It's so hard to tell people what works in a relationship. The only way to truly know you've succeeded is to realize on your deathbed that you're still together, and you haven't said, "Get that life-sucking piece of shit out of here so I can die in peace." From that standpoint, and my long line of failed attempts to not make a woman run screaming in the opposite direction, I can't even pretend to give advice on that. But what I can do is warn you about the almost biblical signs of oncoming doom, like ...
How It Ends
You've been talking to your boyfriend for over 10 minutes, and the most response you've gotten has been "Mmmhhmmm" and an occasional annoyed glance away from the TV when some cheap bastard snipes him from across the map. You put your foot down and ask, "You haven't heard a word I've said, have you?" He shoots out an irritated sigh and repeats your last two sentences back at you like a court stenographer with roid rage, adding, "You cheap, cheating motherfucker! How does he even see me from back there?" Pissed off, you leave the room and call your mom to vent.
Later that night, you walk up behind him while he's pecking away at his computer and put your arms around him. He casually turns his cheek for you to kiss, never taking his eyes off the screen, and doesn't even appear to notice when you walk away. You're going to bed. He's not.
Also, your bed is ridiculous and has too much shit on it.
This has been going on for months, and you just don't understand how it got this way. He used to be so affectionate. You held hands everywhere you went. You'd lie around on the couch together and watch movies. You'd kiss and say "I love you" two dozen times a day. Everywhere the two of you went, you crop-dusted crowds with a sickeningly sweet, kissy-face vapor trail that left entire sections of town bent over and vomiting bile. What happened?
How It Sneaks Up on You
What happened was the "push-pull dynamic," and given enough time, it's virtually unavoidable. It works like this:
Your favorite food is lasagna (if it's not, just insert your favorite food and pretend you have a soul). You have it about once a month because it's expensive and kind of a pain in the ass to make, but when you do, you can just eat that shit for days. Out of the blue, an uncle dies and leaves you some money and a shitload of mozzarella cheese -- so you start making it every day. About four days in, you're thinking, "Man, I love lasagna, but I desperately need a break from it." But since your fridge is packed from top to bottom with it, you continue. By the end of the second week, you not only don't consider it your favorite food, you actively hate it.
"If you want my attention, lasagna, maybe you could put on some makeup every once in a while."
The same thing happens in a relationship, because people are designed to need those occasional breaks. When they don't get that alone time, that balance between the two people becomes just a little lopsided and begins to tip, making one person feel like they have to put in the emotional work while the other becomes increasingly withdrawn, because they need that alone time to recuperate.
How to Avoid It
Though fixing a relationship is usually a two-way street, this is one of those rare cases where one person does have to shoulder the brunt of the work. Ironically, that happens to be the person who was doing all the work in the first place, and it's as simple as it sounds: They need alone time -- give them alone time.
"A little better. But do you have someplace a little more isolated?"
See, the beauty of the push-pull dynamic is that it works both ways. If the person hasn't completely checked out of the relationship, once you step back, they will eventually step forward. In the link above, they tell you to picture it as a physical space that a couple fills with emotion at equal levels. When one person pulls back, the other tries to compensate by giving more.
It's why a guy can break up with a woman and immediately run through the streets, screaming, "FREEDOM!" But one month later, he's calling her in a fit of drunken tears, begging her for another chance. When the bond was severed, she pulled out her emotional investment, and over time, he felt that tidal influence telling him to fill it.
You have to remember that one of the key elements to keeping a relationship interesting is keeping that "new car smell." When you're clinging to each other 24/7, you start to hear the same stories and see the same routines, and boredom sets in like a goddamn fungal infection. Occasional time to yourself allows you both to experience different things, which in turn allows for new conversations. Things you can share with each other, but don't necessarily experience together.
"So then I was like, 'White power? More like white powder!'"
How It Ends
You've been a couple for a year, and your boyfriend keeps bringing up the idea of marriage. While you're sure you'll someday be ready, you're just not quite there yet. Finally, he has enough and sits you down for "the talk," where he puts it all on the line. "This is the last time I'll bring it up. If we're not married by the end of the year, I'm pulling out and moving on."
What he doesn't realize is that the message he just sent wasn't "I want to marry you." It was "I want to get married." That's a huge difference when you're talking about making a spiritual and legal commitment to another person. That idea eats at you for a few weeks, and finally, you decide that the worst decision you can make in a relationship is to continue it (or in this case, progress it) via an ultimatum. So you set his house on fire.
Issue resolved, baby.
How It Sneaks Up on You
This one always starts small and builds slowly over time. Let's face it: If your first date is filled with moments where the other person is demanding things like "You order the fish, or this date is over," it would last about four minutes. No, this is something that is introduced in the same manner that you ease into a cold pool on the first day of summer, or bring up the topic of anal sex.
While shopping, you'll hear small "suggestions," like "You'd look really good in this shirt. Why don't you get this one instead of the other one?" Later, it morphs into "You're going to wear that out to dinner? No, go put on something nice." Then it gets to be a regular thing with that person picking all of the restaurants, movies, games, etc. without asking for your input. If left unchecked, it eventually leads to the flat-out ultimatums. "It's either your friends or me. Your choice."
"But ... who's gonna draw dicks on my face when I pass out from a vodka bender?"
How to Avoid It
The biggest thing to keep in mind when dealing with a controller is that they feed on power struggles. You have to engage them in a way that isn't coming off like you're trying to control them. That starts an automatic fight, because regardless of the issue you're discussing, the only thing the controlling person wants is control. If you're willing to stay in that relationship, the only way to get past it is to skip the minor bullshit ("You need to stop shitting in the sink") and go straight for the heart of the beast ("I can't be in a relationship where my actions are laid out by another person").
Unfortunately, this personality is an extremely hard one to live with, and if you aren't emotionally equipped to handle it, it may actually be better to close up shop. Regardless of what you think of Dr. Phil, the man hits it right on the head when his weird-looking face says, "Ask yourself, 'What is it costing me to be in this relationship?' If the answer is your dreams, identity or dignity, the cost is too high." It all depends on your level of commitment and ability to confront the problem head-on. And your willingness to deal with sink turds.
"Hey, what the- OH, YOU SON OF A BITCH!"
Don't take what I'm saying as "You should dump that controlling asshole and go out with Trevor!" I'm just giving you a heads-up -- you have some pretty big issues to deal with if you stick around, and they won't go away on their own. Controlling people don't just wake up one day and say, "Wow, my actions are affecting others in a negative way. I should really change that about myself right now. Here I go."