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Breaking Up When You're Still In Love But On Different Paths

A reader asks about how to move on when he doesn't want children and she does.

Breaking up can be so hard to do. And yet, when one or both of you have outgrown the relationship, your adjustment can be inspired by a sense that it's over and moving on is truly for the best.

But what if the relationship ends before it feels over? For some couples, an insurmountable hurdle pops up and they go their separate ways, even though they are both still very much in love with each other. That's when breaking up, and moving on, is truly hard to do.

This is the dilemma posed by Ana, a reader. She writes:

Deborah L. Davis
Source: Deborah L. Davis

I was in a happy relationship, so harmonious, everything flowed great; we brought out new and exciting sides of each other. I was in love and so happy. He was in love too. Amazed every single day he had me by his side, as he said.

But two months ago we had “the kid talk”: he doesn't want children and I do, very much. He had never thought about it and when he did, he decided he couldn't see the worth of having children, he couldn't guarantee he would ever want them and didn't want to give me false hope and drag things on. He doesn't want to be the reason I'm miserable in the future. So he broke up. One day I'm in pure heaven, the next is hell.

It's been two months. I know the having-children issue is a deal-breaker but I don't know how to stop loving him. I know he still loves me, too. I can't accept us not being together, it's such a waste! I feel all this love inside me just piling up and hurting. I just miss him immensely and this loss is so unfair. I get vertigo, feelings of sadness, still crying daily. I feel like I'm not getting any better.

I don't fall in love easily at all, so I fear I won't love again like this. I'm very very scared that I'm going to be stuck in this heartbreak for good. This terrifies me. How can I get over him when I still love him and I don't really want to get over him? I'm 35 and he's 32, so I don't have a lot of time left to fall in love again and have kids.

Please, how can I cope with this?

Dear Ana,

First, you have my sympathy. This is truly a difficult dilemma and such a painful situation.

It's clear you've decided to move on and to cope with your distress, it can help you to

  1. Make sense of what is happening
  2. Reframe how you think about it
  3. Become a nonjudgmental witness to your experience, such as when you’re feeling sad or fearful.

Here are some ideas to ponder and strategies to try.

Your situation is especially agonizing because your relationship ended during the infatuation phase. During the early stages of courtship and falling in love, your brain chemistry changes. Chemicals like adrenaline, dopamine, and norepinephrine flood your system, boosting your alertness and happiness, and causing you to obsess about your beloved, see him as perfection, and crave the rewards of being together. That’s why your body, mind, heart, and soul are crying out to be reunited with him. Accept that it can take time for your brain chemistry to find a new balance.

Deborah L. Davis
Source: Deborah L. Davis

You are grieving for a significant loss—the loss of a love. Physical symptoms like vertigo, fatigue, and insomnia are a normal part of grief. So too are the deep longing, tears, and ruminating about what might have been. Grieving is a necessary process of coming to terms with this turn of events and adjusting to what is. And in good time, you will adjust. You are resilient and won’t be heartbroken forever.

Cultivate your resilience by strengthening your brain and body. Here are five especially effective ways to do this:

  1. Eat nutritious food
  2. Move every day (even if it’s a walk around the block)
  3. Get outside into nature
  4. Practice good sleep habits
  5. Spend time with supportive people.

These daily habits reduce your stress, foster a calm body and brain, and boost your emotional healing.

Don’t idealize this relationship. While you may fear you “won’t love again like this,” it might help you to remember that there’s no such thing as “the perfect relationship.” Indeed, if you’d been able to settle into a long-term partnership with him, your brain chemistry would’ve calmed down and you could’ve seen each other more clearly as the quirky, oh-so-annoying humans you truly are. Plus, as you say, you "feel all this love inside," which means you are primed for another loving relationship. Be open to the possibilities, so you can see them.

Practice being a nonjudgmental witness to your distressing thoughts. You may think: I won’t love again like this. I can’t accept this, it’s such a waste. Simply observe these thoughts as they pass through your mind. Don’t cling to them as true, nor try to banish them, as either option makes you ruminate more and adds emotional weight, creating deep ruts in your brain. Instead, let distressing thoughts float through your mind, with your observant self stepping above the fray: Oh, look at that, I’m fearful about finding deep love again. Ho-hum. How interesting. La dee dah. This practice will help you cultivate mindfulness and a lightness of being.

Timing is everything. You and he may be a great match in many ways, but in a significant, fundamental way, you are at different stages in your lives. You’re thinking children, and soon. He hadn’t given it a thought until you posed the question. In this regard, you’re on very different paths.

Deborah L. Davis
Source: Deborah L. Davis

Consider that he unilaterally broke up with you. While he appears noble, “not wanting to give false hope or drag things on,” his action could be a red flag. Why? There was no shared discussion about how to handle this potential deal-breaker; no joint exploration of the possibilities; no mutual decision-making about whether or when to break up. And no time granted for these important endeavors.

Is this an indication that he doesn’t consider his partner’s preferences or value her input? Or perhaps he’s not capable of handling conflict and finding solutions together? Or maybe he lacks the patience to work through his uncertainty about having children and he can't envision letting that decision unfold over time, along with the relationship? Or, bottom line, he's afraid and/or not ready to make a long-term commitment? All of these possibilities are deal-breakers in and of themselves. You may well have dodged a bullet. And indeed, you are free, ASAP, to pursue your dream of having children.

You don’t have to “get over him.” You may always think of him fondly and wish him the best life has to offer. And over time, as you become more emotionally available, your focus will naturally shift toward the future and creating the family life you truly want.