After 11 Years Together, My Partner Suddenly Wants To Call Off Our Engagement


My partner and I have had an amazing year blasting through major life events together: engagement and wedding planning, big career changes, family stuff, etc. Next week, we’ll be celebrating 11 years together. “All of a sudden”, she announces she doesn’t want to get married anymore, and that the relationship needs troubleshooting. She held up a mirror to our situation: She’s completely engrossed by a PhD that will naturally evolve into a lifelong ultramarathon of late nights, few weekends off, little free time. I on the other hand am not as career-driven (very satisfied with my 9 to 5) and tend to prioritize friends, extracurriculars, and of course, time with her.

Prompted by this discussion, I’m now seeing in a new light that she’s not interested in prioritizing personal relationships, and is not willing to sacrifice her work in any way. I’m now seeing all the times she wasn’t there with me. It’s not news, but only now I feel I need to ask myself if I’m really okay with that.

I feel like I’ve built a whole personality around accommodating her schedule: apologizing for her absences and filling in for what she doesn’t make time for (cooking, housework). Very often I find myself waiting at home for her like a housewife, crossing my fingers and toes for quality time. But I agreed to all of this! This dynamic evolved organically over time, and we discussed work-life balance and long-term goals before getting engaged. I figured if I’m able to do all these things, and I love her, and she loves me, then we’re solid. I didn’t mind the imbalance: I love using acts of service to cement my devotion to her.

We love each other’s families, we’re each others best friends, and I want to be with her forever. I had entered a place where I didn’t think breaking up would ever be an option, and now I feel like I’ve lost my self and my self-respect. I don’t know how to come back from this upset, and I have no idea what to do. While I feel so grateful that she held up the mirror, now I have to ask myself if I deserve more than someone unwilling to put me first, who doesn’t seem interested in life outside the ivory tower.


I can feel the 11 years of love throughout your message. You two have a deep, loving, intimate history with plans to continue a very serious lifelong commitment you both seem excited about. Your last paragraph gives all the reasons why you two work far beyond attraction or sex. You’re phrasing of “I feel grateful that she held up the mirror” shows me that you both respect and love each other so much that you’re willing to go to the scarier places of a relationship: the what-ifs. Saying that you’ve lost your self care and self respect is a big thing to say, which makes me think there were possibly other times throughout the relationship you may have felt versions of this? You’re seeing 11 years of decisions in a completely new light, which is terrifying when you think you’ve settled into a lifelong relationship with someone. I wonder what it is about this conversation that makes you rethink everything: all of the times you rearranged your life for her?

Which brings me to my next observation: How much of this could be attributed to cold feet? Sometimes the major life step to marital commitment can bring out productive conversations, but sometimes the nerves can skew feelings and fear-based beliefs in wild directions. When reading through the first paragraph, I get the sense that this “all of a sudden” conversation around different priorities is either something she’s been stashing away and afraid to bring up, or she’s grappling with a million pre-wedding doubts running through her brain (which is natural for any major life commitment). Either way, the phrase that comes to mind is “if they wanted to they would.” Were you genuinely okay with the times she wasn’t there? Does she express her love for you in other ways? You both have different priorities in life, which is totally ok. I’m wondering if she’s ever offered to sacrifice small things, such as offering to do the dishes once a week or planning just one weekend a month to spend quality time with you. PhDs are tough on relationships, but not impossible. It may feel like a lot for her to give up one weekend (as an example) just like it may feel like a lot for you to do all the housework. The imbalance is okay…as long as she’s making an effort to love you in ways you’d like to be loved.

We tend to think of relationships in a give-and-take way, oftentimes equally balancing out over a period of time. I don’t think that it’s as simple as that and often we have to go many years, if not a decade, where one person gives a little more and one person takes a little more until a certain situation resolves itself. Right now, it seems like you are giving and she is taking, which makes sense if she’s in a PhD program and you have a bit more time on your hands. Will this always be the case? Will your fiancée always want this dynamic, or is there an understanding that once she settles into the role she wants post-PhD, the roles may even back out? It’s okay if she doesn’t place her priorities in friends or relationships like you do, but it’s not okay if she’s not willing to prioritize you in a way that’s equivalent to work.

I’m clearly not going to know the whole picture just based on a few paragraphs you wrote. However, if you’ve discussed long-term goals before getting engaged, I’m surprised this wasn’t brought up earlier. You’ve known each other for longer than 11 years! If you decided to get engaged with similar priorities and goals, this sudden change of mind is extremely odd (and potentially fear-driven, as mentioned earlier). If these priorities and goals haven’t matched in conversations before getting engaged, what prompted you to continue to make these life changes?

This is really tough, because I can tell you really care about her and you both have invested in the relationship. If you haven’t found one already, I would suggest seeing a couples therapist. I’m a big believer in couples therapy, even if you decide to go your separate ways. It sounds like a liaison between you both could help you parcel out how your goals integrate (or don’t) into each others’ lives.

I hope you’re both able to find peace in whatever you decide to do next.

You can chime in with your advice in the comments and submit your own questions any time.

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Em Win

Originally from Toledo, Ohio, Em now lives in Los Angeles where she does many odd jobs in addition to writing. When she's not sending 7-minute voice messages to friends and family, she enjoys swimming, yoga, candle-making, tarot, drag, and talking about the Enneagram.

Em has written 71 articles for us.


  1. I read this and then read the article next to it “37 Quotes From Queer Authors About Heartbreak, Loss and Moving the F*ck On.” As Em said, we know a fraction of the situation, but as someone who just ended a 4+ relationship after a “held up a mirror” (though different circumstances), I will share this quote from next door:

    “There are two rumors about breaking up that I feel might be helpful to address here.

    One is that breakups should be clean. The other is that you should only breakup when you’re not in love. The truth is, breakups are usually messy, the way people are messy, the way life is often messy. I’s okay for a breakup to feel like a disaster. It doesn’t feel okay, but I assure you it is okay. It’s also true that you can breakup with someone you still love. Because those two things are not distinct territories: love and not loving anymore.”

    – Mariko Tamaki, Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me

    I have no advice or further insight, but I am sharing the truth that breakups can happen when you’re still in love with that person. I needed to hear this, maybe you do, too?

  2. I found this sentence chiling and hitting very close to home “I feel like I’ve built a whole personality around accommodating her schedule” .
    Dear writer, i send you a massive virtual hug !
    I personnally broke off a beautiful and loving relationship 6 months ago after i realized just this : i was accommodating for her all the time, as i was for too many people.
    After being through a lot, I feel like i belong to myself totally, i’m true to myself and i discover everyday new desires and ways to find joy and love !
    Good luck to you

  3. I too felt the love emanating from this letter. What a beautiful thing! But what I can’t tell is, does it ultimately flow both ways? Is your partner saying my academic career/life comes first but I love you dearly and still want to get married one day? Or just the first part of this statement, leaving you to fill in the dots? I can’t tell if they are as committed to you as you are to them, despite your use of ‘we’. Because if they are, you can reasonably expect the one-one time Em suggests. But if they are not… seems you have a hard decision to make. We can’t change another person’s fundamental makeup and you acknowledge that you signed up for this, but that doesn’t mean you have to settle for second best forever. A PhD has an end point and shouldn’t be a life-long ultramarathon! You sound like such a wonderful, committed and lovely person who should be cherished by your significant other. You deserve reciprocal love x

    • Yeah, that “lifelong ultramarathon of late nights, few weekends off, little free time” mention surprised me too – obviously I wouldn’t want the writer to provide identifying details, but it seems unlikely to me that a PhD in any topic could ONLY lead to that kind of workload! The question of how long is left the PhD seems relevant – is she possibly burning out/becoming overwhelmed with how to balance that difficult life she has planned for herself with a relationship, as the next phase of that career approaches?
      And is there a need to move for that career, which would disrupt the writer’s job and social situation?
      There is a mention of big career changes recently – maybe that career change has been part of this “sudden” change of heart.

  4. I’m reading this from the POV of a divorcee, after 20+ years. My ex was in grad school for many years of our early relationship. Like a frog in hot water, the gradual choices made weren’t noticeable month over month.
    I think this pause is a good opportunity to ask what your own goals are, outside of this relationship and being a support person to someone you love very much. Ultimately, a PhD works best when there’s a spouse in the wings to support the “brains.” Now’s a great time to explore the idea of what’s at your core as an individual that needs to be nurtured separately from your relationship. Time on those pleasures is super important. By feeling and knowing these things, you’ll have new sources of joy— things that are yours to nurture, just for you. Friendships, hobbies, pet projects.
    Maybe you already do. Playing second fiddle to an academic life isn’t going to give you the same satisfaction as it gives her. You need your own “trophy case.”

    I hope that makes sense. Obviously, this is my own 20/20 hindsight and there’s not enough data to make some of the assumptions I did. Good luck!

  5. Academic here–just want to say that for many academics, the end of the PhD brings a major increase in workload, not a decrease! Looking for academic jobs can be extremely challenging and time-consuming; tenure-track academic positions are a massive step up in terms of workload/expectations; teaching-intensive and temporary positions bring huge workloads and stressors of their own. Not all PhD students want to enter academia, so maybe the end of the PhD really will bring about a positive transition in lifestyle/workload–but if the partner wants to be an academic, I’d be very wary of setting up ‘post PhD’ as a time when work/life balance improves.

  6. I’m a pretty firm believer that if someone was able to blindside us in a relationship, we weren’t as connected as we thought we were. This is because, if we were really truly connected, we would have been able to pick up the signs. I’m not saying this to belittle OP. I’m saying this to help by pointing out that realizing we weren’t as close as we thought we were can actually be a blessing. It means that we can either (1) really start being real together; (2) start being real with someone else; or at the very least (3) start being real with ourselves.

    What do you want, OP? I realize, when we’ve spent, presumably, a lifetime putting other people first, that’s not an easy question to answer. Is your (ex) partner right that you aren’t as driven? That is completely fine. You don’t have to be as driven. But if you aren’t, a fundamental aspect of compatibility is being generally on the same page. You don’t have to be working on a PhD, but it does help to have something that is consuming for you if you want to be with someone who gets consumed by things. That way, you can have a roughly balanced relationship.

    Unless I’m mistaken, from your letter, I sense resentment. Often, when we’re using other people to help attend to OUR needs rather than meeting our own, we tend to lean on resentment over anger. Anger sets boundaries. But, resentment allows us to quietly maintain bitterness as we continue to get some of our needs met by our partner. So, what needs are you meeting of your own when you put others first?

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