How to love when love can be taken away from you at any time?
March 22, 2012 10:51 AM   Subscribe

After a recent and unexpected breakup, I'm starting to feel like relationships can end at any time, and finding it hard to imagine letting myself love again. Help me figure out a healthier way to think about dating in general.

Early 20's female here. I've never really been interested in dating, but my last long-term relationship swept me unexpectedly off my feet. Somehow, without noticing it, I went from skeptical and reluctant to completely head-over-heels for this guy. Then, about 10 months in, he admitted that he wasn't sure how he felt about me. We struggled with for another month and a half before calling it quits.

I suppose he got out of the limerant stage faster than I did, and found no love on the other side. I really can't blame him for any of it; in fact, I have a lot of respect and gratitude for him for recognizing his lack of feeling for me and admitting to it right away. The problem, besides the heartbreak and subsequent crying, is that this has thrown me into confusion about how any relationship is supposed to work out. This guy seemed so into me, wanting to hang out all the time, chat every day and night. We were so compatible and communicative, never argued, had so much fun both with our shared hobbies and just being around each other. If a relationship like this can fail out of the blue, how can I possibly trust another person with my heart down the line?

I've seen my own feelings change rapidly, without me wanting or even noticing it. Maybe if he hadn't broken up with me now, I might have fallen out of love with him later on. How can I blame someone else for abruptly falling out of love with me, when emotions are so mysterious and hard to control? But if that's the case, how can I fully commit myself to a relationship, knowing that it could really end at any time?

In the month and a half that we were trying to figure out what to do about us, I trawled a ton of AskMes and other dating advice forums. It's so common to see questions about breaking up with SO's and spouses of 4, 5 years or more. Is there ever a point where you can feel truly secure in a relationship, and trust that it will last? Or is the only sane thing to do to accept that all relationships might eventually have an expiration date?

I guess I'm looking for a more reasonable way to look at dating and relationships. How do you start dating someone knowing that chances are good you'll break up someday? How do you trust someone intimately when you see people divorcing after a decade of marriage? And is there ever a point where you can feel secure about what you have with another person, when people change their minds so fast and so unexpectedly?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (22 answers total) 55 users marked this as a favorite
Or is the only sane thing to do to accept that all relationships might eventually have an expiration date?

Every relationship ends. That's just the fact of life. Either it's a breakup or death. That's just how life goes.

But it's not about how things end, it's about enjoying what you have while you have it. People can be unpredictable. People are feeling creatures who don't always do what's rational. That's the up and downside of humanity. It's exciting and it's messy.

I think the best you can do is build a relationship where ANYTHING you say to them is okay. The less guarded they and you feel around each other, the higher the likelihood that any minor bump doesn't become a major hill then blossom into a huge insurmountable obstacle that results in breakup or divorce.

Be secure in yourself and the value you place in your relationship becomes less closely tied to your success as a human being.
posted by inturnaround at 10:56 AM on March 22, 2012 [23 favorites]

Oh, sweetheart, you only broke up a month and a half ago. You're still in your post-break-up-pessimism stage.

What you're feeling -- that whole "how can I ever trust anyone and relationships are completely hopeless so why bother" thing -- is actually kind of....normal for where you are right now. You got knocked on your ass, it hurts a lot, and you're still recovering. That's why you're wondering "how do people date knowing that they'll just break up anyway" -- because you're in a frame of mind that assumes "eveyrone's just gonna break up anyway like what happened to me, so why bother." It's kind of like, you just got the cast off after you broke your foot, and every time you step with your full weight on it it hurts -- and while you're sitting there with a hurting foot you're looking at all those other people walking around without any problem, and they all look so smug, look at those bastards, little do they know that they could trip and break their feet too and hah, then we'll see who's walking all smug now...

...Okay, that's kind of a far-fetched example, but in time -- just like eventually your hurt foot gets better, and you stop being preoccupied with what would go wrong with walking -- you'll also get over the hurt you're feeling from the breakup, and you'll stop being as gunshy of the kind of hurt you could get into when a relationshp ends. You're hurting now, and that's why the thought of being in a relationship sucks to you, but in time you'll stop hurting from THIS breakup, and you'll start thinking, "well, maybe it's not so bad to try again," and you will.

Be patient with yourself. work on healing yourself from this breakup. The rest will take care of itself.

Good luck.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:00 AM on March 22, 2012 [15 favorites]

Woah. This was totally me last year.

I dated a guy for 8 months or so and things seemed to go completely swimmingly. We met the friends, parents, traveled together, were essentially inseperatable and things were happy, happy, happy as can be! I eventually found myself devloping big feelings for him and told him that I loved him (because I did!). Well, things came screeching to a halt because his feelings were not mutual. A few weeks later he told me that he could never see himself falling in love with me and that was the end of us.

It sucked.

It was totally devastating to me, because he gave me ZERO reason to think that he wasn't happy or anything like that. It took me awhile to rebuild from that one and it still strikes chords on occasion. What I learned from the experience is that it really was him - he was a huge committmentophobe and in retrospect, a giant coward because he was afraid to love. I learned from him as the example that I couldn't let myself be scared to love because I'd end up a very lonely gal (plus it sounds ridiculous - love is awesome!).

My advice is to take this time to not throw yourself back into the dating pool just yet. Focus on making you strong and healthy again and treat yourself well. Get comfortable in your own skin again. The rest will fall into place. FWIW, I did exactly that and ended up meeting my current boyfriend who is seriously, my dream guy. :)
posted by floweredfish at 11:05 AM on March 22, 2012 [13 favorites]

It's true that any relationship could end at any time, and you could fall out of love at any time. However, the very good and lasting relationships I've seen out there are ones where people are committing to try to be a really great team and be really good to each other and try to love each other every day.

So the limerance may pass, but the long-lasting commitment is a different thing. Still not a sure thing, nothing is a sure thing. But you can definitely find a great relationship again. You've already proven that you can be compatible and communicative, and have fun with a partner. Those are the building blocks that will serve you well as you and your partners get older and more mature.
posted by ldthomps at 11:07 AM on March 22, 2012 [7 favorites]

If a relationship like this can fail out of the blue, how can I possibly trust another person with my heart down the line?

The odds that buying a lottery ticket will win you a million bucks are much lower than the odds that trusting another person with your heart will bind you together happily for life. And yet people still buy lottery tickets.

Gotta be in it to win it.
posted by flabdablet at 11:20 AM on March 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

Have fun with life while you can :)

Anything can end faster than you'd like it to. Your car could die tomorrow. You could lose your job tomorrow. You could be hit by a bus and be in a wheelchair and now have to look and experience life from a completely new perspective.

My point is just to smile and try to find humor and fun in everything, even the bad things. Not everyone is good at that, but if you find humor in all aspects of life you're sure to be a happier person, even when terrible things happen (loss of love, loss of life, loss of independence, ...)
posted by zombieApoc at 11:27 AM on March 22, 2012 [3 favorites]

I've been in your ex's position: everything's going swimmingly, and then my boyfriend addresses me in an irritated tone for whatever random reason, and my heart sinks as I realize I don't like him at all when he's like that, and as I mull over this for hours afterwards my future aspirations with him start to seem unrealistic.

And then the next day he's his usual smitten self, and I thaw again, and feel more passion and love than before.

I don't know if that means I don't really love him like I think I do but the point is, I find that my feelings in this relationship (which is about as old as yours) - intense though they are - are quite delicate and seem dependent very much on how I perceive his.

What I'm trying to say is that you might want to explore the reasons why your ex appears to have fallen out of love with you. Maybe he's a sensitive one like me. Maybe there's hope for that relationship yet if indeed everything was as great as it seemed to you.

Not all relationships are like this. Not all of my relationships were like this either, come to think of it.

Regardless, you will find love again, I promise.
posted by Dragonness at 11:43 AM on March 22, 2012 [3 favorites]

Is there ever a point where you can feel truly secure in a relationship, and trust that it will last?

Yeah; usually it's the point at which you can be certain they're not going to have too many chances to meet anyone else or betray your trust for the rest of their lives. So on their deathbed, basically.

Other than that, I don't know. I was with someone for six years and I would have staked the entirety of my worldly property on the certainty that this person was my rock; that we would get through any tough times together, as partners. Then after about six years they left me for one of my best friends. Just like that. No warning, no nothing. Just happened.

The trick is to let yourself grieve and be real sad and all that, and then accept the fact that one failure doesn't mean they'll all fail. It's a risk, not an expectation. You can reach a point of relative trust but you can never be completely certain. People change. The best you can do is figure out what's important to you and communicate from the start, and hope that everyone's operating in good faith. Beyond that, there's not much.

In the immortal words of Ron Swanson: "You find someone you like and you roll the dice."

You're pessimistic right now because your heart's broken. Give yourself a little time and space to breathe and heal and be okay. In time you'll find that you're not chasing certainty - you're chasing reasons to have faith.

Sure, you could lose it all. It could last weeks or months or years and then explode. It could also be the best thing that's ever happened to you.

I'm in a very similar place to where you are right now - broken heart and all - and it's easy to be pessimistic in the throes of it. I'm having trouble imagining meeting someone as wonderful as the someone I just lost, or being excited about someone the way I were about them, or having such an easy conversational rhythm with someone. It feels so daunting to think about trusting someone again, about trying to start all over from the beginning once more. But I know that's just how I feel right now, not how it is.

Moments like this, I get frustrated and lonesome and I feel like no matter what I do, it always ends the same way. And then I remind myself of the words of a character from another, less universally loved TV show:

"It only ends once. Anything that happens before that is just progress."

Trite? Sure. But it helps to think of it that way.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 11:43 AM on March 22, 2012 [8 favorites]

I don't have a ton of relationship experience, but one thing that I've learned fairly quickly in relationships and in life is that absolutely anything can end quickly and without warning. Friendships, relationships, jobs, marriages. Doesn't matter.

When you're in that horrible post break-up phase, the only way to deal with this realization is to say that it must not be worth it to have any of those things - basically, to not live life as it's meant to be lived. That will pass eventually, and hopefully you'll learn to embrace an idea that has helped me tremendously: if everything is impermanent, you just need to enjoy it while it's around.

I'm in my first healthy relationship, well, ever, and while the thought of things going sour makes me very sad, I am trying with every bone in my body to enjoy every second that I have with this person. That joy can never be taken from you. It may not be forever, but you'll always have it.
posted by anotheraccount at 11:55 AM on March 22, 2012 [8 favorites]

I would like to refer you to the second letter in this Dear Sugar column. The response is for anyone who is having a hard time letting go of baggage in order to be open enough to let someone else in.

I have been in this place, and while I got over the relationship itself pretty quickly (with the help of therapy, cutting off contact with the ex, and making an effort to meet new people), the method of breakup still troubles me. It caused me a lot of anxiety at the beginning of my current relationship. I did trust my current boyfriend, but that didn't help in the face of the irrational fear that he would just dump me out of the blue. This fear has faded with time in this relationship. I know I can believe that, while my boyfriend and I may not be together for the rest of our lives, he will make an effort to work out our problems before ending the relationship. It will not be an utter surprise. The fear still washes over me from time to time, but logic wins.

Sugar's words in this letter helped me to break down some of my defenses. I recommend loving with all of your heart, despite the possibility of being heartbroken in the end. It's really the only way to go.
posted by aabbbiee at 11:57 AM on March 22, 2012

Your entire life can end unexpectedly at any time. Live while you are alive.
posted by ellF at 11:57 AM on March 22, 2012 [6 favorites]

While I don't have answers to your specific questions, I can tell you what helped for me.

It may sound easier said than done, but the best thing to do is to not worry about. Like not even thinking about it.

I have learned this and am still learning it after my girlfriend of four years broke up with me very recently (I'm in my early twenties). It was your classic out of the blue breakup. No fights, no issues, just an announcement one day. Every aspect of my life broke down. Until today, I can't wrap my head around what happened there.

But I don't care anymore. Because there is literally nothing I can to do to understand or even change it. So what's the point in worrying then, right? Right. You save yourself so much energy and time of your life if you stop asking questions that have no answers.

And you know what? It is awesome. As person who asks so many questions inside his head, I force myself to apply this to every major or tiny thing now: What am I worrying about right now? Can I do anything to change it right now? If yes, change it. If no, leave it alone and start worrying tomorrow again. If the answer is "no" several times in a row, you lose interest in the issue.

So what I am saying is this: Don't worry if you can trust again. It'll happen by itself. And when you do, don't worry about what might happen or not. It is out of your hands. You can deal with with this stuff when it hits you. Until then, appreciate what you have.
posted by arhammer at 12:19 PM on March 22, 2012 [9 favorites]

Buddhist non-attachment: ‘Attachment is the origin, the root of suffering; hence it is the cause of suffering.’

It is directly related to being present, and not being present is endemic in contemporary society.

A large body of American bubble-gum cinema seems to revolve around dating, weddings, and getting married. Women seem to be told in society that validation comes from being chosen as a suitable marriage partner. Thus, when many women date, they do so with a look toward the future -- toward that moment of matrimony, when they are validated. (And it's not just fiction, there are heaps more examples, however that's the one that comes most immediately to mind.)

Now, a key problem with that way of thinking is that it is outcome oriented, not process oriented. If you are going into relationships with a goal of permanence, you will fear the relationship's dissolution. In that case, you are focusing on the outcome of the relationship --permanence -- not the process, the relationship itself.

That is attachment. You are attached to the relationship, for in some way, you perceive it is validating and completing you. When it fails, you lose the outcome.

Perhaps I can provide another example. Often when people break-up, they don't lose the person sitting next to them on the couch. They also lose an entire perceived future. Perhaps vacations, children, a house, cuddling on cold winter nights, whatever. That is often more painful than losing the person, for in some ways, you are actually losing part of yourself.

Thus, is the solution to not give yourself fully? Rather erect a wall so what if and when a relationship fails, you do not lose yourself? No, for in that instance, you will lose one of the primary benefits of a relationship, which is indeed sharing yourself and growing with another person.

What's the middle ground? Share yourself without expectation or attachment of a future. Accept the other person's present as a gift. Maybe for 8 months, maybe for 80 years. If you can enjoy the present moment with the person and be wholly in that moment, you will open, sharing yourself, and non-attached.

If you say the problem you have is that you don't want to date because all relationships may fail, I will say the real problem is that you are not being present and honouring yourself in the moment. There is no past, there is no future. There is only now (Tolle).

To answer your questions in this context:

How do you start dating someone knowing that chances are good you'll break up someday?

What is going to happen tomorrow? What will be the colour of the first car you see? You have no idea. Yet that does not prevent you from going to school/work/wherever and living your life. Dating is the same way. Maybe you date for two weeks, maybe longer. There is absolutely no way of knowing. So the way you date someone knowing full well it may be temporary is to be in the moment and have no expectations. A mate asked a spiritual mentor of ours once, "How did you find your wife?" The spiritual mentor said, "I called her back."

How do you get to a second date? Call back after a first date. How do you get to a first date? Give your phone number to someone. How do you give your phone number to someone? Buy a phone. So can we say that the way to a relationship starts in a AT&T mobile store? Perhaps.

Point being, how do you take a job knowing full well it's going to be one of many? How did you make friends in high-school knowing full well you would one day leave? You didn't think about the future. You focused on where you were in that moment, and got what you needed out of the situation… full-well knowing one day things would change.

Dating is no different. Maybe a few more bodily fluids, depending on your job, but the process is the same.

How do you trust someone intimately when you see people divorcing after a decade of marriage?

How do you get up every day knowing that you will die? How do people take on pets, knowing that those pets will die one day?

Let me ask you a question. Why do you fear divorce? Many people do not get divorced. If the rate is 50%, there are as many working marriages as non-working marriages. Why do you automatically assume you will be in the bottom bracket? Do you assume that in the rest of your life? If that is the case, you do not have a dating problem, you have a life perspective problem.

And is there ever a point where you can feel secure about what you have with another person, when people change their minds so fast and so unexpectedly?

Yes, my friend, yes. Be gentle on yourself. Dating is like any other skill. You learn how to do it with time. What's the difference between people who are successful and people who aren't? In many cases it's that the people who are successful failed and failed and failed and failed. They failed their asses off. If you have a friend who is great at dating, chances are they have been through the ringer man, really. But, they enjoy the benefits of sharing with another person so much that they are willing to risk the failure over and over again. In the process, they get better at doing it.

Back to non-attachment. First point is that dating should be fun. What if you and I consider your last relationship to be a complete success. He was into you. You were into him. Then one day it changed. Before it changed, you had a wonderful time. Let's hold on to that, and consider the break-up to be okay. If you want, you can say out loud "there is no problem here", because there's not.

If you don't want to date for a while, don't date. When you're ready, hop back on the horse and have a ride. In the meantime, be present. Stop planning for the future. Stop thinking about the future. Live in the moment. Treat yourself well and live considerately with the people around you. Reduce your carbon footprint. Live each day of your life in a way that you really love.

Next time you meet a man, let yourself fall in love. If it falls apart and it hurts, let it fall apart, let it hurt. Don't wish it to be any different, just allow it to be. Through these iterations, you will meet the person you need to know the best to have successful relationships… yourself.

Buck up ladyfriend, there is no problem here. You're doing just fine.
posted by nickrussell at 12:36 PM on March 22, 2012 [63 favorites]

The only way I can justify falling in love with anyone, with the full knowledge that one day it will fall apart and break my heart is to repeat back to myself some Cake lyrics that have stuck with me for years.

I dont want to wonder
If this is a blunder
I dont want to worry whether
We're gonna stay together
'Till we die

I want to love you madly
posted by KeSetAffinityThread at 12:38 PM on March 22, 2012 [8 favorites]

My mom married my dad, had kids, were very in love and he got sick and died. No relationship is permanent, unfortunately. But, the heart is resilient. The more you open yourself up to love, friendships, deep and meaningful relationships, the better you heal when you lose someone from your life. And the more confidence you will have to take risks with love.

Here is a poem from Gregory Orr that says it better than I can:

Squander it all!
Hold nothing back.
The heart's a deep well.
And when it's empty,
It will fill again.
-Gregory Orr
posted by rachums at 12:41 PM on March 22, 2012 [17 favorites]

The late, great Mitch Hedberg:

"I like to drink red wine. This girl asked me once if red wine gave me a headache. I said, 'Sure, eventually, but the first and middle parts are amazing!' I'm not going to give up on something because of what it does eventually. It's like getting an apple and going 'Whoa, stop! That's going to be a core eventually!'"
posted by Ragged Richard at 2:08 PM on March 22, 2012 [12 favorites]

Although people do change their minds while dating, breakups rarely come out of the blue. If you keep your eyes open and pay more attention to what someone DOES rather than what he SAYS, you'll really get a sense whether or not that man is in it to win it with you. Also, limerence is not an indicator of compatibility. If you can get this through your brain, you'll stop being so hung up on go-nowhere infatuations (if you learn this in your 20's you'll be far ahead of the curve).

Love is something you DO, not something you just FEEL.

Also, it depends on what your idea of happiness and commitment looks like. For me, it's marriage to a man who, like me, doesn't believe in divorce except under circumstances of abuse or abandonment.

That's a lot different than people who are kind of meh on marriage and would get a divorce if the spark went away. It's just not what commitment means to me. I'm no longer single, but if I were and heard this kind of thing from a given man, he'd be out no matter what.

So you have to decide what you want and then regard everything unless until you get the ring (or whatever) as dating. Could go either way. When asked while you're with a well-vetted prospect, say that you care deeply for him and hope things continue to work out. Be committed to your vision of partnership more than any one man, and be willing to drop him on principle. Principles are created specifically for this kind of thing-- they trump emotions if you stick to them, and you'll be better-off in the end.

Will it still devastate you if it ends? Yes, but at the least, don't emotionally roll out the red carpet for ANYONE who hasn't at the bare minimum declared himself to have the same values about commitment and a timeline that squares with yours.

I honestly don't get it when people who don't even know what they want or if the person in their bed is the right one co-mingle finances, pets, families and children. So if you can avoid that, you'll be ahead of the game.

Also, mirroring works here.
posted by devymetal at 3:41 PM on March 22, 2012 [18 favorites]

He hurt you. Whatever reasons there are, the fact remains: He hurt you. Betrayed your trust, left you in the lurch, etc. Facing this, grieving over it, and moving on is healthy.

"The problem, besides the heartbreak and subsequent crying, is that this has thrown me into confusion about how any relationship is supposed to work out. This guy seemed so into me, wanting to hang out all the time, chat every day and night. We were so compatible and communicative, never argued, had so much fun both with our shared hobbies and just being around each other. If a relationship like this can fail out of the blue, how can I possibly trust another person with my heart down the line?"

Well.... I might just be reading too much into this guy, but he seems pretty easy come, easy go. Some people do the hang out/talk constantly because they are insecure. Some people, of course, do it for good healthy reasons, others dont. How well do you really know him? How well does he -truly- know you?

Oh, and NEVER fighting is silly. Its how you fight successfully that matters. the NEVER fighting ideal seems very unrealistic and built upon hollywood fairy tales about how this stuff works. You can only be perfect for so long till your human nature shows up.

At the end, you can truly get love from one person- yourself. Everything else is out of your control.
Once you love yourself, you can build a good solid foundation to find a guy with the right qualifications that meets your needs.
posted by Jacen at 4:47 PM on March 22, 2012 [3 favorites]

After a recent and unexpected breakup, I'm starting to feel like relationships can end at any time, and finding it hard to imagine letting myself love again. Help me figure out a healthier way to think about dating in general.

Impermanence is one of the three marks of being. Relationships can end at any time. To love is to hurt. Yet we are driven to love. There is no direct answer to this dilemma. It is something we all must answer in our own imperfect way.
posted by Ironmouth at 7:16 PM on March 22, 2012 [2 favorites]

Oh, I know where you are coming from. Happened to me around the same age.

I think we're taught a view of relationships that is utterly false. The love is forever, find your soulmate, true love conquers all rhetoric. And even if you know it's hogwash, it's still a shock the first time you really REALLY get hit with how completely transitionary love can be.

I eventually adjusted to this new worldview and fell in love again (and again after that). Eventually I stopped thinking about the Love (capitol L) in my relationships, and starting looking at the nitty gritty of how well they work together; do we bring out the best in each other? Are we encouraging and kind to each other? Do our core values (family, politics, religion) line up?

The relationships I've seen that fail (and there are studies that support this) are ones where there is contempt and disrespect. Love is just an emotion, a powerful one, actions will be what dictates a relationship's success. (Raging physical attraction doesn't hurt ;)
posted by Dynex at 7:56 PM on March 22, 2012 [8 favorites]

I just want to add that while it was unexpected to you, it wasn't a spur of the moment thing. He likely was mulling over his feelings for a while and just never told you. For better or worse, if we were more candid with others we have relationships with, a lot more questions would be answered.
posted by penguinkeys at 12:42 PM on March 23, 2012

Your mind is really good at forgetting, letting go, and moving on. One day you'll find yourself crushing hard on someone again, and feeling like they'll be worth the leap. I was cheated on and told in hundreds of ways that I wasn't good enough to be loved...and yet, I find my heart opening up again. Yours will, too.

If a relationship like this can fail out of the blue, how can I possibly trust another person with my heart down the line?

Your heart is stronger than you think it is. It can be broken, but it will heal. Trust yourself to choose wisely, and make sure you do. Once you trust yourself to make wise choices, the fear that you'll be hurt goes down considerably.

Is there ever a point where you can feel truly secure in a relationship, and trust that it will last? Or is the only sane thing to do to accept that all relationships might eventually have an expiration date?

Not in the sense that you mean. You can gain something even better than feeling secure in a relationship. After you've had your heart broken and get back on your feet, you'll find that getting your heart broken is not such a big deal. Each breakup has been easier than the previous one, and I've always learned something from it. Are there really any relationships (outside of your family) that are truly secure? How many friends do you have that you think you'll have in 15,20,30 years? There aren't many friendships last that long, though with any luck you'll always be making new friends. Does that make your friendships any less valuable or dear to you? Relationships are not valuable solely because you know they'll be there in the future. You can't predict the future. Good relationships are valuable because of what you get out of them in the present.

How do you trust someone intimately when you see people divorcing after a decade of marriage?

You do it because you have to. You give trust because that is the only way to get trust and intimacy and a real connection. I've been coasting along for a while, not trusting anyone, and it is lonely. Safe, but lonely. When you are ready and healed and stronger, you will trust again.
posted by sockomatic at 11:45 PM on March 23, 2012 [5 favorites]

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