Ryan,

I’ve been dating my girlfriend for a little over a year and I have the sense that I want to break up. I feel like I’m a different person when she’s not around—less stressed, more able to act out and be myself, more excited and natural when I’m with my friends. At the same time, the relationship is good. We deal with problems maturely, we’re affectionate, and we’re both in love with each other. Should I break up? And if I did, what would my reason be?

Thanks,
E.

Adapted from a personal conversation. 10 Mar. 2019.

Attachment and Independence

There’s a common problem that occurs in relationships as two people grow, and it helps to think about it in terms of a couple walking through a field. So imagine two people meeting in a field. They’ll walk towards each other at first and greet, then maybe they’ll decide to walk together for a while. If they’re close, they’ll hold hands as they walk.

There is no clear path in this field. The couple are wandering, each choosing whether to walk closer to and with each other or to walk farther away from each other. If they’re holding hands when they begin to separate, then they’ll need to make a decision. They can either let go and go their separate ways for a while, or they can hold on. If they hold on, then there’s only so much distance they can take before one or the both of them are restrained in where they can choose to go. They’ll need to compromise to choose a path together.

Though, if one person is not fully committed to the path they’re walking together, then they’ll start to feel the pull of that other hand not as a comfort, but as a stress. They want to go one way, but the hand is pulling them back. If nothing is said, then the other partner may feel a stronger tug on their hand than usual, but might not think much of it. Meanwhile, the partner under stress is becoming more and more uncomfortable as time goes on. At some point, this unsteady truce breaks, and the two go their separate ways. Probably each feeling less like they want to take the risk of holding hands again, lest it also end in another uncomfortable separation.

This is, of course, the dance of attachment and independence. When two people are in love, they’re likely to make compromises in order to be with each other. They voluntarily trade away some of their independence in order to be closer to another person. The less they need to trade away, the happier they tend to be. When two people’s paths are so aligned that it takes no effort to be with each other—when a minimal amount of independence is traded away—these people are said to be naturally in love because there’s nothing forced about it; it just happens as a consequence of two people being themselves. Conversely, the more they trade away, the more corrupted ground there is for stress and resentment to infect and spread. When two people’s paths are unaligned so that there is constant stress and resentment, these people are said to be in a toxic relationship; it does both partners less good than harm. At the end of the day (in an ethical relationship), all trades are consensual and revokable—for any reason or no reason at all. We all continuously choose to be with each other and may leave at any time.

What condition you find yourself on this journey should be immediately apparent. You’re holding hands, but you want to move along a slightly different path. Your drive has shifted, but the relationship is acting as an anchor on you. And so you feel like you’re pretending to be something you’re not, but at the same time craving change.

And yet, there’s not enough of a reason to let go. The path you’re walking on together is mild; it’s not spectacular, but it’s pleasant. You’re slightly uncomfortable holding hands, but it’s not irritating. Your partner enjoys walking with you this way and seems happy; you don’t want to disrupt their happiness (and you’re not totally devoid of enjoyment yourself).

Solving Problems, Emphasizing Strengths

Before we consider breaking up, we should consider whether the problems that we face are surmountable.

Breaking up or not is a false dichotomy. Rather than a choosing between a reject-or-accept, all-or-none proposal, we can instead choose to reject some and retain some, and we can choose change. Thus, the question is first: can we adapt ourselves and the relationship so that the current sources of stress are nullified or processed? Can we adjust our hand-holding so that it’s comfortable for both of us?

There are many ways to achieve this outcome. The first is by allowing for more independence. It’s allowing yourselves to hold hands at a larger distance, or dropping your hands so that one of you can wander off and come back after a while. In real-world scenarios, that’s allowing your partner the physical freedom to go out on their own, see their own friends, and take some time and distance to be in their own space. Often you should be seeking a long-term solution instead of a temporary reprieve. That means that you should expect to find a new, more permanent level of independence within the relationship that is maintained, rather than looking to “blow of some steam” and resume the relationship as-is. If it wasn’t working before then putting it back in the same configuration is setting it up to break again.

Independence is not strictly physical, it’s also an independence of identity. We all naturally grow into our personalities. Yet sometimes a person holds onto another’s personality and keep it from growing. A person might not even realize they’re doing it, but through judgment they can encouraging and discouraging a person’s particular behaviors. On the other side of the coin, a person may hold onto their own old personality when they’re around their partner; out of habit, our of fear of disruption or judgment, out of a sense of obligation. And this constraint generates stress. We’re unnaturally contorted into an unsuitable shape, and so we strain to find a new fit.

Thus, an adjustment may also give a partner the freedom and acceptance to grow—even the freedom to grow apart. We can support each other by practicing acceptance and non-judgment, by expressing our love through distance, by embracing our own identities and remembering to foster our own self-growth.

It all starts with communication—letting your partner know exactly where you stand, where you want to go and who you want to be, where you feel stress. And it requires listening to our partners and encouraging them express themselves so that we can know the same of them.

Breaking Up

Sometimes no amount of adjustment can ever resolve the stress. Sometimes two people are compatible, but not meant to be with each other. Then it’s time to let go.

There never needs to be a reason to break up. Simply feeling like breaking up is reason enough. You should, of course, do yourself the due diligence of checking your emotions and making sure that you’re making a good choice; that you’re not running away from problems, that you’re not hiding traumas or lying to yourself about how you feel. Relationships engender tough emotions and it can be easier to hide from them by breaking up rather than confronting them and growing; and sometimes we’re raw and not ready for growth. We need to learn to recognize these moments for what they are. But when everything is right in your head and you simply feel no longer like your partner is right for you, then it’s fine to break up simply because you trust your gut. “I don’t feel like it” is always a valid reason to withdraw consent.

That being said, there is always a deeper reason. You owe it to yourself to investigate what your emotions are telling you. What identity were you striving for and why couldn’t the current relationship support it? By looking inwards we can learn the lessons we’ll need for the next relationship. We’ll be able to gain clarity and closure, and to provide resolution for our ex-partners.

Final Thoughts

With the caveat that this next piece of advice is particular to my own style, here’s what I would do. I would start by expressing my emotions to my partner. “Here’s what I’m feeling. I may not fully understand it yet, but I wanted to make you aware. I think the cause is this. I think the solution is this. But I’ll need time to experiment. What do you think? How do you feel? Will you experiment with me?”

If I wasn’t given the freedom to experiment, then I would expect the problem to persist. I’d rather break up. But if they accept my thoughts and feelings and if they want to experiment with me, then that’s progress. That shows that we have the maturity and the foundation to readjust the relationship to suit our growing selves. Initial enthusiasm for change might wane (especially if there are other sources of stress in our lives), but at least we’re supporting each other’s journey towards independence and satisfaction.

And then I would continue to assess how I felt. If I fell deeper into love, perfect! If not, or if the stress increased, then I’d have to readjust or choose to breakup. It’s okay to make changes and wait to see how I feel about them; and it’s okay to call an end to the adjustments whenever I feel they’re no longer serving us.

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