Here’s The Thing is an advice column/newsletter where I mostly beg people to either stop dating someone or to ask their crush out. Or I talk about weird things that came to my mind that no one is paying me to write about. I can never decide if I should capitalize the “the” in Here’s The Thing or not; apologies on lack of consistency.
A PERFECT ANGEL:
My ex-girlfriend and I broke up this past January. We first started dating 5&1/2 years ago, when we were both in undergrad. For a long time it was wonderful: exciting, fun, supportive, everything I could have ever imagined a relationship would be. Lingering at the back of this happy time was my partner's fear of commitment and general anxiety about relationships. Her anxiety came and went, but when it was high she would express worry about later regretting being in a relationship when she was young, fear about ever making a long term commitment like marriage, and a general concern about not doing what she was supposed to be doing or had envisioned herself doing at this stage in her life. When this would happen, I would try to reassure her with sentiments like, it's okay, we can take this one day at a time, if there ever comes a time when you aren't happy in this relationship then we stop. I would also ask her if there was anything we could do differently, anything I could do differently, but she always said there was nothing for us to change.
Eventually her anxiety got worse, and after dating for 3 years, we decided that it could be helpful for us to take a break. The idea was that some time apart could help her feel more independent, less stressed, and like she had done more of the things she was "supposed to do". Flash forward about 6 months, and she was desperate to end the break and get back to being in love. Unsurprisingly, the anxieties later returned and we went through a year and a half of being various iterations of a couple: dating but not using bf/gf, committed relationship, friends/on a break, then back to a relationship, etc...
This January I told her that I couldn't keep doing this, and either needed full commitment or to cut off communication entirely. Her response was, I love you so much, you are my person, you are a great partner, but I can't handle being in a relationship. We have not spoken since then.
My question is, how do I move on from a relationship like this? I find myself wishing that she had told me she didn't love me anymore, or told me I had some flaw that pushed her away, something I could hold on to when moving forward. There are other challenges, like living only a couple miles apart and having many mutual friends. Some of these friends have, without me asking and with me definitely not wanting this information, mentioned that she has been really sad and having a hard time with the breakup. It's difficult to keep out the thought that we'd both be happier if we were still together (probably not true in the long term given that this is what she chose). It's hard to figure out how to stop being in love with (or even just loving) someone. In the last five years she has shared all of her anxieties with me, she hurt me at times, she has gone through personality and life changes; I loved her through all of these things, why would I stop loving her now? Help.
First and foremost, not that you came here seeking validation for this piece of your letter, but you did the right thing. I’m sure there were minor mistakes you made/things you wish you’d done differently in the scheme of five and a half years with a person, but you have handled and are handling a shit-ass situation so incredibly maturely, gracefully and kindly.
This is one of those Life Situations that sucks pretty much each way you slice it. I have so so so much sympathy for you; the ending of your relationship was not because of anything either of you did particularly wrong, it was just a bad fit. Those endings sometimes hurt the most, but also, you can’t fix them. You can’t make the two of you want different things. You can try to do “compromises” (like you guys taking a break or her dating someone for five years exclusively), but those don’t change the fundamentals. You two want mutually exclusive things— in fact, she herself wants two mutually exclusive things!—and you can’t live life both ways. She doesn’t get to run a control group on life and see what happens if she’s with you vs if she’s not.
I also have a lot of empathy for her, partially because she and I have some things in common, but also because she tried really hard to make something work, to change what she wanted, and it didn’t work. She couldn’t figure out how to be satisfied. I think that’s very likely to be a lifelong struggle for her—I think it’s incredibly likely that she has a hard time feeling excited enough or thrilled enough by life all the time. I believe very deeply that it will take a whole lot of work and self-examination on her part to figure out how she personally chooses to deal with the fact that she’s not a commitment person in a world that really favors commitment. (There are lots of options, she’ll figure out what she wants to try next). It’s hard; I commend her for trying. I don’t necessarily commend the way she handled every piece of your relationship, but I think there are plenty of people out there who feel like she feels and commit to a person or a city or a job or a life and then they feel stuck or miserable and they do super destructive things because they feel like they can’t get out of the situation they committed to. (Think cheating, drinking, spending lots of money they don’t have, etc.)
My point in saying all of this is: as unbelievable as it might seem, this is not about you. It wasn’t that you weren’t enough. It wasn’t that what you were offering wasn’t up to snuff. It’s that she couldn’t stay. There was not a way in which being in a relationship while this young wouldn’t feel like a loss of freedom or opportunity to her. That is the beginning and end of it. You could have been anyone and she would feel this way. The problem is that you’re one person; the problem is that you can’t be everyone. And right now, she feels like she needs to flirt with every stranger, travel to every city, try every restaurant, etc, in order to be happy. I don’t know if it will work—you can look up the happiness levels of “satisficers” vs “maximizers” and see the data for yourself—but she believes that’s the only way to settle herself. And so, because she believes that, for now, it’s the truth. For now the truth is: she couldn’t be happy in a relationship. And that included in a relationship with you.
There was no way to be in a long-term relationship with her where you both were happy. You exhausted all the options. The world in which you are happier together simply doesn’t exist, unfortunately. It may have at one point in the past, and it may feel like it could have existed in the future if you stayed together, but that is sadly untrue. You did your best. You showed up, you even fucking broke it off so she could explore other stuff! You did everything. You showed up and showed and up and showed up. You even were mature enough and open enough for her to have open talks about her fears about being in a relationship!! Holy shit!!! Do you realize how great that is? You did your job which was showing up and loving a person as best as you could. I just want you to hear and know that you left nothing on the table, that there was nothing you missed, that you didn’t fuck this up. No one did!
So OF COURSE you’re fucking sad. OF COURSE you still have a lot of love for her. OF COURSE you aren’t just moving swiftly and merrily along thrilled with the end of this!!! That seems perfectly fucking reasonable! BEYOND reasonable! That seems healthy and normal! You can’t just turn love off like a faucet. It doesn’t work that way. In fact, you’ll probably love/have love for her for a while! And it might hurt for a while, too. It might still suck ass for months. (Sorry, that’s just the truth).
Your job right now is not to stop loving her as quickly as possible. That’s not the goal. That’s not obtainable nor is it very kind or gentle to yourself. Your job is to build up your life. When you stop dating someone after five and half years there is going to be a pretty fucking large hole in your life. A hole of fun, love, laughter, support, sex, etc. You’ve got to start filling some of that hole with other shit. That absolutely does NOT mean you should try dating someone else!!! Please, if you were considering that, put that idea in a little box and tuck it under your bed for later.
It means working on friendships, putting effort into hobbies you haven’t been spending time on, going to therapy if that’s an option for you, taking up bird watching, learning Japanese, getting into cross country skiing. Whatever the fuck sounds even a notch above sitting in your bed groaning and cursing your life, try it. (Also, of course, feel free to occasionally wallow; you can literally set a timer for 15 minutes if you need to and give yourself a daily allotment of wallowing). Some days and hours you will be going through the motions. Sometimes you’ll be like, “Why the fuck am I playing tennis with Steve? This in no way makes up for the time I used to spend having hot sex with Angelica1!!! This blows!”
And you’re right! It doesn’t make up for long term stable love with the person you want to be with. But you’re building your life back up again so that someday in the future—NOT NOW WHILE YOU’RE STILL NOT OVER YOUR EX!!!—you are ready for the next person.
Your job is this: grief.
That’s the job right now and grief sucks ass and feels like pure shit but sometimes, if you let it, it also teaches you things, often in a very Karate-Kid-painting-a-fence-to-learn-martial-arts kind of way. Grieve the future you thought you two had; grieve the past you fondly remember; grieve the present that didn’t go the way you’d like it to have gone. Grieve this person whom you loved whom you now can’t talk to (THAT IS VERY SAD! Hell yeah! You should grieve that!) Cry, journal, scream into a pillow about how it’s unfair, call your best friend, eat three snickers bars in the shower. Keep going. There’s no way out but through.
The good news, the really, really, really good news is that time is going to do a lot of the heavy lifting. (You have work to do to be sure, and a lot of the work is simply Feeling Like Shit and Keeping Going kind of work). But time will help you along. It might take longer than you want, but the pain will fade.
Be kind and cordial if you see her around. Wish her well, but protect yourself and keep your boundaries strong. (This means do not go back to talking to her/flirting with her/anything resembling romance or close contact).
Be gentle and kind to yourself. You’re going through it! Life is hard right now and it’s not even hard because you did something wrong! You did everything2 right and still got hurt! That’s not supposed to happen! It’s unfair! It’s how life goes and all you can do is keep going forward so that you get to the next really good thing. I hope that eventually you get to the point where you look back with joy that you guys got to be together for as long as you did; just because it didn’t last forever doesn’t negate how great of a relationship it was. You don’t need to be there now! But maybe someday!
I have no idea what her name is.
I’m 100% you messed up something at some point, but you get what I’m saying.
You can submit your own question—or yell at me about how I’m wrong—by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org