Dear Dr. Wes and Samantha: What should you do if you and your boyfriend break up and both of you want to get back together, but you don’t really do it? You just end up secretly dating until one of you gets the nerve to stand up and truly ask?
Wes: Ah, the secret high school relationship. It sounds so romantic to steal away for a private moment of love, away from the intrusive eyes of peers who always seem to be up in your business.
Unfortunately, I don’t buy it. Just another ill-defined relationship in the new world of non-dating. I’ve always threatened to develop a really long scale of teen and young adult relationships. The left point would be “friends who don’t hold hands,” and the right would be “married.”
That scale might fit on an 8-by-14 sheet of paper laid out in landscape format 20 years ago. Now it would take the 14-foot wall of my office to include every point in between. Random hook-ups, friends that cuddle, friends with benefits, friends with a lot of benefits, friends having random hookups, just talking, hanging out, talking exclusively, talking seriously, non-exclusive relationship, exclusive relationship but not calling each other boyfriend/girlfriend, exclusive bf/gf, promised, engaged ...
Those are just a few of the big ones. If your head is spinning now, try working with kids experiencing this confusing list of possibilities. If I really had that scale on my wall I’d have kids (and a lot of adults) get up and point to where they are with their partner. That might make it easier.
Based on your description, I’m not even sure where to have you point. As best I can tell, you and your guy are still involved — but he won’t claim you. That’s one of the most hurtful relationship styles imaginable. If nobody has nerve, then you’re way past the point of taking a risk. You’re already half-in and half-out of this relationship. So you need to step up and ask the question. Then if he says, “No, I really like this deal where I get the benefits and don’t have to make any kind of commitment,” I’d boot him. If he says, “OK. If it’s important to you, then it’s important to me. Let’s go public,” I say great. You’ve taken the risk and it paid off. Either way you win. Something happens.
I realize this isn’t as fun as I make it sound. But as I’ve said many times, young people are practicing for their future relationships. You’re either practicing being passive — letting life happen to you instead of acting on it — OR you’re being taken advantage of by a guy who’s getting a great deal.
Boys have a heck of a good deal these days. I know this because they (and the girls they are with) tell me so. Girls think they’ve taken charge of their sexuality, when they’ve actually given up a lot of influence over their partners. That may sound terribly sexist, but the reality is very obvious: Boys are going to behave just about as well as you expect them to. Sure, if you push your guy to be more serious, he may take off. But honestly, what have you lost? Tell him to get with it or get gone.
Samantha: While there may be a thrill in avoiding commitment by having a “secret” relationship, it’s really like a great tap dancer performing in ballet shoes. It’s still nice, but it could have been excellent. The audience is confused, and the dancer knows she could have done better. A secret relationship makes things awkward for you, your family and your friends because everyone is trying to decipher where you stand.
Your hesitation is likely merited. If a secret relationship is somewhat appealing to you, it means you’re not quite ready for a legitimate relationship. Neither of you is willing to put yourself out there.
When you break up, it is important to have some time to debrief the relationship. Whether you labeled the breakup as “mutual” or not, you both probably felt hurt and loss. I’m sure you both came up with reasons why you shouldn’t be together. Think them over. Which were rational? Discuss exactly why you broke up, or you could be facing all of the same problems if you get back together.
Also, think about timing. Have you given yourself enough time to truly see your life without him, or are you just falling back into the familiar comfort zone of having him around? Time away from a relationship is not about a specific number of days. It’s about rediscovering who you are without him and figuring out the role he played in your life.
If you feel complete without your boyfriend, you are ready to be with him. I believe that a great relationship is not based on completing each other but on complementing each other. Feel free to take some time to reflect. If you’re meant to be together, he’ll be willing to give you that time.
If you are truly set on being with him, you need to tell him you want to get back together, and then set your conditions and listen to his. What do each of you have to do to make the relationship work this time around?
Next week: My child wants to delay college.
— Dr. Wes Crenshaw is a board-certified family psychologist and director of the Family Therapy Institute Midwest. Samantha Schwartz is a senior at Lawrence High School. Opinions and advice given here are not meant as a substitute for psychological evaluation or therapy services. Send your questions about adolescent issues (limited to 200 words) to firstname.lastname@example.org. All correspondence is strictly confidential.