Man admits to keeping girlfriend in the "gray area"


**This is a work of nonfiction based on actual events that I have experienced firsthand; used with permission.

We met on Zoom on a blustery October afternoon. He'd been subscribed to my newsletter for two years before he booked a consultation. He spent the first five minutes telling me he'd been on the fence about reaching out for support. And then he told me his story.

He'd been stringing along his girlfriend for the past three years by keeping her in the gray area. He wasn't sure if he wanted to be with her long-term, but he didn't want to let her go either. He liked having her around as a backup option, someone who was always there for him when he needed her.

"It sounds like you're using her," I said bluntly.

He nodded. "I know it's not fair to her. She might leave me if I let her get too close or comfortable. So I keep her in this place where she's not really sure what we are."

I could see the fear in his eyes. He was scaring himself with his own behavior. He knew he was treading on dangerous ground.

"This isn't a healthy way to live," I told him. "You're not being honest with yourself or with her. Sooner or later, this will blow up in your face."

He nodded again, looking resigned. He knew I was right.

"It's time to make a decision," I said. "You can't keep her in the gray area forever. You either need to commit to her or let her go. At the very least, you need to give her a choice."

He took a deep breath and sighed. He knew what he had to do. "She has never given me an ultimatum or pressured me in any way," he said. "But I know that if I don't make a move soon, she will."

"You need to get clear about what you want, first and foremost," I told him. "If you're not sure you want to be with her long-term, let her go. Being in limbo is more than unfair. It's cruel."

I could see the relief in his eyes. He knew he'd made the right decision but was afraid of what would come next.

He nodded understanding.

"Thank you for your advice," he said as we ended our call. "I'll think about what you've said."

Then he booked his next session.

The gray area is a dangerous place.

Ambivalence is the birthplace of mistrust, miscommunication, and misunderstanding.

The gray area is where one person holds all the power, and the other feels powerless, uncertain, and unimportant.

It's a breeding ground for resentment. When you're in the gray area, you're not living. You exist in this limbo state, waiting for something to change while actively doing nothing.

Stagnant holding patterns make it impossible to move forward. There can be no resolution when you're unsure about what's happening, and neither person is willing to have an open and honest conversation.

“While some people cope well with not knowing what to expect, others find it hard to manage uncertainty. Then, most people just fall somewhere along a spectrum, tolerating uncertainty more or less depending on the situation.” — Jacquelyn Johnson, PsyD.

Gray areas can appear at any stage of a relationship

My client had been in this relationship for three years, but others may find themselves in the gray from the start or decades down the line.

The gray area is more than just a transitional phase. It's a way of relating that can become entrenched and damaging over time.

One person gets to feel safe and secure, while the other is left feeling anxious and insecure. It's not a healthy way to live, and it's not a sustainable way to build a lasting relationship.

While uncertainty is normal and can actually be positive, it can take a toll when it's constant.

How to tell if you're in the "gray."

When you're involved with an ambivalent partner, you may find yourself:

  • Feeling like you're always the one pushing for commitment
  • Not knowing where you stand in the relationship
  • Being told one thing but seeing another
  • Always being the one making plans
  • Constantly wondering where you fit into their life
  • Having to guess how they feel about you
  • Feeling like you're always the one trying to please them

If any of these resonate with you, you're likely in the gray.

What to do if you're in the "gray."

The first step is to recognize that this isn't a healthy lifestyle. If you want more for yourself, you have to be willing to ask for it. That means getting clear on what you want.

Do you want to stay in the relationship as it is? Do you want more commitment? Are you willing to walk away if your needs aren't being met?

It's also essential to take a look at your part in the dynamic.

Are you afraid of commitment? Are you unwilling to have tough conversations? Are you holding back because you're not sure what you want?

Getting clear on your needs and desires is an essential step in moving out of the gray.

If you're ready to take the first step, here's what you can do:

- Talk to your partner about your feelings.

- If they're unwilling to talk or dismiss your feelings, that's a clear sign that they're not ready to give you what you need.

- In that case, it may be time to walk away. It hurts, but it's better than continuing to live in the void of relationship nonexistence.

The next step is to have an honest conversation with your partner about what you're looking for. If they're not willing to meet you halfway, you know what you need to do.

It's not always easy, but it's important to remember that you deserve to be in a relationship that meets your needs. You deserve to be with someone who loves and values you and who is willing to give you the same in return. And if you're commitment-minded, you deserve that too.

The bottom line

The gray area is limbo.
It's not this or that.
It's neither here nor there.

And it's not where you can be happy or have a healthy relationship. If you're in a vague relationship, it's time to take action and ask for what you need. Otherwise, you'll just be stuck in relationship purgatory indefinitely.

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Intimacy & Relationship coach, writer, and creator of The Sensuality Project. I specialize in Relationship-ing (it's a verb).

Los Angeles County, CA

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