Ambiguous relationship break/break-up - struggling with no-contact
May 25, 2023 9:57 AM   Subscribe

My relationship with my partner (together for 3 years, long-distance for 1) has been struggling recently. My partner has asked that we separate while they work on some of their own issues. But, they would still like to remain in contact as close friends. I am having a really hard time with this (both the idea of staying in contact but not in the way I want, or going no-contact and cutting off that connection completely, potentially forever).

I wanted to stay together while working on things (both together and separately) but they are adamant that they need the space to figure things out. I can see where they're coming from as I've historically been pretty argumentative/pushy in trying to get things to go my way (something that I'll be working on on my own in therapy). I can't help but think that this is just a "soft break-up" before they work up the guts to cut things clean, but until then I can't help but hold out hope that they will find their way back again. Since we're long-distance, it's really unlikely that this would happen just by chance and not active intervention.

Over the past week I've flip-flopped a lot and acted in a pretty unstable way - first saying I don't want any contact, then breaking down because I missed them and felt I could handle a few texts every day, then breaking down AGAIN because those texts were giving me false hope and deciding to cut off contact again. I've been trying to distract myself and keep myself busy, and I have an appointment with a new therapist next week (old one was good for work-related stuff but not a good fit for relationship conversations). But man, this is hard. I feel like I've messed up an already-fragile thing and now all the options suck. Does anyone have any advice for me in this situation?
posted by btfreek to Human Relations (14 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I can't help but think that this is just a "soft break-up" before they work up the guts to cut things clean

I think your instinct here is right. I'm so sorry. They are probably trying not to hurt you, but that is simply not possible. Your best bet will be to cut contact completely and grieve the end of this relationship. The grief process will just drag on longer if you stay in contact. You will continue to get false hope and then have your hopes dashed again, over and over. Don't do that to yourself.

This totally, totally sucks. Try to do some nice things for yourself. New therapist is a great start!
posted by Glinn at 10:26 AM on May 25 [13 favorites]

From experience in this exact situation: every single option is going to be painful and shitty, but going no contact and sticking to it will make the painful shittiness last for a shorter amount of time.

Trying to have your cake and eat it will likely end with both of you feeling miserable for months, or one of you feeling fine while the other one is slowly eaten up inside.

I can't help but think that this is just a "soft break-up" before they work up the guts to cut things clean

I'm sorry to say but it probably is. When I was in this situation, my ex ended up driving 100 miles to cheat on me with his ex, failed at that, then tearfully confessed after she turned him down, and we ended things properly. It was awful for everyone involved but it was far more awful because I'd allowed myself to hold on to that hope for too long.

If you're "close friends", you're no longer in a relationship. Assume this is the end. If it's not, it's not, but hanging around hoping won't make it easier. Tell your ex that you'd prefer to treat this is a break up and go no contact. Then go out and treat yourself to something lovely and silly. Take care of yourself, this is going to be hard, but you'll get through it and in a few months you'll look back and be glad that you did what was best for yourself.
posted by fight or flight at 10:30 AM on May 25 [4 favorites]

If someone wants to break up, they want to break up. You're right that "soft break-up" seems to be what they are going for, but if they want out, they want out. Likewise, you can say that you don't WANNA be friends because continuing to do so will give you hope for the relationship. I think if anyone tries to soft-breakup, "go on a break," etc. you might as well just end it officially at that point. And you don't have to be any kind of friends.

I'm sorry this is happening. It's really awful when it does.
posted by jenfullmoon at 10:51 AM on May 25 [2 favorites]

I wanted to stay together while working on things (both together and separately) but they are adamant that they need the space to figure things out. I can see where they're coming from as I've historically been pretty argumentative/pushy in trying to get things to go my way (something that I'll be working on on my own in therapy). I can't help but think that this is just a "soft break-up" before they work up the guts to cut things clean

Hmm, I guess it depends what they feel they need to work on. Being assertive and not being bowled over by you? Yeah, that sounds like a soft break-up then. But if it's something really unrelated to you, like figuring out want career path they want or what sort of relationship they want with a difficult parent, and they feel like it will be easier to do this without your input - then I'd take them at their word.

But, I think you can and should clarify how long of a break they need, and why (if your pushiness is potentially the problem) they are okay with being in "contact as close friends" but not as romantic partners. What is the difference for them? What precisely are they wanting a break from? It's not entirely clear here.
posted by coffeecat at 10:52 AM on May 25 [2 favorites]

This is really hard, and a perfect example of your heart wanting things one way and your head wanting them another way.

I’m sorry to say, from experience and observation, I agree with others that being broken up but staying in contact as friends really doesn’t tend to work. I’ve tried it in the past too as an attempt to keep someone in my life who I cared deeply for but was no longer dating. It went horribly and just prolonged the pain and prevented me from moving on to a better relationship. That better relationship ended up being my now husband - but I (regrettably) strung the poor guy along for a while while I was still hung up on and in contact with my ex!

In your shoes I would be firm with your partner - if you’re broken up, you need a clean break and you’re not ok with remaining in contact. If you’re together, then be together and work on your relationship.

It’s so hard to make the clean break when your heart is telling you to keep the door open but I promise it’ll be better in the long run to move forward.
posted by rodneyaug at 10:55 AM on May 25 [1 favorite]

I say this with love (and recognition): As best as you can, it may be a good time to put to bed these ruminative thoughts in which you imagine/fantasize/dread what your partner might mean.

What you can focus on now is what's in your control: Right, how do I reorient my communication drive during this period in which I may or may not be able to walk the tightrope of communicating the way I would like to. You have a therapy routine, yes? This is an extremely common and fmailiar predicament that therapists can work on with you.

Before your next appointment, I'll reflect a little on the end of my marriage. I was so much in personal disarray that I lost touch with my sense of dignity. I felt like I was simply trying anything to feel a sense of control, even if just a shred of it. And that meant, unfortunately, the control I could exert by going against my ex's wishes and contacting him. It did no good for either of us—it demonstrated my lack of control, repeatedly, while making my ex feel like he was being pushed from dissatisfaction to disgust and anger.

Who knows what the status of your relationship will be in due time. Is now really the time to be trying to press for an answer? I would say it is not. I would say now is the time for reorienting yourself towards yourself and how you meet your needs without seeking relief from your partner.

What I found helpful: cognitive defusion practices and other strategies like those on this list. Give yourself some time to disentangle yourself from what's going on in your mind, if you can.

Hang in there.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 10:56 AM on May 25 [3 favorites]

The advantage of proceeding as if it is a hard breakup is that you can move toward healing, and you can also put yourself in the position of unequivocally having done what they asked (which is the support they asked for).

Their request to remain close friends now is unworkable, it's a half-measure. You likely need to stay relatively compartmentally separate, though you are free to have friendly thoughts about each other if that's how it plays out, for probably a year minimum before a genuine friendship is at all viable or healthy.

I firmly maintain that healthy relationships don't break up, breakups cannot be meant to be temporary, and the only justification for a soft break or semi-formal separation is if one (or both!) need to be focusing on some kind of capital-R Recovery with intensive outpatient and/or inpatient therapy, or if someone is going through a medication calibration process that makes it untenable to live safely with others/in their usual home for the duration. Relationships don't have a fantastic chance of surviving Recovery situations anyway, but probably somewhat better than most other situations.

If it turns out this was all a terrible mistake, y'all can figure that out afresh in a year or two. But I say that knowing that within 6 weeks of being unquestionably Off it is likely that neither one of you wants back in anymore.

...which is why people always try for the soft break. Everyone knows full well that calling it off will very quickly turn permanent if anyone gets enough space to process. It's actually pretty awful, when you step back, to treat your relationship like carbon dioxide poisoning where you'll come to your senses if you just go outside for a minute.
posted by Lyn Never at 11:09 AM on May 25 [6 favorites]

I've historically been pretty argumentative/pushy in trying to get things to go my way

The defining attribute of a partner is that they want to be that.

The defining attribute of an autonomous human being is that nobody else has control over what we want. People can force us to do things, but nobody can force us to want things. We can be made to behave as if we want things, but if a partner doesn't want to stay a partner without being pushed into it, then no amount of pushing can possibly change that.

Partnership-like relationships in which at least one of the participants is only behaving as if they want to stay in it are miserable experiences for both.

So your options at this point, ordered from least to worst probable pain, are these:

1. Initiate the kindest breakup you can. For most people this involves going as close to no-contact as possible while they grieve, resuming contact only once both ex-partners have healed to the point of being able to treat each other as friends while genuinely experiencing no jealousy. Don't seek another partner until you have healed to that point, because rebound relationships almost never work well for anybody involved.

2. Don't break up, give your de facto ex the space they're adamant that they need, and put your romantic life on hold in the hope that they do eventually find their way to wanting to be your partner again, and that by the time they do, you still want to be theirs; if it becomes clear that this won't happen because they've broken promises made, revert to option 1.

3. Ignore your partner's stated needs and treat them as if their autonomy either isn't real or doesn't matter to you. The most likely outcome of choosing this one is that they will initiate a breakup with you that will end up with friendship being fairly unlikely afterwards.

Regardless of which way you go, you'll be well served by using the time immediately ahead of you to work toward becoming comfortable enough in your own skin and with your own company that partnership becomes something you prefer rather than something you can't live without.

I'm sorry you're going through this. It's never easy.
posted by flabdablet at 11:12 AM on May 25 [2 favorites]

That this person needs to do this on their own does not mean it's your fault for being "argumentative/pushy." Sometimes we really have to be alone in order to see our own stuff clearly.

So I'd suggest, rather than thinking of "no contact" as an inevitable and excruciatingly slow-motion breakup, think of it as "supporting this person I care for in the way they need as they work out their stuff on a path to a happier life."

Then you can follow their example and focus on yourself the same way, and find your own path toward a happier life.
posted by headnsouth at 11:28 AM on May 25

I don’t think it’s fair to try and put another person on Pause so you can come back to them when you feel like it. More than that, if you can’t work on improving yourself within a relationship? That is not the relationship for you. What happens in 10, 15, 20 years when more work needs to be done? Shouldn’t it be an ongoing process you do WITH your partner?
posted by Bottlecap at 11:54 AM on May 25 [5 favorites]

If they're asking to be "close friends" then I would interpret that to mean they have broken up with you, but aren't brave or comfortable or capable of saying that directly for some reason. It's not fair of them to ask you to proceed as "close friends" but to also keep a tether on you for when (if!) they figure out their own stuff.

Someone who's acting as a partner and invested in the relationship could still want time on their own to work on things, but the functional way to do that is by proposing an end date to their work. "I'd like two months to focus on my own shit, but I will be back and am committed to our relationship." That gives both people reassurances.

In my experience, the best thing to do is to clarify what you want and either ask for it in a spirit of partnership, or do it on your own. If you want clarity about whether you're going to get back together or not, request that. "Hey so-and-so, I've been back and forth about this all week, but it's become clear to me that I want reassurances or clarity about whether we're still together through this break and how long this break will last." If they can't give you clarity, then you get to ask yourself: ok, how can I give myself clarity? One way is to communicate that you're ending things, that the limbo is not sustainable for you. Or in the other direction you could say, "Since you're unable to be clear, I want to say that I am clear: I consider our relationship active and continuing. To my mind we are still partners. I am happy to maintain that outlook for x days/weeks/months, at which time if we're still on a break, I'll revisit whether I want to continue the relationship." This tends to bring people to the table with a bit more directness.
posted by cocoagirl at 12:52 PM on May 25 [2 favorites]

Yes, this sounds like a break up. “I might want to be with you someday! But not now, and I don’t know when, and in the interim I want the good parts of you being in my life but none of the responsibility of treating you like a partner, even if it hurts you” is not the kind and caring act of a partner. Which makes sense, because this person is no longer your partner. I’m sorry.

You get to prioritize yourself right now. It sounds like most likely for you that’s best accomplished by a firm no contact rule for a significant period of time - maybe call it six months at minimum. Then you can assess whether you want this person in your life at all, and if so, in what capacity. But right now you need to not be waffling back and forth about how much contact. Keep it clean and simple. No contact. It will suck but it will be one specific way of sucking that you can move forward with and figure out coping strategies for, instead of settting your progress back every time you change your mind.
posted by Stacey at 1:29 PM on May 25 [4 favorites]

As a polyamorous person who has successfully navigated this (being good friends with exes) I can tell you this can work you really want this?

Do you and this person have any history of being friends with former paramours?
What do they add to your life as a friend?
How comfortable are you seeing your friend romantically happy with someone else?

You don't have to have all the answers today, but these are the questions you have to think about.

Monogamy mostly doesn't have a script for this (although it's super common in queer relationships) and it's not easy. Please don't force yourself to "be friends" if you don't want to. In fact, it can be detrimental to your mental health to do so (something I've also experienced). You have the internet's permission to not do this. You don't have to be friends with anybody, particularly people you used to date.

I agree with everyone here that the first step is going no contact. You need time to rebuild your life without them and see if anything is missing, say 4 to 6 months at least

If after that time you've answered the questions above, you are in a good place emotionally, you really feel like you still need a friend, and they were serious about wanting to be friends, start slow. Let them know they can reach out for coffee or something. (Also don't be surprised if they don't reach back. Some people think saying "let's be friends" is a gentle and nice way of breaking up. If this person does not have a history of being friends with exes that's a big clue to how sincere they are being). More than likely though, after a few months you'll not want to see them again or you might be happily entangled with someone else.

Either way giving yourself time with no contact is your first, best step as others have outlined.
In a few months of no contact, you should have a clearer picture of what you want. Then, and only then, should you even think about being friends. Feel Free to MeMail me in six months if you want to hear my poly,queer experiences including times it doesn't work out.
posted by Misty_Knightmare at 6:46 PM on May 25 [1 favorite]

they were serious about wanting to be friends,

Yeah, this is a good point. Some people say "friends" and it really just means, "I just want to make sure she's not mad at me and/or can wave hi on the street."
posted by jenfullmoon at 9:26 PM on May 25

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