I (she/her) and my partner (he/him) had been together for three years. Most of the happiest moments of my life have been with him, and we planned our futures together. I don’t value being in a relationship for its own sake, and I’ve only ever wanted this kind of thing with him.
In recent months there weren’t so many of those happy times. We were just ok, with some frustration with each other from big outside stresses coming home with us and making home stressful as well. Last weekend I took stock of everything and realized I really did need to change what I was doing at home, that I was taking him for granted, and that he was worth it.
Yesterday he told me he no longer wanted to be with me and asked to move into our spare room while he found somewhere else to go. It appears that he also took stock of everything, and came to the opposite conclusion. He acknowledged the things he was doing to contribute to a tense home life, taking most of the responsibility. I think it’s more 50/50.
I let him know how I felt, and how much of our frustrations were my contribution. I suggested that we could take some space and try to come back realigned, since we both seemed to have had realizations about our habits. He said he felt better hearing my piece, but that he didn’t want to keep working on this.
I don’t want this to fall apart. I feel we’re teetering on the edge. He said he’s not open to trying, but he clamps down when pressured and reconsiders later. Before this he was still saying he was glad we were lucky enough to meet. I feel strongly that this is not totally shut, but it will be if I fuck up.
My feelingsbombs! are a problem, and I need to stay back. Especially as he is in a high stress period at work for the next two weeks. He’s reserved and needs to come around to this in his own time. But “let’s communicate” is my primary mode, and I have FEELINGS. And he’s home still! Which I feel is better than asking him to go now, but I don’t know how to act. I’m terrified of chasing him away. This is my last chance. What do I do?
Hiding and Seeking
PS context: I am talking to friends and my therapist to get out the FEELINGS, but it’s more all-consuming than they can reasonably cover.
Hello Hiding and Seeking,
I’m sorry you’re going through this and very glad you wrote to me.”Missing someone who is still right here” is its own special kind of hell.
I have some suggestions about how you can start to feel better and process this, but first, since you asked about what to do with all the FEELINGS, I actually think it’s very important to tell you this: Behaving with total decorum so your ex won’t hear your crying from the spare room or finding the exact non-threatening, acceptable words and mode and presentation for your feelings isn’t going to be the deciding factor on whether this breakup sticks or anything else.
You don’t want to detonate a bunch of feelingsbombs! in his direction, and that’s probably wise, Heather Havrilesky recently wrote an “Ask Polly” column about a person who sends long feelingsletters after a breakup and I cringed in self-recognition for all the times my younger self, starving for love and connection, decided “I know what will fix this! I’ll write down ALL THE WORDS!” Let’s just say that there are some very patient and forgiving gentlemen in the world who might be very surprised if they heard who was writing this site. “Wait, ‘Captain Awkward’ I get, that’s incredibly apt, but it’s a blog…about…having good boundaries…and giving people…space? And encouraging people to…break up…if things aren’t working? And reassuring people that breaking up is…not???…the end of the world?? And she tells people that they…shouldn’t…make dramatic gestures? And…WHO…did you say writes it again? Nope, there’s only one person in the whole world with that first and last name. You’re sure? I think I have to sit down.”
Apologies to the boys of my youth, thanks ever so much for not selling my needy midnight emails to BuzzFeed or posting them Reddit thus far, I’ll understand and forgive you if I get incredibly rich and famous someday but the social safety net has finished collapsing and you need the cash. In the meantime, I’ve learned my lesson and these days I try to recycle my mistakes in case they can help others.
Not for lack of trying, I have never once persuaded anyone to keep loving me, to stick around, to stick it out, to try again, in a way that took, in a way that could be depended on. Saying all the words didn’t help, writing them down didn’t help, holding them in didn’t help.
And when the shoe was on the other foot, when I was the one who decided to leave and then let myself be persuaded for a while, it was always a mistake. Everything that hurt still hurt, and then it hurt again, later, like a badly-set bone that can’t heal clean unless it’s re-broken. Everything that cost still cost what it cost, and then it cost double the second time around. [Life Tip: When the captain of the team of movers you regularly hire to move apartments jokingly tells you to consider buying a place and not moving so much because he’s had to disassemble and reassemble your shitty futon three times in less than three years with an ever-diminishing supply of intact hardware, it’s a sign you should re-examine the “Heartbreak: Hard Reboot!” line-item on your budget.]
“He said he’s not open to trying, but he clamps down when pressured and reconsiders later.”
I can’t be mad at myself or anyone for loving people deeply and trying very hard to make things work, and I’m not saying that people never break up, work on their own problems apart, and then happily reconcile. But I don’t feel good at all about the times I tried to apply pressure or audition to retain the interest and affections of people who had already made their choices. I never once repaired or preserved love by applying pressure, I just added a layer of shame and sorrow when I think of those people now, how I hurt them by not taking them at their word, how I betrayed both of us by staying when I knew it was a lie, when I knew that part of me would never stop checking for the exit signs like a little kid who can’t stop shoving her tongue through the brief bloody window opened by a freshly-lost tooth.
And that is the thing I want to tell you the most: Remove pressure. From yourself. From both of you. You are worried that if you share your feelings “wrong” you’ll mess this up, and that if you share them “right” there’s a chance to save it. A totally understandable feeling, desire, wish, hope, and you asked the lady who helps people say hard things for help, good call, this is my wheelhouse, but I can’t help you do that. It’s not because I don’t want to, I so wish I that could do for you what I couldn’t do for myself all those times I tried to find the exact right way to say “Stay with me and I’ll try to be the person you need.” I can’t do it because it’s out of our hands, Hiding and Seeking, it’s out of our hands. You could be absolutely perfect, you could become all the things your former partner specifically said would be exactly right for him, you could find the golden ratio of speaking up and staying silent about all the right things in exactly the right order, you could even send me a list of all your best private jokes and relationship touchstones and I could write you a dazzling, personalized speech that strikes a breathtaking balance between “maintaining a quiet dignity” and “being vulnerable and real…”
…and he could still go, or rather, keep going, in the same direction he already went, i.e. already gone.
From your letter:
“I don’t want this to fall apart. I feel we’re teetering on the edge. He said he’s not open to trying, but he clamps down when pressured and reconsiders later. Before this he was still saying he was glad we were lucky enough to meet. I feel strongly that this is not totally shut, but it will be if I fuck up.”
You’re not “teetering” and “fall apart” isn’t future tense right now. You know him best and you spoke from your heart already and he left anyway. That’s where we are. Whatever was teetering is already in pieces on the ground, the choice right now is “Is there any Krazy-Glue in the junk drawer?” vs. “Can you hand me the dustpan and broom.”
“But Captain Awkward, what about Kintsugi, the ancient Japanese art of repairing pottery with gold?” you might ask. “This article says it ‘celebrates each artifact’s unique history by emphasizing its fractures and breaks instead of hiding or disguising them…(and) often makes the repaired piece even more beautiful than the original, revitalizing it with new life.’ We could get back together and repair our relationship and it could be even more beautiful than before!”
It could. People reconcile sometimes. So you could sweep the (metaphorical) shards of the relationship up carefully and put them in an (emotional) Ziplock bag for safekeeping in the hope that your ex shows back up with some (symbolic) gold dust and epoxy (i.e. his free unprompted desire and choice to win you back) someday, but until or unless that happens, it’s not a bowl anymore. It’s something that used to work, something that was certainly precious and beloved, but today it can’t even hold soup or ice cream or cereal or anything that comforts and sustains the very worthy and important person who urgently needs to figure out some things about comfort and sustenance for herself (i.e. un-metaphorical you).
“I’m terrified of chasing him away. This is my last chance. What do I do?”
Answer: You can’t “chase someone away” when they already left. That’s so awful, because you want him to stay so bad, but can you also let it be just the tiniest bit liberating, can you at least let me imagine for you a possibility where it’s liberating, where you get to STOP auditioning for this person’s love and STOP working so hard on all the problems you were both struggling with these last few months and let go for a minute?
‘Cause you don’t have to transform yourself into the world’s most chill and accommodating person right now! If he’s going to come back to you (which is neither especially likely or even a goal I have in mind), let him come back to stressed-out you, angry you, the real actual you, the one who feels her fucking feelings, the one who would prefer to talk things over, in detail and at length, thanks, sorry if that makes people uncomfortable sometimes, but this is how you work best. I believe you when you say you wanted to stop taking him for granted and change some things up around the home front, but presenting a tidy, edited model-you is not the answer.
You get to detach. You get to stop trying. You get to say “Fuck it, I tried my best, I’m happy to work on the things we talked about if you want to stick around and try because I do still really love you, but this is me, this is what you get, you’ve had three years to get to know me, I know that I’m imperfect but I’m also pretty fucking great and I did my absolute best to love you. If you think you’ll be happier apart you’re probably right, anyway I’m tired of talking about it so I’m about to cry a lot and watch 10,000 episodes of my favorite television show without your usual running commentary, the spare room’s all yours, if you see any snack food in the apartment from now on kindly assume that I purchased it for my sole enjoyment and get your own, also, your Aunt Laura was bugging me on Facebook to get us to finally RSVP to the family reunion this summer, I’m blocking her racist ass as of :checks phone: :presses buttons: right now! Whew, I’m still so sad but I do feel some relief! So, anyway, you’ll have to handle Aunt Laura from here, also don’t forget to PayPal me for the cable bill, good talk!”
When your ex said “he didn’t want to keep working on this” I’m so sorry that your loving, loyal heart and busy brain translated that into “But what if I keep working on this REALLY HARD?” (Honestly, so relatable, I love you so hard right now, you don’t even know). It’s time to let go of the idea that you – by being a better roommate or addressing whatever was causing the unhappiness and stress at home, or by carefully and deliberately doling out your big scary feelings in digestible pellets so they won’t startle him – are the one who can control how this ends. Because that’s what’s happening, your world is falling apart, and you’re looking for something you can control, and “don’t have Too Many Feelings or fuck up how I express them” feels like that thing. You want to nail the audition for remaining as this person’s girlfriend, an audition that will presumably last from now until he moves all the way out.
What you actually probably need is to get this guy the fuck out of your space (or get yourself to your own space, a place he has never set foot and is not necessarily welcome) so you can fall apart in peace and quiet and without the pressure of worrying that if your grief is too loud and weird it was the thing that drove him away forever, like “Oh crap, sorry I was sad wrong.” You need somewhere to sort out the task of getting on with the rest of your life, whether it includes your former partner or not. Since that’s pretty hard as long as he’s crashing in the spare room, how do we get you at least part of the way there?
Let’s talk action items:
Step One: Accept that this breakup is real. Any and all suggestions I have for what to do now start with this. He broke up with you. He told you he doesn’t want to work on it anymore. He is done. If he changes his mind, okay, you can decide at that point if you want to try this again. But until he says, unprompted, “I’ve changed my mind, can we talk about starting again?” the kindest thing you can do for everyone is to believe what he’s already told you. Taking a loved one’s word for it when they tell you what they want is actually an incredibly loving and respectful way to behave.
Step Two: Make some lists. If you knew for sure that this was really over, what would you do to take care of yourself?
- What do you need to get done today/tomorrow/this week to keep yourself on track at work or in other parts of your life?
- Do you need to cancel some shit? [Upcoming vacations, holiday stuff, financial transactions?]
- What are smart choices for you about money?
- How would you handle the finances and logistics of separating households? Where would you want to live? Would you want to find a new place of your own or stay after he moves out?
- Would you want a time limit on how long he camps out in the guest room?
Think about it, scribble some things down, it doesn’t have to be fancy or complete, just organize your thoughts about your own self-care for a second, knock out the tasks that keep you solvent and at least minimally functional, and then talk to him.
Script: “I’m not happy about this, obviously, and I wish we could work things out, but I want you to know that I did hear you when you said you wanted to stop working on it. Can we take few days to let the dust settle and then sit down and figure out the finances & logistics of moving, etc.?”
Step Three: Get some space (temporarily). You wrote to me yesterday, it’s Thursday now, can you ask him to bunk with a friend or family for the weekend and give you some time alone, or is there somebody you could stay with for a few days? When figuring out who should leave vs. who should stay, it’s okay to ask for whatever is most comfortable and convenient for you. You didn’t dump anyone, maybe you’re the one who gets to sit on your own couch surrounded by your own comforting and familiar knicknacks right now.
Script: “I know we have a lot to sort out, would you be willing to crash at [Elsewhere] for the weekend to give us both some mental space and then we can sit down on [Day] and hash out the plan?”
If the idea of him or you staying somewhere else right now made you panic and think “But I don’t want him to gooooooooooooooo, I want him to staaaaaaaay, once he goes or I go it becomes real!” and also “Crap, how does she know that’s what I was thinking?” don’t freak out, I’m not a mind reader, I’ve just done this a lot before.
Your ex is a nice person, generally, yes? Not an asshole? You trust him not to empty out the bank accounts and move all the furniture if you turn your back for a few days and vice versa? Honestly, even if you do trust him, lock down your money right now and, if you’re the one who ends up leaving for a few days, take your passport & essential documents with you. Think of it as “developing a habit of prioritizing yourself” if that helps.
Here’s why I think you should grab some space, even if it’s just for a few days, if you possibly can. It is a way to be nice to yourself.
It’s really, really hard to break up with someone and still be living under the same roof. So many of the things you might otherwise do to lick your wounds and adjust to the new normal involve solitude and privacy.
When you have your own space to retreat to, there’s more room for relief to start to crawl in among the grief. The person you loved and love still with your Golden Retriever of a heart may be absent, the hopes and dreams you built with them in mind may be smashed, but you can also start to be free of all the tension, free all the little compromises you made to share space with another human. I know it’s cold comfort when you don’t want to be broken up, but sometimes the only comfort to be found at first is “I have permission to fall apart in complete and total privacy” and “I miss this person desperately but at least I do not have to also smell their farts while I process what the hell just happened.”
It’s also one of the ways you can be very kind to your former partner. He’s tried to be honest with you about how he wants to leave and so far you’ve been like “Great, let’s work on all our issues so we can stay together!” and he’s been like “Y, tho” and also “No.” Consider that while you walk on eggshells about how to win him back or at least not alienate him further, he is also walking on eggshells, wondering if every conversation that starts with “Do you need the shower or can I take mine first” is about to turn into hours of “Oh good, we’re both crying again” or “Can’t you see how charming and wonderful I am and remember all the good times we shared? Look how hard I am trying to be who you need me to be!”
Clearing out for a second (or inviting him to do so) sends the message: “Dude, I’m sad, but I’m not going to watch you with huge pitiful eyes and make you talk about our relationship every second, it’s okay to watch TV and start packing up your shit.” NOT THAT YOU WOULD DO THAT just it would probably comfort him to know he wouldn’t have to WORRY about it for a day or two. Remove pressure.
Still not convinced? Let me try an appeal to the “don’t leaaaaaaaaaaaaave me” brain: You want him to be sorry and miss you? Cool. Let him miss you. And see if giving yourself a chance to smell only your own farts for a few days helps that tiny spark of relief shows up.
Step Four: FEEL YOUR EFFING FEELINGS, EVERY LAST GODDAMN ONE. It’s time to tell your therapist about them (good job!), write them all out in a diary or a letter (that you don’t send, covered at length already), summon friends/family who you generally trust to adore you and only be nice to you to take you out for pancakes and listen to your tale of woe (sounds like you’ve got this handled), and find safe, supportive outlets that are not your boyfriend to talk with because it’s healthy and good for you to get it all out there and be affirmed and reminded that how lovable you are does not reside in the decisions of one formerly extremely promising dude.
Also think about ways to be out and about, especially while you’re still sharing space: Go to the movies, sing the house down at karaoke, actually show up to some of the 10,000 improv shows and theater events people are always inviting you to (No? Just me?), swim/run/walk/bike if that’s your thing, call your friends with cute pets and/or cute small people and spend a little time giving belly rubs and blowing bubbles.
But don’t do it to impress this guy with how well you’re holding it all together or to help you prepare for your audition to still be his one and only. It sounds like you’ve actually done an awesome job so far of communicating with your ex-partner and telling him how you feel and what you want. You were clear, direct, passionate, truthful, honest, self-aware. You did your best. If you cry a lot in the aftermath, well, someone hurt your feelings and made you upset, you don’t have to hide that in your own fucking home.
Step Five: Make some ground rules. If you have to share the house for a while, figure out what will make that bearable. Can you share your respective schedules so there are predictable, set times when each of you can have the place to yourselves? Do you still eat together? Who cooks, cleans, pays bills, does chores? Can a closed door mean “I don’t exist right now?” Is everything that lives there that needs to be fed and watered and have its poops dealt with being properly and consistently taken care of? Can everyone be cool and actually NOT invite new dating or sex partners to the shared living space for at least the next month/without further explicit clearance and discussion? Be businesslike and specific, like you are two brand new roommates negotiating a temporary pact.
Step Six: The rest of it. This part is about making a series of choices about caring for yourself, prioritizing yourself, making sure that the decisions you make about where to go next won’t leave you broke or stranded, that your well-being and comfort won’t suffer to preserve the comfort and well-being of someone who left you.
It’s about reimagining your own dreams and plans and investing in your own potential without having to account for another person’s priorities.
It’s about learning from your mistakes and the things that didn’t work about this relationship without punishing yourself, about owning the parts that were because of you and making room for the idea that while you were willing to live with his particular shortcomings in exchange for all the good stuff, maybe in a future relationship the shortcoming-to-awesome ratio will be an easier fit for what you need. You didn’t waste anything or hurt anything by loving somebody in a way that didn’t last all of forever.
Think of Step Four as the second-act makeover montage in the romcom, except you’re not trying to attract or impress someone new or find just the right shade of lipstick (though knock yourself out if that’s your thing, one person’s waxy lip-prison is another person’s stunning armor), you’re just trying to learn the lesson we all encounter, partnered or single, as long as we’re alive, which is how to be at home again and again and again in our own giant, loving, loyal, beating, irreplaceable hearts.
Here are some of my personal “picking up the pieces” greatest hits:
- New! Instant classic! “The best $16 I ever spent: Old Navy pajamas after my husband left” by the wonderful Rachel Miller.
“My friends reminded me to practice self-care, a well-meaning comment that I found unintelligible. Getting a manicure or a massage wouldn’t fix this. Nothing would fix this….
…Buying those pajama pants was the moment I finally understood self-care. It wasn’t a sheet mask or a manicure or a bubble bath; it was admitting to myself, *Things are bad, and they are going to be bad for a while.* It was dressing not for the life I wanted, but for the life I had.”
It’s such a sad, honest, true essay. I can’t wait for the book she’s writing about showing up for people in your life.
- New! Instant Classic! Lizzo’s new album “Cuz I Love You” is like one long master class in the art of being nice to yourself and telling yourself you fucking rule. She’s her own “Soulmate”, thank you very much, and she has no time for distractions named “Jerome.”
- Music: I got to see Neko Case live last week, she’s just the greatest, I can probably plot whole years of my life by which of her albums got me through it, try “Set Out Running” when you’re looking to wallow in regret and “Hold On, Hold On” when it’s the middle of the night and you’re sitting by yourself in a car just so you can sing as loud as you actually need to. “I LEAVE THE PARTY AT 3 AM, ALONE THANK GOD…”
- Poem: Frida Kahlo to Marty McConnell by Marty McConnell, “…leaving is not enough; you must stay gone. train your heart like a dog.”
- Poem: Where would this blog be without Love After Love by Derek Walcott. I know. I link it a lot. But…just read it. Have I linked to that or to Rilo Kiley’s “Breaking Up” with the video by those adorable college kids more times on the site? Who can say?
- Poem: What Cowboys Know About Love by Louis McKee. It’s not wasted just ’cause it’s over.
- Music: Eileen Rose’s “Pretty Good Man” is the ultimate theme song for the fantasy of what happens when someone comes crawling back (don’t they always come back, but never when you still want them to?) and says everything you ever thought you wanted to hear. Counterpoint: The Womack Sisters’ “Darling” is both AN ETERNAL BOP and a great “Get gone and kindly stay there” anthem.
I don’t share these things because they cheer me up. I share them because at one time or another they provided a shock of recognition, like “Kilroy was here” scrawled on a bunker wall or “nolite te bastardes carborundorum” scratched into the closet baseboard, they said “you’re not the only one who came through here” and made me wonder, heck, maybe there’s light up ahead, I should keep going and see.
Be nice to yourself, Hiding and Seeking. If you do nothing else, be nicer to yourself than anyone else has ever been before now. If this is the end of this relationship, it’s not the end of the good things in you that once felt so lovable and bright. The happy memories you made with this person were real and beautiful, and there’s a good chance they’ll look beautiful to you again someday when their edges are smoothed with gold and patched back into your story, part of you forever but no longer serving as the uncertain, leaky, vessel for your astonishing future life. ❤