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Advice for the Modern Man: The Covenant of the Key

Grand Gesture

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(Question has been modified for space and clarity.)

My boyfriend and I have been together almost three years, with a few breakups in between. For a while now, I have hoped he would give me a key to his apartment, because I felt like that would show he trusts me, is committed to me and has faith that we won’t be breaking up again.

But he hasn’t yet, because he feels as if there’s too much emphasis on it. It hurts, because he has never told me he loves me, and getting this key was the one thing giving me hope that he sees a future with me.

It’s not helping that I’ve always felt that he’s still in love with his ex-girlfriend. He dated her for only a year and had no problem telling her he loved her. He is best friends with her brother-in-law and sister, and during the times we’ve been broken up, he has received texts from her and saw her at events they were both invited to. Part of me feels they hooked up when we were apart.

Do you think I’m overreacting here?
–Brooklyngirl; Brooklyn, NY

Unlike a carton of Greek yogurt, relationships have no defined expiration date. It’d be easier if they did, though.

And while constant arguments, growing animosity or a lack of intimacy can signal things have soured, arguably the most accurate indicator is when the relationship begins feeling like work.

Taking your description of it at face value, your relationship feels like work. You’re not on equal emotional/commitment levels, you’ve broken up multiple times and you’re wondering if/when the next breakup is coming.

Still, that doesn’t have to mean it’s over. Regardless of what anybody says (especially me), you have to see things through on your own terms, until you can walk away from it without regret. And only you know when you’ve reached that point.

You’re at a crossroads, and as I see it, there are three components to your conundrum that are keeping you there:

The Ex

She looms large, and with good reason. Your boyfriend was in love with her before, and she’s still in his life now. That would spook anybody.

If you haven’t done so already, you have to have a conversation about her with your boyfriend. It’ll likely be awkward and terrifying, but he’s got to know where you stand — your fears, concerns and insecurities.

If you tell him how you feel and he gets defensive, that could be a sign that you haven’t been overreacting or reading too much into the situation.

Given that he’s close to people close to her, your boyfriend will likely always have some level of ties to his ex. If nothing else, they’re bound to end up in the same place occasionally, meaning she can’t be completely cut out of his life.

But if he listens and is sympathetic to your feelings, and he vows to minimize his interactions with her while explaining that you are his future, that could be the confidence boost you need to step out of her shadow.

The Comparison

Not only do you have to step out of her shadow, you have to stop comparing yourself to her.

I get why you’re doing it. Your relationship is on unstable ground. Everything feels uncertain, and the only reference point you have, the only clues you have to go on are your boyfriend’s past. If he acted a certain way with her, he should be acting the same with you, the logic goes. And if he’s not, there’s something to worry about.

But this is not an apples-to-apples comparison. No two relationships could be.

When I think through my romantic past, each situation progressed at its own pace, in its own way. Some girls I bonded with instantly, others took more time.

With my now-wife, Emily, we shared an immediate connection, but nearly everything thereafter was a slow burn (mainly because of my emotional deficiencies). Had Emily compared our situation to others she’d experienced, who knows, we might not be married today. She might’ve given up and moved on.

Understandably, it’s hard to think about how your boyfriend told his ex he loved her within a year, whereas he hasn’t told you in over two. That’s a tough pill to swallow and a potential red flag. Maybe it means something, maybe it doesn’t.

But ultimately, that doesn’t (have to) matter. Your boyfriend’s timeline with his ex was their timeline, and yours is yours. Respect that. Focus on doing what’s necessary to build your own relationship, not on re-enacting somebody else’s.

The Key

This is the straw that could break or brace the relationship’s back.

Truthfully, it does feel like there’s something going on here. It’s a cheesy, low-hanging metaphor, but screw it: Your boyfriend not giving you the key could symbolize that he’s not willing to let you in — to his house, or his heart.

Or, it’s possible he hasn’t given it to you because he’s just not ready. There’s a million reasons why he might not be ready, and those are reasons worth exploring with him.

But I look at the key like an apology — you only want him to give it to you when he means it.

Additionally, aside from a marriage proposal, I wouldn’t get hung up on these types of grand gestures. The sort of commitment you’re looking for, the one that will last, isn’t built randomly; it’s built daily, minute to minute, by the way he treats you, the way he makes you feel and the connection you share when you’re together.

At the moment, your day-to-day is built around fear, stress and this sense of inadequacy. If the two of you can’t work together to change that, it might be time to — as another cheesy, low-hanging metaphor might dictate — lock the door on this relationship and throw away the key.


This article originally appeared on the Good Men Project.

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