I wrote the below advice column in September of 2017, and am re-sharing it today in honor of Mistakes Month. I still get questions all the time about staying in or leaving relationships that feel just left of “right”—and while I more so believe in a shifting set of pros and cons than a divine path forward—I do think most people have a deeper truth hidden somewhere in their guts, layered under a lot of secondary emotions like fear and guilt. It’s just about finding it. Below, two of us go searching.
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?
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. Or rather, the inevitable healing that will happen within that 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’ve felt that.
Since I wrote about ending my longest 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 could be in more compatible relationships than the ones they’re in—especially if they spend a lot of time fretting over who they’re with. I also believe that deep regret and the intense desire to get back together after a breakup is part of the process, rather than proof of a mistake. 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 always makes things harder, even if it seems like it might do the opposite.
Time and space serve an important function. When a relationship reaches a breaking point, that means something. Whether the reasons are ironclad or evergreen, I think they need to be observed from an emotional distance to be fully understood. And 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 hurt more than I needed to and 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 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, and could have continued on the way we were, 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.
I can’t stress this enough: 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. Ultimately 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 who 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 for wanting something else. 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 Flashpop/Smashed egg timer via Getty Images.
Ask MR Identity by Madeline Montoya.