I have been in an intimate relationship with my girlfriend for three years. All the while I knew she loved me much more than I loved her. However, she’s nice, honest and smart, so I didn’t want to lose her and thought I’d give the relationship more time, hoping that my feelings would change over time. Now I think I made a mistake. She doesn’t have many friends and she isn’t able to hang out with my friends either.
She is very vulnerable and lives far away from her family. She repeatedly says I’m the only one she cares about. A few months ago we became roommates and that made things even more complicated. I have a feeling that if I break up with her, she’ll be devastated. But for all I admire about her, I’m not in love with her.
How do I end this? I’m going to another country now to work, so I thought I’d gradually tell her that the relationship isn’t working. But should I, given her vulnerability and loneliness?
Eleanor says: You sound clear about what you want to do: you want to leave. But we also know that wanting to leave isn’t always enough to actually make us leave. Many people have fallen into the space where you are now; knowing that the breakup conversation will cause pain, we put it off and on, and while we functionally mislead the other person as to whether we want them, we tell ourselves we’re acting for their sake. We become convinced of our own indispensability. I just don’t know how she would handle it.
The truth is that the way to really hurt someone – to cause real harm – is to stay if you don’t want to.
You don’t love this woman. You are clear with me and with yourself. And the thing is, she can probably already tell. It’s not hard to tell when someone is genuinely excited about you – when they miss you and want you and are excited about your future together. Real warmth from one person to another glows through the space between them. People can see when that heat isn’t there. It’s a noticeable absence. If you feel especially “admiration” for her, she has probably already sensed an emptiness in your relationship.
You’re right that a breakup would hurt her. But so is the steady buildup of nights where she wonders if she’s imagining things. That includes any time you ask her to continue to believe that you love her when it’s so clear and obvious to you that you don’t.
Besides, even if she never felt something was wrong, try to think about what kind of life she could have. Right now you’re saying all she cares about is a person who doesn’t love her. You’re not doing her any favors by helping her stay stuck there. You write about her with respect and esteem — those feelings should mean you don’t want to stop her from being with someone else who really loves her, or at least from knowing the truth.
You may even feel that leaving is a way of doing her a favor. Sometimes a wreck of the life we have is just what we need to beat a better life. She may surprise you both with how much she can endure.
Of course, she might break down and tell you you did something terrible instead. But whatever happens, try not to confuse an understandable reluctance to have a difficult conversation with genuine concern for her well-being. If you’re concerned about increasing her vulnerability and loneliness, staying isn’t the less painful choice.
Making such big decisions in life takes courage, optimism and a good dose of hope: we can only leave the things we know behind because we can hope the future can be better. Try to have that hope for your girlfriend, but also for yourself.