Bianca Bagnarelli

Editor's Note: Every Monday, Lori Gottlieb answers questions from readers about their problems, big and small. Have a question? Email her at dear.therapist@theatlantic.com.

Dear Therapist,

Nearly two months ago, my girlfriend broke up with me. It was quite shocking at the moment, especially considering that we had just spent a lovely weekend out of town visiting her sister and brother-in-law. She explained that something about their relationship reminded her of “what she wants,” and that being with me would compromise her pursuit of this.

I didn’t fully understand what she meant, and I was too astonished to even push back. During our final embrace, in the park, she told me that she loved me. I told her that I loved her too. The surges of heartbreak immediately rushed through my chest, and my days since have been consumed by thoughts of her. Our relationship was truly wonderful—we laughed with each other all the time, we had thoughtful discussions, and we always noted how blissful it was to be in each other’s presence. It’s been devastating to lose this person with whom I shared so many wonderful experiences.

I tried reaching out recently, requesting that we meet and talk about what happened so that I can better understand why we can’t be together. She declined, and said that she understood my position, but that she needs to be “self-protective.” I’m confused by this because I have always been extremely patient, understanding, and emotionally available for her. Why does she need to protect herself from someone who loves her and cares about her deeply? And if she is referring to protecting her own emotional recovery, how then am I to understand her decision to end our relationship despite her still being in love with me? Finally, how am I supposed to overcome hopes of reconciliation and move on when, up until the moment she broke up with me, there was no concrete deterioration in the relationship?  

Anonymous
Staten Island, NY


Dear Anonymous,

I’m so sorry you’re going through this devastating breakup. I can hear how painful this is for you, and you should know that you’re not alone. Most people experience exactly what you’re feeling after a breakup: loss, pain, confusion, a yearning for understanding, and hope for reconciliation. Many think that the only way to feel better is to focus on the breakup—to understand it better in order to “get closure” (or, alternatively, get back together)—but that’s not the best way to help yourself through this.

Instead, it’s important to understand the difference between pain, which is healthy to feel in response to a breakup, and suffering, which many people unwittingly bring to their situation. You have to feel pain—because you’ve experienced a true loss—but you don’t have to suffer so much.

One of the most common ways that people tend to suffer after a breakup is by not accepting the explanation provided to them. The person gives you a reason, but it’s one that you don’t want to hear, so you challenge it. Your ex-girlfriend told you what she knew—that despite all the positive things about your relationship, she wants something else. It really doesn’t matter how specific or abstract or easy to articulate the thing that she wants is, because I guarantee that nothing she could say will satisfy you.

She could say, “I want a relationship where the chemistry is stronger,” and you’d protest, “But we have amazing chemistry!” Or she might say, “I want to feel what my sister feels when she looks at her husband,” and you’d say, “What are you talking about? She looks at him with love, and you said that you love me!” If she said, “I want the quiet rapport they have,” you’d shake your head and say, “But we have that! Just the other day …” You see, no matter how clear she is that she wants something different, you keep telling yourself a story (She said that she loves me), hoping for a different outcome.

No explanation will take away your pain, but an unwillingness to accept the explanation you’ve been given will prolong your suffering. You’ll spend days, weeks, and months going over the breakup in your head ad nauseam, in an infinite loop of confusion, trying to parse what about her sister’s relationship she felt was missing in yours. Instead, to move forward you need to acknowledge a difficult truth: Someone can love many things about you, and still not want to spend her life with you. You can be attractive and interesting and kind and lovable—in short, a great catch—and still not be the right partner for your ex.

Once you let yourself sit with that truth, you can stop the mental spinning, the guessing, the obsession that’s keeping you stuck in a place from which you can’t move forward. When a breakup happens, we tend to be so focused on the present pain—the loss of the daily rituals, the cooking dinner together, the Netflix watching, the brushing of teeth side by side, the chatter in bed—that we fail to grieve for the future. When the present falls apart, so does the future we had associated with it, but we tend to fixate on the present: Why won’t she meet with me? Does she miss me? What’s she doing right now? Is she thinking about me? Of course, you need to mourn the present loss, but there’s a difference between feeling and dwelling. This only delays the work you really need to do, which is mourn the loss of this particular future so that you can start building a new one. Each one of us is creating our future now, in the present, and if you remain paralyzed in the present without adjusting to a new future, you’ll be neglecting the task of making this new future a reality.

So much emotional real estate opens up when you realize that your ex isn’t the antidote to your suffering—you are. You can also minimize your suffering by not Googling her or following her on social media, and by not idealizing her or the relationship—a relationship isn’t ideal if one person doesn’t want to be in it. Right now, you’re masochistically remembering all of its wonderful aspects in great detail without considering that a relationship in which one person wanted to leave wasn’t as perfect as you imagined. It might help, too, to consider that what your ex likely means by being “self-protective” is that she’s avoiding a situation in which you’ll try to convince her that you should be together when she doesn’t want to be convinced. Something wasn’t working, and you’ll suffer so much less if you can accept this without searching for some kind of “concrete deterioration” that, like her explanation for the breakup, won’t be satisfying or lessen your pain.

In fact, this lack of something concrete makes the grief of a breakup especially complicated—the person you love hasn’t died (concrete), but it feels as if she has (ambiguous). She’s alive and yet you can’t see her. To move forward, you have to let go of the search for something concrete, because breakups tend to be anything but.

Healing from this takes time, and it involves a huge dose of self-compassion and patience with your grief. But the less suffering you add to your pain, the sooner your pain will ease. As that happens, you’ll begin to fill the voids that you feel so acutely now with more productive ways of thinking, activities that interest you, and social connections that nurture you. All of this, in turn, will guide you closer to finding the right partner for you.


Dear Therapist is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, mental-health professional, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. By submitting a letter, you are agreeing to let The Atlantic use it—in part or in full—and we may edit it for length and/or clarity.

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