I am in a long-term relationship with a partner I admire, but don’t love. Do I end it?
I have been in an intimate relationship with my girlfriend for three years. All this time, I knew she loved me much more than I loved her. However, she is kind, honest and smart, so I did not want to lose her and thought I would give the relationship more time, hoping that my feelings will change as time passes. Now I think I made a mistake. She does not have many friends and she has been unable to relate to my friends either.
She’s very vulnerable and lives far away from her family. She repeatedly says I am all she cares about. A few months ago we became flatmates and that has complicated things even more. I feel if I break up with her she will be devastated. But despite everything I admire about her, I am not in love with her.
How should I end this? I am now moving to work in another country, so I thought to gradually tell her that the relationship does not work. But should I even do so, 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 get us to actually leave. Lots of people have fallen into the space you’re in right now; knowing the breakup conversation will cause pain, we put it off, and off, and while we’re functionally deceiving the other person about whether we want them, we tell ourselves we’re acting for their sake. We get convinced of our own indispensability. I just don’t know how she’d cope.
The truth is that the way to really hurt someone – to really do damage – is to stay when you don’t want to.
You don’t love this woman. You are clear about that with me and with yourself. And the thing is, she can probably already tell. It isn’t difficult to tell when someone is genuinely excited about you – when they miss you and want you and feel excited about your future together. True warmth from one person to another glows through the space between them. People can tell when that warmth isn’t there. It’s a conspicuous absence. If the most you feel for her is “admiration”, she has probably already sensed a hollowness in your relationship.
You are right that a breakup would hurt her. But so would the steady accumulation of nights spent wondering if she’s imagining things. So would every time you asked her to keep believing that you love her when it is so bright and clear to you that you don’t.
Besides, even if she’s never sensed something amiss, try to think about what sort of life she could have. Right now, you say the only thing she cares about is a person who does not love her back. You do her no favours 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 being with someone else who truly loves her, or at the very least from knowing the truth.
You may even find that leaving is a way of doing her a service. Sometimes a wreck to the life we have is exactly what we need to panel-beat a better one. She may surprise you both with how much she can endure.
Of course, she might go to pieces instead and tell you you’ve done something terrible. But whatever happens, try not to confuse an understandable reluctance to have a difficult conversation with genuine care for her wellbeing. If you are worried about exacerbating her vulnerability and loneliness, staying is not the less hurtful choice.
Making big life decisions like this takes courage, and optimism, and a hefty dose of hope: we are only able to leave the things we know because we can hope that the future could be better. Try to have that hope for your girlfriend, as well as for yourself.