Ask MR: Was My Breakup a Mistake?
09.28.17

Hi MR,

I recently broke up with my girlfriend of four years, and almost everything you described in this story about leaving a happy relationship, I felt, too. I guess I’m wondering…how do I know if I made the right decision in leaving? Did you regret it? Why did you leave? Was it a chemistry issue? A lack of compatibility? I’m in the midst of intense guilty sadness and am questioning whether I made the right call. My mind says I did…that if we got back together, I would just continue the cycle of going through the motions and being half-bored all the time. But on the other hand, my ex-girlfriend wants nothing more than for this to work and I’m afraid I’m making a huge mistake. Am I a monster for leaving someone who loves me unconditionally?

Thanks.


Hey,

I’m so sorry to hear you’re heartbroken. I know that dark place really well and (platitude incoming) the only thing that helped was time. I know that advice isn’t overly helpful, though. I know the thought of getting over your grief sounds just as upsetting as being in it. I know.

Since I wrote about ending my last relationship, a lot of people have asked me similar questions: Did I end up regretting it? Would they regret their breakups, too? My answer is almost always the same: no and probably not.

Maybe it’s patronizing to say so, but I believe that a lot of people should break up. I also believe that short-term regret and the intense desire to get back together afterward is part of the process. And if I could bold and underline one bit of advice I’ve received, tested, failed at, succeeded at, then passed on myself, it’d be that talking to your ex post-breakup makes it so much worse.

When a relationship reaches a breaking point, that means something. Whether or not the reasons are ironclad, they need to be observed from an emotional distance to be fully understood. That can’t happen if you’re still talking to one another. Believe me, I’ve tried to “heal together” or “stay in touch,” and I’ve reversed breakups that shouldn’t have been reversed. It all felt very reasonable and level-headed in the moment (We’re adults! We still care about each other! We can handle this!), but it was self-sabotage, every time and without a doubt. Even if the decision to break up seems ludicrous in the height of grief, I don’t think two people can healthily help each other nor come back together under those circumstances. The allure of pain relief is too great; no one’s thinking straight.

Of course, this has just been my experience (in both practice and observation), and all rules have exceptions, but not talking and taking time to heal are clichés for a reason. They just feel more complicated than you expect them to.

To answer your question, I ended that relationship due to a lack of compatibility. We were wonderful in a lot of ways, but there were certain things I felt were missing from the beginning, things I couldn’t stop myself from wanting no matter how hard I tried. (A maddening truth I dodged for years.) Ultimately, my desire to find those things overcame my desire to stay with him. I fought with myself a lot about that, but can now say, with my head held high, that it was not an unreasonable desire. I was not just bored, nor was I looking for Prince Charming. I was just looking for something different.

It’s okay to want something different! This is your life!

After we broke up, I was devastated. For weeks, I told myself we would get back together, but I didn’t do anything. Two months later, I convinced myself I was ready to talk to him again, but I didn’t say anything. I stuck it out and, sure enough, that all proved to be my grief talking. A year and a half later, I’m very much at peace with my decision and have been for a while.

My parents (who have a great marriage, but are very different from each other) have always said a lasting relationship is built on kindness, not a perfect match. It’s something I’ve always held close, and my respect for them and their marriage made my decision to leave a “kind” relationship in search of a “better match” much harder. But while I still hope to engender their approach one day, I’ve also come to appreciate they’re from a different time. They didn’t toil over their decision to commit, and they could never wrap their heads around how much I did.

I think a lot of us are at odds with their generation in this way. As much as they may shake their heads at our obsession with choice, having more options isn’t inherently bad. It just comes with its own challenges — ones I’m okay with taking on in exchange for the freedom to steer my own ship, to not drift along the current of “should.” Searching for a perfect match may be futile, but some people are more compatible than others. That spectrum exists and is not a binary — I’ve experienced its magic firsthand. And if long-term monogamy is what you want, I think it’s okay to put more stake in who you choose from the get-go, even if kindness could get you far without it.

Most of us need to adjust our expectations for all kinds of things, that’s true. That may be the enduring challenge of life itself! But for every hopeless romantic that needs to hear that love isn’t a fairytale, I’d argue there’s a logical worrier who needs to be reminded that relationships aren’t supposed to be traps, that a “good-enough marriage” as the ultimate landing place is its own kind of fairytale. Which do you think you are? I may be projecting, but something tells me you’re the latter.

You are not a monster. What you did was save yourself from a relationship you knew you would continue to find unfulfilling. You answered your gut, in spite of your fear, and if you reread your question, you said as much yourself. You also saved someone you deeply care about from investing in a relationship in which her partner wasn’t all-in. I think your decision was ultimately a kindness to her, too.

Photo by Ann Hermes/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images.

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  • miranda

    Haley, I’ve become so enamored with your writing over the past few months and love reading all of your posts. Your the first person I’ve ever thought this about, but I keep thinking, “I want her to write a BOOK!.” I’m hope I’m not wantonly throwing praise around, but sometimes I think you may be the Nora Ephron of our generation.

    • isabela

      yes, me too! haley, you’re truly great!

    • Haley Nahman

      Wow I dream of one day living up to this praise thank you!

    • Emily Crittenden

      So much agreement with this!!

    • Emily Capehart

      Agreed – a singular talent!

  • Teresa

    Three months ago I ended a “happy” years-long relationship because of your article. You gave me the confidence to do what I’d been thinking about for months. Post-breakup I haven’t been this happy in a long time. So thanks for doing what yo do!

    • same here! I was actually thinking of writing you a thank you note Haley 😉

      • Haley Nahman

        I will take no credit for it but so glad you guys are happy :’)

        • Delia

          haley I read your article about breaking up with your boyfriend. Your situation describes the internal war I am facing in an otherwise happy relationship. How did you actually bring yourself to talk to your boyfriend and end the relationship and how did he handle it?

  • Hannah

    Speaking as one in this exact position:

    It’s been a few months post breakup and recently I was talking with my ex’s mother (yes, we are still good friends). She brought up how the connection her son and I shared was truly something special, possibly once in a lifetime special. This sent me into a frantic spiral of regret and confusion. Had I undervalued what we had? Would I ever find anyone again who I could deeply connect with? Should I beg him to take me back before he moves on?

    I sat in this hole for a few days before realizing something painfully obvious but inifinitely true: you never fucking know. That’s the beauty and beast of life.

    Right now, I know how I feel. I may feel different tomorrow, and maybe in ten years I will regret this decision. Or I’ll be with someone I could never have imagined and it will have only happened because I took this leap. There are no guarantees in life, except that there are no guarantees.

    Even thought that might sound scary, I think it’s pretty awe inspiring.

    • Haley Nahman

      That’s such a great point. You really can’t, thank you for sharing. Also (and not that you’re asking for my input) it sounds really tough to heal with his family in your ear. :/

  • kjame

    Thanks for posting this. I broke up with my boyfriend of almost two years late last year, and we had a fairly “happy” relationship. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do, but 10 months have gone by and I am so much happier than I ever was during our entire relationship. It takes time to heal, but once you do, it’s so worth it.

  • elizabeth

    Haley I love your advice. This hits hard with me… I have been in a relationship for a little over a year and some days I feel the feelings described in this article. But some days I am like wait no this is great I’m kind of obsessed with you! Do you think figuring out these things can come in time?????? Help

    • Haley Nahman

      Hi! I think the ebb and flow of feelings is unavoidable in any relationship. Only you can search yourself for which of those feelings you described are more powerful on a gut-level. I know that answer is frustrating, but truth usually makes itself clear over time if you’re open to accepting it. Perhaps try to figure out which of the two camps I mentioned you most identity with: the hopeless romantic or the logical worrier? Are you fighting your feelings with overly-romantic notions or with overly-logical ones? Until you feel more clear on that, try accepting the feelings you have as okay. Because they are. Free yourself to observe them over time.

  • D

    Very thought provoking. I’ve been on a couple of dates with a guy who’s really great, and we’re planning to see each other again…but I’m already wondering if the “spark” is there. We have a great time when we’re together and the physical chemistry is there, but I still I feel like I should feel more excited? Knowing what you know now, how long would you give it with this type of thing? I’m generally too quick to give up on things with promise and I do feel ready for the experience of a relationship…I just don’t know how I’ll know if it’s right, or when.

    • Abby

      I think a lot of people overvalue the idea of a “spark” or excitement in a relationship. Like they take their entire life chasing the single most exciting and spark igniting partner…when if you really spend your life with someone a lot of the excitement of an early relationship is traded in for a comfort that isn’t less good, just different. If the sex is good and you enjoy their company, let it ride! No reason to cut off something you’re having fun with just to meet a vague excitement quota.

    • Haley Nahman

      I think spark can come with time and experiencing different things together. People surprise you. You surprise yourself! I don’t see the need to force something if it doesn’t feel right (what’s the point?), but if it’s fun and no harm to continue, I think compatibility (in whatever form) can surface over time. Pressure can be a spark kill.

      • D

        This is a great perspective. Thanks for replying, and for sharing your experiences so candidly. I’m another that always looks out and enjoys your work in particular. It always feels like chatting with a very smart friend 🙂

    • Engels_Beard

      As someone who ended up married to a man I knew for five years before we dated, the spark can happen when it’s least expected. I never really considered him before as a romantic partner, nor he I because we were just in different places in life and with other partners. The spark is a result of knowing someone and you have to go through some shit together for it to ignite (at least in my experience).

  • Fayla Garcia

    Haley your insight is dead on. I only wish this was available last year, but I got through it. Time is the only thing that really helps to see it all clearly and heal. It is the best and worst advice, in that moment it relieves you of almost nothing but, now I know I could not possibly be in that relationship any longer. Trust your gut!!!!! There are plenty moments of doubt after it ends but at the core of it, you know in your center that it’s just what you need.

  • Eliza

    Hi Haley, thank you again for writing such a poignantly relatable article. The article you referred to earlier from awhile back, where you discussed your break up, really hit home for me and I was really grateful when you responded “You’ll be so ok.” Since then, it took awhile for me and my boyfriend to break up;it actually only happened three months ago, but I have continuously reminded myself that I will be ok, even if it takes some time. I hope you continue to write relationship articles like these, because they are always the first articles I look for on ManRepeller.

    Back to this article though..

    You question a lot when you break up in your mid-20’s because you’re still questioning who you are with yourself. I’m only 26 and I feel like since my break up, I’ve been through what I have defined as “waves,” in order to attempt at describing the break up process. We’ve had “talks” which have led to hooking up, fights about what we were doing on Instagram/Snapchat, and bouts of texting one another – debating whether or not breaking up was the “right” choice. Ultimately, going through a break up is painful and the idea of getting back together after a short period of time a part is not always the best idea. I think when you decide to break up, you do so for a reason. If you get back together, maybe it was meant to be, but you need that time a part to really figure out who you are outside of the relationship.

    I call myself a hopeless romantic. I still think there is “that guy” out there for me. I agree with Haley that it is not a “fairytale” that I am looking for, but someone I consider a compassionate, considerate and respectful partner that I would thoroughly enjoy waking up to every day. I think when you’re in your 20’s and looking for someone like that, it can be really hard, but you shouldn’t sell yourself short. If you’re not happy, the relationship won’t be happy for either of you.

    Give yourself time and breathing room. Trust me, it’s the only thing that works. Hugs all around!

  • ByeBeckz

    I read your first article at a confusing point in my relationship, and I really think (like so many others) that you were the voice I needed to hear. I hate discussing relationships, the good or the bad parts, with anyone, which made my feelings all the more difficult to deal with, because all I wanted was a soundboard and someone to tell me “your feelings aren’t crazy, and breaking up will not be the end of the world”. I finally went through with the break up this summer and it sucked, as they always do.

    In the comments below you and others stated the sparks can come at any time. I think my problem is wondering what it will be like to have THE spark, the realization that this is YOUR person, the one you’re happy to spend the rest of your life with and commit to marriage/a family with. I’ve had 2 boyfriends of 2 years each, and with both, within a few months, I knew it wasn’t meant to be, and it made the relationships so bittersweet. Both boyfriends talked of marriage and forever and I tried so hard to feel what they did but never could.

    I have too many married/engaged friends, and then follow blogs like this run by Leandra, or Barefoot Blonde by Amber Fillerup Clark, who both married rather young. I know everyone has their own path, but it’s hard to not feel like you’re “losing” (at the ripe old age of 25), and once I reach that level of self-pity, I just completely rethink my break-ups. I just wrote this long post to say THANK YOU for reminding me my feelings were valid, grief will pass, and everything will be ok.