Why am I having a strong reaction to ending a short-term relationship?
October 17, 2017 9:36 AM   Subscribe

I started dating someone I met online and things were going pretty well. I knew up front (and I told her on day one) that I didn't want a long-term relationship. I recently ended it (reasons explained below) but I'm still having some strong emotional reactions. The question isn't about our compatibility, I'm mainly curious if others have had similar experiences.

(To get it out of the way, I already see a therapist and our next appointment is in a few days.) .

I tried to make it clear in my OkCupid profile at the time that I was not interested in long-term/marriage prospects. Before this relationship, I had gone through another really short-term relationship with someone else I had met on Tinder that ended up being REALLY great in the communication department but she was polyamorous and I am a serial monogamist and we were not going for anything other than sex and hanging out. It wasn't sustainable. I came out of that feeling really great about open communication, since it has been such a problem in my past.

Fast forward to meeting this woman, who shared a lot of interests and is an intelligent and well-organized person. We spent several half-day/full-days together in the short time and she had met a lot of my friends (and we had attempted to meet with hers but the plans fell through). She hadn't been very experienced in dating but had long-term relationships in the past and I've been dating off and on for the last year and a half or so.

She acknowledged the fact that I wasn't looking for a long-term relationship but she often talked about how much she liked me and enjoyed spending time with me. I ALSO enjoyed spending time with her. But I wasn't able to meet her on her level of enthusiasm.

Over the last week of the relationship I couldn't shake the feeling that I was letting things progress towards a long-term settling-in period and not honoring my original intentions. I had failed to be open with communication because going through the motions just felt easier.

I felt very comfortable and secure in our time together so I didn't want to give up a chance for what FINALLY seemed like a good relationship. I could 100% be myself and it felt good. The only issue was that I wasn't feeling an urgent physical attraction.

I realized that I wasn't being fair to her and decided that even though I so looked forward to spending time together, it really meant that I was more interested in being great friends. (MeFi answers I had read from the past would at this point agree that this was more of a good friendship and not a relationship).

I asked to meet and went over to her place and told her what was on my mind.

The thing was that I started crying ... I was already torn up thinking about what I needed to do out of fairness to her. But it was so very difficult to keep composure. Her reaction wasn't as strong as I guess I expected. She was sad and she said that she couldn't be around me and not want to be with me. I told her I wanted to date others and she said me she wouldn't be interested in being around for that. None of it was antagonistic or defensive. She told me to tell her if I changed my mind. I think there is room to be friends but it will take some time. We both cried and hugged and then I left. I really do think she's a great person.

But going back to my reaction .. my last long-term girlfriend broke up with me unexpectedly after 10 months or so over e-mail (gross) and I had been thinking about how the tables have turned and I have actually become the person I didn't want to become in this situation. Is this some kind of PTSD signal?

It felt like a mix of disappointment in myself for not honoring open communication and essentially leading her on, which I explicitly said I didn't want to do, and really stressed about hurting someone else the way I had been hurt before. I don't feel like I'm a bad person but I feel like my mistake is dragging me down further than it should. I'm terrified that all my relationships have just been veiled friendships and that I don't even really know what love is or what it feels like and may never feel it.

I know I made the right decision to end it, that isn't the question.
Help me figure out if my reaction was "normal" or if you had any similar experience with a hidden explanation that you discovered from it.
posted by modernman to Human Relations (18 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
 
I'd say it's normal to mentally revisit a breakup and mull over whether you handled things the best way possible. Normally there's something we could have done better. But it doesn't sound like you led her on unreasonably - you recognized a problem, thought about it and about the ramifications, and then acted on it. When you acted on it, you were thoughtful and kind. you're not a bad person - I think you did the right thing. Be kind to yourself and give yourself a bit of space to heal.
posted by summerstorm at 9:44 AM on October 17, 2017 [2 favorites]


It's ok. You did what you needed to do. You probably feel bad because you miss her. It sounds like she was up for a long term relationship or a short term relationship where you were focused on each other, but not a friendship. It sounds like you were up for a short term relationship where you dated others, or a friendship. It sucks that there was no peg that fit each others' holes, so to speak, but such is life. Maybe you'll revisit and actually be friends, but don't do it now.

I think you handled it decently. There is no other way to do it. I think if you know how you feel (not wanting a LTR with the person), it's better to do this immediately, say within a week or so:

She acknowledged the fact that I wasn't looking for a long-term relationship but she often talked about how much she liked me and enjoyed spending time with me.

It gets wrong when one person doesn't want a serious relationship and senses the other person might, but doesn't bring it up so as not to spoil the punch. Other than that, it's again, fine. I think you should not take someone's level of enthusiasm as an indicator of how strongly they will hold on, or how deeply they will be hurt, if you don't want the same things. Seems like things were pretty positive on both sides, and nobody has anything to feel bad about.
posted by karmachameleon at 9:57 AM on October 17, 2017


If you only want short term relationships, don't integrate your partners into your life. Why introduce her to your friends? I think you were emotional at the end because you hadn't made good boundaries and by going through the motions you let both you and her believe something else might be on the horizon. You can't have all the comforts of a building long term relationship inside of a short term situation.
posted by I'm Not Even Supposed To Be Here Today! at 10:01 AM on October 17, 2017 [41 favorites]


It felt like a mix of disappointment in myself for not honoring open communication and essentially leading her on, which I explicitly said I didn't want to do, and really stressed about hurting someone else the way I had been hurt before. I don't feel like I'm a bad person but I feel like my mistake is dragging me down further than it should.

This seems pretty normal following a breakup. Especially one where nobody's behaving very badly and everyone likes each other but it just doesn't quite work out. It seems like the only thing you could have stood to do better is to create stronger boundaries when you don't want a long-term relationship. Don't introduce the person to all your friends. Don't spend all your time together. Use the pattern of the short-term relationship that went well: sex and some hanging out. If the other person is the one pushing for more, that's when you might have to cut things off.

Honestly it sounds like this time you were not so sure of the short-term preference yourself. It's okay to take time to make sure of your feelings. You don't have to break up with someone the exact nanosecond you think of it, in order to be a good person.

I'm terrified that all my relationships have just been veiled friendships and that I don't even really know what love is or what it feels like and may never feel it.

This on the other hand seems very specific to you, and is something you should probably explore. It's unclear whether you haven't felt strong physical desire ever, for anyone, or if you haven't felt it for anyone you've dated (but have for people you HAVEN'T dated), or whether you have felt it for people you've dated but right now you're freaking out and not viewing those relationships objectively. But either way you could benefit from talking with someone (yes, it's the ol' MeFi Therapist Recommendation).
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 10:03 AM on October 17, 2017


Maybe just having your feelings and dealing with them openly caused the release mechanism of crying. Tears are usually about releasing, not necessarily sadness. Feelings are powerful, as you just found out.

If you are used to stuffing your feelings down, then this first experience of being open about difficult feelings is appropriate.
posted by jbenben at 11:19 AM on October 17, 2017 [3 favorites]


Yeah, I agree with INESTBHT, and say that a lot of your turmoil was from trying to have your cake and eat it too. You're experiencing these emotions because you've done a lot of emotional work with her, intermingling firends, etc. I think this should just be a good lesson for you, to either realize you might not want something short term, or that if you want to keep things short term you should strengthen your boundaries
posted by FirstMateKate at 12:20 PM on October 17, 2017 [4 favorites]


It doesn't always feel good to do the right thing in the moment. You definitely did do the right thing here because you're not sure what you want out of your dating experiences.

But I do think you should take some time to really think about what you actually want (even though it may be hard to find). If I were single I would be very confused by you. You want a relationship, but not a long term one? What does that mean? Does that mean you want some kind of attachment or arrangement that has an expiration date? Or does it just mean you don't want to be married? You also say you're not into polyamory.

I think you need to listen to yourself here - it sounds like you confused yourself! There is something you wanted that you did not get and you are upset about it. Be clearer upfront about where the lines are.

Also forgive yourself for your desires. They may not be fair but they exist. If you think that the relationship that you are pining for is not fair to the other person, consider examining those desires like a scientist. What are you afraid of? How can you work past those fears to getting the connection you really want?

Good luck.
posted by pazazygeek at 12:26 PM on October 17, 2017 [5 favorites]


So, wait. The things that signaled to you that you should end the relationship with this great woman was that (a) you have some preconceived notion that you don't want a serious relationship and (b) you enjoyed her company at greater depths than just wanting to bang her brains out ("no urgent physical attraction").

Did you have any physical attraction at all? Any physical connection at all? Did you like it? Did it go well?

Out of curiosity, do you have any understanding of the difference between love and lust?
posted by Sublimity at 12:29 PM on October 17, 2017 [7 favorites]


I think there is room to be friends but it will take some time


No, there isn't. She made it very clear that she isn't interested in being around for that. Leave her alone. You don't get to end things and then continue using her great personality to feed your non-sexual needs.

It sounds like you aren't being very clear about what you want. Why on earth wasn't the previous great relationship focused on sex and hanging out sustainable? That's what a casual relationship is.

Why do you assume this girl wasn't listening to or hearing your boundaries? Just because she was enthusiastic about dating you and saying she liked you? If anything, it seems like you are the one who has unclear boundaries here. Saying you don't want a serious relationship, but introducing her to your friends and planning to meet hers. Saying you don't want poly but you want her around while you date other people. Ignoring her when she says that she doesn't want to be around for a friend role in your life.

It's impossible for anyone who isn't you to know why this particular breakup upset you so much, but it sounds like you were a lot more emotionally invested in this relationship that you were willing to admit to yourself.

my last long-term girlfriend broke up with me unexpectedly after 10 months or so over e-mail (gross) and I had been thinking about how the tables have turned and I have actually become the person I didn't want to become in this situation

What? What are you talking about? These two situations are absolutely nothing alike.


It felt like a mix of disappointment in myself for not honoring open communication and essentially leading her on, which I explicitly said I didn't want to do, and really stressed about hurting someone else the way I had been hurt before

It is normal and human and good to feel bad about hurting other human beings, especially ones we care about. That's a normal part of breaking up with someone. But how are you "leading her on"? Is there something that you left out or lied about? This is dating. This is how it works. You date for a while until you don't want to date anymore or you escalate the relationship. This is not world crushing drama. This is not leaving someone at the altar. This is ordinary. It was shitty of you to introduce her to your friends if that's too significant for your picture of what a casual relationship entails, or if you already knew that you weren't very interested in her. Don't do that next time. But it's not the end of the world.


I'm terrified that all my relationships have just been veiled friendships and that I don't even really know what love is or what it feels like and may never feel it.

Uh... You know what i'm going to say, right?
this is for sure something you need to talk to your therapist about because it is a bit excessive for a girl you only went out with a few times.
posted by windykites at 1:20 PM on October 17, 2017 [8 favorites]


If you only want short term relationships, there are going to be a lot of relationships that end. Sometimes you'll have feelings about that, which include sadness and regret. Maybe examine why you are putting this limitation on yourself before even getting to know the person you're dating.

If you're set on your relationships being short or casual, then why treat them like mini long term relationships? Establishing that level of emotional connection when you intend for it to end is bound to cause some pain.

Before jumping into something with someone else, sit down and really think about what you want. You need to be able to clearly explain it to yourself and to any future dating partners.
posted by wreckofthehesperus at 1:27 PM on October 17, 2017 [3 favorites]


Gently...do you think that the difference between short-term and long-term relationships is determined when you first go into them? Like you can say to yourself, "This is only going to last for 6 months and I won't get attached" and then that's what happens?

Because, at least in my experience, the difference is merely how long they last. Sometimes you don't know going in that it's not going to last very long. Sometimes you don't know going in that you'll look up and 7 years have gone by in a second.

I have not had much success with starting a relationship and then denying what my feelings are telling me because I am dead-set on things going a certain way on an externally imposed timeline. If you like someone and you get on well, why would you break it off? What is it that you want from a relationship? Are you scared of being a serial monogamist? (I'm one too, I get it.) There are a lot of questions here that I'm not sure you're even aware of.
posted by fiercecupcake at 1:33 PM on October 17, 2017 [9 favorites]


I think your standards for honoring open communication are unrealistically high - literally the best you can do on this front is be open about what you're feeling once you understand that you're feeling it. You can't be open about something you actually haven't figured out for yourself yet. I think you did stand by your original intentions because once you realized how you felt you talked about it and that conversation sounds like it was a kind and honest one. Feelings aren't instant, they can take time to figure out sometimes and it's okay when they do.
posted by augustimagination at 2:30 PM on October 17, 2017


It sounds a bit like you led yourself on, not that you lead her on. You have a lot of pro forma boundaries in your description of what kind of relationship you want right now, and even though it seems like you have a genuine interest in those boundaries they might be coming from an intellectual position and not an emotional or day-to-day position. That lands you in internal conflict: "I wasn't able to meet her on her level of enthusiasm," but "I could 100% be myself and it felt good;" "I wasn't feeling an urgent physical attraction," but you're "really stressed about hurting someone else the way I had been hurt before." That's ok. These are all ok. You've just had a complicated, amicable split from a very human, accommodating, exploratory relationship. It sounds like you both benefited from it, and are sad about the necessity for things to change. This isn't PTSD, this is a responsible and mature relationship. Good on you both.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 3:50 PM on October 17, 2017 [2 favorites]


It's very uncomfortable to be the person doing the breaking up, and sometimes it's worse than being broken up with. It's especially worse when you project your own feelings about being on the receiving end to the person in the the past onto a person you are breaking up with in the present when they may have a different response.

In my experience, short-term casual relationships work better when you don't create something that requires much of a breakup. You see each other when you feel like it but you don't go out of your way to do non-sexy things together or integrate into each other's lives.

I do wonder what you mean when you refer to a lack of "urgent" attraction. Only you know what you meant, but sometimes urgency crops up in a relationship with an avoidant partner, out of a desire for security in the relationship (surprisingly this doesn't actually result in security).

Regardless, it's a good idea to use the opportunity to think about what you want. I think you got more attached to her than "casual" allows for, and also that you assumed that her pain over the loss of a brief relationship would be similar to your pain over a long-term relationship. (Note: Secure attachment types, and she sounds like one, generally get over relationships in a healthy way, so while no one enjoys being dumped she'll be fine). And perhaps part of you wants some of the things you had with her, long term.

Your mind *is* kind of going into overdrive trying explain your distress, so maybe don't make any big decisions for a while. And definitely talk to your therapist. Good luck.
posted by bunderful at 4:44 PM on October 17, 2017 [2 favorites]


Her reaction wasn't as strong as I guess I expected.

is this important? it sort of seems like it. like you really worked yourself up to be ready and able to break her heart, to do this awful but necessary thing, and then her heart wasn't broken and she's disappointed but pretty much fine. & you have all this emotional tension and guilt that doesn't really make any sense anymore since it didn't go the way you expected, so it feels like something else must be really wrong.

worrying and worrying over what you're going to do to someone's life and then finding out that you don't have as much power over their life as you thought you did, or they don't love you as dramatically as you thought they did, is a real let-down. but in a humiliating way that you can't really explain or complain about. so if that is it, or part of it, I won't say it's normal but it's definitely a thing and it happens to people other than you.
posted by queenofbithynia at 6:24 PM on October 17, 2017 [5 favorites]


You ask why there's so much emotion, and I think it's because you lost a great friendship where you could fully be yourself. That is a sad thing.

Maybe in the moment that you tried to scale back the relationship to a friendship, you realized you were risking the friendship by doing that? And that's why there were tears?

Thinking about the next time, in terms of playing it safe at first, instead of saying this will be a short-term relationship (until maybe deciding otherwise), what if you say this will just be a friendship (until maybe deciding otherwise). And keep things at a genuinely just-friends level, and maybe they'll stay at that level so you can hang onto the next friendship. Or maybe attraction will develop, and at that point you can talk about becoming more than friends.
posted by Former Congressional Representative Lenny Lemming at 7:59 PM on October 17, 2017 [1 favorite]


I actually think having short-term relationships is wrong, period. I don't care how explicit you are, it's still cruel and hurtful, because healthy people are wired for attachment. It's not normal or healthy to do what you did. If you don't want something permanent, just don't date. It shouldn't be hard. Just don't do something you KNOW is hurtful! Don't be that person.
posted by Violet Hour at 11:27 PM on October 17, 2017 [4 favorites]


healthy people are wired for attachment

Repeated for truth. You sound like a reasonably healthy person, and by engaging intimately with someone you felt comfortable with, attachment started to form. In spite of the overwhelming collective culture that men are mechanical machines who can perform sex indefinitely without ever succumbing to the inconvenience of emotional connection... I think your experience of casually dating someone you found wonderful is normal. It's also reassuring evidence you are not a psycho or monster :)

I started crying

IMO, because you are still somewhat disconnected from understanding and expressing what your needs are. The attachment-wired part of your brain clearly felt differently from what rational adult-ego you decided for it. I really don't think the datapoint about the breakup by email holds much weight here. You engaged in behaviors that facilitate the biological need for attachment. I think the fact that you became attached enough to cry when it ended means you are emotionally engaged with people when you date (good!).

I don't think if this anecdata will help, but I remember from my early 20s dating someone for a few weeks. He was very much playing it cool. I was quite certain that when I broke it off with him, he wasn't going to be very emotional about it. But lo and behold, he had a huge weird emotional reaction to it, where he still seemed adamant that he wasn't all that interested in me, but was clearly hurt by the relationship ending. I still reflect on that dating experience as proof of how not all men are allowed to understand that spending intimate time with someone means that a connection can form (even if you objectively know you're not that into the person; those lizard-brain mechanisms turn automatically as long as you continue inputting the sensory input from the person -- unless, as I touched on earlier, you are somewhat psycho and learned to self-cauterize that part of the brain from an early age).

My two cents worth of advice for you moving forward: work with the sense of consciousness you became aware of when you started crying, and cultivate a practice of mindfulness for consciously guiding it. Even if that part of you feels very sad, you can reassure it (much like you would an inner child or real life child) that you're proud of it for trying, you're proud of yourself for being emotionally real when you date, and you're proud of your lizard brain for not making it a whole lot worse (actually) as you followed through on what rational ego-you understands your needs to be. I think if your behavior is reflecting back to you that you want someone in your life to spend time with your friends, that's the attachment-lizard-brain subtly asserting its needs in spite of your rational ego-brain. That's where you want to pay more attention to yourself (especially how to not be helpless about it) as you continue looking for a meaningful long-term partner. Good luck!
posted by human ecologist at 1:39 PM on October 18, 2017 [2 favorites]


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