It's not you, it's not me, it's both of us.
April 6, 2012 9:58 AM   Subscribe

How to break up compassionately when you've tried your best but the relationship just isn't working?

After a lot of thought, I've come to the certain conclusion that I need to break up with my boyfriend. We've been together for 2 years, and the relationship is consistently good but not great. We've had serious talks about our issues together, and he has been consciously working on them with some progress. His habits have generally improved, but he has a lot of personality traits that I find incompatible with mine and that seem unlikely to change in the long run (e.g. I'm an extrovert but he's an introvert, he's often uncomfortable with being in a poly relationship even though it's been this way from the start, he has motivation and procrastination issues due to ADHD even though he takes medication for it, I want someone who has a life of their own but he wants to spend all of his time with me, etc.) We've tried going to couples counseling, and it's helped us communicate better about our wants and needs, but it's just not enough. We still have a lot of conflict. I've been getting more and more unhappy about being in this relationship, and at this point, it's pretty clear to me that it needs to end.

How can I break up with him in a compassionate way? It's not the first time I've tried to break up with him. The other times resulted in frank talks about our issues, and specific improvements from him. The sticking point is, it's true that he's improving, and it feels cruel to break up when I know he's working on being better... but it's slow and incremental, and I can't wait for big changes any longer. I'm actively unhappy being together. We've tried really really hard, and it's just not working. How can I convey that I can't keep trying any longer?

I'm looking for specific things to say that will make a clear, unambiguous, final break while honoring the fact that we tried our best. I'm especially wondering about how/when exactly to bring it up. He's on a trip visiting his family right now. We moved to separate apartments just before he left (and he was sad about no longer living together, saying that it felt like I was pushing him away, even though living in one room was clearly unsustainable and stressing me out a lot). He'll be back from his trip in a few days, and I'm thinking of having the talk the day he gets back, or the next day. Ideally I'd want the breakup to be something we both agree to do, rather than something I unilaterally decide.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (25 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Heed Miko's excellent advice.
posted by brainmouse at 10:02 AM on April 6, 2012 [5 favorites]

The sticking point is, it's true that he's improving, and it feels cruel to break up when I know he's working on being better... but it's slow and incremental, and I can't wait for big changes any longer. I'm actively unhappy being together. We've tried really really hard, and it's just not working. How can I convey that I can't keep trying any longer?

I think you just did.
posted by griphus at 10:03 AM on April 6, 2012 [3 favorites]

Just break up with him. It doesn't have to be a long discussion - it sounds like you've had plenty of those. Tell him, "Look, I know we've both been trying but it's just not working for me and I'm done." This IS your decision, and that's okay.

Also, I would highly recommend learning from this situation that you can't change someone else to suit your needs. You have to accept people for who they are, not try to make them into who you want them to be. It sounds like even now, in this potential breakup scenario, you are trying to manipulate him into wanting something he doesn't want. It's not going to work.
posted by something something at 10:05 AM on April 6, 2012 [3 favorites]

If you want to break up with him, break up with him. It is not compassionate to try to convince him that he should want to break up, too. That's about you wanting support from him; you have to take full responsibility for your own decision .
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 10:06 AM on April 6, 2012 [26 favorites]

Oh, hell, hit post too fast. If you've decided, the time to do it is as soon as possible, assuming you'll be doing it in person. That is, don't call him right now and break it off. But hang out with him as soon as possible after he gets back and do it then. Basically, what you don't want to do is hang out with him for a day or two before breaking up. He'll probably know something is up and that's unpleasant all around.

Ideally I'd want the breakup to be something we both agree to do, rather than something I unilaterally decide.

Forget that's even an option, otherwise you'll never get out. If you want to break up, break up, this isn't a situation where mutual consent is something you should ever count on. It certainly would be nice, but it happens so rarely that it's not even a situation you should entertain.
posted by griphus at 10:08 AM on April 6, 2012

While it's possible that you can make this a mutual decision, the likelihood of that is pretty low. Most likely, it'll be painful, and difficult, and heartbreaking, but it will be the right decision. Dear Sugar puts it best:

You are not a terrible person for wanting to break up with someone you love. You don’t need a reason to leave. Wanting to leave is enough. Leaving doesn’t mean you’re incapable of real love or that you’ll never love anyone else again. It doesn’t mean you’re morally bankrupt or psychologically demented or a nymphomaniac. It means you wish to change the terms of one particular relationship. That’s all. Be brave enough to break your own heart.
posted by dysh at 10:10 AM on April 6, 2012 [13 favorites]

If it is about both of you (as you say in the title), then Miko's advice wouldn't seem to be exactly what you want to express. Miko's advice is basically a long, glorified "it's not you, it's me." Instead, just tell him what you told us. It's not like anything in your post is at all harsh and needs to be toned down so as not to crush his feelings; you're not saying he's ugly or a bad person or anything. You've already fully discussed your issues in counseling. So the explanation won't be news to him. The only thing that might be a surprise is your conclusion, and even that probably won't be a shock.
posted by John Cohen at 10:12 AM on April 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

As is often the case, I agree with ThePinkSuperhero and griphus -- unfortunately, trying to make a break up happen with mutual consent is pretty difficult; the best you can do is not break up in a way that makes it possible for him to eventually think it was the right thing and you were a decent person for doing it. From the sound of it, doing it sooner rather than later is the best way for this to happen. Good luck!
posted by MCMikeNamara at 10:13 AM on April 6, 2012

I would say something like, “I care about you and appreciate the work you’ve done to make our relationship work. Unfortunately it’s not going to work out. There is nothing more that either of us can do to make it work.”
posted by OsoMeaty at 10:15 AM on April 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

Ideally I'd want the breakup to be something we both agree to do, rather than something I unilaterally decide.

This ideal seems to be the only thing holding you back from your goal. You can break up with him compassionately and respectfully. Adapt Miko as necessary, substituting "I need to feel more strongly about this" with "we've both tried really hard to make this work, you especially. We tried so hard because we both want this to work. But we're different people, and after giving it this time I just don't feel like those differences can be bridged. I don't want you to change who you really are for me, and you deserves someone who loves you for that."

Beyond that ... if, every time you've tried to break up before, his response in simply to try and change the things that displease you, then I don't think you're going to be able to walk him gently around to agreeing that breaking up is right. He loves you, and apparently he's willing to swear the sky's red and the grass is purple if it'll make you happy. This is going to hurt. But the alternative to one big pain now is to live for months or years yet scraping against each other until that daily toll grinds away the bond between you. If it ever does. Sever it. It's cleaner, and it will heal better.
posted by Diablevert at 10:15 AM on April 6, 2012 [6 favorites]

Being compassionate means being willing to be the bad guy in his eyes. It could get unpleasant; just nod, say you're sorry he's hurting and know in your inner self that you are not a bad person for ending the relationship. You are no longer in a relationship; therefore you don't need to work to come to an agreement about how and why the relationship ended.

Also, be willing to cut off contact for a few months. It sounds like you're in a situation that would make it hard for him to tell the difference between "trying to make it work" and "trying to be friends", so it will be easier for him if he doesn't see you. He may think you're cold and heartless for doing this, but ultimately it's kinder than letting him lead himself on.
posted by rhythm and booze at 10:22 AM on April 6, 2012 [2 favorites]

Do it the day he gets back.

Ideally I'd want the breakup to be something we both agree to do, rather than something I unilaterally decide.

This isn't really your decision to make. See, you can decide that you need to break up. You can decide to go through with it and you can decide how to conduct yourself. You can't decide what he does, or how he handles it. This isn't about convincing him this is a good idea - if you try that, you'll never actually break up. You need to just do it.

You need to make it clear to him that this just isn't working for you; that this isn't about his specific faults or what he can or can't do to fix them. That the heart is not logical or rational - it wants what it wants and it doesn't want what it doesn't want. That you don't want to hurt him but you just, at the root of it, don't want to be in this relationship anymore and you don't see that changing. You've both done a lot of work here and it's heartbreaking to say this but it is now clear to you that no amount of work will save this. Whatever it is, it's just not there for you.

Here is what to avoid:

Avoid telling him that progress has been too slow. If you do this then he will try to argue for more time or whatever. Also it will be kind of damaging to hear. In the short term, anything you say will be devastating. In the long term, it will help him to believe that there was nothing he could have done differently, there was no way he could have been better.

Avoid trying to soften the blow. Don't couch it in soft language; don't say you don't want to be together right now or that you want to take a break. Don't say yes if he asks if maybe you could try again someday. Don't even say "I don't know." Don't say anything you know you don't mean. This is the biggest mistake people make during a breakup and it does so much more harm than good.

Avoid trying to be the person who fixes what you just broke. Don't insist on trying to be friends. Don't feel guilted into letting him cry on your shoulder. If he says he'll miss you, don't say that you're not going away (seriously, why does anyone think this is a good idea?). If he says he doesn't want to lose you, don't say he's not losing you (again: what the hell).

Avoid going over specific details of why you don't think this is working. They're only details, and they can be argued over, and they will result in him beating himself up for a long, long time, wishing he could go back and change just one thing, or whatever. If you tell him that you want someone more extroverted, he will say he can change, and he will honestly believe it in that moment. Stick with the theme that it just isn't working for you.

Then that's that. Divvy up your stuff as needed. Cry a bit. After that, take your cues from him. There may be a couple post-breakup phone calls as he comes to the realization that everything is different now and he still tries to find some way of going back to the way things were. Be compassionate but not a doormat. If he's mad, let him be mad. If he doesn't want to see you, try to avoid being at the same place for a while.

It will be hard and you'll feel like a heel. It may help to know that there is fundamentally no good way to do this. There is a best way to do it but it's still not good. He's going to get hurt no matter what you do, so you might as well just get it over with - the sooner it's done, the sooner you both can start moving on.

Good luck.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 10:24 AM on April 6, 2012 [11 favorites]

Ideally I'd want the breakup to be something we both agree to do, rather than something I unilaterally decide.

The most compassionate thing you can do is to not impose your desires for the nature of the breakup on him. This is your decision. Own it, live with it and stick with it. It is compassionate and won't allow for him to think there is a chance if you take full responsibility for the decision. Otherwise, he'll think you're mind could be changed.

Second, I see you're poly. If I were you, I would exclude him as a sex partner from here on out, even if you aren't dating. That is just prolonging the agony. So be sure that its a total cut off.

Third, don't fall back into old habits of calling him or whatever. Do not rely on him emotionally in the future.

Finally, remember that this is not about you feeling less guilty if you are going to be compassionate. Its about dropping the bomb. That's what you are doing. Accept that life requires such incidents--it will allow you to not try and get him to say or do things that will make you feel better but will hurt him or prolong the agony.
posted by Ironmouth at 10:28 AM on April 6, 2012 [3 favorites]

I tend to think the most compassionate break ups are: 1) Decisive, 2) Person breaking up takes full responsibility, 3) No extended conversations or negotiations, 4) Be prepared to leave ASAP--plan ahead and do not try and live together, 5) No mixed messages. " I am breaking up/leaving you because I am unhappy, dissatisfied with the relationship, there is nothing you can do, my decision is firm and I am moving ahead in a different direction. " Do Not under any circumstance try and make this mutual unless it really is mutual--that can not lead any where except mistrust, excessive self examination, confusion, etc. Wishing you the very best--remember, you are not married and have not made a formal permanent commitment. Finally, strive to be absolutely fair and just in the handling of any mutual assets, obligations etc. Don't make decisions out of guilt but also do not expect him too understand your needs.preferences and positions.
posted by rmhsinc at 10:32 AM on April 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

Compassion is not what you do, but how and why you do the things that you do. Breaking up with someone is not equivalent to a lack of compassion. How and why you are doing it, however, can be. Honesty and truth, and a little of the above described advice on manner of delivery, can very much be compassionate if breaking up is the right decision for you.
posted by anya32 at 10:33 AM on April 6, 2012

Ideally I'd want the breakup to be something we both agree to do

Given you've tried to break up before and basically been talked out of it this seems unlikely.

Trying to get him "on board" is probably a mistake, frankly. Sometimes the other person is just not there. I have been on both sides of this and it just isn't easy. What makes it easier is being straightfoward, unequivocal and making it as much as possible not about the other person's qualities but just the basic compatibility of the relationship. Focus on the fact that you're not happy, that you're becoming more unhappy not less. The fact that he has been working on things can be turned to the advantage of this conversation, to whit: seeing how hard you've been working on the relationship but still becoming increasingly unhappy has made me realize that our relationship just can't work for me. It doesn't have a future and I'm going to do the right thing for me and end it. Stick to the fact that at this point there is nothing he can do, you just know you aren't going to change how you feel.

People want explanations but they don't actually help all that much in getting over anything and in a great many cases insisting on them is just dragging out the breakup or looking for excuses to uselessly try longer. Just, keep it simple, don't equivocate. You've had many near breakups, your unhappiness is certainly no secret to him, you've divided your households... This thing has been written on the wall for a long time, it will not come as a surprise even if he resists it.
posted by nanojath at 10:35 AM on April 6, 2012

Tell him when he comes back to the city that you two reside in. There is no sense in pushing this even further. You two are already living separately which indicates that things are not moving in a good direction anyways.

Be kind, but firm. Tell him that you like him and respect him, but think that it's time for you two to break up. There isn't anything wrong with him, but it seems like you two are incompatible for each other because over time people change and some people become closer while others grow further apart (I think this last line is important to emphasize).

Oh, and Miko's wise advice about breaking up with a partner is truly something that you should consider doing.
posted by livinglearning at 10:43 AM on April 6, 2012

If you convince him to agree with you, just so you can have an Amicable Mutual Breakup instead of having to say "I dumped him", chances are good that eventually when he hauls himself out of the inevitable depression, he'll end up feeling resentful that you manipulated him into saying he agreed to something he didn't genuinely want.

In my opinion, the kindest thing you can do is give him the right to badmouth you to all his friends. It's such an awkward situation when you want to be mad at someone but they've been so nice you just can't feel justified. DUMP him. He won't have to shuffle his feet and stare at the ground and say "yea, Anon and I decided to split up, things just weren't working out, I guess (s)he was frustrated about X and I just couldn't agree to be the person (s)he wanted me to be." Instead he can say "Shit, man, I put so much work into that relationship, and that &^%$ Anon dumped me! Christ, some people are just not worth the effort!!" And then after he hauls himself out of the inevitable depression, he may well recognize that things hadn't been truly working, realize you did what had to be done, and come out with fewer net hard feelings than if you tried to be "nice".
posted by aimedwander at 10:48 AM on April 6, 2012 [4 favorites]

Ideally I'd want the breakup to be something we both agree to do, rather than something I unilaterally decide.

I know this is coming from a good place, but you don't get to do this. You don't always get what you want, but you always get to decide what you want. Attempting to convince him that he wants this to, or that this is good for him, is patronizing and will hurt him even more.

It's your decision; if you think it's what's best for you, do it. But acknowledge it's your decision.
posted by spaltavian at 10:52 AM on April 6, 2012 [2 favorites]

Been there. Remember that being firm and unmoving from it is actually a kindness. When I was in your situation I tried to think of it this way: I was causing him a lot of pain by ending a relationship that he didn't want to end. While it was painful for me to be the "bad guy", I actually took some of the pain burden onto my shoulders.

You both want eachother to change into something the other person is not. He can't change your desire to end the relationship, you can't change his desire not to. So own it and recognize that by owning your part in it, which is painful, he is going to have to own his, which is also painful. It's going to hurt, and that can't be avoided, only drawn out.

The good news is, you'll both be free to find relationships that are more in line with what you want, and you will both come out stronger and happier in the end!
posted by pazazygeek at 10:57 AM on April 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

I totally understand why you want to make this a mutual thing, but I don't think it's possible. The one time I tried to break up with someone without being the bad guy I ended up hurting her more than I've ever hurt anyone else. Allowing yourself to be the bad guy here is actually a kindness - it will help him move on.

Now, how to do it. I'd say start off by being vague. He knows what the issues are, so just tell him that it's not working out for you, and you need to move on - I don't think hearing a laundry-list of his faults is going to be helpful for him. Some people, however, really want specific reasons for being dumped, so you need to be prepared if he really insists. For this, I suggest sorting your relationships problems into two piles. Pile a - problems caused by value-neutral incompatibilities (introvert/extovert, poly/monog, etc). Pile b - problems that seem like inadequacies on his part (motivation and procrastination problems). Then, for the love of god, only pull from pile a during the breakup talk.
posted by Ragged Richard at 11:19 AM on April 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

FYI, this question has spawned a related MeTa.
posted by Forktine at 11:20 AM on April 6, 2012

Don't take responsibility for making this a shared decision. He's unlikely to agree with you right now, though he may well come to think the breakup was for the best. If he asks questions, raises objections, asks you to wait a while -- you need to just restate as kindly as you can that you need to go.

I realize I'm just amplifying part of what FAMOUS MONSTER just said, but it's really, really important to be firm and not get off the subject: that there have been many positives, but that you have to move on.
posted by wryly at 12:51 PM on April 6, 2012

I've been here. Except I got the breakup words taken out of my mouth and it was aggravating. So in the hope it'll help you be clear and final, I'll address this part:

The sticking point is, it's true that he's improving, and it feels cruel to break up when I know he's working on being better... but it's slow and incremental, and I can't wait for big changes any longer.

Please know that THIS IS OK, and you're not wrong for knowing what you need and breaking up accordingly. I felt like a shitheel for wanting to break up, but in hindsight, no, I am not a shitheel, we were just not compatible in, as Ragged Richard says above, value-neutral ways.
posted by clavicle at 1:18 PM on April 6, 2012

I'm sorry you're going thru this moment. You made your decision and you have to tell him. As hard at it may be, DO NOT, for heavens sake, try to be nice about it. Be direct. No details. Say you're simply unhappy. Do not take his calls, or texts. Give it a few months before you guys contact each other. A guy I'm seeing recieved excuses as to why his ex couldn't be with him. Maybe her reason was legitiment, maybe not. Excuses nonetheless, and now he doesn't know what to think of it. He's hurt me by being hung up on hope his ex's "circumstances" will change, nearly 2 years later. Be direct. That's it. Hugs to both of you.
posted by InterestedInKnowing at 1:41 PM on April 6, 2012

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