Breaking up is hard to do, but deciding whether or not to do it is even harder, according to these women.
Being broken up with is commonly thought to be one of the least pleasant things a person can go through. The kind of heartbreak that comes with being dumped is uniquely painful and something that only those who have experienced it can put into words. But there are two people involved in a break-up and the job of breaking up with someone can also be extremely difficult.
Knowing you’re going to hurt someone you loved (or still love) and doing it anyway feels cruel and the guilt that comes with this can be all-consuming. But one of the hardest parts of ending a relationship is actually deciding to do it, particularly if you struggle with indecision and overthinking.
This is partly because break-ups often happen in line with other big life events, like moving or getting a new job. In fact lockdown, one of the biggest disruptions to life most people of this generation have ever experienced, saw a huge increase in break-ups, and one leading British law firm, Stewarts, logged a 122% increase in enquiries for divorce.
Looking back on past relationships, we tend to split them into two distinct time periods: when it was good and when it turned bad. But, for many people, there’s a significant interval in between the relationship working and completely breaking down, which can be filled with doubt and anxiety: the stage at which you can’t decide whether ending the relationship is the right thing to do.
“People put off breaking up with their partner because they know it’s going to hurt and it can be difficult to tap into your intuition when you feel unhappy about your relationship,” says Ruth Cooper-Dickson, a post-traumatic growth researcher, positive psychology practitioner and wellbeing coach. “Changing the smallest of our habits is hard, so huge changes like break-ups can be very daunting.”
There are so many reasons that women stay in relationships they no longer want to be in, from societal expectations to fear of uncertainty to a loss of identity.
Gemma*, 26, from London, has been with her partner for six years but she is now having doubts about whether she should continue with the relationship. “We’ve known each other since early childhood and have a lot of history,” she says, describing her boyfriend. “They’re such a familiar person to me and I worry about having to meet someone new and building up that history again.”
“I’m someone who plans for the future and I have fears relating to money and housing that are holding me back from breaking up with my partner,” Gemma continues. “I’m comfortable despite being unhappy.”
Research undertaken by the charity Shelter showed that in 2016, 5 million people in England feared a break-up would leave them homeless. Practical difficulties caused by break-ups like money and housing are a huge reason why people like Gemma delay ending their relationships.
However, Esme*, 29, and living in Brighton, worries more about how her relationship might be restricting her independence and holding her back from other experiences. “I feel like I’ve lost my freedom and independence but I also don’t want to be alone,” she says.
Esme has been with her boyfriend for just over a year and she feels that the relationship might be stopping her from exploring her sexuality. “I’m bisexual and I have never dated a woman and I worry I’m always going to regret not exploring that part of myself,” she says. “But then I wonder if that’s not a good enough reason to break up with someone who could be the best person for me, regardless of gender.”
It’s common to feel like you’ve lost a part of yourself to a relationship, according to Ruth. “Couples can morph into one another and it’s important to be able to hold onto your own sense of identity,” she explains. “Your identity and your values will change as your relationship grows, which can also be a source of tension for couples.”
For Esme, different values, wants and needs are also issues in her relationship. “Perhaps the biggest thing and the thing we ignore the most is that I don’t want children and he does,” she says. “I know if we end up together this will be a huge issue but we’re still young and one of us may change our minds.”
“I feel extremely confused because I often freak out around the one year mark of a relationship, so I don’t know if my feelings are legitimate,” Esme adds.
Self-doubt can be all-consuming for women who are thinking of ending their relationships.
For Hannah*, 22, from York, this meant that she stayed with her partner for three and a half years despite always feeling uncertain about the relationship. “I had changed a lot in the time that we were together – even my romantic ‘type’ had changed and my boyfriend didn’t fit it anymore,” she says.
Jade*, 32, felt indecisive for seven months before eventually breaking up with her partner. “I felt like it was my fault because every time I tried to talk to him about how I was feeling he turned the situation around and made himself into the victim,” she says, explaining that gaslighting was the main reason she stayed in an unhappy relationship for so long.
While it may feel natural to talk to your family and friends when you’re doubting your relationship, this may not be possible. For example, you and your partner may share mutual friends or you might not feel comfortable expressing doubt around your relationship for fear of judgement. Ruth says that is therefore important to speak to someone who you don’t know, ideally, a professional. “It might be hard for your friends and family to offer you a rational response but someone who is removed from the situation will be able to,” she explains.
Ultimately, as these women know, there is no quick fix to the indecision that comes with potentially ending a relationship. But Ruth stresses that, in most cases, there is no real benefit to putting it off. “If you’re miserable and you feel unhappy, try not to delay it any more than you need to,” she says.
“When it’s good with my partner, it’s really good and I still have hope that things can change and I can get over my panic period,” says Esme.
Gemma, on the other hand, feels that it is only her own indecisiveness holding her back. “I struggle to know what the right thing to do is but I know that I’m the only one who can figure that out even though all I want is for someone else to tell me what to do,” she says.
Ending a relationship doesn’t have to be final – many people go back to their exes. But for Hannah and Jade, who left their partners despite being uncertain of their decision at the time, they knew it was right for them very soon after they had made the decision.
“The most difficult thing for me was that there was nothing in particular that was wrong with our relationship – no lying or cheating. I just fell out of love with him,” says Hannah. “I know I could have been with him forever but I also knew I would have been settling for something I didn’t want because I feared being on my own.”