You Need Help: Why Can’t I Break Up With Them?

feature image by Zackary Drucker as part of Broadly’s Gender Spectrum Collection.

Q:

I am the literal worst at breaking up with people. So much so that I stayed in my last relationship TWO WHOLE YEARS after I knew there wasn’t a future for us because the idea of looking them in the eye and watching them be hurt because of me made me physically sick to my stomach. I have once again found myself in a relationship that it not quite right for me, and yet for the same reasons I can’t bring myself to end it. My partner frequently tells me that they want to marry me/be together forever, and I know for a fact that that is not what I want. But it’s probably what’s going to end up happening because I would rather die than see them heartbroken because of me. I have literally fantasized about what it would be like if I had never met them or thought about moving to the opposite coast just so I could avoid telling them that I don’t want to be with them. How do you do this? How do you put your needs above someone else’s? How do you break someone’s heart without breaking your own too?

A:

Please break up with your partner. Sooner rather than later. No one likes breaking up, and I can tell you right now that it’ll probably be hard and painful for both you and your partner, but you need to do it. If you’re this sure (you say you know for a fact that you don’t want the same things they do), you need to end it. The longer you draw this out, the worse it’s going to be. And I know that it’s exactly that fear that is holding you back, but I don’t want to mince words at all here: You need to break up with them.

You want to know how to put your needs above someone else’s, but you are not actually honoring your partner’s needs right now by staying with them. Even if they don’t want to break up, what you’re doing is hurting them — they just don’t know it yet. I say yet because even though your partner might not know how you’re feeling right now, chances are that if things continue the way they have been, they’ll piece it together. They’ll feel that you’re not fully present in the relationship. You’ll likely become more avoidant the more your wants and needs start to diverge from theirs. And then it will end very messily!

It is not selfish to break up with someone because the relationship isn’t the right fit; it is selfish to stay just because you don’t want to deal with their pain or your own. I’m sorry if I’m being harsh, but I promise I just want what’s best for you and your partner in this situation. By breaking up with them, you are actually putting their needs and your needs first! Your partner deserves to be with someone who is just as all-in as they are. They deserve to be with someone who is honest about their feelings and level of commitment. It might be hard to see it this way, but that’s because you’re living in it and everything is seen in close-up. A breakup will provide space and a more zoomed-out perspective, and while it will suck for a while, I think you’ll eventually start to see why it’s the right thing to do.

What you’re experiencing isn’t uncommon. Plenty of people get involved with someone who is more invested than they are. And in some instances, I do believe that people can grow into love, that people don’t necessarily have to start at the same level of investment/commitment in order for things to eventually work out. I see it happen all the time in situations like arranged marriages. Maybe you hoped your feelings would change, but it sounds like you’re far beyond that point now. You are fantasizing about your partner never having entered your life! I know that these are thoughts and not actions, but when people stay in relationships too long due to a fear of breaking up, sometimes those hurtful thoughts snowball into hurtful actions like cheating. You don’t want to get to a point where you feel a need to sabotage the relationship in order to end it.

Please do not stay with someone — and especially do not marry them! — just because you can’t stand to see them heartbroken. Breakups suck, even when they’re the right thing to do. Breakups suck especially when you still care about the person. But pretending to be invested when you’re mentally checked out of the relationship is not a better thing to do — for either person. You’re probably just delaying the inevitable, and the longer things get drawn out, the harder the breakup will be.

Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya is a writer and critic currently living in Orlando. 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 237 articles for us.

16 Comments

  1. excellent advice.
    I went through something similar (I was in the same boat as you) and we let our needs and desires for the relationship to be known through a weekly check in.
    we would literally sit down and be like ok, where am I at? where are you at?
    I said something like “I didn’t know exactly what I wanted when I came into this relationship. I know now that I’m not looking for a long term partner etc. etc.”
    and i’m not gonna lie-it was SO hard. I couldn’t look her in the eye. it took me like 5 minutes to gather my thoughts and say anything/ answer her questions.
    but it was really helpful and she was THRILLED that I was being honest! we didn’t break up immediately but we both enjoyed the relationship WAY more because there was an atmosphere of honesty and trust that gave way.
    heartbreak might be inevitable but Kayla is absolutely correct-honoring yourself, honoring you partner is dignified. there is true empowerment to be found in speaking your truth.
    be brave!

    • Thank you for leaving this comment. I’m in a similar situation to the OP, in that I’m not sure if I want to be with my current partner in the long term or not. I’ve been scared to bring it up before figuring out what I do or don’t want, but your comment is a needed reminder that these conversations should be ongoing.

  2. 20+ years ago, when my first boyfriend and I were getting into engagement and marriage, I nearly could have written your letter. We stayed married multiple years. We should have broken up well before marriage. So:

    DO. NOT. MARRY. THIS. PERSON. DO NOT DO NOT DO NOT HOLY SHIT DON’T DO THIS. Flashing neon lights, giant waving red flags, sequins, blinking letters, the whole nine yards.

    Your own “don’t wanna” is enough, whether you can articulate your reasons any more clearly or not. Your own future happiness is enough. But if you need a rationale focused on their needs to let you act, go read Kayla’s second and third paragraphs again.

    Do you have any close friends you could talk to about this? I kept everything bottled up because I was Doing The Right Thing by not speaking ill of him behind his back or forcing our friends to choose between us. Found out afterwards several of them were desperately waiting for me to wise up and get out of there – their support meant the world to me once I was smart enough to reach out for it.

    And ok sure the breakup conversation will be super hard, but it’s time limited. (Maybe schedule it when there’s another non-negotiable thing you have to go to afterwards? Is that even a thing in this stupid pandemic?) Once you have said your piece and walked out, it’s -not- -your- -problem- -any- -more-.
    You can feel sad about it but it’s not on you to solve it. Trust their resilience and their friends and family to help them.* If you’re living together then you’ll have other details to deal with, it’ll keep being hard, but keep telling yourself their emotional reaction to dealing with those details is -no- -longer- -your- -problem-. You can get through this.

    Afterwards, since this seems to be a pattern, take some time with yourself or a good friend or a therapist to -gently- ask yourself why you’re doing this. Not guilt-trippy “how could I” but calm, curious “ok, why did I?”

    You’re going to feel so much better a year from now, wow. You’ll be calmer, freer, and the next time you fall in love you’ll be so much better at it. We’re all rooting for you. :)

    * I’m assuming you would’ve said if they truly have no one else or you were worried they’d attempt suicide after a break-up. If you have those concerns, it still doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice the rest of your life to your fear of their reaction, just you and they might need more support to do this. But you still gotta do it, for both of you.

    • I really appreciate this comment, especially the asterisk! My partner has previously said they would hurt themselves if we divorced. I’ve thought about writing in to Autostraddle about our relationship before, but I think the advice mostly would have been to break up, which I didn’t want to do. But now I do.

    • Oh I absolutely echo this advice to try and have an established way of ending the breakup conversation. When they get dragged out too long, it usually isn’t helpful or healthy for either party. Breakups take time, sure, but conversations need to have caps on them in order to avoid things getting out of control. I agree it’s harder in a pandemic since it’s not like you can really “go” anywhere, so maybe it just looks more like “okay, we should pause the conversation here and return to it if we need to after we’ve had some time to think/reflect.” That can be hard to do in practice, but it’s so necessary!

  3. Wow, I feel like I could have written this, because I am in a strikingly similar situation. Not exactly the same, but close enough for this to hit home.

    Breaking up is no fun, and the fact that you ask “How do you break someone’s heart without breaking your own, too?” is at least a sign that you’re not a heartless monster and you do truly care about this person you’re with. So, that’s good.

    And because you care, you should give them the opportunity to find someone else who is actually interested in a relationship with them. If you’re willing to sacrifice your own romantic happiness to stay with someone, you should also be willing to accept “breaking your own heart” to give them the chance to find someone with whom they’ll find real, lasting happiness.

    Hurting the people we care about sucks, but it will hurt them a lot more two years into your marriage when everything comes to a head and you have to go through a divorce.

  4. When my ex broke up with me, she told me she had fallen out of love with me or whatever about 6 months earlier but hadn’t known how to leave me – that fucked me up way more than just her leaving ever could. Knowing she stayed with me when she didn’t want to made it really hard to trust people when they said they loved me, etc. Believe me – it’s better for both of you if you just pull the bandaid off!

    • oof yeah situations like that can have a lot of long-term effects on the person being dumped. that’s so much more hurtful than just breaking up with someone. i’m sorry you went through that!

  5. i was broken up with last year by someone i adored and thought we were going to get married, and it definitely did and does feel awful, but absolutely the worst part is knowing how long she was resenting me and our relationship and not saying anything. please, please, please break up with your partner.

  6. Oh it’s me 10 years ago! lol

    +1 to all this advice, and I’d add since these things really helped me:

    1. Needing to do something someone doesn’t want you to do, or tell someone something they don’t want to hear, doesn’t mean you’ve done anything wrong! Conflict, mistakes, mismatched desires, are all a very normal part of life, not personal failures. Beating yourself up for being in a difficult social situation wont help, you just need to deal with it, maybe learn something from it, and move forward. For a long time I thought that if I were a better person, then I’d never have to disappoint anyone, and none would ever be mad at me, but that’s simply not true.

    2. You’re responsible for conveying information, not how the other person responds to it. Something is true for you, and you can be as kind and clear as possible when you communicate it, but their response isn’t your responsibility. There’s unfortunately no special way to phrase it just right that’ll make them feel good about this, it’s just not that part you’re in charge of. And you may be (I for instance have basically always been) imagining the worst case response, not the most likely one.

    Anyway good luck OP! The life you want is on the other side of convos like this breakup. It’s so hard, but you can do it!

  7. I did the same thing as well, even getting in relationships with people I didn’t want to be with in the first place (man) and I was also thinking about their needs but as I realized later a break up and being clear is much better than keeping a person in a situation where their partner stays with them because of pity. This is not fair and will hurt them even more and make them insecure once they find out. And most importantly it takes away their lifetime. Even if it might hurt for a bit in a years time they might already have met a partner that loves them and with whom they might have a future so essentially you are taking away these chances from them without giving them anything in return just to avoid passing by an inevitable short-term hurt. (Or even worse they feel the same about you and you’ll find out at 80).

  8. I’m going to also be a tiny bit harsh here – the thing you’re avoiding isn’t the feelings you’ll cause to your partner, it’s the pain you yourself will have to experience by witnessing their feelings. You aren’t protecting them, you’re protecting yourself. If you stay in the relationship for now, you will eventually reach a point where the pain of continuing to stay feels worse than the pain of leaving, and you will again choose the lesser pain, this time by finally breaking up – but in the meantime you will have done much more damage to your partner, as others have explained.

    Please find the courage to leave your partner and sit with the pain that it will cause you. It is the right thing to do. <3

  9. As someone that’s been on the receiving end of a breakup like this, all I can say is YES it hurts really bad at the time, but what hurt me more is knowing that my then-partner had known they weren’t feeling the relationship for months (at least) before they brought it up, despite us having regular relationship check-in converstions. I was picking up all these vibes from them and I thought it was MY fault, that I was making it up! I understand that it was partly that they didn’t want to hurt me esp when my mental health wasn’t great, and partly fear of change especially since we were each other’s firsts. By leaving it later they accidentally hurt me more than they’d thought they would initially.

    BUT ALSO even though the few months that followed were incredibly shitty, now I am doing SO MUCH BETTER than I ever dreamed I could while in the relationship. I thought my life had been ruined by us breaking up, but actually it had been saved! I’m thriving! And after a period of minimal contact for us both to process seperately, me and my ex have made peace with each other and are (mostly) friends.

    tldr: it hurts like hell at first but nothing compared to continuing with the relationship that you don’t really want to be in

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