DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: I have known about your site for a while and have really appreciated your advice, with some of the advice I’ve transitioned from incredibly socially awkward to having a girlfriend.
Unfortunately now I have a different issue, whether or not I should break up. I’ll spare the granular details but on a high level, girlfriend and I have been together for 2.5 years and lived together for about 6 months. In the past 6 months we’ve broken up and gotten back together about 3 times. I like to think it’s mutual love that keeps us coming back.
But the breakups get caused by arguments, where fights get toxic and escalate to a point where lines are crossed and one of us says we can’t take it anymore and we break up, only to get back together.
Every time it happens I feel a small sense of regret, as if it’s not the right thing to do. I have been doubting this relationship for 6 months and one of the main reasons is our fights get really toxic. She crossed a few lines like physical violence, insults. We have tried to address it several times but no meaningful changes have been made. I feel like I lie in wait for the next argument to see if something has changed.
I also sometimes get a longing for the single life but once we break up I feel devastated and can’t let her go. So now I’m stuck in this cycle.
How do I get out of this? Do I have to break up? Or do I need to change my mindset?
Thanks so much!
One Foot Out The Door
DEAR ONE FOOT OUT THE DOOR: First things first: Breaking up and getting back together is usually an indication that something is wrong. What that something is can vary. Sometimes there’s a fundamental but fixable conflict, like incompatible communication styles. Other times, the problem could be that you’re trying to force a relationship to follow a model that’s just not a good fit. Couples who fight like cats and dogs when they live together may find that living separately means they aren’t flint and steel in a dynamite factory.
And then there are the times when the conflict is that this relationship is over and has been for quite some time. Getting back together multiple times is more about postponing the inevitable and not accepting the issue at hand.
It can be hard to break up with someone, OFOTD, even when you know it’s what needs to happen. There’re a lot of factors that can keep us in relationships that are long past their expiration date, and a lot of them can feel like regret… even though they aren’t.
The sunk cost fallacy is a big one — if you’ve spent X number of years together, then breaking up is just like tossing all that time and energy in the trash! Another common one is simply feeling like you don’t have the right “reason” to end it. A lot of folks have stayed in relationships they actually wanted to leave because they felt like they needed a casus belli that would justify a break-up to an outside audience.
And then, of course, there’s the classic fear of being single; this in and of itself, has kept people in relationships for far longer than they should have. And in fairness, it’s an understandable anxiety. The longer you haven’t been single, the harder it is to imagine going back to that. In a very real way, your relationship has become part of your identity. Being single again would mean having to relearn who you are without your partner and build a new life after years of having shaped yours around sharing it with somebody else. That is legitimately intimidating. Hell, if you’re in a relationship for long enough, it goes from intimidating to “balls-shrinkingly terrifying”. Worse, there’s that fear of “well, what if this was my last chance at love?” “How do I learn how to date again after not having to think about it for all this time?”
But it’s important that you don’t let the fact that it’s difficult to do overshadow the “but it needs to happen” part. And honestly, OFOTD, you are well past the part the threshold of “needs to happen”. This relationship has been over for a while now. It’s shuffling along like a zombie, causing misery and pain in its wake and somebody needs to put two in its dome and put it down for good.
I’m not gonna lie; there was a point where I was ready to tell you that this was ugly but fixable. A lot of times, couples have less of a problem with the relationship per se but in how they express themselves. Every couple has fights, but some folks fight the wrong way — they fight to wound and to hurt, rather than to fix things. They may not realize that this is what they’re doing; it’s often a dynamic that they either picked up from childhood or toxic past relationships. While this can damage the relationship, it’s damage that can still be healed, as long as everybody is willing to work at it.
But then we hit the needle-scratch part of your letter:
“I have been doubting this relationship for 6 months and one of the main reasons is our fights get really toxic. She crossed a few lines like physical violence, insults.”
Nope, nuh uh, stop. Violence is hard no; crossing it once is almost always a relationship extinction event. More than once is a “peace out so fast you leave a human-shaped cloud behind” situation. Once (non-consensual) violence and insults have become part of the relationship, it’s done, it’s over, it’s a ghost and it’s time to exorcise the damn thing. The fact that you now worry about what the next fight will bring is as glaring a sign as you could want, and that sign reads “EMERGENCY EXIT”.
This isn’t a “change your mindset” situation, unless the mindset you’re changing to is “this s--t is unacceptable and it is time to pack my things and GTFO”. Or, alternately, packing her s--t, dropping it out on the step and changing the locks, depending on whose name is on the lease.
Here’s the thing, man: whether there’s love there or not is entirely besides the point. The fact that she’s gotten physically and emotionally violent is. That’s not something you tolerate or put up with, that’s the sign that you need to LEAVE. Even if — and that is a mighty f--king big if — her becoming violent is something that she can change with therapy and work, that’s work that she can do elsewhere. As in: anywhere that’s not near you.
Even if there’s a lot of mutual love, her behavior and your safety trump that. And seeing as her behavior hasn’t changed despite having addressed the issue several times, that’s as sure a sign as any that it’s time to get the f--k out.
Dump her with the quickness, OFOTD. This relationship is well past being over. Whatever regret you feel about ending it or any despair at dumping her will pass. Because the rest of the s--t you’re going through isn’t going to change. You’ve already seen that.
It’s time to put this zombie relationship down. You’ll be much, much happier in the long run.
Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, firstname.lastname@example.org