My first relationship lasted for half of my life. It ended. Now what?
March 30, 2017 9:56 AM   Subscribe

I (30, M) am dealing with the breakup of a fourteen-year-long relationship I truly but naively believed would last forever. She (33) and I were each other’s first love. I feel immense guilt over this. How can I move on without actually wanting to?

This is my first Ask, I’m sorry if it’s too long or too vague.

We met when we were both teenagers. We were head over heels in love and soon became entirely committed to one another. We moved in together eight years ago, when I started working as a graduate student. We got engaged. We separated six months ago and she broke it off a few weeks before Christmas.

We’ve been through a lot together: numerous family issues and health problems for her, and an incredibly taxing time writing a PhD for me. In fact, my dissertation has been the single greatest source of tension for us and had been for years. It triggered some serious mental health issues (anxiety, OCD) for which I sought help at the time, but it was still hard for me to work steadily and efficiently. I ran out of funding, after which I barely made a living teaching as an adjunct. In the end, I even moved out of the home we shared to my parents' place to be able to work during the week.

Our life was essentially on hold, especially during the last two years, with me declaring again and again that I’d surely finish in “the next few months”. During all the time I worked on my PhD, I became fairly isolated socially and relied heavily on my partner. I was at home almost all of the time. I was still available emotionally, and we still had a close bond, but I just couldn’t accomplish my goal of finishing the thesis and moving on together. Nearing the end, every few months, she’d warn me that she couldn’t go on like this and that I was wearing down her trust in me. On the other hand, long stretches of time would go by in which we wouldn’t have the slightest argument and things went fine, or so I thought.

After all this, you may be thinking: “that woman had every reason to dump that guy - good on her!” And in fact, I mostly agree. My time as a doctoral student exposed so many of my weaknesses. My inability to plan and follow through on plans. My lack of autonomy. My neediness. It speaks volumes about me and I feel immense guilt. However, this was me under those specific circumstances. I know I can do better and would never again start a project like that.

There are some other things about our relationship that I should mention. We were very close, share many interests, would talk and laugh a lot. We had great sexual chemistry. We almost never argued and would never hurt each other purposefully. In that respect, I believe we are really compatible. But as a couple, we were too passive. We had a hard time really “doing” stuff together. Vacations were great - if we’d go on vacation. Same for dinners, social events… As for the future, there were lots of doubts. We didn’t know if we wanted kids or not, even after talking endlessly about it. We knew we really wanted a life together, but didn’t know (or decide) what kind of a life that would be.

In some ways, things have improved for me since our separation. I finally finished my PhD (an accomplishment that I’m proud of, but that also deeply saddens me given the cost and the bleek professional prospects). I started running and working out. And in the aftermath of the actual breakup I’ve started reaching out to friends and going out more. In fact, I did what she’d hoped I would have done sooner: build a life for myself apart from my work. However, most of that has to do with filling the enormous void I need to fill with her gone. In fact, I feel desperate. I feel like a huge part of me is gone. I am lonely - I’ve never lived alone. I miss her words, her advice, her touch, our shared habits, all the prosaic realities and details of our once-shared life. I’m afraid of what the future holds. I feel directionless, lost.

As we’re in the process of moving out of our apartment, we still see each other once or twice a month. We talk, like we used to. About what happened to us, how we regret it. She told me that she dated a guy and then stopped dating him. And I tell her how sorry I am and that I still believe in us working (it) out. She’s not so sure. Now that the move is imminent, I know that these meetings will stop being necessary and that we will need to consider if I we still want to have them, and what they will mean.

I know you’ve heard all of this before in different versions. I’ve read many of the threads. I know time is supposed to be on my side. But time is a healer and a thief. I feel I can’t let go of this person I love so deeply, and that the hope of us reconciling is really the only thing keeping me together, the only thing moving me forward. And every time I see her, this hope is both crushed and stirred up: crushed because we aren’t together anymore, stirred up because there’s so much left that hasn't changed: the talks, the laughs, the hugs. And I love her more than I even thought possible.

I know I’m not entirely clear on what I want to ask. It’s just that I have been amazed by the insights that previous threads like this one contain. And I really need your thoughts, tips, stories… that could help me deal with the loss of what I most valued in life, the person I love so deeply - and the guilt that goes with realizing it’s my own **** fault.

I start seeing a therapist in a few weeks - feel free to share any tips to make my time with her worthwile.
posted by Desertshore to Human Relations (16 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
This is heartbreaking, but now you have a chance to find out who you are and what you want as an individual. You were a teenager when your relationship started, and you've grown a lot since then.

You are a complete individual. Your life can be improved with others, but you don't need others to be whole.

I'm not saying you should shun other people to find yourself, nor that you should only think of yourself, but take time now to re-center yourself as an individual. This could help you to recover from this breakup, and it should help you in your future relationship. I suggest that you get comfortable living alone, and don't rush to fill that void.

I say all this as someone who had quite the opposite experience from you - my wife and each had extended periods alone before we met, so we knew who we were as individuals before we started dating, in our 20s. We're still growing and changing, but we know more of who we are individually, so we can balance our individual needs and wishes as we grow up together now.
posted by filthy light thief at 10:30 AM on March 30, 2017 [8 favorites]

It seems like you're pretty hard on yourself here. One thing I don't see here is you granting yourself time, and some leeway regarding the lessons-learned department.

And the old "time is on your side" thing isn't even what I mean here: I'm not talking about getting over things, but about getting going.
Sooo...You need to grant yourself the time you need to learn how "to plan and follow through on plans." You need some time for gaining experience with what you call "autonomy", time to understand that you can live a great life without a display of "neediness". A partnership--even one that has a lot of good elements--can totally block these important stepping stones in the development of a person, certainly if it started when you were teenagers. Try telling yourself "I actually deserve time for myself" and look ahead instead of lingering in feelings of guilt that belong to the past. It is a good and positive thing to assume responsibility for something that happens to you now. Just do that, all the other stuff is water under the bridge anyway.
posted by Namlit at 10:54 AM on March 30, 2017 [4 favorites]

Sorry to hear this, mate.

Your feelings are valid... you suffered a huge loss.

My blunt advice for you, that I'm guessing you don't want to hear is: Stop pursuing her. She's made her choice. It is probably the best choice for her, and quite possibly for you at this time. You're just hurting yourself, rubbing salt in wounds and picking at scabs by acting like you are still in a relationship with her. I'm not necessarily advocating no contact, but a drastic scale-down of intimacy. You are not a couple any more. If you try to act like you are one, its incredibly hard to heal.

So let go. Grieve. Building a new life is hard and sucks and is scary, with lots of pain and heartbreak. You are in a season where you need to work on you. Not for the relationship you can give your ex, but who and what you want to be. Do you know who you want to be? Well, now is when you have the time and freedom to devote to finding that out. Its hard to do it alone, yeah.

Letting the grief and hurt flow when you can is the best, fastest way to get it out. Antidepressants if needed.
posted by Jacen at 10:59 AM on March 30, 2017 [15 favorites]

Here are the questions I hear in your post:

What can I do to move on from this huge upheaval in my life?
I can't think of anything to add than what you are already doing - taking care of your physical self by running and working out, taking care of your emotional self by seeing a therapist, and taking care of your social self by reaching out to others and getting out in the world. Keep doing those things; over time they will make a difference in your well-being.

Is there any hope for me to retain a relationship with this person who was so important to me?
It sounds unlikely that there will be any kind of reconciliation that leads to you two having a romantic relationship in the future. I think you need to accept that. You also need to create circumstances in which false/irrational hopes for reconciliation can't fester. That means going no-contact for a while or really, really scaling back your communication. You need to be separate to understand and feel what it means to be separate individuals and not a couple any more.

That said, after a time, there may be a possibility of having a friendship. It might not be your deepest friendship, certainly not as deep as when you were a couple. But you can still provide support and comfort and laughs for each other. I have seen this happen in many people that I am close to. My father is still friends with his ex (my former step-mother). My current boyfriend retains a good relationship with his ex and do things socially. The need to effectively co-parent made this a necessity.

How can I forgive myself for not getting my shit together earlier and contributing to the breakup of my relationship?
That's definitely a good question for therapy. I'm not sure that I can offer any great insights other than you have to continuously acknowledge where you went wrong and then remind yourself that you're only human and even when we know there are things we need to change it can be hard to make those changes. It doesn't mean you're a terrible person or a failure, just that you're human. And it's only in very exceptional instances (abuse, major unwillingness of one partner to do anything, huge outside forces) that only one person is fully responsible for a break-up.

I think also the intensity of a relationship that began when you were both so young influences what's happening. Part of the upheaval you're experiencing now is related to "coming of age." The things we want in our teens and 20s and how we view relationships are so different from later years. You've both changed a lot as you've grown out of adolescence into adulthood and it can be hard to sustain a relationship during those changes. That's no one's fault.

Be kind to yourself. Good luck.
posted by brookeb at 10:59 AM on March 30, 2017 [1 favorite]

[This is a reply from an anonymous answerer.]
I went through something similar. (My first relationship began in my late teens and lasted until I was 35.) Here are my takeaways, some of which may apply to your situation.

- After the breakup, I was single as an adult for the first time in my life. What that meant was that 35-year-old me made a lot of the mistakes most people make when they’re 21. This was humbling at the time, and in retrospect, a necessary part of getting my head on straight.

- Getting a dog helped me get out of bed on mornings when it felt impossible.

- Moving out of our shared space was heartbreaking (I loved that house) but helped make the separation real.

- I went straight into another relationship that was incredibly toxic and screwed up because I didn’t know how to be alone. Give yourself a breather. I ended up taking a couple years off from dating. Being single gave me the time I needed to figure a lot of things out.

- Therapy was helpful, but we didn’t end up discussing the relationship for months. Lots of other issues needed to be addressed first.

- I don’t regret the relationship or have negative feelings about my ex, but I do wish I had made some different choices along the way.

- My ex and I are cordial these days but don’t spend time together.

Good luck, man. It’s going to be rough, but I have faith in you.
posted by cortex (staff) at 11:08 AM on March 30, 2017 [20 favorites]

After all this, you may be thinking: “that woman had every reason to dump that guy - good on her!”
No, I'm absolutely not. I think both of you had every reason to disentangle, but not because either of you were bad or weak or deserving of being dumped.

And in fact, I mostly agree.

Clearly. And that's fine for now, but I hope you come to disagree in time.

My time as a doctoral student exposed so many of my weaknesses. My inability to plan and follow through on plans. My lack of autonomy. My neediness.
I think it does this to a lot of people. My master's program did it to me, and it was nothing but a two-year nap frolic.

It speaks volumes about me
No it doesn't.

and I feel immense guilt.
Clearly. And that's not fine, not even for now. Or at least, not steady, heavy guilt. Put it down sometimes. Rule One: ALL NIGHTS ARE GUILT-FREE STARTING IMMEDIATELY. And schedule guilt-free hours during the day, too. Slowly expand the time you're not feeling guilty. Do it all deliberately, and even if it feels fake. Remind yourself when the guiltspeak starts up in your head again, as it will, that you are off the clock.

I know you love this person and I understand why because she sounds really wonderful. It is sad that you met when you were children and not finished growing. It is sad that you couldn't grow up together. It is also totally unsurprising that this happened. It had to happen, and it was nobody's "fault." It's just the luck you two had, to meet right when you did and have that beautiful, long, almost magic, innocent love.

You are always going to have one another in your lives in some capacity. You are both going to finish growing up (probably rapidly, now that you're free of each other), you are going to find other people to be close to, you are going to both of you have this beautiful love in your memories, and it is going to make you good partners to the new people you will find to love.

It is going to hurt like mad for a long time, because it has to. That's okay. The relationship was wonderful, and that part of it is over, and it is worth grieving. Be gentle and kind to yourself and take those necessary guilt breaks.

When it gets unbearable, it is okay to tell yourself that it's not impossible that decades from now when this grief is through and the two of you are finished growing up and whole, independent people, you might find each other again and be in love again. It's extremely improbable, but technically it's not impossible so it's okay to dream about. But that'd be something for when you are desperately sad and trying and failing to fall asleep. It is not something to think about actively in the day and certainly not something to do anything about. If it is going to happen, it's decades away.
posted by Don Pepino at 11:35 AM on March 30, 2017 [11 favorites]

I am sorry because this hurts super bad and there's nothing you can do but wait.

You have to have some faith that the lessons will become clear to you. You think you know what they are now, but let them ripen a little and see how they bloom. In the meantime, throw yourself at learning to be a whole person on your own, because that investment will pay off in future relationships - including better wisdom about knowing when it's time to stop rather than letting it peter out, which you will probably come to realize that's what this one did.

People hate change and resist it as hard as they can until they have a reason not to, and we grieve when things change, even for the good. It's unavoidable to sometimes wallow, but you need to exercise the muscles of "this is real, it happened, I have to face forward now." It'll be hard at first to do for even a minute, but within a few weeks you should be shifting over to doing it more often than you're not.

Do all the self-care things you can, this will all be easier to bear if you're physically doing as well as you can.
posted by Lyn Never at 12:28 PM on March 30, 2017 [5 favorites]

It sounds like both of you grew as much as you could while you were together. And now the only way for both of you to keep growing and evolving and becoming the people you're supposed to be is to do it apart. I know that it sucks and I know that right now it feels like the entire world is falling apart and so my heart hurts for you. But I also know that the pain is part of how you do that growing and get to the next stage.

Just feel it for a while. Mourn the lost future. Grieve the times you'll no longer have. Forgive yourself for your mistakes. We all make them. Many of us have made much worse ones.

One day you'll wake up and you'll think, There's so much future, and it can be however I want it to be, I can become the next version of myself, and that will seem a little bit exciting even though it's also still terrifying.

Then one day you'll wake up and realize you're happy, and realize it could only have happened this way. Not for a while, probably. But you'll get there.

You'll be okay.
posted by the turtle's teeth at 12:29 PM on March 30, 2017 [4 favorites]

Something you should hear, often (and probably from your counselor), is that there's no right recipe for success. That's a double-edged blade: sometimes small problems surmount the bigger joys, and it forever remains a frustrating mystery why that happens; traveling rough roads makes you a wiser traveler, whether you end up meeting up with your ex again or traveling along with someone else further down the line. It can be overwhelming. You can panic one minute and feel relief the next. There's a reason 12-step programs are fond of platitudes like, "one day at a time."

What help is that to you right now? You can choose, one day at a time, to carry yourself with dignity, grace, and gratefulness. Dignity, because you can express your desires to your ex without expectation of response. Grace, because you understand your ex's motivations for leaving, and gratefulness, because you had a long and memorable and loving relationship. Fourteen years together is not a failure. For all your misgivings about your role in the end of your relationship, don't forget that you have what it takes to cultivate a deep relationship. You don't need to look for hard data on this--you probably know anecdotally how long most relationships last.

You're leaving this one with a more complete, critical self-assessment than you had when you entered it. You'll be able to use that awareness to start a new one--or continue this one, in due time--on a stronger foundation.

Be well.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 2:00 PM on March 30, 2017 [4 favorites]

I really feel for you - this sounds really painful. So I want to share the advice my friend gave me when I asked "but how do you keep going when the pain feel so overwhelming?" And she said "you just try get through the day, today. Just get through today, one day at a time."

Giant hugs to you. You sound like a lovely person and you deserve to be gentle with yourself.
posted by Chrysalis at 2:22 PM on March 30, 2017 [1 favorite]

I'm sorry, that sucks.

I don't have a lot to offer, but I will say - you'll hear all the platitudes like "the only way out is through" again and again (especially if you're me and you google your way through emotional pain) and they might not be all that helpful but then one day you'll hear the right words at the right time and they'll strike you just so and all of a sudden that wisdom (whatever it is) will provide great comfort. And there's no magic recipe to find that help, unfortunately. So just keep trying to work through it, in whatever way works best for you - out loud, in a journal, in a book, on a run, on a trip - and eventually I bet you things will click. And it'll help a little more and a little more until one day you realize that you just care so much less. I encourage you to revisit this same thread periodically, because you might internalize something different each time depending on how you're feeling about things.

Oh, also, try to avoid falling for someone else as a salve. It helps temporarily, but it's not particularly fair to that person (if you get involved with them) and you are almost certainly not in the right mindset to find someone who is actually a good fit anyways. I mean, it's not a universal truth, but it's a common pitfall to be very very aware of.

Give yourself time, like so much time - I've heard rules of thumb like "half the length of the relationship" and I don't always buy em (because lord knows it took longer than that for me after relatively brief but intense relationships) but it's a good indication that, well, things might be hard for a lot longer than might feel "reasonable" for a breakup. There is no reasonable. For many people it's a form of grief...let yourself have that.
posted by R a c h e l at 2:38 PM on March 30, 2017 [1 favorite]

I also really love all the advice on the website baggage reclaim. It's a little...glitzy for a self-help website but she's actually pretty damn on the nose a surprising amount of the time.
posted by R a c h e l at 2:40 PM on March 30, 2017 [2 favorites]

Insight? I doubt I have much, but here's my "don't do what I did" story.

I did not go therapy when my "half of my life" relationship ended. I couldn't afford it at the time - I could barely afford rent and living expenses with my underpaid job. I withdrew out of shame (and poorness) and wrote morning pages as pretty much my only coping strategy. So please don't do that. Go to therapy, talk to friends, find ways to keep yourself occupied. Don't ignore shitty feelings, but don't wallow in self pity. I had similar feelings of not being sure who I was or how to define myself apart from a relationship I'd had for 19 years.

I was in denial for a long time. Not saying you are necessarily, but it's too soon to have a realistic assessment of what your future is going to look like with your ex. It took me months of introspection and solitude to come to terms with how broken and unfixable my marriage had become. But I still believed for months that I could turn it around.

My other huge mistake was to start dating too soon. This happened about 7 months after I had moved out (and 3 after signing divorce papers). Yes, I desperately missed physical contact and affection. And there's no easy way to deal with that. As it turned out, I was not wired for a casual relationship and went all-in far too quickly. That relationship was destined to fail, and it sure did. I know you're not even remotely thinking of that right now, but there may come a day when you do.
posted by O9scar at 5:00 PM on March 30, 2017 [1 favorite]

I feel I can’t let go of this person I love so deeply, and that the hope of us reconciling is really the only thing keeping me together, the only thing moving me forward. And every time I see her, this hope is both crushed and stirred up: crushed because we aren’t together anymore, stirred up because there’s so much left that hasn't changed: the talks, the laughs, the hugs. And I love her more than I even thought possible.

She ended things because she wasn't happy. She probably had not been happy for a very long time. And after 15 years, she knows you. She knows what life is like with you. I don't know how much you're considering her when you think about how much you love her and want her in your life but I feel like it's because of what she can give you. This sounds like it's about her making your life better, not you making her life better or you making each other's lives better.

Of course you miss her and want her back. You were getting so much more out of the relationship than she was. It's not cool now to promise that you can do all the things she needed when you didn't for 15 years. Relationships should not be about needing someone because they fill a void in your life that you can't fill yourself. You sound really dependent on her. I think you need to accept that this is over and learn how to take care of yourself. Counselling is really, really helpful for this and if you can go I really recommend it.
posted by Polychrome at 1:51 AM on March 31, 2017 [4 favorites]

A lot of people have given excellent advice on how to deal with the void left by your relationship. Having finished my PhD last year, I wanted to add that finishing your PhD also leaves a void. You have put so much energy, time and focus into it for so long, and put everything else on hold. During my PhD, I got used to the feeling of "my life cannot move forward until I finish this task" which permeated every thought I had, every day, for years. The anxiety of limbo does things to your brain. My mind and body did such weird things when my PhD finally just ended one day. It took me around a year to feel normal again after finishing. The PhD and the end of your relationship are so intertwined, that you are experiencing a double whammy of loss and upheaval right now.

I think you are being too hard on yourself about "not getting your shit together". Doing a PhD put so much pressure on my relationship. Now I look back, I am amazed that Mr Nilehorse and I survived. Frankly, another six months of it and we probably wouldn't have done. It took me a year longer than I planned. I had the feeling that the PhD ate my life. It ate at least one relationship, and started on another. It ate my self-confidence, my social life, my savings, my love of reading, my hobbies, exercise, everything. I felt immense guilt and pressure at the time. I internalized everything as my fault, and attributed it to my obvious weakness as a person. Now my self-confidence is making a return I am shocked at how much I blamed myself for everything. Now I see that I did the best I could, within a hard system. The scientific community is becoming more and more aware of the link between working in academia and mental health problems.

I found that therapy, exercising, reading, spending time with friends and self-help books helped me get back to being myself again. Be kind to yourself and give yourself time.
posted by Nilehorse at 3:32 AM on March 31, 2017 [2 favorites]

16 years of relationship is quite a lot, professionally speaking. But if somethings ends, a new door opens...The only thing is to find this new door. This is very good to try to explain it to yourself that at the moment you have already passed your ex relationship but there is no new period/stage yet. But this dark period will be over and you will be able to build a new relationship, with a new person and as a new person too (you are a new person already not the same like you were in your 20s). Good luck!
posted by Dr. Adelina at 8:19 AM on March 31, 2017 [1 favorite]

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