Occasionally, I’ll get an email from a reader who isn’t asking for advice so much as they are asking for permission. And nine times out of ten, what they’re asking for is permission to break up with their significant other… because they can’t manage to convince themselves that they need to. One of the most perverse aspects of being human is how hard we fight against our own best interests. Our brains are prone to a host of psychological effects and fallacies that convince us that we shouldn’t finally pull the trigger and end that toxic relationship, even though it’s making us miserable.
Maybe you’ve had a friend who knows he needed to dump their toxic girlfriend. Maybe you got tired of slamming your head into the brick wall of their obstinacy as you watched their drama and misery unfold in real time on Facebook, stunned that they didn’t realize how miserable they are.
Maybe you were the one who needed to break up with your partner. God knows I was. I stayed in an emotionally abusive relationship – knowing damn good and well that I needed to break up with my girlfriend – for years longer than I should have.
The good news is that once you recognize these stalling tactics for what they are, you can learn to overcome them. Here are some of the ways you make it so much harder to break up with someone… even when you know you need to.
“I Want Out”
This letter from NerdLove reader All Mixed Up is a classic example of the knots people tie themselves into over ending a relationship:
I’ll try to keep this concise, but I doubt it will wind up that way. Essentially, I feel trapped in a long distance relationship. Feeling trapped probably means I should end it, but, I’m feeling pretty conflicted about a lot of things. Like many nerdy people, my hobbies don’t bring me in to social circles which contain a lot of women, so, dating has always been an uphill battle. Repeated rejection really wore down my sense of self-worth, and had me totally convinced that I was totally undateable. When I finally met someone (online) who seemed to really like and appreciate me, it completely blew my mind, and I felt on top of the world.
So, we chat for ages, find lots of similar interests, have all kinds of interesting conversations, things seem to be going great behind the sanitizing curtain of the internet. There are some issues that come up that I’m sure I can handle. She smokes, I don’t. She drinks, I don’t. She’s pretty overweight, but, hell, I could lose a few pounds too. I like to go out with friends and play games, she’s more a quiet, stay-at-home type. That’s cool! I can deal with all that. Except when we meet in person, I find out I can’t. The smell of cigarettes gets in to everything and makes me nauseous. I really dislike dealing with her when she’s drunk. I thought I didn’t mind her weight but it turns me off and I don’t really enjoy sex with her. I want to go out and do things, and she doesn’t, so I feel guilty for leaving and doing things without her.
Despite being in a long distance relationship for a few years now, the total amount of time we’ve actually spent together in person, getting to know one another adds up to mere weeks. Every visit, I’d leave not sure if I wanted to be with this person but as soon as I’d come home loneliness and nostalgia set in and suddenly I’m thinking “Well, it’s probably not as bad as all that. I can deal with this.” Even though I KNOW THIS IS TOTALLY INSANE. I KNOW it will be just as bad when I go back. I KNOW it’s not going to get better.
As much as I’m a non-confrontational person, I’ve tried to do some prodding about these issues, and I’ve been met with firm resistance. She does NOT think she should have to change for my sake. After all, I said I could handle all this. I KNEW about these problems.
So here we are. The prospect of moving in together is rapidly approaching, and I’m totally lost. I don’t enjoy our time together in person, but maybe I just need to get used to it? There’s still that person I’ve been talking to on the internet, right? The one I fell in love with, but can’t seem to find while we’re visiting? What are my other choices? I’m pathetic and undateable, right? There’s nobody else out there for me. Staying with her is easier, and safer, and better (so I tell myself).
Then there’s the real kicker: It’s been years. If I break things off now, I will have been wasting her time, for years. She’ll feel betrayed, furious, devastated, and the thought of that makes me feel physically ill. The actual prospect of breaking up simply terrifies me, inflicting that on another person. And yet, by staying with her, even though I’m not sure I want to, isn’t that kind of a being a jerk to her as well? Either way, she wants to go forward with this. She seems committed, and I only feel it when I’m not physically near her.
Should I break things off? How do people cope with doing that to someone? Is there a chance things will actually get better if we move forward with this? I’m not even sure I’ll want to get out there and try the nightmare that is dating again if I break things off. In short, help!
– All Mixed Up
AMU’s case is fairly common; a attraction that started exclusively online didn’t survive the transition into the real world. Just having chemistry with somebody online doesn’t guarantee chemistry in person. Like others who’ve been in his position, he should have ended the relationship long before it reached this point. Even now, it’s a fairly open and shut case: he needs to break up with his girlfriend already. The problem is making that break up happen.
What makes this letter interesting is that AMU is a classic example of why it’s so hard to break up with someone, even when you know it needs to happen, laid out in pure text. From an outside perspective, it can seem glaringly obvious what you need to do. But when you’re in it… things aren’t so clear. Our brains are very good at throwing roadblocks in our way and making us talk ourselves out of doing what we know we need to do.
Nostalgia Makes It Hard To Leave Even The Worst Relationships
One of the first problems we deal with is that our brains will flat out lie to us and we very rarely realize it. Most of us have a misguided idea of how our memories work – that they’re perfect snapshots of a moment in time, recording and replaying everything with perfect clarity and accuracy. We believe so firmly in the inerrancy of memory that we tend to miss the way that our brains rewrite our memories as we’re remembering them. Little things can change how we remember things, including people just making shit up and telling us that it happened over and over again.
One of the memory tricks that screw us over is the fact that our memories are affected by our moods. Positive memories tend to stick with us in greater detail, while negative memories fade quicker1. Those golden memories of the early days of the relationship when things were better are sharp and vivid and can feel more immediate while memories of all the fights fade quickly… sometimes even as soon as we leave the room. Even memories of abusive or coercive behavior grow faint enough that we can excuse them as being “not that bad” in comparison with all the good times.
And since we’re often already conflicted about actually pulling the break up lever, we let those nostalgic memories overwhelm our better judgement. If things were good once, they can be good again, right?
(Spoiler alert: NOPE.)
Breaking Up With Them Makes You A “Bad” Person
Break ups hurt, no matter which side of the equation you’re on. On the one hand, it totally sucks to get dumped… but it also sucks to be the dumper. On the whole, people hate having to break up with someone; we’re naturally loathe to hurt somebody we care (or cared) for, even when it’s necessary. Sure, every once in a while you’ll run into a thundering assbeast who casts people aside like used Kleenex, but most of us aren’t cartoon villains who feast on tears of despair.
However necessary the break up may be, years of experience and pop culture have taught us that the person doing the dumping is the bad guy. They’re the ones who aren’t invested enough, who break promises, who don’t care enough to make it work or aren’t strong enough to make it through the rough patches. It’s tantamount to admitting that you’re simply not good enough and that stings our egos enough that we’ll frequently put up with any amount of bullshit, drama and abuse to prove it. But as the man said: that’s just pride fucking with you. Pride doesn’t help in times like this, it only hurts.
The thing is, just sticking around doesn’t mean you’re a better person. In fact, it can often make things worse all around – for them and for you. Some people try to avoid the break up because they don’t want to hurt their partner. It’s a a lovely idea – after all, who doesn’t want a painless breakup? But then the hobnailed boot of reality swings in and stomps all over those idyll daydreams; when the break up does come – and it always does – it becomes pretty obvious that someone’s been sticking around despite desperately wanting to leave. There’s nothing that can ensure a swift, decisive kick to your soul’s nuts like finding out your snugglebunny has been dying inside for the last two months, four months, year, what-have you.
Other times, people try to avoid breaking up with their partners because they worry about what it says about them. One of the most common examples of this are people who realize they are no longer attracted to their partners. As unromantic as it is to say this – and I’ll get in trouble with the Dating Advice Giver’s Union for saying it – sometimes shit happens and we realize we’re no longer into our partners as much as we once were. People and relationships grow and change over time and that spark may vanish. Sometimes you can get it back. Other times those changes mean that we’re no longer compatible, sexually or romantically. It may be something as significant as a lifestyle change or it may be something shallow as weight gain or age or other physical changes – but it’s still a valid issue. Staying in a relationship in order to avoid admitting that you’re not attracted to somebody doesn’t make you a better person, it just prolongs your misery and increases your partner’s when they realize that you’ve been waiting for the end of time to hurry up and arrive.
Similarly, trying to push past deal-breakers or changes in the relationship don’t make you stronger, they make you masochistic. The fact that you were willing to overlook an issue – they smoke, they drink, you have different values, etc. – in the beginning doesn’t mean you’re not allowed to break up with them over it later. You’re not locked in to a relationship because you over- or underestimated how important an issue was to you, nor does it mean that you’ve broken your word and now you’re banned from dating forever more. It just means that you made a mistake. The fact that you promised to love someone until you died isn’t the same as the Unbreakable Vow, no matter how much your ex harps on it afterwards. Unless you straight-up deceived to them, realizing that you couldn’t keep a promise you made isn’t the same as lying. All it means is that you were wrong.
Being the person to initiate the break up can suck… but sometimes the best thing you can do for a relationship is to end it.
You’ve Put So Much Time In Already
Another shockingly common reason why people are averse to breaking up, even when they know it’s what they need to do? Because they’ve been dating for so long now that they can’t just give up now. A good friend of mine took over a year to finally decide divorce her deadbeat husband because it would mean that those ten years of marriage (not even counting how long they’d been dating beforehand) would have been wasted. Other people are loath to initiate the break up because they feel like it would be tantamount to giving up. It doesn’t matter that they’re abjectly miserable; they’d rather suffer than deal with the social approbrium of being a “quitter”.
It can sound absurd… but you’ve felt it too, even if you didn’t realize it at the time. This hesitation is the result of a psychological quirk known as the “sunk cost fallacy”. People pay more attention to – and give more emotional importance – to what they might lose rather than what they might gain when they have to make a choice… even when what is lost is something as ephemeral as time. That sense of loss and an inability to recover something spurs our behavior far more than any potential gains. If you’ve ever felt like ten pounds of ass in a five pound sack but went to a movie, a concert, a trip anyway because you’ve already bought the tickets, then you’ve experienced the sunk-cost fallacy; the sense of loss of the price of the ticket was too much to bear. It’s the same thing that keeps you playing games that you can’t stand but can’t bring yourself to quit… you’ve sunk all this time (and occasionally money) that giving up just feels wrong.
That’s the same feeling that keeps you from breaking up with somebody because it would mean you would have wasted all that time you spent dating them. Breaking up with your partner you might be happier… but it also means giving up the time and emotions you’ve already invested in the relationship. That’s going to sting and there’s no getting around it.
But just as you wouldn’t throw money into a company that’s flaming out, you shouldn’t throw more of your time and emotion into a dying relationship. Losing your investment hurts and there’s no getting it back. But by getting out now you can stop yourself from losing even more.
But Then You’ll Be Alone…
The last reason for avoiding a necessary break up is, in many ways, the hardest to overcome. For a lot of people, the prospect of being single is scarier than being with the wrong person. It’s a self-limiting belief based out of a scarcity mentality – the idea that there are only so many women in the world who could possibly be into you. Under this self-imposed belief, every rejection and every break up brings you one step closer to dying alone, unloved and forgotten.
Like many other self-limiting beliefs, this one is hard to overcome; part of what makes it so insidious is that it’s self-reinforcing. Your self-esteem is already taking a beating from the relationship. You feel like a loser for not being able to bring yourself to leave. This only serves to confirm your loser status that would prevent you from ever finding anyone else. Nobody else could possibly love you, so you should take what you can get. And yet you’re miserable, which makes you feel like a loser for not being to leave…
This, more than anything else, kept me in relationships I should have run screaming from, back in the bad old days. I didn’t think I could do any better, so I stuck around and took it. I was willing to make any number of excuses as to why it wasn’t that bad, that this was just how relationships were, that things would get better when X happened. But X would come and go and things wouldn’t improve and I would be left feeling lower than a snake’s ass in a drainage ditch.
To quote the wise sage, I was just a sucker with no self-esteem.
A mistake many people with this mentality make is to assume that the best course is to stick around until they find a potential replacement – a “landing pad”, as it were. The problem with this outlook – besides a) the tacit insult to the person you’re supposedly leaving your partner for and b) the potential for unnecessary drama on top of your relationship woes is that this doesn’t actually solve anything. If – and that’s a mighty big “if” – you actually did find someone, all that would happen is that you end up transferring the problems of one relationship to another. You still have the same issues will almost assuredly find yourself in same bad relationship… just one that has a different name and face. But, more realistically, it becomes just another way of excusing yourself from doing what you know you need to do. It kicks the break up down the road to “someday”, when you know damn good and well that “someday” never comes.
What you need to do is, sadly, one of the hardest things you can do… and that’s to make the leap blind. Yes, there is the chance that this person may well be the last person you ever date; I won’t lie to you. But not only do you have no way of knowing that this is true, it ignores what you know is true: that you’re miserable. That the relationship is over; it’s a shambling corpse, feasting on what’s left of your hopes, dreams and will to live. You need to put a stake in it’s heart (…and in some cases, chop off it’s head, fill it’s mouth with holy wafers and burn the head and body separately at a crossroads before it stays dead. Metaphorically speaking.) before it sucks any more of the life out of you.
I can tell you from experience: being single, even if you’re single for the rest of your life, is infinitely preferable to a relationship that should have ended already. Being alone on your own terms is far better than a relationship that makes you miserable.
Much like All Mixed Up, pulling the trigger on a break up can be almost ball-shrivelingly intimidating. In many cases, you’re having to fight past your own fears and personal demons to make it happen. But trust me: when you do finally end it, when you follow through with that break up that you know needs to happen?
You will feel a weight lift from your shoulders that you’ll have forgotten was there.
It’ll be hard.
But it will be worth it.
- This is actually reversed in people suffering from depression… [↩]