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Dear Wendy
Dear Wendy

“How Do You Know If it’s Time to Break Up?”

I’m 52 and have been dating my 48-year-old girlfriend for two and a half years. I don’t have many friends, so a lot of time is revolved around my girlfriend, which is fine. She’s good company. However, I’m beginning to lose sexual/physical attraction for her. We haven’t had sex in 10 months and I just don’t feel like I want to. I think about other women in that sense. But I love my girlfriend as a person; she’s the most caring person I know and I don’t want to hurt her. She’s got great character. If I got hit by a car tomorrow, she would take care of me for years. She would drive me to rehab and stick by me through the tough times. She has high integrity, which is a great attribute to have. She’s loyal and trustworthy.

How do you know when it’s time to break up or not break up? I’ve been feeling like this for many months but can’t bring myself to end it. Does my hesitation mean I don’t want to end it? I’m not capable of rejecting another human being. Maybe I love her too much and I don’t really want to call it quits? I’m really confused.

She’s picked up, at times, that I’m unhappy or unfulfilled. She’s even said to me, “If you’re not attracted to me, just tell me.” Another time she said, “You don’t want to see me anymore; you want to see other people.” She’s not dumb, she can sense things. On another occasion when she wanted to meet up and I said I was busy, she said (in a normal tone), “Don’t waste my time. Maybe you should be on your own. I think you want to end it, but you’re scared.”

Why doesn’t she end it herself? She doesn’t want to be the bad guy?

My sister thinks the reason I can’t break up with her is because there isn’t enough doubt in my mind. My mother warned me not to break up because I may never meet anyone as nice again.

It makes me sad thinking about breaking up. I feel like I’m leaving a kitten in the middle of the road. We both have to go back to the dating pool and start all over again. What if it takes me years to meet that elusive someone else? What happens if I don’t meet anyone as nice as her? What happens if I keep having failed relationships and stay perpetually single?

One last question. I mentioned earlier that I am quickly losing sexual/physical attraction for my girlfriend. Is there any possibility of this returning? What are your thoughts? — Thinking About Breaking Up

Years ago I was in a similar relationship. At the time, I was half the age you are now, which feels noteworthy only in that, come on!, I was 25 and I was wasting my youth in a relationship that I knew deep down wasn’t making me happy. I stayed in that relationship for four years though for exactly the same reasons you’re staying in your relationship. He was kind and he loved me and I felt safe and that counted for a lot. It counted for so much that, for too long, I ignored that nagging feeling that there was more for me. And him. That we both deserved something that we weren’t getting from the other. But I was so scared to end it. What if I didn’t find that “more” that I was looking for? What if I regretted my decision? What if no one was ever as kind to me as this boyfriend was and never made me feel as safe? What if the loneliness was even worse than the second-guessing? Than the emptiness of feeling unfulfilled in a relationship?

Here’s what I know for sure, without a shadow of a doubt: Feeling hesitation in ending an unfulfilling relationship absolutely, 100% does not mean you should stay in the relationship. All it means is that you don’t want to feel the sadness in letting go of something that has, on some level, brought something positive to your life. Look, I hesitate both going to the dentist and getting a mammogram. That doesn’t mean I shouldn’t do those things. It means I want to avoid the discomfort of doing them. But what does avoiding discomfort get us? It doesn’t even save us from discomfort! Because there’s still the discomfort of worrying. You’re worrying that this relationship is all there is and you’re worrying – probably rightfully so – that it will not be enough for you. Putting off necessary medical appointments, I would worry – rightfully so – about my health.

Over the weekend, almost a full ten years after a doctor suggested it was time to get a mammogram, I finally got my first one. It was uncomfortable! There were some abnormalities in the reading and I had to go back for more imaging. There was more discomfort. It took up a big chunk of my afternoon yesterday. I had to get an ultrasound on top of the mammogram to get an even better look at what’s going on in my body. For a few minutes, when a doctor was called in to observe a cluster of concern, I felt my heart in my throat. Did I wait too long to do this? Have I let something grow that should have been removed a long time ago?

“This is normal,” the doctor said to me, patting my hand. “I promise, you have nothing to worry about.” Minutes later, she gave me the all clear and sent me home. Phew. But now that I know what to expect, I will go every year. I don’t ever want that discomfort again of worry that I waited too long.

Years ago, when I was in that unfulfilling relationship with the very nice guy who treated me well, there came a moment when I couldn’t take the discomfort of doubting myself – doubting the relationship – any longer. Whatever came next – even if it was a lifetime of loneliness – had to be better than what I was afraid the rest of my life would be like in a relationship that felt like a shoe I’d worn-out – floppy and loose, with no support, and not even cute to look at anymore. And so, I ended things. And the world did not stop spinning.

What happened next is what happens in a lot of these scenarios: I did not meet Mr. Right right away. I met some Mr. Wrongs first. And maybe even a Mr. Right or two at the wrong time. I was lonely for a bit. I cried a lot. I doubted myself. But! I had cried a lot and doubted myself in the relationship I had left, too, and what was different about these tears and doubts was the potential and hope I felt in the possibility of change. I didn’t have much hope that things would change while in that relationship. And I bet you don’t either. (And for the record: Unless you have an issue like depression that can be treated, the likelihood of feeling attracted to your girlfriend again after quickly losing attraction is pretty low. If anyone who has experienced the resurgence of attraction disagrees, I would love to hear your experience in the comments! But I don’t think I’ve ever heard of this happening.)

Here’s another thing I know: Your girlfriend is not a kitten you’ll be leaving in the middle of the road. She is not going to be shocked that you want to end the relationship. She’s not going to hate you forever. She’s not going to resent going back to the dating pool. What she will resent is if you continue lying to her and keeping her in a relationship where she isn’t valued for everything she can offer. Just because you aren’t attracted to her doesn’t mean there aren’t people who would be very attracted to her and would make her happy. You are not giving her something that is irreplaceable. You are not providing a service to her that is essential to her well-being. There’s a very good chance that, instead, what she feels in this relationship with you is a sense of not being enough. I’ve been in that position too, and it sucks. You keep hoping you’re wrong. You tell yourself that if the other person hasn’t ended the relationship, maybe this feeling is all in your head because why would someone stay with you if they aren’t really feeling it? And then you look for clues because this feeling won’t go away. You look for clues to validate the feeling – the feeling that your boyfriend isn’t really into you. And let me tell you, that’s a terrible thing to do. You’re not doing your girlfriend any favors keeping her in this downward spiral. A kitten left in the middle of the road can quickly flee to safety. What you’re doing is keeping some bait dangling in front of her as she continues to dodge traffic.

Let her go and set yourself free. Whatever discomfort that comes next – and there will be some – will at least come with the potential of something better. There’s no potential where you sit now. It’s just a forever after of what you’re feeling now, which sounds so empty and unsatisfying. Ultimately, you’ll look back at where you are now and realize that this is where the biggest discomfort lay – that everything that came after at least led you somewhere else. And that somewhere else may end up being where you find real happiness.

***************
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If you have a relationship/dating question I can help answer, you can send me your letters at wendy(AT)dearwendy.com.

8 comments… add one
  • LisforLeslie October 6, 2021, 9:07 am

    If you care about her and her happiness, then you need to let her go so she can hopefully find someone who appreciates all that she is.

    You’re not a bad person for not thinking this woman is not the right fit. Yes, she’s kind and she’s generous. But she’s not the right person for you. And that’s enough.

    There is no universal checklist for “Reasons to break up”.

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  • Kate October 6, 2021, 2:59 pm

    “ feeling hesitation in ending an unfulfilling relationship absolutely, 100% does not mean you should stay in the relationship. ”

    +10000000

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  • Bittergaymark October 7, 2021, 10:19 am

    Writing a letter such as this, LW, is a solid indicator it is time to break up. For both your sakes…

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  • Kate October 7, 2021, 6:29 pm

    What about if this couple was married? Should they separate or get divorced?
    What about if there was children involved?

    Doesn’t this happen eventually to all couples? The attraction fades and the novelty wears off, which is a normal part of being in a relationship.

    If that is the case, should every couple break up?

    If they both care enough about each other, shouldn’t they put in the work to get the attraction back ?

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  • LW October 7, 2021, 7:00 pm

    Before this two and half year relationship, I had a history of having short term relationships. I’m enthusiastic as relationships begin, but then become bored after 3 to 6 months and I split up with them.

    I’ve seen friends get married and wish I could be like them, but can’t imagine feeling strongly enough.

    I don’t believe it’s because I haven’t met the right person. I’ve dated many women and some would have made great long term partners.

    If I can see the women in my past were good and the present one is good, and I can’t sustain a relationship, it must be me.

    Maybe I need counselling for a commitment problem or maybe I’m just wired differently. Maybe short term relationships suit me better.

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    • allathian October 8, 2021, 12:27 am

      Some people just aren’t cut out for long-term relationships, and that’s absolutely fine. Don’t force yourself to stay in a long-term relationship you don’t want, that’s unfair to your girlfriend.

      Counseling is a good idea, whatever happens, you’ll learn something about yourself. Some commitment-phobes can and do change, when they get to the bottom of their commitment problem and deal with it. But if you realize that you prefer short relationships, at least you’ll know yourself and can stick to dating women who prefer the same thing, and can stop wasting those women’s time who’re looking for a long-term relationship.

      If you really care about your girlfriend, even if it’s just as a friend rather than a romantic partner, embrace the awkward, let her go and give her a chance to find someone else. At least in this case it won’t come as a surprise, because she already suspects that something’s not as it should be. No sex for 10 months, when you’ve presumably had an active sex life earlier in the relationship, is a pretty strong clue that something’s changed.

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  • Kacie October 7, 2021, 10:18 pm

    Really well written and thoughtful response!

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  • LisforLeslie October 8, 2021, 7:06 am

    What becomes boring? The routine? The lack of surprise? What are you doing to keep things interesting? What do you talk about? Do you talk about politics or news articles? Like in a “did you read about Giuliani – what a fucking putz”.

    It sounds like you need someone who challenges you – and I don’t mean someone who argues with you. I mean someone who is up for trying new things instead of falling into patterns. Maybe that’s taking cooking classes or joining a kayak club.

    What do you do in your non-couple time to keep yourself happy? Or do you think you have to do everything together so you drop activities that she doesn’t like?

    What are you doing to keep things interesting?

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