Getting past the guilt of breaking up
June 19, 2007 6:29 AM   Subscribe

So, I finally took a deep breath, steeled my nerves, had the hideous We-Need-to-Talk conversation, and broke up with the boyfriend. Now -- how do I deal with the guilt?

We were together for over ten years, but with time it had become increasingly hard for me to be oblivious to the differences in our core values, life priorities, etc., and I finally decided I had to stop pretending to be somebody I'm not in order to keep the peace, and instead to make a break and move elsewhere with my life. I don't think he was entirely surprised (he knew I'd been unhappy lately), but I don't think he expected I'd actually go ahead and do this, and he is now in a lot of pain and sadness. (At least, that's what I gleaned from the one post-breakup phone conversation we've had.)

While I don't think breaking up with him was the wrong thing to do, I do feel wrong about causing him so much pain, and I go through periods every day where I feel so awful about hurting him like this that my chest clenches up. I worry about whether he's going to be OK (especially because he's a very solitary guy with few if any friends). He's not doing anything to try to guilt me, I should add. And I'm seeing a counselor, who keeps pointing me toward the fact that I made the right decision for me, but how can I feel OK about it when it was SO not the right decision for him?

My original impulse was to ask "How much guilt should I be feeling?" but I know that's dumb, it's not a quantifiable thing. Rather, I guess what I'd ask is -- how have others gotten past this and let go of the (admittedly irrational) sense of responsibility for someone else's pain? Especially when one was the cause of that pain?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (24 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
I suspect that's mostly your standard empathy, rather that any particular guilt. I think that your reaction is an appropriate level in this sense, in that you're sad that he's sad about it. You're not necessarily the cause, it's a shared "fault" in that it had gone on for long enough knowing it likely couldn't work. Do you think it may just me your empathy talking, rather than an actual guilt?
posted by vanoakenfold at 6:44 AM on June 19, 2007

If you want to make him feel better then do the following:

You move out if you are living together.

Try to avoid places where you would see him.

Keeping with the above, do not spend time with mutual friends when you would expect him to be around.

Keep the contact with him (written, verbal, in person) to an absolute minimum/none at all, it will just make it more difficult for him.

While it was very likely for the best that you broke up with him, as the dumper it is your responsibility to put the effort into making this a clean break and not twisting the knife. Let him move on and you will feel a lot better.
posted by BobbyDigital at 6:51 AM on June 19, 2007 [2 favorites]

I was in a relationship where the guy was unhappy, and I knew it, but he held on because he didn't want to hurt me. And, well, it sucked. Every day was a reminder that no matter what I did I just couldn't make him happy. After I got over the initial shock and sadness of being dumped I found other relationships and eventually met the guy I married. If it weren't for getting dumped, I'd still be in that first mediocre relationship.

He may not see it now, but really, you've freed him to find someone who's a good fit for him. I know it's a cliche, but it's true. Eventually he might even thank you for it.
posted by christinetheslp at 6:54 AM on June 19, 2007

two things
You're very brave to make that choice. It's not easy, and you should be proud of refusing to settle. Plenty of people don't have the guts to make that choice and live in loveless marriages.

And, you can't be responsible for his lack of friends. You can't be the person to support him through this, and he's going to have to get through it on his own. Which he will. Time really will heal all, and he'll remember your ten years happily. If he loves you, he wouldn't have wanted you to stay if you're unhappy. He can give you all the love in the world but if he's not right for you, he will come to realize that you're just not going to let him love you. And that's OK.
posted by chickaboo at 6:54 AM on June 19, 2007 [1 favorite]

Yeah, it sucks. If it makes you feel any better, by breaking up with him now, you've allowed him to move on with his life and find a better match sooner rather than later. In situations like this, typically only one person takes on the responsibility of making the actual break, no matter how long it is in coming. You've taken that responsibility, and in that sense, given him the easy way out.
posted by adamrice at 6:58 AM on June 19, 2007

It sounds cold, but now that you've broken up his happiness is simply not your business anymore, particuarly as I don't get the sense that you're afraid he will do harm to himself or anything like that. (If you do feel that way you should perhaps get a third party -- does he have ANY close friends or family to rely on for support? -- to steer him toward counseling.)

My feeling from similar situations I have been in personally (as the person more in his role than in yours, to be perhaps too honest) is that the best thing you can do is leave him alone -- there's some extent to which you trying to help is merely picking open the emotional scab.

When you say it was "SO not the right decision for him" what do you mean by that -- that he's incapable of a social life without you, that he can't manage household chores and finances without you, that he'll never have the nerve to initiate another relationship after you? If so, it might be the best thing you could have done for him to give him the opportunity to become an independent adult with an adult life.

I know it's tough. IANACounselor, but in my experience the feelings one gets in situations like this are pretty similar to grief over the death of a loved one, and like intense grief they will take time to get over. It seems to me if you prolong contact with him in any way, even well-meaning, you just keep resetting the emotional clock for both of you, which will only make it take longer for the two of you to get over the breakup.
posted by aught at 7:00 AM on June 19, 2007

Causing pain is not the same as acting with malice. Pain is an unavoidable part of life and while we want to minimize it there isn't cause to feel guilty over it. If anything the only cause for guilt is in investing a lot of someone else's and your own time in a relationship that isn't and won't be satisfying. And the best response in that situation is, uh, exactly what you did.

I think the best way to move on is to recognize that you made the right move for yourself and also for him. It isn't in his or anyone's best interest for you to be a martyr to your perception of what they want.
posted by BigSky at 7:05 AM on June 19, 2007 [6 favorites]

You did, in fact, make the right decision for him, as it sucks to be in a relationship with someone who doesn't want to be in one with you. The immediate feelings pertaining to the breakup, and any desires that the relationship was better, do not change that.
posted by OmieWise at 7:11 AM on June 19, 2007

You can take some solace in the idea/fact that this may be a fresh start for him as well. Having been the guy on the other side, I can vouch for the fact that yeah, painful-painful-painful but getting psychically kicked in the nads was the best thing my ex ever did.
posted by KevinSkomsvold at 7:12 AM on June 19, 2007

you weren't exactly happy before, were you?

keep that in mind
posted by Salvatorparadise at 7:16 AM on June 19, 2007 [1 favorite]

As someone who has been pretty much in exactly the same situation as you within the last year, I can tell you it's not easy but it does get better over time. The simple answer is that for a few months you won't feel OK about it, not matter how many people tell you you've done the right thing. And how many times you tell yourself you've done the right thing. And believe me, you have done the right thing.

And also what you don't notice in the first few months is that the pain you felt before leaving has gone. You don't notice it because you still have that sick feeling caused by the guilt, but the "being in the wrong relationship for you" pain has gone away.

You might feel like you have destroyed your ex-partner's life, I certainly did, but you haven't. They will get over it and move on to a better relationship, just like you will. It all takes time however.

You feel this guilt because fundamentally you are a good person. I know it doesn't feel like it, but take it from me, the fact you are asking yourself (and us) this question proves it. It's not easy but it does get better. And, don't forget, you have done the right thing! Good luck.
posted by jontyjago at 7:35 AM on June 19, 2007 [4 favorites]

1) It's normal and, moreover, *good* that you feel guilty and/or empathize with his pain. If you didn't, you wouldn't be much of a person.

2) Time heals all wounds -- you will feel like shit for a while, but less and less every day until one day you'll notice that you didn't even think about him the day before.

3) There are no shortcuts. Good luck.
posted by modernnomad at 7:38 AM on June 19, 2007 [1 favorite]

it will be fine soon, it doesn't look like it will but that's the truth, don't worry
posted by matteo at 7:39 AM on June 19, 2007

anonymous: [H]ow have others gotten past this and let go of the (admittedly irrational) sense of responsibility for someone else's pain?

Bluntly, I haven't. In a way, it really holds me back, as I am now unwilling to date somebody that I kinda-like-but-let's-give-it-a-chance-and-maybe-the-feelings-will-grow because I know that it will end badly for them. But it has also helped focus me on those I find "very attractive" (not just physically, of course), as opposed to "somewhat attractive". The common distraction of "hmm, she seems kinda cool, maybe we should get a drink" is gone, and I'm left with only pursuing the less common "wow, I freakin LIKE her!" I hope that makes sense -- the guilt sucks, but you can use it to focus yourself on what you really want. I'm not sure that that's entirely positive, but since you asked, that's where I am with it right now.

I 100% with aught's point of limiting contact, tempered of course by the specifics of your (ex)relationship. Last girl, I ended up just having to cut off all contact (thank you, CallFilter!), so that she could move on. It's just too easy to get together for a drink, a drink becomes a date, a date becomes "we're dating", they start feeling like you're a couple again, and you get to go through the whole breakup thing again...

And if they think you're an asshole because you're not taking their calls, that's okay -- it's better to be dumped by an "asshole" than dumped by a really awesome person who just doesn't have strong feelings for them anymore.

Good luck!
posted by LordSludge at 7:45 AM on June 19, 2007 [5 favorites]

Keep the contact with him (written, verbal, in person) to an absolute minimum/none at all, it will just make it more difficult for him.

This advice is spot-on. It seems unnatural to abandon a friend in their time of need, but that's exactly what you need to do.

In order to get over you and move on with his life he needs lots of space, quite possibly for a long period of time.
posted by chrisamiller at 8:23 AM on June 19, 2007

As others have said, time and distance will help heal things for each of you. I think your feelings of guilt are normal, but ultimately, you aren't responsible for his happiness. Happiness is an inside job.

Maybe try taking the perspective that this experience has been one big Life Lesson, for both of you. There was a reason you were together and a reason you aren't now.

This quote has helped me through some rough periods...

"If you aren't over it, you are under it. That means useless weight that takes away your strength."
posted by socrateaser at 9:09 AM on June 19, 2007

i broke up with my husband after 10 years - he didn't want to split, and part of the reason was because of his chronic depression.

i felt horrible for a while, especially knowing he had poor coping skills and few friends.

but now, more than 5 years later, he can see it was a good thing which allowed us both to grow.

it does get better with time.
posted by wayward vagabond at 10:06 AM on June 19, 2007

Listen to Billy Bragg's "A New England."
It won't help a ton, but it'll sound like it was written for you.
posted by The Esteemed Doctor Bunsen Honeydew at 1:31 PM on June 19, 2007

Er, crap.
A New England
posted by The Esteemed Doctor Bunsen Honeydew at 1:35 PM on June 19, 2007

oh, i hate those situations. basically nice guy, perfect for someone but not you.

if he's not trying to guilt you or causing you any static, perhaps he isn't as hurt as you think he is. i know that sounds cold, but you don't actually know how he's feeling. has he threatened suicide? showed up at your door drunk and crying? no? then he's fine. hurt and sad, but fine.

let him alone, and don't try to make things "easier" for him by talking it over with him. don't take his calls, either. let him get used to the separation.

one of the hardest lessons that i learned is that a satisfying, meaningful, happy life doesn't equal a life of constant comfort. you have liberated him from a relationship with someone he could never make happy. you have done him a favor, even though it doesn't feel like that right now.

i don't know if you've ever set a bone or had to have a dislocated joint fixed, but i can tell you, sometimes putting things right hurts like hell in the moment, but is better in the long run.
posted by thinkingwoman at 2:56 PM on June 19, 2007 [1 favorite]

I think the best thing to do in any breakup situation is to cut all contact for at least a few months. It gives both people a chance to get over the hurt and sort out their feelings. I know what you're going through, because I've been through something similar.

I was in a horrible relationship for most of 2005. She was very clingy, emotionally needy, and had untreated psychological problems. When we broke up, I tried to stay friends with her. Like your ex, she really didn't have many friends, and I felt bad for her. Biggest mistake I made in my life. I thought we were friends, and she thought we were just taking a break and would get back together. In February 2006, she went off on me in such a bad way that I still haven't gotten over it emotionally.

I'm not saying this will happen to you, but be careful. What you may interpret as supporting your ex, he may interpret as you wanting to get back together. If you do choose to keep in contact, be sure to set some very clear boundaries, and make sure he knows you have no interest in getting back together with him.
posted by reenum at 7:34 PM on June 19, 2007

BigSky's excellent point bears repeating:

Causing pain is not the same as acting with malice.

Here, you acted honestly & with good intentions. Some pain is an unavoidable, but passing, side-effect. To use a somewhat clinical metaphor, a surgeon needs to cut open a patient to remove a tumour. In the long run, the patient will be better than if left untreated, so the surgeon has no logical reason to feel 'guilty' over making the incision.
posted by UbuRoivas at 7:47 PM on June 19, 2007 [1 favorite]

As the person recently on the receiving end of this sort of thing, I can let you know that utlimately, you should feel really good about what you've done. Because if you weren't happy, he most likely wasn't either. He may have really wanted to hang onto you because the social alternative was so stark (I know this one well) but I really don't believe that one person can be truly happy in a relationship with someone who isn't. If they say they are, it's probably because they're focused on the status of being in a relationship, as opposed to the bond and union with the other person. Good, happy relationships involve a lot of checking in with each other and trying to make each other happy. And if that's not working, you've kind of got to call it a day, right?

Sooner or later he'll learn this and hopefully find someone who he makes truly happy. Which will bring him joy in it's own right. But in the meantime, I'm going to go ahead and disagree with those that said you should cut him off. I actually think that's what you want to do because you're feeling so guilty. That's probably easier on YOU. Ten years is a long time. If he's not an overly social guy it will take him some time to get back on track. The best thing you can do for him in the meantime is be there for him - be his friend - while he's doing so. Eventually the pain will subside - hopefully sooner than later - but it could take a lot longer for him to be happy and secure with a full social life. So throw him a bone and check in on him every now and again. Make sure he's going out and doing stuff. Make sure he's not lonely on his birthday or on the holidays. You spend a decade of your life with this person. He deserves a smooth transition into the next, esp. if his ego is a little bruised right now. I suppose there's a limit to this. He's got to be willing to try to help himself get to where he wants to be. But lonely sucks and you can ease some of that with just letting him know that you care about him, although the relationship with a capital R didn't work out.
posted by smallstatic at 12:40 PM on June 25, 2007 [1 favorite]

Wow....I'm new to the "filter", but found this right away because I am in the same spot. I finally broke up with a man whom I have been dating for about 1.5 years and I have incredible guilt. He really is a wonderful man, but it was not working (chemistry, long distances, he reminded me too much of my ex-husband....). It's such torture to cause pain to a good person, but I truly want him and I to both be happy. Onward and upward, right?
posted by Womanscientist at 8:41 PM on August 8, 2007

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