Why People Leave Partners They Still Love
“I love you, but I am leaving you."
Posted July 24, 2018 | Reviewed by Lybi Ma
"I’m sorry, I love you, but I have to leave you. You were the right choice, but not my ‘happy’ choice.” —Hallie Mantegna
What?! Did I hear you correctly? If you love me, why are you leaving me? I am definitely missing a piece of this puzzle.
But as it turns out, you may not be missing anything. Sometimes, love and life clash. Usually, this conflict can be traced to one of two issues: (1) Romantic reasons that have to do with the nature of one’s love, and (2) Reasons concerning the flourishing life of the partners.
1. "I love you, but not strongly enough."
"There is a difference between someone who wants you and someone who would do anything to keep you. Actions speak louder than wishes.” —Unknown
Romantic love is not an all-or-nothing attitude — it comes in different degrees. Some degrees are good enough for having an affair for a few weeks or months, but not sufficient for sustaining long-term love. (Ben-Ze’ev & Krebs, 2018).
Examples of common reasons in this group are:
- “I found a new lover.”
- “In the past, I have loved someone more strongly than I love you.”
- “I am happy with you in the short term (great romantic intensity), but I do not see prospects for the long term (not much romantic profundity)."
- “We are great sexual partners, but not good friends.”
- “We are profound friends, but not great sexual partners.”
- “There are major flaws in your behavior preventing me from trusting you and feeling calm with you.”
- “I cannot give you the love you deserve,” or more bluntly, “My feelings toward you are not strong enough.”
The reasons in this group are mainly comparative — indicating a lower level of love or romantic suitability. The above differences are often associated with the (ambiguous) statement, “I love you, but I am not in love with you,” which is another claim that has ended many marriages and other committed relationships. Here, there is some degree of love, but that degree is not sufficient — at least not when compared to other available options.
2. "I love you, but cannot live with you."
"Look, I hate good-byes, too. But sometimes, we need them just to survive.” —Rachel Caine, Fall of Night
"If I should stay, I would only be in your way, So I’ll go, but I will always love you.” —Dolly Parton
Long-term romantic relationships should take into account non-romantic factors concerning the living together of the two partners. Loving someone is not always sufficient for deciding to live with someone. Living together and establishing a family together certainly require love — but much more than that, they require the ability to help each other flourish.
Examples of common reasons in this group are:
- “You cannot help me to flourish, as you do not bring out the best in me.”
- “I cannot help you to flourish — on the contrary, being with me blocks your flourishing.”
- “We are not suitable for building a long-term, thriving life together.”
- “You are not a good father, husband, or provider (though you may be a great lover).”
In this group of reasons, the degree of love is sufficient for supporting enduring love, but not enduring living together. People sometimes prefer thriving in life over love — it can come down to their own thriving or that of their partner.
An illustration of the first kind is the case of a married woman who said that she loved her first husband very much, but something was missing in their relationship that made her decide to divorce him. "There was nothing wrong with him," she said, "but nevertheless I felt that self-fulfillment would not be part of my life. He would not block it, but he will not bring out the best in me. With my second husband, I have many fights, but I do feel his profound passion and ability to bring out the best in me." This woman chose losing her first husband over losing herself.
An example of preferring the partner’s thriving over love is the case of a partner who, out of profound love, ends a relationship, saying that staying together would make his or her beloved miserable in the long term. This is the theme of the popular song “I will always love you,” which many consider the greatest love song of all time. In taking into account this reality, we sometimes hear of a partner, out of profound love, ending a relationship out of concern that staying together would make his or her beloved miserable in the long term. In this case, ending the relationship expresses a genuine interest in the other’s profound well-being.
Is Love All We Need?
"All you need is love.” —The Beatles
“All you need is love. But a little chocolate now and then doesn’t hurt.” —Charles Schulz
Romantic love has a very positive impact upon one’s life. This is expressed in many ways, such as happiness, flourishing, and health. For some people, it is the engine that drives their lives forward. However, people need more than love to flourish. For love to thrive and endure, we need a good-enough living framework. When romantic love thrives, it can contribute to a more general feeling of thriving. Sometimes, however, love and life conflict.
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And so we can find ourselves asking: Which takes precedence, love or life? This can be a hard call. At one extreme, one might sacrifice life for love (let’s remember Romeo and Juliet). At the other, one might sacrifice love for life (remaining in a loveless, but otherwise comfortable, marriage, for example). Of course, most of us make romantic decisions that fall somewhere between these harrowing poles. It is the strength of love, the nature of the life-demands, and the degree of conflict between them, which dictate exactly where we wind up on that continuum.
When intense desire is perceived as the core of romantic love, the conflict between romantic love and life ramps up in volume (Ben-Ze'ev & Goussinsky, 2008). Such desire is usually brief and decreases with time. Life, by contrast, tends to last. A lover cannot be blind to life, and love does not always win. In any case, love cannot replace life. When love and life go head-to-head, love almost always loses, especially when it is based on intense desire. In the long run, it is when lovers nurture the connection between themselves and do things which enable each other to flourish that love is maintained and enhanced. That is how ties to the living framework are tightened.
“Goodbye taught me that people don’t always stay and the things that belonged to you today can belong to someone else tomorrow.” —Rania Naim, "Goodbye Doesn’t Scare Me Anymore"
The claim that “all you need is love” indicates, as Brian Epstein, the Beatles’ manager, once said: “a clear message saying that love is everything.” Although romantic love is extremely important for our happiness and flourishing, love is neither a necessary, nor a sufficient, condition for happy and thriving life. As it turns out, love is not everything in life, though it is often a central part of it (Ben-Ze'ev, 2019).
If, indeed, love is not all we need, then it is certainly reasonable for some people to leave the one they love.
Facebook image: fizkes/Shutterstock
Ben-Ze’ev, A. (2019). The Arc of Love: How Our Romantic Lives Change Over Time. University of Chicago Press.
Ben-Ze'ev, A., & Goussinsky, R. (2008). In the name of love: Romantic Ideology and its Victims. Oxford University Press.
Ben-Ze’ev, A. & Krebs, A. (2018). Love and time. In C. Grau & A. Smuts (eds.), The Oxford handbook of philosophy of love. Oxford University Press.