“I want to break up, but partner is in the middle of painful life stuff and it doesn’t feel like the right time. What do I do?”

The question in the subject line is one of the most common questions I get.

Carolyn Hax took a version of it on recently. Hers is not a blanket solution, especially (obviously!) when the relationship has deteriorated to the point where you need to not only be done but AWAY, but in those situations where the romantic part is definitely done but the caring about each other is not, she suggests that you stop pretending. Be honest that your feelings have changed and end the romantic relationship. Offer to be a supportive friend anyway. I would add: Be honest with yourself about what you are really willing and able to do, and don’t over-promise out of guilt. I think her approach is beautiful if you can make it work, and it makes me think fondly of some exes and how we took care of each other after the end of the relationship. One part of the relationship can end but it can still be a love story.

There’s a phrase and a dynamic that comes up over and over in the letters I read about this: “Partner has no one else but me” or “I am Partner’s only support” or “Partner doesn’t have any friends or family, there’s just me.” This factor adds so much guilt and terror to the letter writers’ situations, like, I will leave and this person will fall completely to pieces and there will be no one else to help them and whatever happens to them will be my fault (but I still might have to leave). The question that always comes to my mind (from my safe, cold distance) is, why? Why are you this person’s only person? How did that situation develop?

From the Letter Writers, the stories that answer those questions often involve trauma, illness, addiction, abusive family, poverty, trust issues, medical and financial crises, and a ton of stuff that isn’t the person’s fault, which makes it even harder to leave them when things go sour. (If you get a chance, watch The Closer We Get, a stunning and gracious documentary about how a family can break apart and then decide to knit itself back together like a badly set bone that might or might not be better than no bone at all). When I’ve been someone’s Only Person, a lot of that “this sucks and it is not their fault” stuff was present, too. But often there were other patterns present, and I could only see them once I got far enough away.

There was a person I seemed to date over and over in my 20s and early 30s: nerdy-hot, intelligent, verbal and creative, super-attentive and affectionate, not afraid of putting emotions out there and becoming intimate and committed very quickly, often 10 years or so older than me, often met online + often long-distance, so the relationship involved a lot of emotional intimacy in the form of words spun across telephone wires late at night but a delay in situational intimacy of seeing where & how each other lived day-to-day. These people had so many great qualities and could make me feel so wanted and important and special, but looking back they had somethings in common that is downright spooky: They had almost no friends & no social connections but me. And they expected me to be their social life and in some cases to be the person who made social connections for them that way. They all had stories of past friendships and relationships, every single one of which had ended badly because the other people had not been loyal/cool/understanding enough (not like me, who would obviously be the one loyal amazing person who stays forever). Another “spooky” thing in common: They all did something incredibly wrong/not cool at some point early on in the relationship, but the follow-up conversations/fight ended with me being manipulated into feeling sorry for them and talking myself out of my own anger.

I am a woman and they were men, and I think that matters, at least a little bit, in terms of socialization and ingrained expectations around who will be the caretaker and the social director and awkwardness forgiver and emotions translator. We were geeks/nerds/dorks, and I think that matters, at least a little bit, because of Geek Social Fallacies and how some of those translate romantically. “Other people have excluded you, and that is bad, so I will make up for that.” “You have been unfairly rejected and treated, maybe my love can prove the exception.” “When nerdy men do something hurtful, it’s not really their fault, they can’t help it and don’t know any better. Why waste energy being mad?” and let’s not forget “We unfairly excluded/awkward/not conventionally attractive people gotta stick together, who else would even love someone like me?” Gender matters at least a little bit insofar as these are my own stories, and I was seduced by the idea that the sensitive dude who cries sometimes and trade books about feminism can’t possibly be sexist, or rapey, and the ubiquitous “love” stories about how brooding misunderstood genius assholes make a sexy exception for that one special person. In my haste to make up for the wrongs the world had done these men and to live out my destiny as the special woman privileged to see their best selves, I completely overlooked that maybe there were reasons that nobody besides me really liked them or got them and that every single other human interaction they’d ever had in their lives was riddled with conflict and betrayal.

These men all had something else in common: When I started to think about leaving them and/or actually left them, they fell to pieces and made everything terrible about their lives my fault.

  • How could I leave when he still hadn’t found a job?
  • He didn’t mean to lie about (his age)(still being married)(still being employed) it’s just he was so scared to tell me the truth because he knew I would leave him, and now here I was leaving him, so didn’t that kinda justify his decision to lie?
  • Yes, it’s true that he cheated on me, but he has so many body issues and insecurities, how could I not understand that the opportunity to hook up with a conventionally attractive person (instead of fat me) was irresistible? He had missed out on so much in his life and maybe it wasn’t time to settle down just yet. Plus, everyone makes mistakes, the other woman “meant nothing,” and now I was just going to leave him “like everyone else had.” (Like, which is it dude…you don’t want to be tied down, but you also don’t want me to leave…).
  • Inviting my female friends over one by one to watch TV in the apartment where the only place to sit is the bed and then offering to rub their feet (TRUE STORY, Y’ALL) wasn’t weird, and wasn’t I the person who had suggested being more social in the first place? “Jealousy is not a good look on you, Jennifer, I thought you were more adult than this.” Oh, by the way, had he ever told me the story of how he thought about killing himself? It’s been on his mind a lot lately. A lot.
  • Yes, it’s true that he ‘forgot’ to put on a condom before we had sex despite my clear rules about that, but he just wanted to be so close to me that he lost control in the moment. But this was gonna be the first Christmas in decades that he wasn’t spending totally alone, how could I run out on all our plans and leave him lonely at such a hard time? Didn’t I know his dad DIED on Christmas? And did I know that suicides increase around the holidays?
  • Yes, it’s true, I did ask him to stop calling and IM-ing, but he doesn’t have anyone else to talk to, so couldn’t I just be a GOOD PERSON instead to someone who is clearly SUFFERING? Oh, and when he asks how I am or what I’ve been up to, don’t I realize it hurts him to hear about all these happy excursions he isn’t going on and bores him to hear about people he doesn’t know? If I were a better person I would be more polite and just let him talk about himself, since I have lots of people I can talk to and he has no one but me.
  • If I left, he would have no friends and no one to talk to. How could I be so cruel as to cut off his only source of support, just when he was finally feeling more secure?

I have left, knowing that the person might actually follow through on killing themselves because they had a real history of depression, knowing that they were sitting alone in a disgusting apartment on Christmas day, knowing that I was their last friend in the world (their last friend who they’d just sexually violated/cheated on, that is), knowing that their boss had noticed that they didn’t actually do any work and they were about to be fired without the prospect of another job, knowing that their estranged and abusive parent was about to take last breath, knowing that the cat was sick and about to die, knowing that the meds weren’t working, knowing that the surgeries were coming up and there would be no one to keep the fridge stocked. I have felt like the worst person in the world, told therapists and friends what a terrible person I am, internalized all the vitriol thrown at my departing back as I walk out the door, used Google to sometimes check to see if they are still alive, accepted 2 AM phone calls that alternate between crying and begging for forgiveness and calling me very bad names. I have gone to funerals and hospital rooms and difficult holiday dinners when asked for support and then been screamed at later when I don’t want to also fuck their sad away because why did I even come and raise their expectations if I didn’t really mean it? And to my shame, sometimes I have opened arms and legs and tried to fuck the sad away because it’s the path of least resistance. Truth: I do not regret leaving a single one of these people but I do regret making it so hard on myself to go.

Like the response Letter Writers married to people who have abdicated all housework, once you’re deep inside a relationship it’s too late for a lot of advice to count – you’re already intertwined, you’re already committed, you’re already in love, you already care, the specifics of the situation are already too big – so maybe one of the useful things to do here is to point out some of the red flags of “But I am their only person!” so that people can spot them before they are up Love Creek.

When I went to the shelter to adopt my cat, the volunteers there showed me every elderly cat, every FIV+ cat, every wheezy barf-machine (like, seriously, one of them wheezed and shook like it was about to die and then barfed on my shoe), and every frail, patchy, smelly cat who needed multiple injections daily. I said, “Where are the younger cats with no known medical issues” and they said “Don’t you want this cat, look how loving he is?” and I petted wee Barfolemew and said “what a pretty good boy, yes you are” and he purred and looked at me with his good eye and I said “So, where are the younger cats with no known medical issues” and the volunteer gave me the guilt-speech about how so many lovely cats never find homes because people reject them without even getting to know them and I said “Wow that’s so sad, you are really doing great work here! But I just lost a beloved cat and I’m not ready to do that again soon so howabout you show me the young cats with no known issues because that is the best fit for me right now.” They showed me a half-feral cat who rubbed her head against my offered fist and then bit me before running away and hiding in a hole in the wall (“That means she likes you!”). They showed me a cat that seemed fresh out of the Pet Sematary with a smell to match. I ended up with a sweet, friendly, playful 9-month old cat who had a tapeworm, massive separation anxiety if I so much as shut a door between us, and feline herpes (which manifests in times of stress and requires expensive lysine supplements and eyedrops). I love the shit out of her, and I would have loved Old Shakey McBarfsalot or Bitey Hiderston, too, but guilt and pity and ‘oh look, that poor sad cat will never find anyone if I don’t take it home’ and the principle of fairness just could not be my operating principles during that decision. Though they had been factors in boyfriend selection during the above-mentioned stories of woe. I present My Youthful Shitty Love Cycle:

  • Meet interesting oddball like my interesting oddball self, like him, get to know him better.
  • Early on, he does something or I sense something or find out something that is not quite right. He has a good explanation for whatever it is, and that explanation involves a sad story that generates a lot of sympathy for him.
  • We keep getting to know each other, and (key) the sexy stuff is really good between us and we stay up all night talking about interesting things. A lot of the relationship works beautifully, and it especially works beautifully if we are at a distance from each other and the majority of these interactions are online or over the phone. (Longing: I’m good at it.)
  • One of the Not Quite Right things I notice: This person rarely or never mentions any current friends or family, and when I ask, “Hey, when do I get to meet your friends?” what comes out is avoidance of the topic, a spray of shame-vomit and recrimination, a manifesto of extreme introversion that has become a habit and is presented like a badge of honor, or a tale of a series of terrible people who have done him wrong or left or been found wanting.
  • Followed closely by compliments-that-aren’t-compliments, like, “Nobody has ever understood me like you” or “Now that I have you, everything in my life will turn around for the better” or “You’re the only one I need” or “I don’t really like or do well with people, but you are the exception!!!
  • Then we spend more in-person time, something else is not quite right, but the words “I’m not perfect either” or “Who am I to really judge” or “I have issues and he so is nice to put up with my stuff, don’t I owe him the same benefit of the doubt?” manifest in my brain and oops, too late, I’m In Like and more than halfway to In Love.
  • As I fall deeper, I start to see everything in his life through the lens of “you poor thing!” and willingly take on the job of making up for everyone else in the history of ever. This means overlooking stuff like horrifyingly filthy apartments full of stuff I’m allergic to, lies, the frequently ‘forgotten’ wallet, and ‘interesting’ interpretations of things like consent, kindness, and fidelity.
  • The ‘You Poor Thing’ lens means that “my boyfriend and I talk for hours every single night, isn’t he so attentive?” feels good, it feels like what love is supposed to be, until one night I go out with friends and fall asleep before I remember to call him and he is devastated because he was WAITING and WORRIED and all I can see is how I’ve hurt him with my selfishness and not how he is using our nightly talks like a drug to fill up his emptiness. I stay up so late comforting him that I am useless at work all the next day.
  • I am young and have depression and a low-self esteem and not much experience with dating. I am fat and a lot of men my age see me as a sister and not as a romantic possibility. He is older and he knows so much, and he has suffered so much! Isn’t it amazing how we’ve found each other? He can teach me what good love is supposed to be, and I can heal him with my compassion and attention.
  • I’ll do the weird & uncomfortable & humiliating sex stuff he wants to do that I don’t really like because that’s what grownups in love do, they accommodate each other’s preferences, and how can I know what I like if I don’t try everything? Or we won’t have sex for literally years because he is having some emotional issues around that, issues he can’t talk about or treat or even try to solve, but if the shoe were on the other foot he wouldn’t pressure me, so what can I even say? I guess all love takes work and sacrifices, time for me to be more patient and understanding.
  • I’m so happy to be in a relationship that works so well! And it’s so good to have that “boyfriend” category locked down so I don’t have to worry about it, except…I’m sort of worried…about him…all the time? All the weird stuff that raises my friends’ eyebrows when I talk about it is just our own unique way of being in love, and these tradeoffs (in safety, in autonomy, in fulfillment, hygiene, in respect) are worth it for all the good parts of who we are together. Who is anyone else to judge these very sophisticated, adult, compassionate compromises we have come to? Isn’t worry a sign that you care?

And then finally something so egregious happens or I become so egregiously unhappy that I would chew my own leg off to get out of the relationship…and I stay another year because I am Jennifer the Loyal, Jennifer Who Doesn’t Run Out When Things Get Tough, Jennifer Who Knows That Good Love Takes Work.And then I finally psych myself up to go, but oh no, he is in crisis! How can I leave now?

After all, I’m the only one he’s got.

Everybody feels like the sad shelter cat that nobody wants to take home sometimes, and everybody carries around something that is somebody’s else’s #1 dealbreaker. The difference between Mr. or Ms. Lonely & Imperfect-but-Loveable, and Mr. or Ms. Cautionary Tale is that the cautionary tale folks:

  • Move the relationship along very fast and push hard for maximum intimacy out of the gate.
  • Very early on, when you sense an incompatibility, they try to convince you to override your instincts. They latch on very quickly, and that early stage of dating where you try to find out if you are mutually compatible and maybe bail with no hard feelings doesn’t really exist for them. Two coffee dates in, leaving them will feel like kicking a puppy.
  • When they hurt your feelings or screw up, instead of apologizing they fall back on getting you to comfort them for how unfortunate they are.
  • They use manipulative tactics like type-casting – “I thought you were more open-minded than that…” “You present as such a compassionate person, when you are really just like everyone else…” “I never thought I could get someone like you to be with someone like me.” 
  • They let all of their issues pile up and pile up without even trying to deal with them and then when they meet you, their new partner or friend, they hand you the whole pile like, “LOVE ME, LOVE MY ISSUES OR ELSE YOU ARE NOT THE GOOD PERSON I THOUGHT YOU WERE”
  • During the relationship, they stop trying to manage or improve parts of their lives that don’t work so well. Who needs health care? Who needs to work on cultivating friendships and social ties with others? Why should some stranger listen to my problems, when I got you, babe? Who needs all those “normies”/”sheeple”/”hipsters”/”breeders”/”sportball watchers”/”people who don’t even know what (obscure pop culture reference)”/(Insert your own shibboleth term that only really insufferable people use here) when I got you, babe! Babe?
  • Shit happens in life, and shit happens that isn’t anyone’s fault, but with Cautionary Tales nothing they do wrong is ever their fault and no bad consequences in their lives could ever possibly be anticipated by or controlled by them. You/Real Life: “If you don’t go to class or turn in any work you will fail that class, and if you have circumstances that are preventing you from keeping up and you don’t tell your professor about any of it in a reasonable time frame you will probably still fail that class even though not-awesome shit is going on in your life because she can’t read your mind, so this story about the historical unfairness of capitalist education is really interesting, bro, but are you gonna go to class or not?” Them: “Why are you victim-blaming me?”
  • Discussions about actions quickly shift to discussing what kind of person someone is. You: “I need you to stop calling me after 11 pm so I can get enough sleep.” Them: “But you know I’m a night person!” You: “I don’t like it when you cancel plans last minute. What’s going on with that?” Them: “You used to be such a spontaneous person. When did you get to be so controlling?” This kind of derailing is very, very bad because it stops them from ever being accountable and insults you for trying to set boundaries because it shifts the territory of the argument in a way that is unwinnable for you.

It sucks to think of the unadopted shelter cats and the people who relate too strongly to them, and it sucks to meet a lonely and attractive person who is sooooo happy to meet you and be with you and then be the asshole who interrogates their loneliness instead of smoothing it away. It feels ableist and cruel. It feels like failing at The Golden Rule and all the lessons we grew up with about seeing past surfaces. It calls up our own geeky/lonely/nerdy terrible memories of being rejected and excluded. It feels like saying “the thing you worry is wrong with you really is wrong with you.”

It’s important to say that things that get identified as “red flags” on this blog and elsewhere aren’t necessarily telling or decisive all by themselves, and starting to date someone or closely befriend someone who has no other friends or social outlets isn’t necessarily going to end in tears because people can find themselves socially unmoored at different points in their lives for many reasons outside their control. A thirsty person in the desert is not doing anything wrong. I’m writing this not to shame people for being lonely, but to warn you that you and your compassionate, lovely, understanding, fair, empathic, selves can be a special kind of asshole-bait. There are some people who lack social ties precisely because they have abused the goodwill of others and ruined every opportunity for a positive human connection to the the point that no one will hang out with them anymore, so they must ever-seek new people in search of the Only One Who Understands. There are people who lack social ties because they refuse to do any emotional work whatsoever but they can occasionally find a kind person who will do all of the emotional labor. And there are good kind not-evil people who are just profoundly not right for you and no amount of trying or shared history or obligation or guilt or wanting to is gonna make it work. You, new in a town where you don’t know anybody, reeling from the disintegration of a relationship or a social circle, on the run from a toxic family, unsteady in a non-culturally approved body, late to bloom, bowed by failure or circumstance, you glow with a special light to these people because they can use your thirst to mask their lifetime of self-wrought drought and pretend these things are the same.

When you meet someone, it’s okay to have Emily Dickinson poem feelings and Michael Lally poem feelings, but it’s also okay to dig deeper into things that don’t make you feel comfortable even if that is feels unfair, even if you too have flaws, even if the other person is sad and needs you, even if a lot of things work great. It’s not a crime to be lonely, but a certain kind of person wants you to see it as a crime to walk away from their loneliness no matter how they treat you. I need people to know that you allowed to have compassion for people without adopting them into your life and I need someone to build a time machine to tell my younger self:

“I don’t really have any friends” + “You are the only person who understands me” + “Your boundaries are selfish/inconvenient” + “If you call me to account for sketchy stuff I say and do, you are being unfair because of how much I have suffered” + “My understanding is that your presence in my life will solve all the things I have thus far failed to handle” + “If you leave what will I do? I have nobody else and that is your problem to solve for me and also more important than whether you are happy in the relationship”  = Run and keep running from this red flag convention!

Hroom Hroom Hroom,

Captain “Treebeard” Awkward