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Breaking Up With a Nice Guy

A legitimate challenge for many women

Female clients have repeatedly asked me to write on this subject. I have seen numerous women who could not wait to free themselves from a terrible relationship. Some were more successful at it than others. But one of the most paradoxical challenges I have faced time and again is: a woman who wants to end her relationship even though she feels her reasons are without adequate substantiation, shallow, or even illegitimate. In support, she may contend that her partner is caring, nurturing, quite attractive, an excellent provider, and even a great father. But rather than make her want him, these qualities just make it more difficult for her to leave him. More than one woman has told me that if her husband called her a few names it would make leaving so much easier. Her point: Men like her partner, "nice guys,” make the decision to leave excruciatingly difficult.

This dynamic is obviously a painful and confusing time for both partners, especially the partner who is abandoned. But I take issue with the concept of illegitimacy in this context. In fact, I would argue that the problem here lies mainly in the definition of the word illegitimate. If a partner wants out of a relationship so badly, there is generally legitimacy to their reasoning. For example, I once saw a woman who “loved” her husband but was not “in love” with him. She claimed that she was never physically attracted to him but that he was the sweetest, kindest guy on earth; she even claimed he was quite handsome and a great provider.

Unfortunately, this woman married young and did so more out of desperation than love. As she gained confidence and the ability to support herself, she had to face a most disturbing fact: she no longer wanted to stay in a passionless marriage. She tried therapy several times, but to no avail.

Although this woman felt tremendous guilt for wanting out—and she argued at times that her reasons were baseless, even selfish—I believe that her reasons were legitimate; sad yes, but nevertheless, legitimate. It is no secret to relationship experts that those who marry or form relationships with little to no foundation are constructing a “house of cards” that will eventually tumble. Some are conscious of this and some are not.

One woman admitted to me that on her way to her wedding ceremony she seriously questioned her choice of mate; and she continued to do so while walking down the aisle. Another woman told me that on the way to her wedding she appeared so conflicted that her father offered to turn the car around and cancel the wedding, “before it was too late.” Although she carried out her wedding plans, she ended up in my office soon thereafter.

If you consider your reasons for leaving shallow or illegitimate, it will usually be difficult to leave. But there are several legitimate reasons for leaving a good partner:

  1. If you are not physically or emotionally attracted
  2. If you stay because you do not want to cause pain, at least in the short run
  3. If you are the quintessential caretaker and find it hard to abandon your role as a parental figure
  4. If you stay to avoid angering family members
  5. If you are too ashamed to leave
  6. If you stay purely for business-related reasons—I get this but it usually will not have legs
  7. If you stay purely for the children—I empathize with this but these relationships tend to end as the children reach a more independent age (and children might be negatively impacted under these conditions)
  8. If you stay even though you are constantly drawn to other men
  9. If you cannot risk making a mistake—beware perfectionists and control freaks
  10. If you cannot bear to suffer any loss—this is big because too many people want it all. They want to change something without suffering any loss in the process. Basically, “risk” scares them.

The German playwright Goethe said: “Everybody wants to be somebody; nobody wants to grow.” But there is no gain without some pain and loss, and oftentimes no loss without gain. See the quandary?

We know life is tough, even without pandemics. But it will be exceedingly difficult, if not impossible to be a good partner to someone you are conflicted about. You must be free to choose the person you truly wish to be with. Yes, there are people who tough it out under less than optimal circumstances. But symptoms will appear. Only if you have fully accepted the limitations of your relationship and have made a clear and honest decision to accept them can you make such a relationship work. Something will still be missing but one can argue there is something missing in all of us. Fair enough.

I would like to make it clear that no matter how you feel, it would be wise to try to salvage what you already have before moving on; perhaps even seek professional help. The worst that can usually happen is that you and your partner will learn something valuable that you both can use moving forward. But hanging onto something that in your heart and or mind is not working for you will most likely do the both of you harm in the long run.

Who knows? One man told me that he was grateful to his ex-wife for ending their marriage. He claimed that he would have never had the guts to consider such a move, but that it ultimately freed him to find someone who wanted him, legitimately I suspect. Fitzgerald wrote: “I don’t want to repeat my innocence. I want the pleasure of losing it again.”