Bianca Bagnarelli

Editor's Note: Every Monday, Lori Gottlieb answers questions from readers about their problems, big and small. Have a question? Email her at dear.therapist@theatlantic.com.

Dear Therapist,

I’m a 21-year-old college student and I’m currently having an affair with my roommate. I have known her for three and a half years and we do almost everything together. She began dating her boyfriend shortly before we met, and they are still together.

Our relationship started last May, when she confessed her feelings for me and I admitted that I had feelings for her as well. Despite knowing that she had a boyfriend, I allowed our relationship to develop during summer break. When we returned to school, her boyfriend came to stay for a few nights, discovered our relationship, and was devastated.

I was physically ill from the guilt and decided to move in with my grandparents to put some distance between us. After a few weeks, I returned to my apartment and my roommate, and I attempted to set boundaries and reestablish our friendship. Despite this, our relationship escalated to physical encounters. Since then, our relationship has continued to be physically and emotionally intimate.

I am deeply troubled by this relationship. I’ve been clear that I want it to become something more, and originally, she gave me the impression that she would leave her boyfriend for me. But she has changed her stance and now says we will never be together. She seems to want to have a casual relationship with me while maintaining a relationship with her boyfriend.

This makes me feel awful. It’s as if she’s saying I’m not good enough for her and that I’m inferior to her partner. I can’t help but think that she’s wrong. Her boyfriend is uneducated, crass, and unambitious. I can’t understand why she won’t leave him. She is fully aware that I have deep feelings for her, yet she continues to taunt me by maintaining a relationship that won’t lead anywhere and will inevitably end. I was secretly devastated when she informed me that she and her boyfriend wanted to make things work. She is willing to put in effort to stay with him but is unwilling to start a relationship with me; again, that makes me feel second-rate.

I think I’m afraid to leave her because I have to live with her for the next six months and I’m afraid to upset her. Also, I often feel unattractive and undesirable, so her attention has really made me feel better about myself. I am paralyzed; I don’t know what to do or how to move on. Should I let the relationship continue for the next few months until I have to leave, or should I end it now?

Zack
Big Rapids, Michigan


Dear Zack,

I hear how confused you are by this situation, and partly that’s because you’re trying to make sense of another person’s behavior without having a better understanding of your own. The more you obsess about the object of your affection, the more easily you can forget that she isn’t acting alone in “maintaining a relationship” with you; you’re also maintaining one with her.

Often when someone is involved with an unavailable romantic partner—one who’s married, in a relationship, or simply keeping you at bay when you want to take things to the next level—the narrative is that something must be wrong with the unavailable party: Why is she leading me on? Why can’t she commit? Why can’t she see what a great catch I am compared with their current partner? Why is she being so destructive by dating two people at once? Clearly this person has issues!

Instead of masochistically ruminating over why she doesn’t want you, the more helpful question to ponder is: Why do you want her?

I’m not referring to whatever it is about her personality or appearance that you find appealing. I’m talking about the elements of your own psychological makeup that draw you so strongly to someone who is unavailable, and has been from the day you met.

Sometimes people choose unavailable partners because they’re afraid of intimacy themselves. Maybe they’ve been hurt in the past, and as painful as it feels to be with a partner who won’t commit, the situation is also safe. After all, when it comes to vulnerability and intimacy, in a way it’s far riskier to love someone who loves you back than it is to love someone who’s not entirely there.

Other people gravitate toward unavailable partners because these partners feel familiar. People who were raised by emotionally unavailable parents might grow up believing that this kind of distance—or the even more confusing mixed message of “Come here. Go away”—is what love is supposed to feel like. Then, as adults, when they encounter a potentially unavailable partner, their internal radar system goes off. Ah, they think (usually subconsciously), I’m home.

Many people who struggle with self-worth also become attracted to partners who aren’t available to them. Sometimes these people worry that if they were truly seen in a committed relationship, they would be found wanting; or that they aren’t appealing enough to attract the kind of partner they desire, so they’ll settle for whatever they can get rather than make themselves available to something healthier.

There’s a saying that applies here: “We don’t attract what we want; we attract what we are.” In other words, your roommate may seem like the unavailable partner, but you’re both unavailable in your own ways—the presentation is simply different. According to attachment theory, your roommate’s attachment style is “avoidant” and yours is “anxious,” neither of which creates the conditions for true availability in a relationship.

I think you know what you need to do, and while doing so won’t be easy, you can start by turning your focus inward so that you can extricate yourself from this tormenting situation, and then do something more than that—begin the work of preparing yourself for a mutually fulfilling relationship in the future.

One place to direct your focus: You might get curious about where your feelings of being “unattractive” and “undesirable” come from. People tend to obsess over partners who trigger their deepest insecurities. You might consider that many people who are in go-nowhere relationships like this come from a place of emotional deprivation, and harbor beliefs that serve them poorly: This is the best I can get. I’ll take the crumbs because otherwise I’ll starve. You might also question your belief that your roommate’s choosing you over her boyfriend would somehow validate you (it wouldn’t, because relying on someone else for validation leaves you in the same precarious position you’re in now—no outside person can provide enough validation to fill someone else’s emotional void for very long).

Exploring these questions with the support and guidance of a counselor at your university’s mental-health clinic or elsewhere will help you deal with these important issues and begin to heal, which will in turn prepare you to become an available partner. And some day, that will help you attract an equally available partner—something you very much deserve.


Dear Therapist is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, mental-health professional, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. By submitting a letter, you are agreeing to let The Atlantic use it—in part or in full—and we may edit it for length and/or clarity.

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