You Need Help: How Do I Get Over Breaking My Ex’s Heart?

Q:

I was the asshole who broke my ex-girlfriends heart. This has stuck with me for two years now.

We dated for two years, and I was completely head over heels for her. There was barely a moment I wasn’t thinking about her, and if we weren’t together, we were texting, non-stop. We were in so deep. But it wasn’t a healthy relationship, she was so co-dependent on me for her self worth. She had a history of depression and self-harm and I was the one who pulled her out of it. I was the one who stayed up with her on the nights she forgot how much she mattered and I was the one who stopped her from hurting herself more. I always told her I would always be with her and always love her.

After about two years, I had a work retreat for two weeks, no cell phone (weird, I know but didn’t think I would take up the time to explain that). It was the most separated we had ever been. I had forgot what it meant to have a thought not connected to her, or have a thought I didn’t immediately share with her. I realized I missed that simple level of freedom and I realized as much as I was giving to her, she wasn’t giving that level back to me. Two months after that trip, I broke up with her. She assumed all I ever told her were lies, that our whole relationship was a sham. It crushed me.

Cut to two years later, I’ve learned how to be independent, single, confident, and I feel like I am in the best place I’ve ever been in my life, yet this relationship still haunts me. Any advice on how to move on?


A:

I like that this question is framed as a literal “Am I The Asshole” Reddit post, because I can tell you with 100% certainty that you are NOT THE ASSHOLE. Nor is your ex for that matter. There is no asshole in this situation. There are just two people with different needs, in different places in their life, who were once together and who now are not.

That’s an overly simplified summary, sure. Leaving a relationship rarely is simple. People get hurt, and hurt people say hurtful things, like your ex suggesting that the whole relationship was a sham. But based on everything you wrote in your letter, you did what was best for both you AND your partner.

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I recently had a conversation with a friend about how, even though I sometimes make jokes about revenge, I truly do not wish harm on people who have harmed me. I don’t have to forgive them entirely, but I also don’t see the point in hoping they fail. In fact, I want the best for the people who have hurt me. I want them to get help, to grow, to become a better person so that they can avoid hurting others in the future. Now, I say all this NOT because I think you did anything wrong by breaking up with your ex but as reassurance that you CAN fuck up in relationships and that doesn’t mean you’re forever the asshole. Your ex might be harboring some anger toward you, but that isn’t healthy for anyone involved — a realization that your ex has to come to for herself.

You weren’t lying to your ex when you told her you would always be with her. That was likely true in the moment. But situations change, and that doesn’t erase or change the past. I hope that your ex will realize that eventually and come to see that the relationship was not a sham but rather that relationships change and staying with her when you were having these doubts about the relationship would have actually been way worse for everyone involved. You did the right and ultimately kind thing by ending the relationship.

In my conversation with my friend, we talked about how all we want is for the people who come into our lives to help us grow and for us to help them grow, too. It sounds like you are in a much better mental state. It sounds like you have grown. It sounds like you will be able to identify codependency in the future because of this growth and will be able to form healthier boundaries and healthier relationships. That is truly an ideal situation! Sometimes we have to go through messy relationships and messy breakups to learn more about ourselves.

Hopefully your ex will learn that she can’t hinge her wellbeing entirely on one person. It is of course okay and expected to lean on a partner during hard times, but one person cannot be an entire support network. You can’t ultimately control what your ex learns from this situation, but I also say all this to assure you that you do not need to hold onto guilt for how you handled things. You were there for your ex when she needed you, but you could not be her entire support system. And as you said, you were giving more than you were receiving.

It’s possible that you’ll continue to feel haunted by the relationship for a bit. Breakups haunt us even when we’re the ones who chose to breakup. Even when the breakup was the right thing to do. But I do think you’ll be able to move on and dwell on it less if you realize how much you’ve learned and grown from the experience and also see the potential for your ex to learn and grow from it.

If you take just one thing from my words, let it be this: Stop calling yourself an asshole!

Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya is a writer and critic currently living in Miami. Her fiction is upcoming in McSweeney's Quarterly Concern. Her pop culture writing can also be found at The A.V. Club and The Hollywood Reporter, and she wrote the webseries Sidetrack. You can catch her on Twitter and Instagram.

Kayla has written 247 articles for us.

7 Comments

  1. I really appreciate this question and Kayla’s response. My situation was somewhat similar, but I was the one who got dumped. I’ve been actively trying to let go of my anger towards my ex, but it’s difficult. It’s been a year and a half for me, and unfortunately I still think about it daily. I wish my ex was as thoughtful and self-aware as OP here.

  2. You absolutely did the right thing, not just for yourself but for your ex as well. The relationship as you described it was not sustainable – you cannot save another person from those kinds of demons. You can support people who are ready to get help outside of their family and love relationships, but trying to be the one who rescues them, and trampling all of your own boundaries in the process, is dangerous for both of you.

    I walked away from a person who had told me outright that I was the only one left she could trust, and that she would take her life if it weren’t for me. By the time I did that, I had poured everything I had – time, living space, money, emotional labour, mental energy, advocacy on her behalf – into trying to be what she needed. I promised her that we would get through it together no matter what. But she did not get better, she got worse, and pulled me down into a spiral of despair with her. When I finally put one small boundary back up, and let her push me away, she unleashed the most awful vitriol on me, told me I was a horrible person and a liar and that it would be my fault if she died.

    I left because I knew I would not survive if I didn’t, but I was wracked with guilt and afraid to tell my friends about what had happened because I thought they would judge me too. But they totally supported me, and helped me see the dynamics of the situation more clearly. I hope Kayla’s excellent response here and all of the supportive comments will help you too. Even with my friends’ support, the guilt stuck with me for years, until I got some therapy myself to deal with the aftereffects of multiple traumas (including this situation). So it’s normal for you to feel that way, even two years later – but understand that just because you feel it, that doesn’t mean you have to believe it. You did the right thing. <3

  3. I once had incredible guilt after leaving a relationship with a very codependent partner, blaming myself for not making her feel more secure. I even thought I deserved to feel trapped, because I had been a bad girlfriend and friend to others in my life (this is not true; in order to heal we need to break bad patterns, not sink further into them, and when we’re ready to heal, we owe it to ourselves and to everyone else in our lives to do so). It took great hindsight to realize that this ex had belittled or threatened to break up with me every time I asserted a boundary, and for that I internalized a lot of shame about having boundaries in the first place. It took me a while to realize that the guilt was a result her manipulation.

    Sometimes we love people who are broken, and they try to make us feel broken. Heck, sometimes we are broken ourselves, and we act in broken ways, but that doesn’t mean we deserve to have our boundaries taken away. Friend, if you were made to feel guilty or bad, surround yourself with people who help you overcome that feeling, and process it. Relearn to trust your gut instinct–the instinct that led you to do the hard thing and break up. Be proud of yourself.

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