How to best break up with my girlfriend?
March 9, 2014 2:21 PM   Subscribe

I am strongly considering breaking up with my girlfriend, but I haven't done this for a while and want to do the right thing. I value both honesty/truth and kindness. I know that sometimes the truth hurts a lot and may scar people psychologically, so I am looking for guidance on how to toe the line between being respectfully honest and condescendingly protective.

After 1.5 years with my girlfriend (both 31), I am leaning towards breaking things off and having us move on. I do not fully trust my own judgment on this issue because I oscillate between thinking we are good together and thinking we are incompatible, depending on the week. But by seeing that the parts I find incompatible have not gone away over time, I am more confident in thinking it is time to move on. And I realized that it isn't a question in my mind of whether this relationship is amazing or not, but rather whether it is good enough or not. I don't think that it is fair to either of us for me to commit to marriage with someone I think is only a "good enough" mutual fit. I don't know how to tell her best though.

Here are the things that bother me most. I am looking advice on how to explain the reason for ending it to her somewhat honestly out of respect for her as a person, but not so honestly as to scar her emotionally or set her back in life since she is sensitive and already has some insecurities. I want her to be happy and confidently enter a new relationship with someone who is a better fit for her. I don't want her to fall into a dark place after this. That is the dilemma.

The things that I am not satisfied with:
- She shows love more through action (doing things for me) rather than curiosity. To me, it is much more important that someone wants to know about ME as a person and asks me about myself and shows a genuine curiosity to understand me. I don't see that too much from her. I can see in her eyes that she loves me, but I can't help but feel unsatisfied. I have never felt this lack with anyone else, and while it is simply a difference in expression, it is an important one for me. I don't feel like she knows the real me or is intrigued by the real me. She will buy me thoughtful gifts and cook my favorite meals and want to spend time together and is sexually giving. But she doesn't really show a genuine curiosity in me, at least outwardly via her words. We have discussed this numerous times. It frustrates her that I feel this way. She also thinks I should be more outwardly thoughtful about doing nice things for her (I suck at this). We have both tried working on it, but it is kind of a fundamental difference in the way we express and prefer to receive love.
- On a related note, she does not really show much intellectual curiosity. She prefers to tell me about her day, her relationships with others, goings on, and send me cute articles and pics. She is quite girly in this sense. I much prefer to discuss concepts and ideas and to learn things. I wish I could have a mate that would talk to me frequently about interesting things she read of heard or thought of and we could take conversational journeys into interesting unanticipated directions. It feels so weird trying to describe this analytically because it is such a natural thing for most of my friends and me, but she is fundamentally different in that regard. That said, she is definitely intelligent and insightful, particularly with respect to art and literature. So it is not an intelligence thing. It is about the expression of that intelligence. She is not so much an "off-the-cuff" conversationalist, which I love.
- Sexually, we are okay but not great in terms of compatibility. Recently my sex drive with her has decreased and I find myself having to convince myself to get in the mood. I cannot tell if it is because I just naturally get sexually bored after a few years or because the relationship has stagnated from my perspective and with it my desire.
- She is coming from a somewhat fragile emotional base having dealt with some disorders in the past and sometimes still currently. I just don't feel that she can be that emotional rock for me should I ever need one. It is hard for me to tell if this is perception or reality. But it is a gut feeling. I have not shared a lot of the things that I harbor some shame about in my life (insecurities, past, etc.). For all I know, the relationship would progress to the next level if I was able to cut through some of the bullshit and just open my heart to her and make myself vulnerable. But my instinct is to not open myself up like that to someone who I do not feel on the other fronts is a good long-term fit. I would probably feel more willing to do this if she was more secure on her own and a better fit for me in the other areas above. My point is - this could be my own doing and the above problems could largely be driven by me not showing her all my true colors, the scary shameful hidden stuff, but I feel discouraged from taking that scary leap with her given the other imperfections in the relationship. I don't feel it is fair to the relationship for me to keep things bottled up, but at the same time, I don't feel safe going forward with these things. And I cannot objectively tell if it is me (I am very bottled up with most people around certain issues, so it isn't jst her), or if it is her (because I don't feel like she is curious about me, and is insecure herself and perhaps not ready to accept weakness in others in a healthy way given her own weakness).

Having said all of the above, I love her and am attached to her. The idea of breaking up makes me cry. But I hate the idea of dragging her along and not marrying her more than I care about my own near-term interests. The shadow of marriage looming ahead, something that I know she is anxious about, is hastening my decision. If we were 18 and in this situation, I would ride it out and see where it goes and maybe we work out the rough edges. But I do not think it is fair to her to go any further right now if my heart is on the fence about it all.

So how do I frame the above without making her feel like shit? I know break-ups always suck, but in particular, I would like to soften the blow if possible without completely making stuff up like "just not ready for marriage sorry".
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (25 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Miko's Breakup Guidelines.
posted by Sebmojo at 2:24 PM on March 9, 2014 [9 favorites]

You don't explain to her why she falls short, which is what I'm reading is your justification. You just tell her you're not interested in continuing the relationship and wish her well.

There is no easy way to do this that won't cause pain. Don't make it worse by spending hours explaining why she doesn't live up to your expectations.
posted by HuronBob at 2:27 PM on March 9, 2014 [26 favorites]

Have you tried talking with her about this, as honestly as you have here?

I have to say that I am a bit worried that you are in fact my boyfriend. This all sounds like stuff I think he might be thinking lately and we are both 31 and have been together the same amount of time, roughly...

I guess I say this to tell you that on some level she is probably wondering about what's going on with you.

Talk to her. You will likely break up but she might really surprise you. Particularly on the fragility stuff. Sometimes people who have been through a lot of emotional turbulence are downright rock solid in crisis. That's been my experience, anyhow.

Good luck. I'm sorry. I personally do not understand how love really works and to me it sounds like this could work out but what do I know.
posted by sockermom at 2:37 PM on March 9, 2014 [2 favorites]

"It's not you, it's me."

Do not under any circumstances spell out a laundry list of personal quirks that are not the most optimal life partner behavior. Because, seriously, "you're not intellectually curious enough" is going to make you "Let Me Tell You About My Shithead Ex Boyfriend" anecdote fodder for the rest of this poor woman's life.

You could also just... not break up with her. Your reasons for not wanting to be with her are pretty weak. You're basically upset that she's not you, you don't want to have sex with her every minute of every day, and she's not an emotional superhuman.

Generally I stress in threads like this that, hey, you don't need reasons to break up with someone, and if it's over, it's over. But in this question you sound like someone who is slightly disappointed that the pizza guy left off the mushrooms. You seem to be looking for more in your relationship than is even remotely feasible to expect from another human being. In that sense, you might do better as a single person.

But if you genuinely love this woman, why not just deal with the fact that this particular pizza doesn't have mushrooms on it? Pizza without mushrooms can be just as delicious as pizza with mushrooms.
posted by Sara C. at 2:38 PM on March 9, 2014 [54 favorites]

Absolutely do not tell her any of the things you've listed here. Tell her you admire her and respect her but know now that the two of you are not as compatible as you ought to be and that you want to break up so that you can both move forward in life without each other at this time. You could gently acknowledge the mismatch about love languages and tell her that she deserves someone who demonstrates love the way she likes and prefers, and that you can't be that person because you operate differently and don't want to shortchange her any more. And for what it's worth, I think you do need to examine some of your priorities from a fairness standpoint, but that's for you to decide and figure out for yourself.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 2:40 PM on March 9, 2014 [7 favorites]

"This isn't right for me."

Not "you aren't right for me", but "this". This relationship isn't right for me. It's really not your responsibility to point out her faults, because it's not like if she fundamentally changed herself that that would fix the relationship. Such change is next to impossible, very unfair to impose on someone else, and also not what you're asking for anyway.

What you can (possibly) fix is the relationship, which is about the shared space you both build which creates that sense of safety that enables each of you to be free and genuine with one another. If there are reasons why you are feeling blocked from being your true self, and growing into the person you want to be, then you have a choice of communicating about those and starting the difficult process of doing the emotional work, both individually and jointly, to tear down those walls and build a more solid foundation together and within yourself; or you can conclude that you are too far apart for that to work; or perhaps you yourself aren't ready to do that work right now (but if so, be prepared for the issues to recur).

It sounds like you've reached one of the latter conclusions. This is perfectly valid and I commend you for listening to yourself. Sometimes two people just don't travel well together. Please, when you communicate this to your partner, talk about the relationship, the compatibility, the fit, and the way you feel like you aren't meshing at a deep level the way you need, instead of talking about her and the way her personality isn't what you want. Your responsibility should be to leave her feeling like you care for her and respect her and that she is worthy and deserving of love, but between the two of you it's not right for you.
posted by PercussivePaul at 2:43 PM on March 9, 2014 [3 favorites]

There is nothing wrong with her. Zero. Therefore there is no point -- zero point -- in pointing out the ways in which she falls short of your personal ideal. Miko's breakup advice, STAT.
posted by DarlingBri at 2:48 PM on March 9, 2014 [8 favorites]

But I hate the idea of dragging her along and not marrying her more than I care about my own near-term interests. The shadow of marriage looming ahead, something that I know she is anxious about, is hastening my decision. If we were 18 and in this situation, I would ride it out and see where it goes and maybe we work out the rough edges. But I do not think it is fair to her to go any further right now if my heart is on the fence about it all.

I think this is it right here. You don't see this leading to marriage and you are both at an age where faffing around for a couple of years is a serious waste of time. Good for you for being able to recognize that; you're doing her a favor, assuming she is interested in marriage.
posted by BibiRose at 2:54 PM on March 9, 2014 [6 favorites]

Yikes. You could be sockermom's boyfriend or my ex-fianceĀ“.

I think it's fine to say you're incompatible and you want to move on.

But from what you've written, you have always emotionally withheld from your girlfriend, it appears you haven't been truly honest about your feelings and you haven't honestly expressed who you are to her. If you were my boyfriend of 1.5 years and I thought you were kept a lot of your emotional state hidden from me, I would feel pretty betrayed. You're not exactly playing fair with her.

So from that perspective, it sounds like you have some work to do, but on yourself. I would suggest you talk to her, but be open and show her who you actually are instead of withholding. Don't be surprised if she wants to move on from you.
posted by kinetic at 2:58 PM on March 9, 2014 [18 favorites]

P.S. unsolicited observation. Your issues are simultaneously that she doesn't see the real you, and that you don't trust her enough to show you the real you. You hide your insecurities because you fear her own insecurities. There's a lot of mirroring going on here, and to me it reads like a lot of the things you talk about being her faults are actually just transformations or projections of the things that you don't like about yourself -- very common for people who are carrying emotional baggage, so to speak. If that lands for you, then it might be a good time to start looking inward at your own relationship history and emotional patterns.
posted by PercussivePaul at 3:00 PM on March 9, 2014 [46 favorites]

To be really honest with you, these sound like kind of young, angsty, overthinky and picky reasons to break up to me.

I think it is quite possible that you will not be doing her the favor you imagine if you tell her. I think it is quite possible that there is no good way to say these things to her and not make yourself look bad.

There is something to be said for being the picky jerk in the breakup, though- it may help her move on faster if she really knows how, well, kinda shallow these things are. But yeah, basically, as a woman, I read all your stuff and it basically translated into, "not ready to be married, still into finding himself" to me. Ergo, "I'm not ready to be married," may be kinder and still basically true on some level.
posted by quincunx at 3:07 PM on March 9, 2014 [4 favorites]

I don't think you should tell her the things you wrote here. They aren't things that are going to stop her having a happy relationship with someone who isn't you. I do think you should break up with her but this is a situation where the absolute truth isn't necessary when you can just tell her that the relationship isn't working for you.
posted by SpaceWarp13 at 3:14 PM on March 9, 2014 [6 favorites]

If the relationship isn't working for you, you should dump her. Be kind, you don't need to tell her any of this stuff. Just say you don't want to get married so you think you should break up as to not waste any more time. That said, she is not the one in danger of falling into a dark place after the breakup...
posted by BabeTheBlueOX at 3:20 PM on March 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

I actually came back because I can't stop thinking about this one and I have more advice.

1. How do you know she is feeling ready for marriage soon? Is this something you have explicitly discussed, or is it an assumption? I have a feeling that it is maybe an assumption for some reason. If so, you need to talk specifically about this with her to gauge where she is at vis a vis marriage. That is incredibly important.

2. I think you should specifically talk about how you have held back, your fears about how you feel, etc. I don't think you should bring up the conversation thing - that is convoluted and I think will detract from the discussion. But I think talking about how you are scared and you haven't opened up and you aren't sure... that conversation would be productive I think.

3. Think about the possibility that knowing where you are and how you are feeling will be a relief for your girlfriend, and she might be interested in working on these things with you and being supportive as you work on your ability to open up and trust and be in a relationship. If she is open to staying together and working on it, how does that make you feel? Consider that possibility.

I would stay with my boyfriend if he identified something that he thought was impacting his ability to be in a relationship. I mean... isn't that part of the point of relationships, to give us a safe space to be vulnerable and be ourselves? Maybe you have that here, but you do not and will never know until you talk about this stuff with her. Now, if you don't want this, that's ok and valid, but then you really just need to break up. Tell her you realize that you have things to work on and that you don't want to be in a serious relationship while you work on them.

Good luck. I wish you all the best.
posted by sockermom at 3:31 PM on March 9, 2014 [2 favorites]

Christ, don't tell her that you think she's dull or unreliable. Honesty here will just make you an asshole.
posted by J. Wilson at 3:57 PM on March 9, 2014 [4 favorites]

It is so incredibly rare for people to recommend reconsidering a breakup on askme. I think you should give the fact that that's the majority opinion some serious thought.
posted by zug at 4:48 PM on March 9, 2014 [8 favorites]

If you really think a breakup is a good idea, instead of an attempt at better intimacy, I'm going to go against the grain here and say that sometimes, a brief and non-judgmental explanation of why you feel someone is incompatible is better than putting them through the hell of trying to figure it out themselves. Because if you give BS reasons or just stick to vague it's-not-you-it's-me excuses, the rejected person might think the truth is SO BAD that you can't even tell them. There have been several times when I've been left scratching my head wondering if I'm just unfit for a relationship, or repulsive. But other times, when we've been trying to work things out, the breakup has been more understandable. When you work on your relationship in counseling or try to talk things out and you can't resolve the problems, at least you know what those problems are and you don't feel blindsided when things don't work out. I'm not a big fan of the DTMFA attitude; once you get past your 20s you start realizing how rare a good-enough relationship is if you don't already have one. I think you should at least let her know what some of your issues with the relationship are and see if they can be fixed before you pull the plug.
posted by xenophile at 4:56 PM on March 9, 2014 [2 favorites]

None of these are flaws of hers, they're just incompatibilities. There is zero need to tell her any of this; it'll do no good and possibly lots of harm. Just say you don't think see it working out in the long run and leave it at that, even and especially if she asks you to elaborate.
posted by Metroid Baby at 5:01 PM on March 9, 2014

This sounds like the usual overthinking nerd's first long term relationship (no offense, I've been there). You need to grow up a bit, and realize what you actually value. just break up, otherwise you sound like you will be overanalyzing your decision until the end of time.
posted by benzenedream at 5:06 PM on March 9, 2014 [3 favorites]

Definitely don't tell her the things that she is "lacking." I would hate to date someone with the qualities you're looking for, so it would be a shame if she thought she had to try to change in those ways to make you change your mind, or to make future relationships work. Just break up, do the typical "you're awesome and smart and pretty but I am just feeling it/not seeing this as something that I want." And then don't go back on your word if you ever get lonely, since the healthiest break ups are ones where the breaker-upper doesn't end up messing with the other person's emotions and hopes by going back and forth. Even if it seems cruel to not come see her when she is crying and just wants to see you, it is the quickest way for both parties to get over each other.
posted by at 5:52 PM on March 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

I don't think that it is fair to either of us for me to commit to marriage with someone I think is only a "good enough" mutual fit.

Whether she's thinking about marriage or not, if your goal in a relationship is marriage, that means you need to move on, because it is a very bad idea to marry someone you are ambivalent about, and you are ambivalent about her. Ultimately, the problem is you do love her, but you don't think it's enough or in the right way to get married (whatever your definition is, it's a big deal to spend your lives together, prioritizing each other's needs, raise a family together, and/or practice lifelong sexual monogamy).

It's going to hurt for her to hear that, and she's probably going to want to argue with you about it (because it's a pretty common human response, on hearing "you don't make the cut", to blurt "the hell you say! I certainly should and here's why" even when it's something you didn't actually want to do.) The only way around it is to say it and keep saying it, without the reasons. "I don't think we are marriage material, and I really want that in my life, sooner than later." Leave the reasons out - she can't change them, they'll hurt, and they'll drag the process out.

It's possible you're wrong, that she and you could make it together for the long run. But anyone who thinks they can tell that from six paragraphs on the internet is just wrong.
posted by gingerest at 6:55 PM on March 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

Your issues are simultaneously that she doesn't see the real you, and that you don't trust her enough to show you the real you.

I agree with this completely. To me, it sounds like you're withdrawn and bottled up and you're too scared to open yourself up to more intimacy with her. That's not her fault, that's you having trust issues. And frankly, she sounds pretty trustworthy (you don't doubt her love for you, she's thoughtful and does nice things for you, etc). I don't even see any ways she could be more trustworthy.

To me, you sound like you're having cold feet. You're thinking of breaking up because you're scared of the intimacy and trust involved in staying together. But don't wimp out. This is actually the kind of thing worth pushing through. Growth doesn't feel good (while you're growing, anyway), but it's worth it.

If you have intimacy issues (which it sounds like you do), a lack of intimacy isn't a good reason to break up -- it's a good reason to work on those issues.
posted by rue72 at 8:16 PM on March 9, 2014 [6 favorites]

I'm surprised no one has mentioned this yet! You need to check out the Love Languages. I thought it was a little sketch initially, but its' really solid. Off the initial question, it sounds like your girlfriend values Acts of Service, with her thoughtful gifts and nice meals. She's asked you to do those things for her, and you "forget." But you are very clear about how she's failed you in /your/ love language.

Maybe viewing it as a valid language of affection might help you. I'd check it out and maybe try some of the couples exercises.
posted by corb at 7:54 AM on March 10, 2014 [5 favorites]

You are in phase 2 of a relationship according to David Richo (and many others I'm sure). The infatuation has worn off and now you are each seeing each other's flaws, and hoping they will change. It's a make or break time and it's good you can recognize that, but given that you are attached and your girlfriend is showing you love and affection it might be worth doing some work before calling it quits. It sounds like you've been telling yourself that your girlfriend isn't strong enough to support you through a crisis as a way of maintaining distance from her. I think this is the least fair thing you are doing in the relationship. You seem to recognize you are creating this problem where you are withholding your feelings for fear of hurting/damaging your girlfriend and perpetuating a cycle where she isn't really seeing all of you but how can she when you're not telling her?

A common pattern in relationships is for one partner to be a "feeler" and the other a "thinker". It's not so much about expression of intelligence as it is a way of relating to and experiencing the world and emotions. This will not change, but you can each learn to appreciate the other more. Work by Gay and Kathlyn Hendricks might be insightful for you.
Similarly incompatibility between how you each show love is fixable as corb above suggests (you can learn to do things with her and spend time with her, and she can learn to ask you questions and engage in deeper intellectual conversations). It strikes me that if she wasn't curious about you and motivated to understand you she wouldn't be capable of buying you thoughtful gifts and cooking food you like, so she clearly is curious about you, just not in exactly the way you consider meaningful. Practicing gratitude instead of focusing on what you're not getting could help a lot.

If you want to work it out, you're going to have to face your fears and do some introspecting and work on your shadow side, and if that seems like too much work then she deserves to be with someone who is willing to do the scary stuff with her (and who can appreciate her thoughtful gestures).
posted by lafemma at 9:19 AM on March 10, 2014 [3 favorites]

Might be too late to this party, but here goes:

This sounds like some of the reservations I've experienced in my current relationship. Things started off deliberately casual, as my gf was returning to the dating scene after some time away, and I was just recently out of a serious relationship.

At the outset, it was clear that we were not "clicking" in the way I was accustomed to. I've always been the more introverted half of a couple (or at least evenly so). She's more reserved than I am, so now it's frequently on me to instigate activities, whether social or physical. We don't share many interests, either: I'm a skilled cook, she's not even into it in an instagram-the-cute-salad sense; I connect deeply with music on a creative/structural level, while it's mostly just background for her; our cultural touchstones only barely overlap, so it's constantly like, "how do you not get my brilliant referential joke?!?" (To further complicate things, my initial impression of our connection -- i.e. beige -- was colored by a sudden get-back-together push from my ex, and some flirtation with another woman who I more easily "sparked off of" in the way I was accustomed to.)

At first, she was really cautious about opening up and committing to our shared experience, and I was really uncomfortable being the "extrovert," and doing all the "work." I went through a period of feeling that I was getting roped into a situation where I'd feel unbalanced and resentful. I wasn't getting what I was used to, so something must be "missing," right? At several months in, I was about 80% certain that we'd made a mistake and that we were headed for a painful breakup. Smugly, I assumed that the bulk of that pain would be hers; she was clearly falling for me despite herself, while I was just kind of "eh, okay..."

I'm really glad I didn't act on those feelings. She has turned out to be an excellent partner in so many ways. She supports and appreciates me -- the actual person -- as opposed to me-the-eventually-"improved"-person. She hears me, instead of subtly dismissing what I say. Her sense of empathy for others often puts mine to shame. Being forced into relative extroversion has helped me become a more capable and well-rounded person. We may not always geek out about the same things, but we geek out on watching each other geek out about whatever; in essence, we get to geek out about double the things! The dynamics I was "missing" have been replaced by dynamics I didn't really know I was missing, and sorely needed to experience.

Obviously, there is a point where it's clear that two people aren't meshing, and no good will come from slogging any further. If there are definite differences regarding long-term goals or life philosophies, things probably won't work out. But don't let past patterns or over-thinking torpedo an otherwise healthy/beneficial relationship. Sometimes we need a "spark," and sometimes we need a "rock." In my case, the latter is -- surprisingly -- working out really well.
posted by credible hulk at 7:54 AM on April 8, 2014 [3 favorites]

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