Quarterlife Quandaries: Crises Aren’t Just for Midlifers Anymore

Anxious about your future after college? Not sure whether your new boyfriend is refreshingly relaxed or just a directionless slacker? Does the mere mention of student loans send you into a tizzy? Do you lie in bed at night pondering the seeming uselessness of most of your high school friends? Feeling like you need some kind of change but not sure how to make it? Well, join the club. It sounds as though you’re having a quarterlife crisis.

The term, coined by co-authors Abby Wilner and Alexandra Robbins in their 2001 book Quarterlife Crisis: The Unique Challenges of Life in Your Twenties,  refers to the period of confusion, frustration, and fear that often accompanies us as we step into adulthood. What used to be phases of twentysomethings kept under wraps, quarterlife crises are now referenced everywhere we look: on the bookshelves at Borders, in John Mayer songs, in films such as Reality Bites and The Last Kiss—hell, there’s even a Broadway musical devoted to them! Avenue Q, a Tony award-winning musical (acted out by puppets) that opened in 2003, boasts choice song titles such as “I Wish I Could Go Back to College,” “It Sucks to Be Me,” and “What Do You Do with a B.A. in English?”

So what better way to tackle this icky period of “no longer a teenager” and “not yet a successful adult” than to air our grievances? I will act as a sounding board, a listening ear, a shoulder (albeit an inky black-and-white one) to cry on. I will gladly answer questions from 18- to 30-year-olds about love, sex, the job hunt, money, friendships, and family woes. Why no other ages? For one, because my area of jurisdiction, as I’d like to think of it, is this specific age bracket. I have no business telling a 40-year-old how to raise her kids, as I’ve never been 40, and I’ve never had kids. I don’t have the wherewithal to advise a grandfather who is facing retirement, nor do I have the desire to advise a 12-year-old with a Miley Cyrus obsession. So 18 to 30 it is.

Your next question might be, what makes me qualified to dole out advice to stressed out twentysomethings? I’m not a professional counselor, and I can’t claim to be a clairvoyant whose advice is guaranteed to lead you down an eternally problem-free life path. But I have had my fair share of relationships, conflicts with family and friends, money worries, career indecision,  and general disillusionment. There’s no one better to commiserate with than someone who’s already been through it.

So, comrades, send ’em on in; I’m ready for action. Ask me anything. I can’t guarantee it’ll be what you want to hear (and I may even subject you to an Oprah quote every now and then), but I can guarantee that I will spend time thoughtfully considering your problem and advising you to the best of my ability. Looking forward to hearing from you!

Please send your questions to Chloe at quarterlifequandaries@yahoo.com.

One Boyfriend, Two Faces

Dear Chloe,
I am 22. My boyfriend seems to have two personalities. He can be incredibly sweet and loving, but he also goes into moods where he is controlling, jealous, and says cruel things. Half the time we are really happy and half the time I am upset. Sometimes I want to break up, but I love him very much and I don’t know if I can stick to it. What should I do? —Annette

Dear Annette,

The mere fact that you’re questioning the situation indicates that you know something’s not right. Keep listening to that voice. It’s called your instinct, common sense, whatever—you have it for a reason. That little part of you that knows things are off-kilter deserves to be heard. Sometimes it seems easier to squelch that voice, to try and convince yourself that you’re happy, that things will change, etc., but doing so would be avoiding reality and those feelings would eventually re-surface with a vengeance.

This Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde thing doesn’t jibe with me. Is it really enough, in a committed relationship, to be treated with kindness and respect only half of the time? If someone truly loves you,  it should never be his or her intention to hurt you or inhibit your personal growth. Love can be defined in innumerable ways, but what a genuinely loving relationship entails to me is mutual respect, trust, openness, affection, and a commitment to growth, both as individuals and as a couple. The way your boyfriend is treating you is not how one who really loved you would; rather, he is being emotionally abusive.

In her book Emotional Abuse, Dr. Marti Tamm Loring details dozens of mechanisms of abuse, including some that you may have experienced: name-calling, criticizing, monitoring time, expressing excessive jealousy. The thing that worries me the most is that the behaviors he’s exhibiting are often just stepping stones to physical violence. He’s already waving major red flags—do you really want to stick around for the potentially dangerous outcome?

You basically have two options here, since the situation isn’t magically going to get better on its own: 1) to stay in the relationship and assert your need for major changes, suggesting therapy for him to work out his issues that are having a detrimental effect on both of you; and 2) to get out of the relationship, freeing yourself from his control and giving yourself time to feel strong and happy (not just half of the time!) again.

The first option is a risky one, as he could scoff at the idea of needing help, or blow up at you for insinuating that something was wrong with him. If he is receptive to the idea, however, perhaps there is a chance that he can turn things around with professional help. Be aware of the tendency to invest too much of yourself in his treatment, though; it’s easy, especially for women, who tend to think we can “fix” our partners’ problems by being perfect little support systems, to get stuck in the codependent zone if we’re not careful. As for option number two, which I think would behoove you the most, it is ultimately up to you to decide what is or isn’t a deal-breaker in your relationship. But keep in mind that no one deserves to be treated the way hetreating you.

I hate to say this, because I get sick of hearing it all the time too, but I say it because it’s true: you have your whole life ahead of you. Why waste these exciting years of self-discovery by trudging through a relationship that causes you misery? Take the time now, while you’re young and resilient, to learn to put yourself first. Yes, breaking up with someone you love is scary, and depressing, and it may make you feel in the beginning as though you’ve had a limb amputated, but slowly, day by day, it gets easier. Especially if you remind yourself why you ended it rather than dwelling on the good times. Surround yourself with supportive friends and family members, exercise, distract yourself with Saved by the Bell reruns, make collages—whatever works. And then, one day, it’ll dawn on you that the first thought you had that morning wasn’t, “Oh God, I miss so-and-so so much I just want to hide under my blanket with a pint of Haagen-Dazs  forever!”  You may even feel—surprise!—a bit relieved. Knowing that you can set personal boundaries and be happy on your own, that you can rely on that inner reserve of strength that you may have forgotten about along the way, is one of the most rewarding feelings ever. Give yourself a chance to get back to who you are, to what makes you feel alive and fulfilled. You’ll thank yourself later.