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Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

SocietyJune 22, 2023

Help Me Hera: Am I spending too much time with my partner?

Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

We’re stuck in a weird friendless limbo in Australia until we can move home next year. How do we avoid getting tired of each other in the meantime?

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Dear Hera,

My partner and I moved from Aotearoa to Sydney at the beginning of last year for a doctoral program that will (if the thesis writing saints intercede for me) be finishing soon. We like living in Sydney but feel rooted in Aotearoa and miss good friends and family. The plan is to therefore move home sometime early next year. 

We always knew we wouldn’t be overseas longterm and so frankly didn’t put much effort into meeting people. It always takes around two years to truly begin to settle in a new place and to work the grind of making friends as an adult. We have great colleagues and friendly neighbours but nothing too deep – good people who are always a little busy for new friendships anyway. 

It feels like limbo, limbo that feels too long to just wait out. The real problem is that my partner and I sort of agree this relational limbo causes us to spend too much time together. We’ve been together coming up six years (married for almost two) and without the wider space of friendship, it’s easy to just kinda get tired of the other person, especially when we both basically work from home. Besides, it’s never good for any relationship to provide all one’s needs – you either get weirdly insular as a couple or begin to resent the other person for failing to be everything for you (an obviously impossible task).

Sure, we’ll be home again surrounded by our old communities soon enough, but it feels like a waste to spend the rest of the year in this in-between state. And either way, life is always changing and things won’t necessarily just slot into place when we return home like we expect.

Does absence really make the heart grow fonder? Do we need to just redownload Bumble friends and get on that platonic dating grind? Or is mundane existential dread and loneliness just part of your mid-twenties as all your friends slowly move to London? 

Yours truly,

Brain drain cliché

A line of fluorescent green card suit symbols – hearts, clubs, diamonds and spades

Dear Brain drain cliché,

I can’t believe you’re finishing a doctoral thesis, and your question is about how to improve your social life. Most people in your position are busy spellchecking obscure fish taxonomies or applying for deferrals. Are you doing one of those fake online degrees in dog hypnotism or virtual midwifery? Whatever you’re studying, congratulations. 

If you and your partner spent the first two years of your marriage reading Kierkegaard in 30 degree heat, never leaving the house and having no friends, it’s no wonder you’re depressed. Sometimes, knowing freedom is just around the corner makes the remaining time harder to bear – like trying to find a public toilet in a crowded shopping mall.

Parts of your letter don’t match up. Your cheerful and sensible attitude towards your situation seems at odds with glib references to “existential dread and loneliness.” Are you OK? You seem more miserable than you’re letting on. Luckily, Australia is the perfect setting for experiencing existential dread. Everything is poisonous and furious and the trees all smell like cum. Any bird could and might kill you. Not to mention the politicians.

You say you and your partner “sort of” agree you’re spending too much time together. What do you mean “sort of?” Are you softening the blow, or do you have a difference of opinion on the subject? I can’t help feeling like, at the heart of your letter, there’s some deeper worry you haven’t quite articulated.

It’s never a bad idea to make a life-changing friendship that will forever transform and enrich your life. But it’s not an easy thing to do in a new country in a short time, while you’re getting a prestigious and expensive higher education.

It’s even harder to make friends as a couple without actively being into swinging or doubles tennis. I just moved cities a few months ago, so I feel your pain. (If anyone reading this lives in Sydney and wants to take this person bowling or whatever, write in and I’ll pass your message on!)

The laziest way to make friends is to steal your friends’ friends and expand infinitely outwards like a fungal grid. Do you know any people who know people in Sydney they could introduce you to? You could volunteer at a cat shelter or start taking night classes in calligraphy. But say you don’t meet anyone – how do you and your partner survive the next six months alone together? 

I don’t know how you live. Maybe, in addition to becoming a literal doctor, you’ve also been visiting picturesque waterfalls every weekend. But surely nobody writing into this column can be so well-adjusted. If you and your partner are habitually inside together, maybe your boredom has grown out beyond the confines of any one individual and has become a sort of habitat. 

You sound like you need some time alone. I think you should get out of the house. Walk around and look at things. Find every bakery within a half-hour radius, and visit them all, one by one. Go look at the fucked up Australian bugs. Get yelled at by some guy in a Minions hat. Go to the juice section of the local supermarket and pretend you’re at the Louvre. Walking around and looking at things is free, and good for the soul. 

If you’re missing a deeper connection, why not get in touch with friends back home? Schedule a call, or arrange to dress up as virtual cowboys and pick medicinal flowers online. Send a long-winded and despairing email. Everyone loves getting a long-winded and despairing email from an old friend. Reestablishing those connections now will make it easier for you to come back home, and give you something to look forward to. 

My last suggestion is to plan something fun to do to with your partner. My partner? you say. But I already told you I was sick of them! 

You’re right that one person can’t be another person’s whole life. Even the Grey Gardens ladies had that one guy who came around to do odd jobs. You say you and your partner are spending too much time together. But what kind of time are you spending? If you’re both depressed and counting the days until you go home, those last remaining months will be a struggle. 

You’re almost at the end of your trip. You’re alone together in a new country at the beginning of your marriage. Just because you’re miserable, it doesn’t mean you need to have a bad time. I don’t want to sound like I’m getting paid by the Australian Tourism Commission, but why not catch the train to Newcastle and spend a week writing your thesis by the beach? Buy a cheap flight to Tasmania and see the MONA poop machine. Even if you can’t really afford to leave the city, the idea is to find something you can look forward to together. 

It’s good you and your partner can be honest about the situation you’re in. But despair can also be highly contagious. If you’re both feeling down, and fatigue is setting in, the suggestion to spend time together might sound backward. But if you’re both experiencing existential dread, you might as well do it together, preferably on a beach somewhere. You need each other’s patience and love to get through this last stretch. Sometimes a little initiative and faked enthusiasm for the horrible wildlife of Australia goes further than mutual defeat. 

There’s an ancient poem by Mark Leidner which I think is relevant here. It goes: 

“The worst thing/about living/in Bolivia is/the haunting omnipresence/of the shadow/of Simón Bolivar.

The best thing/about living/in Bolivia is/every midnight/getting to sit up/and whisper: Christ/these Bolivian/nightmares.” 

Enjoy these last excruciating, tedious and lonely months at the start of your life together. Make some new memories. At the very least, you’ll have something new to talk about. 

Good luck, and try to enjoy those Bolivian nightmares.

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