Carolyn Hax: Nagging guilt after breaking it off with a good person

Carolyn Hax
Columnist February 3

Adapted from a recent online discussion.

Hi, Carolyn:

Carolyn Hax started her advice column in 1997, after five years as a copy editor and news editor in Style and none as a therapist. The column includes cartoons by "relationship cartoonist" Nick Galifianakis -- Carolyn's ex-husband -- and appears in over 200 newspapers. View Archive

I broke up with my fiance four months ago, and although it was my decision and I’m confident in it, I’m having trouble moving on.

I still care deeply for him. He put a lot into the relationship — moved into my house, and various other things one does when completely committed to someone — and I’m hanging on to guilt. I constantly think about how I could have handled things differently.

We haven’t spoken in two months. I’ve also been thinking about e-mailing him to let him know I’m thinking of him, because it feels so harsh to have no contact. I’m not sure if he’d want it — he hasn’t reached out to me either. I don’t want to make things more difficult or confusing. Please let me know how you think I should handle this.


(Nick Galifianakis/For The Washington Post)

Broken Up Over Breaking Up

You just described, with painful emotional accuracy, the surprising difficulty of breaking up with a good person you care about but recognize isn’t right for you.

It’s a kind of awful that’s hard to anticipate, and I think it partly explains the impulse to vilify exes. When the ex is bad! bad! bad! then you’re the freshly liberated hero. When the ex is good, you have to live with being the one who told a perfectly good person, “I don’t want you anymore.”

And while it’s certainly no picnic to be rejected by someone you love, there’s comfort in having a “bad guy” to blame.

I believe we’re just not used to thinking how excruciating it can be for that bad guy, to be the one who says seemingly heartless things, kicks a loved one out of the house, and stops calling. Of course you feel terrible and haunted for doing that, even when you know, intellectually, that it’s necessary — and brave — to end a relationship that isn’t working.

All you can do is recognize that you tried to avoid causing gratuitous pain. It can also help to remind yourself how you felt in breakups you didn’t initiate. You managed, right? Learned to smile again?

As for e-mailing him, there’s no right answer. It could reopen a wound, but at the same time, it could help him to hear that you feel weird about the abrupt and total silence. E-mail only if it feels right — and not regularly, or to share your problems, to condescend (“Are you okay???”), or, worst of all, to seek warmth or validation.

For Broken Up:

Right now, you feel guilty over all the things you took away from your fiance by breaking up with him. But don’t forget about the gift you gave him by doing it now — freedom from a marriage where he was set up to fail, after the wedding, maybe after kids, when all this is a lot more gut-wrenching.

That happened to me (sans kids, thank goodness) and I have a lot more guilt for keeping the relationship going longer than I would have if I had been honest with myself about it early on. Good for you, you did the right thing, even though it’s hard.

Anonymous

Yes, yes — postponing this pain only compounds it. I hope you have forgiven yourself, though. Self-deception is harmful, but not deliberately so.

Write to Carolyn Hax, Style, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or tellme@washpost.com. Get her column delivered to your inbox each morning at http://bit.ly/haxpost.

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