In episode 326, I received a question from a listener who struggles to let go of and move forward from relationships, even when they result in unhappiness. In this post, I unpick the factors at play here and offer my thoughts on how to address them.
Hello Dr. Duff,
I’ve only recently discovered your podcast, but I have found it very interesting and helpful in this time of my life.
I was in a relationship for only five months, we had been friends since I moved to this area, about six months before dating, and most of my friends in this city are also in this group of people. The relationship was open, and other romantic relationships were allowed.
Four the first four months neither of us saw other people, just casually. He decided to take on a second partner during my hardest week – while I was in the middle of moving, of having to give up my cat of 7 years, and the week I had quit my second job. We hadn’t set real boundaries yet, the ones we discussed in the beginning of our relationship were basic and, in his words, “loose”. So, we had that discussion that week, too, and he did not like the boundaries I set but assured me if he wanted to break up it would have happened that night.
Immediately after, he got cold and distant and stopped messaging me the way he had been, wouldn’t make plans with me, and when I did see him, he was always looking for reasons to leave. And I broke mentally, I had nightmares, I had breakdowns, I had days where I couldn’t decide between going to the ER or worse. We broke up this past weekend, and I’m not so much hurt that it ended but how it ended, in all this period of time was four weeks between that boundaries talk and the breakup. I had tried so hard to hold on, I made compromises to my boundaries, I begged him to tell me how he felt. I don’t understand why I accommodated him so much to try and get him to stay.
I am getting professional help now. But I would like to know, why do I break down so severely and hold on so tightly when I can feel the end is coming?
Thank you for the question. It sounds like you’ve been having a tough go of it and I hope that things can trend in a better direction for you soon. I can understand why something like this would hit so hard given the type of week you were having. Moving, giving up a long-term pet, quitting your job, and relationship issues on top of that? It must have felt like your world was basically falling apart.
Understanding the situation
I obviously don’t know the details of what you both had discussed regarding the relationship, but it sounds like what he did wasn’t exactly outside the bounds of what you had talked about or any sort of relationship agreement. The language that you used of “he decided to take on a second partner” is a bit hierarchical and makes me wonder if he viewed it differently. It could have been less that he decided to take on another person and more that a connection grew and he decided to pursue it. HOWEVER – the guy also kinda sounds like a dick. Even if something is technically allowed within the boundaries of a relationship, it can still be a shitty thing to do. If he was aware of everything going on with you and decided to handle things in an indelicate way, that might reveal a bit about his character. I also don’t know what sort of experience you have with nonmonogamy in the past, but it could be that you were feeling pressured to keep things open with him because that’s what he wanted and really you were looking for something more monogamous. Not sure, but that would be a somewhat common scenario. Regardless, it sounds like you were feeling a bit desperate here and may have downplayed your own worth, values, and feelings to keep things moving forward with him.
The language that he could have broken up with you if he wanted to just sounds really harsh and shitty. Like okay? Thank you? It sounds like he is basically talking down to you. Just my gut feelings about it. Was this guy really worth all that? I don’t know either of you, obviously. But to be honest, he sounds like a lot of people that are out there in the dating pool that basically use open relationships or other forms of nonmonogamy as an excuse to just be a f**kboy without regard for other people’s feelings. That’s gross.
If you tried to clarify and suggest boundaries with him and he didn’t agree with them, there are various ways of approaching it. If he was basically like “Nope. Not interested. If that’s what you want you can leave” that’s basically just coercion. If he was earnestly expressing that what you want is just not what he is looking for and that it’s an unfortunate mismatch of needs and wants, that’s a different story. It could at least be a more extended conversation and a negotiation. It kind of sounds like he just found a better option and moved on, which is a shitty thing to do and gives people that practice ethical nonmonogamy a bad name. The reason I say this is that he basically moved on right after that point. He started ghosting you and avoiding interactions. He may have said that he didn’t want to break up, but his behaviors tell a different story. At least in his version, he isn’t the bad guy. You guys were together for a few months. Within that time frame, you need to be real with yourself that there is still a chance that you realize that you are not compatible or right for one another.
Understanding your emotions
When it comes to your intense emotional reaction to the relationship falling apart, I think that some of it was probably influenced by just how hard of a time you were having in general. There could definitely be some emotional reasoning going on where you interpret the events that happened in a more negative and painful light because you were already feeling terrible. Also, if you weren’t feeling supported and comforted by him during this time, that is telling. I wonder if, at the time, you just felt like this was one more bad thing to throw on the pile and you were starting to hopeless in general.
At the end of your question, I can see that you are getting a bit more clarity now about how you were the one that continued putting in the effort and trying to make things work. It wasn’t reciprocal at that point. The only thing he was really doing was just not saying that you had broken up. You were overextending yourself, compromising your boundaries, and doing anything you could to accommodate him, when he probably didn’t deserve it. He was just trying to find a way out anyway. I’m so glad to see that you are getting professional help. That could be a very important part of the equation here. I hope your therapist is helping you keep your head above water and tease these issues apart, so they don’t feel like one giant failure on your part. You sound like a caring and vulnerable person, which is great. Anyone that gets to be cared for by you is probably quite lucky.
Understanding why you hold on
The last question is an interesting one. Why do you break down and hold on so tight when you feel the end is coming? I think that this is something that most people do to some extent. Rarely do we want to lose something that we have invested time and emotion into. You often see a burst of emotion and some degree of desperation in trying to make things work. I mean, if you go on Youtube, there are countless videos giving you advice about how to act in a breakup situation to get the person back etc. However, I’d say that for most people the intensity of those feelings is not to the point that they are having those kinds of dark thoughts and thinking about going to the hospital. I wonder if this is a common pattern for you in other relationships that haven’t worked out or if this is more of an isolated incident. If it’s a pattern, that is definitely something to dig into with your therapist.
If this is an isolated incident, you need to consider the context of your life, what was happening at the time, and also what role that relationship played in your life. Is it possible that you put a lot of your emotional eggs into that one basket because it was the one thing that felt sure and stable to you, even if he was feeling differently on the other side? So when this stuff happened, not only did it feel like the rug was ripped out from underneath you, but the glue that was holding your life together was suddenly gone. There could also be some issues related to codependence coming into play. If you find that this is actually a consistent pattern in relationships, you may need to take some time to do self-work. Along with therapy, you might start to look into how you were raised, learn a bit about attachment and what your style is, and determine what sort of boundaries and values you want in your life.
Did you talk to anyone while this was going on? It’s so easy to feel like the crazy one when you are going through relationship discord and the only feedback you get is from the person that you are fighting with. Having someone that you trust on the outside of the picture can help to normalize your experience and point out when things seem unreasonable or unhealthy. Unfortunately, some friends do have a tendency to only speak up about a relationship that they find problematic once it is over. If this happens, I would be clear with them that they need to speak up sooner if it happens again.
Overall, I think you are in a much better position now without him. It could be a good time for you to start writing things down for your future self. If you find that you are in a situation where a similar pattern is occurring, you can look back and remind yourself about your boundaries, how things went in the past, and the type of relationships that you DO want to have. If you could go back, how would you do things differently? Looking back, what red flags did you maybe ignore that the relationship was going this way or that he was not going to treat you well? Learn from this. Increasing your self-awareness is one of the most protective things that you can do. If you have trouble existing on your own without the stability of a relationship, that might be something to pay attention to as well. I’m not saying that you need to be closed off to the idea of romance entirely, but this may be a good time to work on yourself. You’re already in therapy, but what about other hobbies or passions? Can you take some risks and do some experimentation in your life? Could you challenge yourself to prove that you are capable?
I’m not of the mind that you need to love yourself and have everything figured out before you get into a relationship, but if you find that you tend to rely on relationships too much, it may be a good time to course correct. I don’t blame you at all for being hurt in this situation. It’s allowed to suck. And it still also might be the correct thing to happen. I wish you the best of luck. Take good care of that kind and sensitive heart.
You can listen to this on Episode 326 of the podcast!
Thank you for the great question!
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