Dear Sara: I was single for 10 years before I met my ex, and we were together for two years. Then we had a weird/sad breakup that lasted about a year. We broke up and got back together a bunch of times, so I didn’t tell anyone we broke up until recently. Also, we are still talking and seeing each other occasionally even now.
I had a lot of self-judgment about this, but then a friend pointed out that she knows of a few people who are married but not happy at all. They are really in that same stage of unhappiness but not separated or divorced. These married people often find it hard to separate their lives from each other, because of kids or other issues. And it’s just hard to let go, for some people.
So I realized that “it’s not just me,” that there are probably lots of people in this sort of breakup limbo. It’s really hard to completely let go of someone you once greatly loved. My ex-boyfriend and I didn’t have a big blowout or any kind of horrible breakup. We didn’t cheat on each other, but we were fighting a lot and we realized how incompatible we actually are. Because nothing terrible or dramatic happened, it’s been harder to break up.
I still feel shame and embarrassment for not being able to let go of my boyfriend, even though it is clear that we are not well-suited for each other. I am judging myself as being dysfunctional for not being able to move on. — M
Dear M: It seems to me you’re judging yourself in two different ways. First, you’re judging yourself for ending a not-terrible relationship. As your friend points out, many people slog through difficult relationships for many different reasons; they stay together for the kids, or simply because separating seems harder emotionally and/or financially than staying together.
There’s nothing wrong with that—just as there is nothing wrong with breaking up with someone because you realize you need something more. We all have our own standards for what “making it work” means. Some people have a higher tolerance for certain things—they can live with someone who doesn’t really get them, or they can put up with fighting and bickering. We all know couples who are constantly at each other’s throats but stay together for decades.
That’s the choice they’ve made, and that’s fine. You’ve made a different one, and that’s fine too. No one is better or worse. We’re all just people making the best decisions we can. It’s only because our culture always praises the ones who stay together, whatever the cost to their souls or psyches, that the people who split up feel like they’ve done something wrong.
So first, forgive yourself for the breakup. Give yourself credit for cutting through all that cultural garbage and arriving at the right decision for you. You gave it a sincere try and broke up on civil terms. Not everyone can say that.
The fact that it’s been hard for you to stay completely apart doesn’t mean that you’re weak. It probably means that a lot was right with your relationship, that it had a lot of value and brought many good things into your life. So instead of criticizing yourself for having a hard time letting go, why not honor the fact that there were many positive things that happened between the two of you? Honor the fact that even though your relationship did end, it was still a success in many ways. You spent two years with someone you loved and cared for. The fact that the relationship is ending doesn’t make that love and care any less real.
Instead of viewing this breakup as a failure, try viewing it as a life experience where you learned a lot about yourself and what you need from a romantic relationship. Be glad that you had enough good times to make the parting difficult. Allow these successful parts of your relationship to assure you that there is more to come.
Sara Eckel is a personal coach and the author of It’s Not You: 27 (Wrong) Reasons You’re Single. You can get a free bonus chapter of her book at saraeckel.com. You can also find her on Twitter and Facebook. Ask her questions here.