how to handle ending an engagement when we love each other.
June 3, 2016 7:49 AM   Subscribe

It's becoming increasingly evident that my fiance and I need to break our engagement and part ways. This whole thing has been fraught from the start, but I am so, so, so, so, so sad and I don't know how to manage this. I feel like I am melting. If you have broken an engagement, can you give me tips/advice/helpful stories?

Light background: We got engaged at the end of January, because I wanted to. We have been together off-and-on for four years (but on continuously since June 2014, and living together since September 2014).

We love each other very much and have a bond that neither of us has felt with anyone else. We get along very well day-to-day, make each other laugh, and both say that we do want to spend the rest of our lives together. I really love him so, so, so much. I can't believe I am considering leaving him, I love him so much. The only issue that we fight about is when to get married. I want to sooner. He keeps pushing it off. He has pushed off planning a wedding one too many times, to the point where I don't believe he will ever be ready to do so. Hence, I feel for my own sanity, I need to leave.

More background: We met in early 2012. We had issues right away--he had a physical/medical issue that made it so he didn't start dating until he was 30, and he has all sorts of sexual/attraction-based issues that come from one's only sexual experience as a teenager being porn. He was married once before, and it lasted six months, because she cheated on him, because he was so unattracted to her that they hardly ever slept together. Our situation is not as severe; we have been in sex and couples therapy for a year, and there have been improvements in both areas. There were so many improvements that I wanted to go ahead with getting engaged in January--we are 34 and 39, I would like to have kid(s).

He felt it was too soon to get engaged, but since I wanted to, and said that I required that level of commitment to continue to work on our relationship/sex life, he went through with it. In February, he freaked out and said he wasn't sure after all. We let it sit for a bit, and in March I told him that he needed to figure out what he wanted, and provide some sort of timeline for when we could get married if that is what he wanted. He said 100% it was what he wanted. He said he'd be ready to get married a year from then, and ready to plan a wedding in June. He swore up and down he'd be ready (he has a history of being a poor predictor of his own behavior and feelings, so I had doubts).

It's June, and he's not ready. He's freaking out again about whether this is what he wants. To be fair, I had my own freakout a few weeks ago and said some not-great things about our relationship and about him, but I felt that happened because I was so worried he wouldn't be ready to plan in June that I had to talk myself out of him. The things I said deeply affected and hurt him, so I don't want to discount this--I could have sabotaged it. This could be my fault.

He is dealing with a lot of changes in his life right now, with work, and we may have to move out of our apartment (well, I almost definitely have to move out, but he may have to move out too--it's his apartment that he owned before meeting me). He feels pressured and swamped and like he is having too many possible changes thrown at him at once. I feel we already agreed to get married, hence being engaged, and if he actually wants to spend his life with me, why not plan a wedding--that this is not a change, that this is preserving a constant. I really don't think he is sure at all. I think he is mentally holding out for a fantasy porn girl who also magically gets him and understands him and loves him like I do.

So, I have to leave. I can't handle the uncertainty anymore.

Please tell me how to leave. I need stories of strength, anecdotes of lives improving afterwards, any practical items I may be overlooking. I need advice on how not to begrudge other people their happiness while this is happening, and how to not feel old and rejected and like I failed yet again, yet another fucked-up, broken relationship, which of course indicates that there is something wrong with me. I need advice on how not to panic that this means I will never be able to have a kid (please do not advise me to freeze my eggs: I have PCOS, I tried to freeze my eggs, and my estrogen went so high within a week of the lowest possible dose of meds that they cancelled me). I need advice on having to start over at 34, after believing that this was it and I was going to spend forever with him, despite all his issues and despite all our problems. Because I really did believe that, because I really do love him so much.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (14 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
My story of strength and life improving afterwards: I was with my ex from when we were 17 until 25. I truly loved him and he was a wonderful person, but I wasn't 'in love' with him, and I never felt like I was authentically 'me' around him. The decision to break up was incredibly hard, until it..wasn't. I am ashamed to say it took me kissing someone else to realise I had to end it, but that's what it took. Once I had made that decision, I somehow found the strength to do it. It was horrendous, because he is a lovely guy, who never hurt me. I did this midway through an MA and, as I was the 'dumper' I moved out of our shared flat and lived in five different houseshares over the following year. I made a lot of stupid mistakes and went through a lot of heartbreak, but I never regretted it - I felt free. It had felt like it would be impossible to be without him; and it wasn't.

I know the circumstances aren't similar, in that it sound like the decision is more from both sides in your situation. But six years later he has married someone who appreciates him for who he is (like I never did) and has a little boy, and I am expecting a baby with my partner, who I never doubt my feelings for like I did with my ex. I wouldn't change what happened for anything.

Leaving him does not mean you will never have kids. I'm sorry to say that there are no guarantees when it comes to getting and staying pregnant, and staying with your partner doesn't mean you will necessarily be able to have children with him. At 34, you still potentially have many years of fertility ahead of you. If having children is very important to you, you don't have to wait to find a partner to do so, and could look into sperm donation.

I guess my only concern from your post would be that you are not leaving with the intention of staying apart, but that a small part of you is hoping that taking this action will spur him into committing to you.

If this is what you want and need to do for yourself, then you will find the strength to do it, and it will be liberating. Good luck!
posted by Dorothea_in_Rome at 8:09 AM on June 3, 2016

You now realize that forcing an engagement did NOT mean that his level of commitment increased. Good for you for understanding this. He's in no place to commit and his freaking out is a pretty telling statement. He will NEVER be ready to commit to you. Not really. So moving on is exactly the right answer.

Okay, how to do it. He'll probably be relieved, not freaked out. Once you've secured your place and are ready to move, sit down with him and say:

I'm not getting what I need from our relationship. I don't blame either one of us, it's just that no matter how much I love you, our mutual problems are bigger than our feelings for each other. I'll be moving out tomorrow and for now it would be good for us both to go no contact. It'll be painful but I'd rather just feel the intense pain and work through it. Please respect my wishes and don't contact me. I wish you well and happy, I hope you do the same for me.

If you can get him to agree to leave his place while you pack, so much the better, otherwise just rent a storage unit and pack as much as you can on the sly and move it there box by box until you're ready to go.

I'll tell you that most of us have broken relationships before we find the right one. So having a relationship end is not a failure, and it says nothing about how desirable or lovable you are. No one will think less of you, because for every happy relationship you see, there's a history of all the unhappy ones that couple had before they found the right partner.

Starting over at 34 is no big deal. You'll need to mourn your relationship for a while, really understand why you stayed with someone who was not on the same page with you regarding how he saw the relationship playing out. This is to get you to a point where you have NO emotions about the relationship at all, other than a fond recollection of your ex and a twinge of sadness that he was so flawed that he couldn't make it work. You'll also need to understand what you do want in a relationship so that you don't end up settling, as you did in this one. I suggest living single for at least a year to well and truly get to this place.

I recommend making a list of exactly what you want in a partner. Put all your hopes and dreams into describing the right person for you. Then fold it up. When you start to meet new people take out your list and affirm that they're ticking the boxes. If they're not...think about why you're willing to compromise something that was so fundamentally important to you when you wrote your list. Don't invest time and emotions into people who will never give you what you need.

My cousin began her first date with her now husband with this declaration, "I really like you and I'd like to get to know you better. I do want you to know that I'm interested in ultimately being married and having a family. I'm not saying you're the right man for me, but it's important to me that we don't waste each other's time if this isn't what you want as well." It's very ballsy, but she knew what she wanted, and she only wanted to be with a man who knew what he wanted. She saved countless hours of heartache this way. They married 14 years ago and have two adorable kids.

I'll also say that after years of dating and failed relationships, I met and married Husbunny when I was 39. Kids were never an issue for us, but most of my friends had their children at that age, so it's not off the table.

Don't stay out of fear, leave knowing that it's right for both of you.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 8:09 AM on June 3, 2016 [30 favorites]

It does not sound like you are compatible. And it's good to realize that and move on, before you both get hurt.

You can consider a sperm donor if you feel like kids are a huge part of what you want out of life. I left a bad marriage with a baby and motherhood is 1000 times easier on your own. Also it's hard with and without a good partner.

Or all the things Ruthless Bunny said.
posted by Kalmya at 8:16 AM on June 3, 2016 [1 favorite]

I broke an engagement at age 20 and got divorced at 26 after a 5 year relationship that included a 2 year engagement. I'm in a new relationship now and I have never ever been happier. And my one wish from the marriage is that we'd broken up while we were engaged instead of afterwards, since that complicates things tons. Even a cheap divorce is expensive and stressful. Every time I was in one of those serious relationships I was sure I'd never find anyone who measured up to that person. Every time I got out of one of those relationships, I found someone new who was even more amazing.

Additionally, I 100% feel that a wedding is way more real than an engagement, having done both. I refused to do any wedding planning during the first engagement because that made it feel real, and I honestly did not want to marry this person -- I'd just said yes because that's what you do when someone proposes on a stage in front of all your friends. So I think you're right and his lack of desire to do any wedding planning is probably a sign you should get out. Being engaged is just like dating, except you have a pretty ring to wear (imo); it's the wedding planning that makes it real.

My recommendation would be to go no-contact as soon as you can untangle your lives. The first engagement, I clung way too long and it made us both miserable. The second one was easier because she moved across the country and we completely stopped talking. It helped me feel like my life was mine again and I could do all the planning I wanted and figure out how to live by myself. I've loved living alone for the first time in my life.

I was worried about having kids too. It's likely you've already thought about this, but I strongly urge you to consider fostering or adopting. I've talked with my current partner frankly about fertility because she's already 31 and I'm younger but uninterested in ever being pregnant. We decided that we didn't want the time pressure/rush to get married and buy a house and get everything sorted out to start expensive fertility treatments (as someone with PCOS, you might need those too, even if you have easily accessible sperm) before she turned 35. So we decided that we'll get to things when we're ready, and if it turns out there won't be any 'natural' babies, we'll foster or adopt if we want to. That made me feel so much better, like that stupid biological clock idea wasn't looming over me and controlling my life. Single people can also foster or adopt so that also gives you more options.

Good luck. You can do it. You're stronger than you think.
posted by possibilityleft at 8:20 AM on June 3, 2016 [2 favorites]

I'm really sorry. This sucks.

I broke off an engagement when I was very young, so I'm not sure my situation is analogous, but I can tell you that when someone has been an intimate part of your life for four years, they will basically always be part of your life. I forget "boyfriends" and dates that lasted months, even a year, pretty frequently. Just totally forget them, don't think about them, have to try to remember their names. But my ex will always be a big part of my mental space/memories/life/sense of self. After my current partner, he fills the next slot in my brainspace for "relationships."

I think of it like this: To some extent, you're "de facto" married if you've been together long enough and your lives are intertwined enough. Whether or not you have the ring and paperwork. So I think the most analogous situation is actually a divorce, not a break up. The fallout and depth of emotion is closer to the former than the latter.

Once you realize this, you also realize the importance of marriage before solidifying all the perks. It's not a bait and switch/old fashioned/whatever negative stereotype of marriage is all the rage, it's because "living together, sharing finances, treating each other's family's like family, having all the same friends, and relying on each other" basically IS marriage. The paperwork protects you in this exact situation.

After that, I promised myself to never again live with someone/enmesh our lives to that extent before we were solidly engaged. YMMV.
posted by quincunx at 8:39 AM on June 3, 2016 [4 favorites]

I need advice on having to start over at 34

Honestly, your odds are pretty good at 34, because your male peers are finally getting their shit together (and, like you, a lot of them are leaving late-20s/early-30s relationships that they stayed in because they were marriage-age and getting marriage-ready and then realized they were not with appropriate partners for that).

Do take some time for yourself, not just to heal and mourn but to perform an inventory: what you want, what you don't want (this is so important to know). Don't get back out there desperate, clinging to anyone who shows interest, because the truth is that being alone on your own terms is better than contorting yourself to make a bad fit work because eventually it just won't work anymore. Don't sacrifice your future by settling now - you already danced that dance once, it's enough.

Give it a couple of months, and you're not just going to notice other people's happiness. You're also going to notice how a lot of people are miserable as a result of bad decisions both small and large, and how many people are so engulfed in sunk cost fallacy that they'll stay instead of making better decisions. You will see that there are advantages to your situation and that you have opportunities that a younger you, or Alternate Universe you, wouldn't.

Something to consider: there's probably some actual research out there on this, but anecdotally it seems like un-traumatically never really having a father in the picture is less damaging than having a crap father. So if what you really want is to parent, you should at least go through the thought exercise to decide if you'd be better off just doing that now and dating later in your life rather than settling for someone who's fine with giving you the sperm for free and hanging around for a while as long as you don't ask him to do any work. Marriages don't survive children when one party doesn't actually want children, and better a father who was never there than the heartbreak of a father who left and provided a string of disappointments.

If you decide to be very specific and focused on meeting a man who deeply wants children and wants to co-parent with you for the rest of his life even if you don't stay together, that's not a stupid goal, but if you want to do that you need to be on your own team so firmly that you will walk away on the second date if he's only great partner material but not great parent material. That's a hard thing to do, but it's an emotional investment in your future. But you have just had the experience of being with someone who you loved but who was a bad fit for your goals in life, so use that information and try to find a place of gratitude that you now know what you know about that kind of situation.

Once the pain of the split eases, and just the sheer awfulness of any kind of change, you will likely be glad you did this. That's something you can look forward to, the day you realize things are better than they were before. It will come sooner than you think.
posted by Lyn Never at 8:49 AM on June 3, 2016 [7 favorites]

This does suck, but you'll be ok. Your partner might love you as best he can but it sounds like you're dodging a bullet given all of the difficulties you've had so far. This is the easiest your lives are going to get, so imagine kids and more stress piled on top (job loss, aging, heath issues), it's not a pretty picture. I think intimacy issues are really important and you could end up feeling very alone if you stay, you deserve a partner who makes you feel loved.

Practical issues: find a place to move into asap, see if your therapist can guide you together through a breaking-up session or two, maybe sign up for some sort of course you've put off from participating in because you've been so focused on the engagement/wedding stuff, read "Loving Him Without Losing You" and do the exercises in it, connect/re-connect with friends. Prepare for him to potentially promise changes once it's clear you're leaving-leaving, this means he wants to maintain the status-quo, not that he really loves you.

Dating at 35 (if you take some time to yourself first) will be ok. Anecdotally I found that men closer to 40 who were online dating (and didn't have children already) were less serious than guys closer to my age (I was 32), i.e. they were happily set in their ways and not seeking to dramatically change their lives to include someone else.

Work on changing your mindset in terms of your age/desirability. If a man isn't enthusiastic on the first date or throws off red flags cut it off. Don't think by dating a man who is "below" you in some way (or who needs "fixing") will treat you better than someone more similar to you. Insecurity/fear will push you towards that but it won't actually lead to a happier relationship.
posted by lafemma at 9:10 AM on June 3, 2016 [1 favorite]

It sounds like the two of you want different things, and that your bio clock is ticking a lot louder than his. It's great to be clear on what you want, but I'm not sure from reading your post what HE wants. Has he told you? Is he annoyingly vague for no reason, or is he afraid to flat out say "I don't really like kids and I don't want to be tied down." (Yeah, I did pull that one out of my ass, but it's a fairly popular attitude these days.)

I personally don't like fancy weddings. If kids are your priority, you can compress the timetable, once you have a guy lined up, by not planning a huge event and just doing a tiny family thing at city hall. I only say this because I used to work in product development. If the baby is the desired end product, then the big wedding is a way to find some slack in the schedule if you need it.
posted by puddledork at 9:47 AM on June 3, 2016

I am 34 and I ended an engagement this winter! You are absolutely not alone. I'd been together with my partner for six years, and it took a full year of intensive therapy for me to get up the courage to leave him. I loved him so much; he was such a good person; no one would ever love me as much as he did, etc. etc. etc. Actually opening my mouth to tell him I was breaking up with him made me think of that James Franco movie about the man who chops off his own arm to free himself from the boulder. I was prepared for so much pain.

It was hard. But you know what? It was nothing like I'd imagined, and the sadness that came from the breakup was nothing like the grueling misery of the uncertainty and ambivalence and endless guilt and self-doubt that had come before. Within a few hours, I knew I'd made the right decision, and that certainty came with a relief and clarity I hadn't felt in a very long time. I will tell you, unequivocally, that I am happier now (six months after the breakup) than I have ever been.

For what it's worth, though, a huge part of being able to claim that happiness has been setting fire to the idea of a "timeline." One of the things that I realized in therapy was that I'd gone so far down the road with a person who was objectively wonderful but wrong for me because I had an idea in my head about what my life was supposed to look like - marriage, car, house, kids - that in no way spoke to what I really wanted. I stayed in a relationship that didn't give me pleasure because I thought of it as work towards some bigger, more important goal... but ultimately, that goal was never my goal, and so there was no reason for me to suffer for it. There are a lot of very loud voices shouting at women our age about what we're supposed to want, and what 'failure' and 'success' look like. It takes a lot of courage and patience to hear yourself over those voices, and you might be surprised at what you hear when you do.

You sound sure you want kids. I am pretty sure that I don't. But even if you're sure, I would encourage you to take some time to figure out how and why having children in your life matters to you, outside of the usual narratives of the single woman in her thirties with a ticking biological clock. Is single parenthood an option? Is foster care? Is step parenting? Having children but not getting married? Would you be okay being the primary wage earner for your family and have your husband stay home with a kid? I'm not trying to undermine your desire for children, only to suggest that there are many different ways to live the life you want, and the only metric for success is your own happiness. The day you end your relationship, you will be sad, but you will also be free to choose the life you want. Freedom is a great gift. Don't waste it.
posted by pretentious illiterate at 11:31 AM on June 3, 2016 [15 favorites]

As someone who married "late" and started a family "late" - please don't marry this person!

I predict you will feel huge massive amounts of relief once you walk out that door. ALL of your dreams and possibilities are back on the table once you nix this engagement and reclaim your life.

The advice that you are prime age for finding a great partner and starting a family is sound and accurate. I did it!!

I'm going to give future you some advice... You settled too early this last time. Just caring for someone is not enough in your 30's, you need to have your values and logistics in sync, too. It was a year and half before my husband and I had our first major disagreement. And we were living together! That's the guy you marry and work hard on a relationship for. This past relationship was all about this guy and his baggage. Once you have children you can't afford baggage like he had. Keep your eye on the long game, it will not be so hard in the beginning with the right partner. It can't be hard in the beginning if you want to have a happy marriage and family. Make this a value and goal as you move forward. The right partner meets you halfway 95% of the time, and that's why it's not hard being together. Relationship skills are crucial. Work on yours as you get ready for your future.

You did not fail. You will choose more wisely next time before committing. Put away your clock and your calendar and start working on yourself, work on becoming the partner you want to be. Make space in your life for a relationship. That's it.
posted by jbenben at 11:41 AM on June 3, 2016 [4 favorites]

Please tell me how to leave.

Say the hard thing. Feel your body hurt and feel like it's breaking apart. Lie in bed and focus on just breathing at first. Second-guess yourself, but don't say that to your ex. Reach out to friends. Carry tissues with you. Trust that it will get better, because it will. Get a therapist. Go on hikes. Exercise. Nurture friendships. After some time has passed, you'll look back and realize that this was for the best, that you're better off.

That's how I did it, anyways. I also thought that I had found my forever person. 5 months ago we ended it. Today I know that we made the right decision, and I feel in some ways happier than before.

I need advice on how not to begrudge other people their happiness while this is happening, and how to not feel old and rejected and like I failed yet again, yet another fucked-up, broken relationship, which of course indicates that there is something wrong with me.

The thing is, there's entire industries built around making people feel bad about themselves. Trying to convince us that we're not good enough, so we need surgery/cosmetics/lingerie/Viagra. And that's bullshit. So is this idea, perpetuated in movies and pop culture, that romantic love is the ultimate goal in life. That solo people are somehow lesser. That's also bullshit. When you're not partnered, you have a great gift: the gift to learn how to be alone. It's something that most people fear, that drives them to make bad decisions. It's something that almost everyone will have to face at some point, and you--you!--will be better-equipped for this experience. There are so many wonderful things about being single: sleeping diagonally in the bed. Doing exactly what you want. Learning about yourself and being comfortable with yourself. More time to nurture those friendships.

I need advice on having to start over at 34, after believing that this was it and I was going to spend forever with him, despite all his issues and despite all our problems. Because I really did believe that, because I really do love him so much.

I'm starting over at 36--I'm usually not sweating it. I'm not ready to date anyways, and I've set a goal to be single for at least a year. There's nothing I can do about my age, so it's pointless to worry about it. Things will happen, or they won't. Either way, I went from feeling terrified of being by myself (this is the first time I've been single since I was 19. Married for 9 years, in a long-term relationship for 3 too soon after that)--to feeling very content on my own. I go on vacations by myself or with a close friend. I eat all the cilantro. I climb trees. I am responsible only for my own happiness. I do feel lonely occasionally--but I did when I was partnered, too. And I let myself feel that feeling and know that it will pass. And it does, and I feel light again. I wish this for you. I believe that you will be able to look back on this decision as the best one for yourself.
posted by sugarbomb at 11:49 AM on June 3, 2016 [3 favorites]

Just as a piece of practical, right-now-at-this-second advice: take a little space for yourself -- a long weekend at minimum, a couple weeks at maximum -- to consider your next steps. That's not moving out, it's just taking some time to dial back the pressure and think things over. Define the time but not what is going to happen at the end of it; tell your fiance what's up. "I'm going to be at Friend X's place from Friday through Monday. I just need some space and time to decompress and think things over. I'll check in again with you no later than Tuesday." If you feel like your fiance is going to flip out, you can always find a true-ish pretext to avoid getting sucked into a vortex. "I have to go to [City] for work for a few days." "Friend X has asked me to come help her with Thing Z this weekend, so I'm going to be staying there for a couple of days."

I don't know what your financial circumstances are, but there are many ways to do this. Plan a short business trip or vacation, stay on a friend or family member's couch, or even stay at a motel in the same town where you live. While you're away, try to take some time for some walks and solitude, and talking to friends or family if that helps. Try to not contact your fiance too much (if at all). You may find this gives you some time to figure out what you're feeling and what you'd like to do about it, away from the active stress of the situation itself.
posted by ourobouros at 12:26 PM on June 3, 2016 [1 favorite]

I wish super strongly that my soon to be x wife identified her issues and communicated them before we got married/adultery/imminent divorce in a few short months.

The good news is the pain does fade, there are plenty of interesting people out there, and I'll figure out something sooner or later.
posted by Jacen at 12:10 PM on June 4, 2016

I was with my ex-husband for 7 yrs, and have been with my husband now for 8. When someone is fully committed to you and completely on your side then it makes a world of difference. You aren't walking on eggshells, don't feel guilty for your needs, and you feel amazingly loved. You can do better than this guy, even if it doesn't feel like it now, you definitely can. I am older, most likely fatter, and can't have children btw. Don't waste more years on him!
posted by meepmeow at 6:47 PM on June 4, 2016

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