Would you want to know if your partner has doubts, or is ignorance bliss?
April 8, 2011 10:23 AM   Subscribe

If you are in a relationship and there are difficulties, should you tell the other person that you are thinking about breaking up, or should you wait until you're *sure* you want to break up to mention it?

I've never really been in this position before. I've been with a girl for 2 years, (me: mid 30s, her late 20s) and it's been long distance the entire time. We have no plans to be in the same place for at a minimum another two years. We have the same problems as any other regular couple would, (no history of abuse or crazy addictions or anything like that... more like I want to go out, she wants to stay in kind of stuff) but having never lived in the same place I am having serious doubts about the whole enterprise. I still like her, I think I still love her, and we still get along pretty well and compliment each other in public extremely well. We still like all each other's friends and have good times together. But in spite of that, my thoughts are that we may be better as friends than as a couple. She has indicated that we could not remain friends if we broke up, but I do not feel the same way.

Neither of us like talking about "big" or unpleasant issues, especially relationship-based ones, so we've both managed to pretty much avoid those discussions for two years. I can't help but think that if we had, we may've split up a while ago or redefined the relationship in some way.

I'm sure a number of people will say "Oh, you should just break up with her if you have any doubts" but I cannot stress this enough: I'm not sure *I* am there yet, but I am thinking about it.

So the question is, should I say that I am thinking about breaking up when I'm not sure about it, or is that best kept to oneself until you are SURE that you're going to go that route?

Throwaway e-mail: AskMeAnonymous@hotmail.com
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (26 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
If you mention it, without being sure, you are in fact going to be on a pretty certain path to that outcome. She'll have gnawing and corrosive (and possibly well founded) doubts about your commitment, your love for her, and her own self worth.

My husband told me he knew I was the one for him when he realized that he could not do without me. I am not sure this feeling is true for you and your sense of how you feel about her. You'll have to do some thinking, I believe, before you figure it out and can be ready to tell her.
posted by bearwife at 10:28 AM on April 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

What will she say back in the discussion that will make you sure one way or the other? What's the goal of the discussion? If she doesn't want to break up will that be a burden? If she does, a relief? How could she hear you with it not sounding like a threat? If you don't break up, what would you like to change?
posted by Obscure Reference at 10:31 AM on April 8, 2011 [2 favorites]

I can see having a long distance relationship with someone you're crazy about and don't want to lose, but if you're unsure, what are you getting out of this relationship?

You're saying you don't have relationship problems, you just don't have a great depth of feeling and you guys aren't planning on living in the same place. And you don't talk about your feelings much.

Normally that would be called "friendship."

If you wanted to save the relationship, I would say, have a constructive conversation about how to fix things, without necessarily mentioning that you're planning to break up. But if there's nothing to fix, then I'm not clear what is keeping this shark moving.

When Louis Armstrong was asked, "What is jazz," he replied, "Lady, if you got to ask, you'll never know." If you don't know how you feel about the relationship, then isn't that an answer in itself?
posted by musofire at 10:33 AM on April 8, 2011 [4 favorites]

If it's a matter of unresolved or even not-discussed big issues and you have any consideration for the relationship. You have got to bring them up!

Even for future relationships, if you don't come clean, you'll never be 100% happy.

Bring up the issues that are making you consider breaking up, but don't say you are considering breaking up. Just explain why they are important for you.
posted by Tarumba at 10:35 AM on April 8, 2011 [6 favorites]

Well...do you, uh, value her input? Like, at all? Because it seems like your reasoning is "well, if I tell her I'm having doubts, and the I decide I want to stay together, she might be hurt/pissed." but y'know, maybe she don't wanna be with your sorry ass if you aren't 100 percent committed to her. And maybe she thinks y'all can work out the issues you having, and wants to do that with you. But the way your question reads, it's like neither of these possibilities have occurred to you and/or interest you. I mean, while ultimately it's whether you find the relationship fulfilling that should determine whether to continue it, the reason it's called a relationship and not masterbation is that the other person's feelings are supposed to be very important to you. If they're not, then I don't think it matters whether or not you tell her you think you want to break up, you're going to break up anyway....
posted by Diablevert at 10:37 AM on April 8, 2011 [4 favorites]

Neither of us like talking about "big" or unpleasant issues, especially relationship-based ones, so we've both managed to pretty much avoid those discussions for two years.

I don't know whether it is good or not to talk about the fact that you are thinking of breaking up. That seems like a red herring to me in this circumstance. What you really do need to talk about are the reasons/issues behind thinking this.
posted by advil at 10:38 AM on April 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

A sidelong glance at an answer: years ago, in one of the first jobs I ever had, I began to feel I might be better off leaving. I spoke to the head guy. Said I "was thinking of quitting." He said: think? Either you are going to quit or you are not. Which is it? Ruffled, I said I thought I was not getting anywhere and said--What would you do in my place? Quit ASAP he said. I did.
Either go for it or not. Don't be passive about it.
posted by Postroad at 10:44 AM on April 8, 2011 [3 favorites]

Of course, talk about it. Then you at least have a chance to work through it.

If you have "big" or "unpleasant" issues with your relationship but you never bother to talk about them with her while you're still together, you're basically giving up.

A relationship is not always fun. Sometimes you have to an unfun conversation because it's the right thing to do.

If you can't work through the issues, at least she won't be as blind-sided if/when you do break up.

I don't understand Postroad's comment that you should avoid talking about these issues so as not to be "passive." The passive thing would be not to talk about it!

It is not the case that you either are definitely going to break up or are definitely going to stay together. You're allowed to have your doubts and express them. I don't understand encouraging you to project exterior decisiveness for its own sake when it doesn't reflect how you actually feel. I find it very interesting how men are encouraged to conceal their true feelings (and later on, you'll be criticized for not being honest or communicative). Relationships generally work better if you do communicate about your feelings. That doesn't mean you'll stay together or the conversation will be fun. But you'll at least know you were honest and tried to work through your issues.
posted by John Cohen at 10:51 AM on April 8, 2011 [9 favorites]

Would you be more into the relationship if you were living in the same city or in the same apartment--willing to see where it heads? Because I don't think you need to phrase it like "I'm thinking about breaking up with you. I wanted to let you know so we could talk about it." I think what makes more sense--is more in line with what you've written, is kinder to her--is "I'm beginning to want more than a long-distance relationship but our situation won't support that now. I don't know how to figure out if our relationship will survive without taking the next step of living together. I don't want to force either of us to give up our respective lives, but I'd like to see if there are some changes we can make to see if we've really got what it takes."

Leaving the conversation open-ended like this invites her participation, invites her to consider her wants and needs, and invites you both to some creative and mature decisions. If that's what you want. If you don't want to take it to the next level to see if it will work, then I think you just need to break up with her.
posted by cocoagirl at 10:51 AM on April 8, 2011 [12 favorites]

My solution might not be the right one but in a similar situation I decided to work through my feelings first, without telling the other person. That's because I wasn't sure how I felt exactly and thusly could have been easily persuaded to keep at the relationship. And the thought of being talked into staying in a relationship fills me with fear because I've been there before and it just postponed something that should have ended four years earlier, before the marriage.
posted by marais at 11:00 AM on April 8, 2011

I agree that beginning any conversation with "I'm thinking of breaking up with you..." is probably going to end with that being the case. Also, your description of your relationship seems oddly clinical.

: " I am having serious doubts about the whole enterprise. I still like her, I think I still love her, and we still get along pretty well and compliment each other in public extremely well. "

What exactly does "compliment each other in public" mean exactly? How often do you see each other? It's weird that this issue "more like I want to go out, she wants to stay in kind of stuff" would be a issue for a long distance couple.

That said, I think you should definitely talk to her about your concerns (for all you know it's a problem for her too) because surprise break-ups freak people out and really aren't fair. They start questioning everything about the relationship and feel like you've been lying to them for some unknown length of time. You can probably find about 1,000 relationship Asks with this theme so just be honest about your concerns and let nature take its course.
posted by victoriab at 11:04 AM on April 8, 2011

If you care at all about the possibility of staying in this relationship, you need to have a discussion. But talk about the issues that are leading you to feel this way; don't frame it as a "I don't know whether we should break up or not" discussion, frame it as a "These are things happening in the relationship right now, and they're big enough issues that we need to work on them if this relationship is going to work" discussion.

Otherwise, don't threaten to maybe leave for vaguely specified, nebulous, and/or superficial-sounding reasons, and don't threaten to maybe leave due to relationship issues that your partner might not have any idea are serious issues at the moment, and might be more than willing to work on in order to save the relationship. If you prefer to leave this relationship rather than work on it, then leave the relationship without stringing your partner along with the 'maybe I'll stay and maybe I'll go' protracted heartbreak technique. That is a horrible, horrible thing to do to a person. It is a mean game that we play with those that we love, in which we identify inadequacies IN THAT PERSON instead of in the relationship, assign blame to the other person for our mutual failures, and is an amazing way to completely emotionally devastate someone that you love. (And, chances are, your partner will not stand for that, nor should she.)

I think that leaving your partner of 2 years without giving each other a reasonable chance to work out any possible alternatives is still a dick move and not something that people who actually love each other should do, but it's better than an ultimatum on the order of "I'll leave unless you change XYZ about yourself, and I'm not responsible for changing myself or the way I behave in this relationship AT ALL." (Note: I might be biased, due to the recent catastrophic failure of my relationship due to exactly this kind of communications meltdown. At least things were just ended cleanly, rather than an agonizing and protracted scenario.)
posted by kataclysm at 11:09 AM on April 8, 2011 [5 favorites]

You don't tell her "hey, I was thinking this might not be working out and I'm not sure if I want to break up or not". Saying the break up or stay together explicitly really is saying that things are so bad you're almost done, introduces all sorts of doubts (but I thought it was fine! what's wrong with me?), and will throw her off the natural cycle of compromise - either toward "holy crap I'd better agree and do what he says or he's leaving" or "well, I'd normally be willing to meet him halfway on this but what's the point really, if he's done anyway". That's not the kind of ultimatum that leads to constructive conversation.

So don't address the stay or go. Address the problems. You say you don't like talking about big issues, but it's gotta be done. Find one thing that's been bugging you and talk it through. For example, "hey babe, the other weekend when you were visiting and you really wanted to stay in and watch a movie, I was disappointed we didn't go do X, and I didn't really say it right at the time. I was thinking that sometimes (I don't say what I want) (we get in arguments about things that aren't actually what the problem is) (I worry that you don't like my friends) (I worry that we'll hate it when we finally do live together)" It's important that the conversation itself isn't about breaking up, it's not a make-or-break dump-her-if-she-disagrees kind of deal, but just a conversation about things you each like, wish for, don't want, won't do, might do.

Over the course of these discussions (yes, you have to do this more than once!) you'll be getting enough information that you'll actually be able to decide if you want to break up or not, and she won't be caught off-guard if you tell her you think things aren't going to work long-term.
posted by aimedwander at 11:12 AM on April 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

It sounds like you and your girlfriend don't have a clear idea of your relationship's trajectory, and maybe not even of your own individual futures, so it's time for the cliched Where Are We Going talk. You don't have to imply that the relationship is in jeopardy with this sort of talk; in fact, it's better that you don't. This is more to figure out what each of you wants in n years, and if you're on the same page or could get on the same page. Go into this with an idea of what you need out of the relationshop and what you're willing to compromise on.

Working through the unpleasant issues is essential to things being pleasant in the long run. Whether with your current partner or your next one, you will need to learn how to bring them up and resolve them. Otherwise your future relationships will either simmer with resentment, fall apart at the first conflict, or both.
posted by Metroid Baby at 11:12 AM on April 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

For the record, having someone spring a breakup on you without any discussion of the issues that are bothering them is one of the most confusing and painful things to experience. If you have some sort of problem and haven't discussed it, please do so before breaking up with your girlfriend. You may resolve the issue together in a way you hadn't thought of because you weren't communicating.
posted by Logic Sheep at 11:26 AM on April 8, 2011

If a conversation that starts "I'm having issues with this relationship ..." ends the relationship, then there was no relationship.
posted by forforf at 11:28 AM on April 8, 2011 [2 favorites]

"I'm thinking of breaking up with you"= "I'm breaking up with you and want to dissemble a bit first."

If you really aren't sure where the relationship is going, then you want to say that, instead. "Where is this going?" or perhaps "This issue in our relationship bugs me. What can we do to fix it?"

Oh, and stop it with the avoiding the unpleasant issue discussions. I've made that mistake before, and it's a biggy. You *will* break up, possibly dramatically, if you don't discuss the very real problems you're having. If you do have a discussion, hey, maybe these problems are fixable! Or maybe not, but the resulting dissolution is likely to be more amicable if you both understand why the problems can't be fixed.
posted by nat at 11:29 AM on April 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

The only way a relationship ever lasts -- at least happily -- is to talk about issues when they come up and work through them. If you think you might want to continue with her, the ONLY way to do that is to work together on the relationship.
posted by rosa at 12:04 PM on April 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

But in spite of that, my thoughts are that we may be better as friends than as a couple. She has indicated that we could not remain friends if we broke up, but I do not feel the same way.

I would really caution you that transitioning into being friends is not an easy thing to do- and it's unlikely to happen if one party doesn't want to be friends at all, or be just friends. Telling your partner of two years that you "just want to be friends" often comes off as a consolation prize and an insulting offer, and I definitely would not bring this up as part of any conversation you have.
posted by questionsandanchors at 12:05 PM on April 8, 2011

Could not agree with John Cohen and cocoagirl enough. If you don't discuss problems you have, you're not giving yourself or your partner a chance to solve them. This is unfair for your girlfriend and a poor problem-solving technique.

Don't phrase it like "I'm thinking we should maybe break up! :-D", but talking about the issues behind this feeling -- having a more concrete or quick plan to live closer together, for example.

In my experience having doubts and leaving them to fester just gives them room to grow. Talking about them with another person and bringing them out into the clear light of day can make them seem more manageable -- like problems to be solved rather than a horrible decision the weight of which is entirely on your shoulders. Be kind, though. I really like cocoagirl's wording above.

Also: long distance relationships can be utterly weird and frustrating. Essentially I think that if on a day to day basis your relationship basically consists of emails and phone calls, you have to be able to communicate properly in order to get through it. This is sort of a classic ask.metafilter adage, but long distance relationships are all about communication. Also: I think if you see someone frequently, you experience some sort of positive feedback loop which gives you feelings of affection and closeness. When you don't see someone often, loving them can feel more like a conscious choice you make every day.

Good luck, this sounds tricky.
posted by the cat's pyjamas at 3:09 PM on April 8, 2011

Don't forget that practice having difficult conversations, and trying to work out issues, will be worthwhile to you going forward no matter what the outcome of this particular relationship. Obviously you should do what feels right in this particular case, but just don't think that all your effort will be wasted or something should you end up breaking up.
posted by wyzewoman at 3:49 PM on April 8, 2011

>Of course, talk about it. Then you at least have a chance to work through it.

Just make sure it doesn't come off as a threat. As in "If you don't do XYZ, it's over."

You don't want to do that because the person might just do XYZ, resent you for it, and perpetuate the misery.

You may want to practice the conversation with someone first.
posted by veryblue1 at 9:09 PM on April 8, 2011

I was on the other side of a similar situation. It sucked. My first girlfriend (also a long-distance relationship) once remarked that "We should have broken up back then. Maybe we should break up now." She was just trying to be honest, but the next month, during which the rest of our relationship gradually disintegrated, was pretty awful. Whenever I thought it was finally over, I was reenergized and willing to move on, only to hear that she wasn't actually dumping me, just indicating she might do so in the near future.

I guess I would have preferred it greatly if she just talked about the issues without the threat attached, and then ended it swiftly when it didn't work.
posted by faux fabric entertainment device at 3:22 AM on April 9, 2011

On preview: what kataclysm said.
posted by faux fabric entertainment device at 3:23 AM on April 9, 2011

Two things....

but having never lived in the same place I am having serious doubts about the whole enterprise.

Why is that? Do you know? If it's the added effect of lot of small stuff, address the issue and talk about, try to reach a consensus and/or pick your battles. If the same small stuff was happening when you were geographically in the same area, would it bother you just as much? Would it be just as big a deal? Why/why not? Figure out what is it that is bothering you and then try to find a solution. You could have the same problems with the next girl, who lives nearby, and then...what?

She has indicated that we could not remain friends if we broke up, but I do not feel the same way.

Friendship, like any other relationship, is a mutual effort. Don't assume that you can stay friends when the other person is explicitly telling you that won't be the case.
posted by xm at 8:32 AM on April 9, 2011

If you have problems in a relationship, please communicate them to your partner. Don't pitch it as "I'm thinking of breaking up with you". Pitch it as "I have these concerns and I think we should discuss them."

I had a wife. We were married for ten years. She did that thing of not telling me she had problems until she was sure they were irretrievable and she definitely wanted to break up. She didn't involve me at any stage. I had no idea we were even in crisis. I thought we were just dandy.

So when she ditched me - having made up her mind, all by herself, that she was sure - it hit me as the biggest shock and most monstrous emotional pain of my life. I damned near lost my usually rock-hard mind. And I still absolutely hate and despise her, almost fourteen years later. And I know I always will.

You don't want that. Do you?

Communication. It's something that's owed to a partner.
posted by Decani at 12:27 PM on April 9, 2011 [3 favorites]

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