Why Do Some People Say They Want to Break Up With Someone For a Long Time & Then Never Do It?

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Why do people say they want to break up with someone for a year plus but never do it? a friend asks in a Facebook status.

The answers flood in. Some say that being single sucks and a bad relationship could be preferable to it. Others take the position that it could be an aversion to dating new people and all the stress and confusion that comes with it.

I start to experience diminishing returns. The thread becomes progressively less helpful the more comments I read. The answers keeping falling into one of these two camps.

And as I’m reading through them all, I’m not finding the one I really want to see. An answer that will explain what I’ve seen in situations when one of my polyamorous friends who is dating multiple people takes forever to break up with one of their partners, despite griping incessantly about them, even saying they’re through, that they’re going to have to break up.

The closest comment I can find is a person who attributes this behavior to a fear of change. True, it’s pretty nonspecific, but it’s likely on to something. Because inaction and fear often go hand in hand. And fear of change is one of the most common things there is.

It Doesn’t Take Me Long to Break Up With Someone Once I Realize I Want to

The last time I broke up with someone was a few years ago. I still really care about them, although we’re definitely not as close as we used to be, for a bunch of reasons on both sides that make sense. I see them in passing because we have mutual friends, go to some of the same places. And they have so many good qualities.

The timing of the breakup talk was pretty typical. It takes a while for me to get to the point where I want to break up with someone. For me, it typically requires the discovery of significant issues and a series of failed attempts to solve them. Breakup isn’t my only relationship remedy, and it’s not where I start. I don’t take it lightly. But once I get to the point where I’m thinking about actually breaking up with someone, it doesn’t take long for it to actually happen.

This last time was very similar. Once I realized I was terribly unhappy in our relationship, the breakup happened very quickly. Really, just a matter of days between the first time I had the thought Oh no, I don’t think this is going to work out, and when I told them in person.

True, I could have told them more quickly than I did, but that would have involved breaking the news over text or phone, something most people don’t want and something I knew they would find shitty if I did it.

So it had to wait a few days until I could see them. This also gave me a couple of days to reflect, to step back from the heat of any conflicts that had recently gone on, to take stock and make sure: Is this what you really want to do? 

And I did.

A Quickly Executed Breakup Is Not the Same as One That Comes Out of Left Field

It didn’t come out of left field, not from my perspective anyway. We’d been fighting a lot. I’d tried to address issues that were important to me, and they’d brushed me off. Came up with excuses. And they seemed more intent on pasting over the conflicts we definitely had than actually solving them.

Incidentally, they’d never agree with the last five sentences I just wrote, my assessment of our former relationship. And that’s part of why we’re not still together. We seemed incapable of inhabiting the same reality — a situation I’d never experienced with a partner prior to that. And one that took me entirely by surprise.

I actually started questioning my sanity towards the end. Concerned, I showed my best friend screenshots and recounted exchanges that I’d had with this partner, ones that my partner would say weren’t arguments or fighting.

“No, those are straight-up fights. They’re basically just ignoring that and pretending you aren’t fighting. I see why you’re unhappy,” my friend said.

To Be Clear, We Lived in Different Realities; They Weren’t Gaslighting Me

Let me be clear: I don’t believe for a second that this former partner’s denial that we had any issues was intended to be abusive or harmful. I think they believed it. That they were misleading themselves, too, in some odd attempt to keep us going.

Unfortunately, the result was that it left me completely miserable and without any way to actually face reality. And it was troubling enough with our relationship in its early stages (about six months), how bad could it get as our relationship wound on and grew more serious?

So I reached the end of the line. And a few days later, when I had the first opportunity to talk to them in person, I let them know I didn’t want to be in that relationship anymore.

It was a difficult conversation.

But I’ve never doubted if it was the right move.

Sure, we’re not together anymore. But we’re both doing great and are much happier in other relationships.

But It’s People Who Will Be Immediately Single Who Hesitate. Polyamorous People With Other Partners Always Break Up Quickly… Or Do They?

Some could look at my situation and say, “Okay, Page, whatever. Easy enough for you to say. You’re polyamorous. You had two other partners at the time you broke up with that ex. It’s not like you were facing singlehood, the nightmare that is dating in the modern age.”

And my first instinct would be to agree. To say that polyamory makes these kinds of decisions effortless, straightforward… except I know a lot of polyamorous people, and not all of them do this. Not all of them break up quickly once they start thinking they’d like to break up with someone.

In fact, I’ve known several who will loudly complain about partners, tell others that they want to break up with them for over a year, and then they don’t. Yes, even while they have other partners, other people in their lives that are making them happy in a romantic sense.  When the breakup wouldn’t even come to close to instantly rendering them single.

They will still take a while.

Yes, part of it is likely fear of change. But there are probably other reasons for it as well.

Procrastinating Because You’re Dreading Hurting Someone

Someone might hesitate because they are dreading hurting their partner’s feelings.

A polyamorous breakup can feel really personal. Part of it is because that polyamorous relationships challenge a lot of what we’re culturally told about breakups. Why they happen. What they mean.

It Can Be Much Tougher to Explain to a Polyamorous Partner Why You’re Breaking Up With Them

As I’ve written before, in the past I personally used to have a very simplistic view of breakups:

  • Breakups are bad in and of themselves.
  • We should avoid them at all costs.
  • In every breakup, there’s a good person and a bad person.
  • There must be a winner and loser in the court of public opinion.

Back when I was monogamous, I also believed that when someone broke up with me it wasn’t because they were unhappy, but because they thought they could do better than me. Setting aside how weird it is to think that people can be ranked objectively from better to worse (WTF, past self, that’s messed up), this belief was easy to believe at one point in my life but was soon put to the test when I started having polyamorous relationships.

I, like a lot of other newly polyamorous people, walked into it thinking that polyamory meant never having to break up since you could be with more than one person. You didn’t have to dump your existing partner in order to explore something new with someone else.

The trouble with this, I would soon learn, is that there are waaaaaaay more reasons for a breakup to occur than some overly simplistic “trading up” / “upgrade” model.

But what are the reasons? Well, it’s incompatibility:

  • People’s situations change.
  • People’s feelings change.
  • Sometimes a connection feels vastly different in theory than it does in practice.
  • People can grow and change in incompatible directions.

While absolutely true, they’re vague and sort of hard to explain. It can be tough as the person breaking up to convey this well to the person they’re breaking up with in a way that makes sense. Which can contribute to a sense of dread and procrastination.

Concern About the Future Awkwardness of Any Shared Connections

There are situations in polyamorous social circles where you can’t really go scorched earth on your ex, not without a lot of collateral damage. You can try to give one another space in a civil way (I’ve seen freshly ex-partners coordinate which parties they both want to go to at which friends’ houses in the wake of a breakup). But if you don’t ever want to see your ex again even in passing, you’re going to have a harder time if they’re, say, still dating your friend — or even dating one of your partners.

Now, I’m not saying it’s a good idea to keep dating someone you’re feeling done with because you’re worried it’s going to be awkward having them as a metamour if you don’t. (Frankly, I break up quickly with people once I want to, so this list of possible reasons isn’t really about me and what I do.)

I’m just saying that I’ve seen other people do this.

Changing Your Mind

It’s also possible that a person goes back and forth. That they change their mind about wanting to break up with someone. They might see progress being made towards any issues that are bothering them, or they might realize they’ve overreacted. Or some combination of both.

True, they’ve also told people around them they want to break up. So that can make it awkward for those in their life who are wondering why they keep saying it and not doing it. But some people are external processors and don’t give a lot of thought to how their friends (or other partners) start viewing those Always-on-the-Verge-of-a-Breakup Relationships as a result.

Linguistic Issues, Differences in How We Use Words & Differences in How We View Breakups

Now, I’m not saying you can’t have a relationship that sometimes drives you crazy but still want to be in it. I’ve definitely had happy, healthy relationships that had their little annoyances every now and then. It just goes with the territory, with coexisting alongside other people.

What’s strange for me is the talk of leaving, the breakup talk. To me, that seems like a rather nuclear state of mind. Somewhere you end up after much frustration and work and exhaustion of alternatives.

It’s not something I personally consider or talk about lightly, especially not something I would lightly talk about with others, without an intention to do it in short order.

But that’s me. And it’s possible that to someone else, it’s a tool they reach to much sooner. And one that they are entirely comfortable talking about when it’s nowhere near a certainty. Where they’re airing it as a possibility long before the time they’d actually consider doing it, to say it and see how it sounds, see if it feels like something that they should do.

What Did I Miss?

In any event, I’m genuinely curious about this issue. Today’s article is just what I could come up with, looking over my own history and thinking through situations that I’ve observed with others. I’m sure I missed some other potential factors.

Feel free to let me know what those are in the comments.

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Books by Page Turner:

A Geek’s Guide to Unicorn Ranching

Poly Land: My Brutally Honest Adventures in Polyamory 

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1 Comment

  1. It could also be a way of soliciting the court of public opinion. Since reassurance is a form of persuasion, as you wrote earlier, it could be they are shopping for reasons to, or not to, actually go through with a breakup.

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