Angela has picked up on my reluctance to commit. I’m hot and cold, and this has frustrated her. But she’s put up with it, and she’s loving, caring, and devoted. I’m feeling dissatisfied with the relationship and have been for months. A friend suggested I take a break. How do I tell Angela that I’d like to take a break? I don’t want to break up with her; I only want to pause for a month.
By taking a break, perhaps I can get some clarity and perspective. Maybe a break can steer me in the right direction, which hopefully means to continue to be with her. Maybe a break can help me figure out why I’m feeling this way and what I can do to change it. I could also see what it would be like without a partner and a relationship for this period of time. I can find out how much I miss my significant other. The thought of suggesting this to her makes me feel ill. The possibility of breaking up makes me feel nauseous.
Have you had a short break like this, Wendy, and do you have any advice? — Commitment Phobe
Well, I have been through something similar as a matter of fact, but the situation was different from yours and I’m not sure what worked for me would work for you. I’ll share my story though and offer some advice that I think would be most helpful for your particular scenario.
Most longtime readers of Dear Wendy already know the story of how I met my now-husband, Drew, and the trajectory from our blind date to marriage (and our eventual move to Brooklyn and having a couple kids). We met 15 years ago when I was 29 and living in Chicago. I was visiting NYC for the weekend and a mutual friend set us up on a blind date. We hit it off, and we spent the next six months or so visiting each other every few weeks and enjoying what was an exciting and whirlwind courtship. But like you, I eventually had to confront my fear of commitment. Unlike you, I don’t think my fear was about commitment in general, but more so about the way our long-distance status complicated taking our relationship to the next level. One of us would have to move, and Drew had made clear early on it wasn’t going to be him. The commitment I was afraid of was uprooting my life to be with him and it being the wrong choice. It felt so high-stakes (and it was!). At the end of a visit to Drew one October weekend, I told him I couldn’t do it anymore. I couldn’t do the long-distance thing when the only options for ending the long-distance part of the relationship was either my moving or ending the relationship. I chose the latter, and we had a super sad goodbye at the bus stop before I headed to the airport to go home to Chicago.
As the bus pulled away, I immediately regretted my decision. I cried all the way to the airport, and when I got to the gate, I met up with my friend, who’d also spent the weekend in NYC and was returning to Chicago, and filled him in on what had happened. We were so engrossed in conversation that we didn’t notice our flight boarding. We didn’t notice the plane pulling away from the gate. When we finally did notice that we were suddenly alone and the plane was no longer parked outside the jetway, there were no more flights to Chicago that evening and we were forced to return to the city and to our respective hosts. I returned to Drew with the kind of perspective change you are hoping a short break from Angela will give you. I returned to Drew far more certain that, as the song goes, I’d rather live in his world than live without him in mine.
My situation differs from yours for several reasons. For one, I could name exactly what it was I was afraid of and it wasn’t really the relationship: it was uprooting my life and moving to a new city where I didn’t know many people or have a job or a place to live. You say that you’ve been “feeling dissatisfied with your relationship for months,” but you don’t say why. The “why” of feeling dissatisfied in a relationship is kind of a big thing to include when asking for relationship advice, don’t you think? And that leads me to believe that maybe you don’t know why. Maybe it’s just a general dissatisfaction that you can’t name and so you call it “fear of commitment” and wonder if time away from Angela would clarify what you haven’t been able to articulate, even to yourself. And maybe it would, but I think in order for that to happen, you have to really believe you’ve lost her. A non-breakup “pause” isn’t going to work. You need to actually break up and set her free.
“But I don’t want to lose her!” I can hear you saying. And that’s the point. You have to figure out if you really don’t want to lose her or if you’re afraid of the idea of losing her the same way you’re afraid of the idea of losing whatever it is you think being committed will cost you. You’re not going to figure that out if you have Angela on the back burner waiting for you to see what life is like without her. And do you even need a month to figure that out anyway? You’re 45 and you’ve been together two years, so you had 43 years without her already. If you don’t know by now whether her presence in your life enriches it in a way you can’t live without, you need to actually, truly live without it and feel the fear in your bones that you’ve lost it forever. You need to take a step outside the relationship that you cannot easily step back into, and feel the grief of losing it, in order to heal yourself.
I don’t know if Angela will be there on the other side of your healing. I don’t know if you’ll even want her on the other side of your healing (which, by the way, could be helped along with the guidance of a good therapist). But I do know that whatever the next phase is after ending your relationship, it will be different from where you are now. There will be space in your life that will (hopefully) be different than a void begging to be filled with whatever. There will be space for you – to expand and grow and evolve – to become the kind of person who can stand certain in his choices, confident in the sacrifices he makes for the things he gains in exchange. The path from where you are to there will be uncomfortable and scary; that’s the point. If the past year of our collective existence has taught us anything, it’s that sometimes it takes a disruption to our status quo to appreciate our lives and to know we’re deserving of the blessings we’re lucky to have.