I’ve stayed because of his illness

Dear Meredith,

I came to the U.S. from Europe to study for a year and started dating a guy in my program. I had no intention of starting a serious or long-term relationship, but he was fun and nice and didn't seem to have serious expectations. When I brought up the topic he dismissed it by saying "we'll see where it goes." We didn't get that close on an emotional level, and we also have pretty different values and world views, but we're both of a friendly, easy-going disposition so we didn't fight. He asked me if I wanted to be exclusive and I agreed, even though I would have preferred a more open fling (I now realize this was a mistake). He did agree to a temporary open relationship while I went back home for three weeks over Christmas.

When I came back, everything changed. The first week of the new semester I took him to the emergency room because he had chest pains, and he was diagnosed with cancer and immediately hospitalized. He was obviously terrified, and I could tell that my presence helped him a lot, so I slept in the hospital with him every night and pretty much spent every free moment with him, letting my school work and social life take a back seat. It was a very intense time of confusing emotions, and when he said he loved me, I said it back, which seemed natural considering how much I was taking care of him – surely I must love him, I thought.

After he was discharged, I took a step back because I realized this level of commitment was way too much for me to handle. His mom was there to take care of him and I saw him a few times per week, sometimes less if school was very busy. As the weeks went by, however, I started to feel more and more trapped. I realize now that I feel a lot of affection for him but not love. Our conversations are usually kind of shallow and I'm having a lot of trouble starting real, honest and heartfelt talks with him, partly because he is not one to easily share his feelings, and partly because I'm worried that if I speak the truth about my feelings, I will hurt him.

I don't feel ready for this commitment (which in the long run would not even be feasible because I can only stay in the U.S. for another year after this, and I wouldn't want to anyway most likely), but I don't know if I could live with myself if I broke his heart on top of everything else. I feel so shallow and selfish and cruel, but at the same time it also seems wrong to live a lie. I don't want to break his spirit when he needs all the fighting power he can get. What do I do?

– 23 and at a standstill

Tell him what you told us, specifically the following points:

1. You have to move home.
2. The relationship was too serious for you before the diagnosis. Just six months ago you asked for an open relationship for Christmas.
3. You care about him a lot, but you don't see this evolving into a long-term relationship. You want to end it now, before there's confusion.

All of that sounds pretty fair to me, and in no way implies that you're a bad person. It's not as though you want to ditch him because he's sick. In fact, it's his illness that has kept you around.

He's got a mom to take care of him, and if he's open to it, he can have you as a friend. I know you fear breaking his heart, but the longer you wait, the worse it might get.

Also, he might know this is coming. You might be easier to read than you think.

– Meredith

Readers? Should she end it now? How?