Ask the Therapist: Handling a Relationship With Very Busy Partner

I am a 27 yr old professional in a new relationship (4 months) with a guy who just started aAsk the Therapist:  Marriage / Relationship Advice residency program which means he works about 80 hours a week, spends every 4th or 5th night at the hospital, usually cannot communicate during the day and is exhausted, delirious and stressed when not at work. We had a few months together before this all started and I felt like we were really well matched. We could talk for hours about ourselves, our lives, our ideas and that was when we really felt close. He said he fell in love after just a few weeks. I was more busy with work than he was at the time and I was amazed at how attentive and excited about the relationship he was…

Well, of course, all that had changed. He has such limited free time and such an inflexible schedule that our time together is either sleeping, eating or getting little things done. I have tried to be really understanding about this transition for him and make an effort to let him have space when he needs it, support when he needs it and just fall asleep next to me when he needs it. The thing that ends up being sacrificed is communication. I am facing some issues that seem to all come down to a lack of communication. I am feeling like I have to compromise a lot for this relationship which I don’t mind but when an issues comes up that makes me feel unappreciated and then I can’t even talk about it with him, I feel terrible.

For example, we had planned to spend his one day off together but that morning he realized he had to do a bunch of things, needed to meet a friend and needed some time for himself b/c he was feeling overwhelmed so he suggested we just meet up later for dinner. That was my day off as well and instead of planning a fun trip with friends or going on a hike I had saved it for him. So when he so easily brushed me off because he had other priorities that day, I was really upset – on top of it he was needing down time, he was exhausted and overwork and did not want to talk that day about anything so not only was a feeling upset but I couldn’t even talk about it with him which made me more mad. It was days before we could actually talk about it and by that time I had already wondered if I wanted to stay in a relationship where I felt this bad. I felt disrespected, unimportant and distant from him – I know it was just a bad day but it felt like a bigger issue to me. I worry that we aren’t communicating well on these types of things.

I want to be more understanding of his circumstances but I also want to be in a healthy comfortable “emotionally safe” relationship. I thought that is what I was getting myself into because that is how things were before. This residency program is 3 yrs and the sacrifices that need to be made in order to make this work seem quite heavy considering we have only been together 4 months and don’t know what the future holds. He says he wants this relationship to work and that these are just speed bumps. He is committed to making it through rough patches. But he admitted the other day that although he is usually someone who think about his relationship a lot he doesn’t have the mental time or space to think about us during the day (ouch!).

I love him and think that we do have something really special when we have the time to enjoy each other. Am I being overly demanding in this relationship? Do I need to change my needs and expectation in order to make this work? Is that even possible? Are my feelings valid? Should I just keep hanging in there?

Lisa’s thoughts…

I can understand both positions you presented. This is a really tough situation for any relationship!

You’re with someone who sounds like is being physically, emotionally and psychologically challenged every day. He’s in a vortex and is likely in survival mode as a result. It sounds like that prior to all of this ramping up you were both doing a good job of meeting each other’s needs and the communication was good. So – at least you know what he’s capable of. Unfortunately, when we get in survival mode, all of that can go out the window.

You gave the example of the one day off that didn’t go as you’d expected and were disappointed. I get that, especially after you hadn’t made other plans. It sounds to me like he realized that he wanted to make the absolute most of this one precious day which to him meant not only spending time with you but another friend and taking care of his own business. Perhaps the next time you can clarify with him prior to the day that he’s sure he doesn’t have other things he wants to attend to – because you’d like to make your other plans as well if need be. I understand both sides of this coin. Unfortunately, he didn’t do a great job of clearing up what had happened and validating your feelings which probably would have helped. Again – if he’s in survival mode, he’s probably not thinking with the most clarity.

This doesn’t sound like a case of a guy who’s just not being very respectful. This is a case of a guy who’s overwhelmed and has little bandwidth to tend to his relationship. You can choose what you want here – you can stick it out and try to be as understanding as you can be or decide it just doesn’t feel good. Either one is perfectly reasonable and ultimately is about how much you care for this guy and if you see a future with him. Can you imagine what it might be like after the hard work he’s putting in now? Can you put yourself ahead into the future and remember how you were together – when he had the bandwidth?

If you decide to stick with it perhaps you can reframe your “missing him” into an opportunity to connect well with your girlfriends, take up new hobbies or find a class? If you decide it’s not going to work for you, give yourself a break. This is a tough situation.

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(Lisa’s responses are not to be considered “therapy” but rather educational; her thoughts are based on the limited information available.  Please seek a local individual or couples therapist if it is therapy that you seek).