to study? Drunken, weepy, late-night calls? The fact that you can be having a conversation about a fruit-bat special you saw on the Discovery Channel, and she’ll still find a way to bring her relationship drama into the discussion?

You can let her know with words — “I’m sorry. I know you’re sad, but I feel like this is dominating our time together. It’s making me bummed by proxy and I’d really like just take a break and talk about other stuff. You know I’m still here for you, though, okay? How’s the hobby/artistic pursuit/unwanted pregnancy coming along?”

You can also try an indirect route. Monkeys (and humans) do something called mirroring, in which they mimic back the postures, gestures, and moods of whomever they’re hanging with at the banana lounge or coffee shop. One monkey looks upset, the other monkeys show they care by gathering around with their eyes downcast and their heads hung low. After a while, the sympathetic monkeys will bounce. Then the sad monkey — seeing that no one’s paying attention to it — will get back to its monkey-business of collecting bananas and having promiscuous sex. And simian harmony is restored.

What I’m saying with this long-winded Jane Goodall shtick is: stop the mirroring and tone down your reactions to her reactions. Over a period of time, this will send the powerful message of, “You want to live your life that way, fine, but I’m not going to become a resident of Melrose Place.” When she calls you in the middle of a fight, listen for a bit, then make some excuse to end the call. When she calls her boyfriend a “shitbag waste of DNA,” chuckle and say, “Yes, he sure can be a handful.” Eventually she’ll stop using you as an unpaid shrink, or find a different sounding board.

One last thought: I know it’s sad when your friends are sad. I’m a feelings-sponge just like yourself. But your friend is going to go through what she’s going to go through, and your actions are only one tiny part of the puzzle. Her happiness is her responsibility. Yours is yours. When you try to take on more than one, you run the risk of messing up both.