Get Ask Polly delivered weekly.
It’s Ask Pollypalooza: In honor of the paperback release of How to Be a Person in the World, the Cut brings you a new Ask Polly column every day this week.
I took your advice, and I’m wondering if it was the right move.
I started dating my boyfriend when I was 23 and he was 22, and we had six lovely years together — some long-distance, some in the same city. He was my first real relationship, but I mostly felt a deep sense of contentment, surety, and love during our time together. We moved in together last year, and I soon began having doubts about whether I was ready to settle down, whether I should have more life experiences on my own, and whether I could be happy being with him for the rest of my life.
This is such a lonely fucking thing to feel, and it’s not one that gets a lot of traction in normal conversation because it’s so hard to put into words (I think it honestly would have been easier to talk about if he’d cheated on me or something). I’ve read and reread the posts from the couple of advice columnists who have tackled this issue — you, Dear Sugar — dozens of times. I can tell it’s not just me: If you Google something like “leaving someone you love” or “want to break up with my boyfriend for no reason,” there’re one or two message-board threads on this that are years old that people keep posting on, seeking validation. It’s pretty clear that we’re all just looking for answers to a problem that feels unacceptable. And, after months of research and swimming through doubts, I deduced that the prevailing advice seems to be the line from Dear Sugar: Wanting to leave is enough.
So I did it. I took everyone’s advice — yours, Sugar’s, the myriad of commenters on those message board-threads — and followed my gut. I packed up my stuff and moved out of the apartment we shared, and I haven’t talked to him in four months. It’s the bravest, most disruptive thing I’ve ever done in my peaceful, easy life.
On the one hand, things are going well. I’m dipping my toe into dating for the first time, really — an adventure! I’m living with two of my best friends in a great new neighborhood. I’m journaling, going to therapy, exercising, and enjoying my wonderful friends and great job. Most importantly, I no longer have that cloud of crushing guilt hanging over my head when I come home at night. I’m glad I don’t have to wonder about, or long for, something unknown any more.
But intense regret keeps washing over me. I miss him so terribly, and I don’t understand why I couldn’t stick it out and fix what was wrong — or even what was wrong in the first place. I’ve heard from friends that this has been incredibly hard for him, and that really truly kills me. We had a very loving separation, and I feel like I want to be with him when I’m older, but I’m not ready for the commitment of what he represents. And trusting in “fate” to help us out down the line is scary. I don’t get why my feelings changed so quickly after years of happiness and a settled knowledge that he was the one for me. It’s not even that I’m scared of not finding someone else — if he’s not it, I’ll be fine. But this relationship was so special and pure and loving and supportive and truly, truly good — I’d be surprised if I find something that comes close in my lifetime, or makes me feel as safe.
I can already tell that I’m learning important things about myself and facing some hard truths. What I can’t get over is the thought that he could be gone forever, that I’ve hurt him so deeply. I keep thinking maybe there was a chance I could have grown into some of these truths while preserving the relationship, and I’m obsessing over the thought that I destroyed something so important just to date around and have some more years of singledom. Some of the things that were making me so miserable being in the relationship now truly seem so trite, maybe a symptom of personal change rather than a sign of anything wrong with us. If my loving, lasting, peaceful, happy relationship with an insanely generous, handsome, funny, caring, and forgiving man could be demolished by me having a couple of months of doubts and soul-seeking, how the fuck am I supposed to commit to anyone? I get that long-term incapability can manifest in the smallest details, but no one is perfect. How will I effectively settle into the relationship that’s “right” for me if, every time I go through a growth period, I freak out and move out? How do I stop hating myself for doing this to us?
When I think about him, I can feel my heart still breaking. I want children with this man, I want to grow old with him and die with him, but I need to grow apart for some reason I can’t explain. Where do I go from here? Should I not have followed everyone’s advice?
Dear Easily Swayed,
You don’t sound like someone who’s afraid of commitment. You just broke up with someone you’d been dating since you were 23 years old. You’re 29 years old now. You’ve never been in any other relationship. This feels to you like a necessary audit that prevents you from waking up at age 40 and wanting to drop your husband out of the blue, even though you have kids together. (And, yes, stuff like that does happen when people push forward with a commitment before they’re ready.)
You’re absolutely right that there’s not a lot of comfort to be found for people who are either wondering whether or not to break up with their partner or struggling with having dumped someone they love deeply. It’s an incredibly lonely and crazy-making thing to break up with a perfectly great partner simply because you’re not sure. It makes sense that it’s a lonely process, because how can someone else tell you what to do in this situation? Their advice will depend entirely on their own idiosyncratic experiences of love. Even trying to give you advice on this problem is tough for me, because I can’t interrogate you about how you feel when you’re with your ex, and what you imagine you might find outside of him. I generally try to sidestep really murky relationship letters where I can’t tell what the person wants or whether or not their partner is good for them because it feels too reckless to weigh in without any evidence.
But I do know how it feels when something just feels off. I’ve felt that way a few times. When you break up with a great person because your gut tells you to, it’s easy to feel a lot of sadness and regret over it. It takes a few months before you stop idealizing the relationship and forgetting what felt “off” in the first place. When I was 29 years old, I dumped my perfectly great boyfriend because something had shifted. He had been saying for months that he wanted to marry me, but that we should wait until we were in our mid-30s to get married, and also kids — Jesus, who knows, let’s just wait and see. I felt like, Look, if we can’t commit until our mid-30s, let’s be friends until then and I’ll browse the universe for attractive flings in the meantime. I mean, why should I play house with someone for six years and then make a commitment? Why not scoop up a few tantalizing snacks along the way?
Now I know that my feelings had to do with the fact that my boyfriend was a little bit immature and often played the Unfrozen Caveman when faced with big life decisions. This made him adorable and special and an artist and a weirdo, but it also grated on my nerves. I didn’t feel like I was with an adult a lot of the time.
The other part had to do with my somewhat wavering attraction to him. He was hot, to be clear. [Editor: HA, thank you for reassuring us. Polly: I’M REASSURING HIM, DUDE.] I don’t know if this was related to the childlike thing or if there was something selfish and grabby about him that turned me off, but even though we were really close and honest at a level I hadn’t had before, even though I loved and trusted him, I was haunted by the feeling that I was settling a little. I had a wandering eye, big time.
So maybe it’s just that I wasn’t ready to open up and be honest and work on things, either. Maybe I was immature in my own way. I didn’t define myself as a commitment-phobe then. I didn’t know how jumpy I was about commitment until I met my husband. Then I had to face how flinchy and weird I get in the face of Happily Ever After. I got cold feet after I got engaged, which was nuts because I was sure that I’d found the right person. But it wasn’t Searching the Internet for Some Answer cold feet. I never once considered ACTUALLY DUMPING HIM. I would shut down when I was angry because I was really bad at being vulnerable. But those feelings always make me laugh in retrospect. I even told him about them THEN, and it didn’t mess things up because we both knew that we were right together regardless. We knew that we were both scared, we knew that we both had a lot of growing up to do, but we knew that we were meant to be together.
I was very attracted to my husband in a way that I wasn’t to anyone else, too. And while I don’t think that attraction is everything, I do think that attraction is sometimes a manifestation of how truly matched you are. So I sort of want to know how attracted you are to your ex, honestly. Because for me, something was poisoning my attraction to that boyfriend I dumped. It wasn’t working for me. And even though I missed him so many times and wanted to get back together with him a few times when I was extra depressed and lonely, or even when I was settled in with the guy I dated after that, who was honestly not nearly as good as my ex, I still wasn’t all fired up to sleep with my ex again. Some part of me saw him as a little kid, and that feeling never lifted. I was too responsible for him when we were dating, and I didn’t feel met. Even though he met me intellectually, we weren’t really connecting emotionally and, thanks to that, my attraction to him went up in smoke.
You probably won’t see your ex clearly until you have more distance from him. I think you trusted your gut because your gut wouldn’t shut the fuck up about breaking up with him. I think you were right to trust your gut, even if he becomes the One Who Got Away (which is a cliché designed for immature, intimacy-averse people if you ask me). And look, couples who are meant to be together do find their way back to each other. I’ve seen it before. But it’s obvious, from what you say, that you need to spend some time doing new things and learning more about yourself. He probably needs that, too.
Definitely don’t carry around guilt about how he’s doing. All that does is crush you into the ground with anger when he starts dating someone else. And he will. You have to either accept that or ask yourself if you’re anxious to rush to his arms and sleep with him right now. I doubt that you are. I think your jitters and regrets about this sound like they’re intellectual, driven by loneliness and uncertainty about the future, not driven by your strong feelings for him right now.
I’m not doubling down on telling you not to question this, though. If you’re madly in love and lust with him since you broke up with him, then it makes sense to take that seriously. But until you’re in that state of KNOWING that you cannot lose him no matter what because he is the absolute best possible person you can imagine — and that IS how it feels to really know — then quiet your mind and stay the course.
I think that, emotionally, you’re right on track where you are. Intellectually, you have trouble making decisions, and you struggle with circular thinking. You torture yourself with the “rightness” of your choices a lot, probably not just in this realm. And once you decide something, you feel like you have to stick by that decision or you’re weak and bad. You’re also very ethical. You take a lot of responsibility for other people. That’s not the profile of a lifelong commitment-phobe; that’s the profile of someone who’s always in danger of settling too quickly instead of watching and waiting to see how she feels and what she’s dealing with. You need to cultivate your faith in your gut, and your faith in the world, too. Learn how to stop chewing on the same problem over and over. This requires learning how to let your feelings in, and to accept those feelings. It also requires living with some anxiety but not letting it rule your choices, and not trying to fix things every second.
You felt wrong about your ex. How do you feel now? Right about your life. How do you feel, more importantly, when you’re in a good mood (not a scared, lonely, anxious state)? You feel like you did the right thing, don’t you?
You can’t come to love out of fear or desperation or depression. You have to come to love from a place of strength. If you feel solid and not neurotic and you’re letting your feelings flow and you STILL WANT YOUR EX in every cell and you know he’s the one for you, a million times better than every dumb guy you are forced to date, then go to him. But as far as I can tell, you’re not there yet.
Yes, it feels like a risk. But every day alive on this planet is a risk. Your big challenge right now is not to decide about your ex. Your big challenge is to learn to become calm and present and even invigorated by the giant risk of being alive.
Get Ask Polly delivered weekly.
All letters to email@example.com become the property of Ask Polly and New York Media LLC and will be edited for length, clarity, and grammatical correctness.