Breaking up with someone is rarely fun, but it's definitely more fun than being broken up with. WH Auden once wrote: “How should we like it were stars to burn / with a passion for us we could not return? / If equal affection cannot be, let the more loving one be me." With all due respect to one of the 20th century's greatest poets, what a load of shit. Being the "more loving one" is much, much worse. If the stars were to burn with a passion for us we could not return? That sounds fine. Let them burn; that's what stars do. Every time I’ve broken up with someone who's more into me than vice versa, I’ve felt awful, thinking, ‘This guilt is so much sharper than the pain of being rejected.' And this is true... for about ten minutes.
Love isn't fair: sometimes you'll be getting your heart broken, sometimes you'll be consigning someone else to a prolonged period in the doldrums. Sometimes it'll be you in the warm, contorting yourself into erotic bliss with some new flame; sometimes you'll be standing outside in the rain, in a world gone black-and-white, staring up at their bedroom window and watching as your rival’s grinning face appears, for a moment, and then is gone. (Note: I am speaking metaphorically and not advocating stalking anyone – never stand outside your ex’s flat!)
The point is that we’re all going to suffer at some point, which means you shouldn't let guilt stop you from ending a relationship that isn't working. You can’t stay with someone out of politeness. But how do you tell when it’s finally time to pull the plug? Most relationships, even in their dying days, are fine: you still love the person (even if you’re not in love with them), you still like watching Netflix with them (even if you have increasingly less to say to each other on the few occasions that you leave the house). So here are some questions to ask yourself that might help you decide whether it’s time to cut and run, no matter how tolerable you find your partner.
DO YOU EVEN ENJOY THEIR COMPANY ANY MORE?
Picture the scenario. It’s the first Friday night after quarantine is over and all of your friends are descending upon your favourite pub for a post-pandemic mad one. Will there be pints? Oh, there’ll be pints, alright. Will there be banter, horseplay and earnest discussions about the state of UK politics? Yes ma'am. Will you end up getting knocked back from the nearest nightclub that hasn’t sold out on Resident Advisor 'cos you started drinking at 6PM and can no longer form a coherent sentence when the bouncer asks you what you’ve taken? Mr Bouncer, need you even ask?! After three long months in lockdown, you’re all geared up for the most decadent night of your life. It’s going to be just like Human Traffic but without all the lame Star Wars chat. Nice one, bruvva!
Oh, but wait, no. You’re not going to be doing any of that stuff. In fact, you can forget all about it right now, because your partner fancies a quiet night in. Seeing as you haven’t been spending much time together recently (partly because they had to self-isolate but mostly because you'd literally be doing anything else), they’re frankly a little upset that you’d choose to travel all the way to Peckham, to have fun, instead of staying in with them, a mediocre rogan josh, and a documentary about a brutal unsolved murder. With a heavy heart, you text the group chat and, with a not-quite-ironic-enough reference to “the old ball-and-chain”, you tell them that you won’t be attending. The rest of your evening is then spent watching their joyous Instagram stories roll in as you sit in resentful silence; their laughter, the smiles on their stupid faces, cutting you like knives.
So, in a situation like that, yeah, you should probably break up with your partner. You do have obligations to someone if you’re in a relationship with them, but you don’t have any obligation to have those obligations. If you’d rather be out spending time with your friends, you can literally just do that.
DO YOU FEEL LIKE YOUR LIVES ARE BECOMING TOO DIFFERENT?
Your twenties are a particularly bad time for this, particularly if you’ve been to university. Obviously, there are disparities of income in higher education, with some people on £2,000 a month allowances from their parents and others struggling to get by. However, lots of students still manage to meet somewhere in the middle, sharing a similar level of skintness. This changes when you graduate, often so quickly that it’s kind of shocking. It’s common to find yourself with a very different lifestyle to your friends and, yes, your romantic partner. Sometimes when this happens, continuing a relationship simply doesn’t work.
This can be really, really horrible if you’re on the wrong end of it. My first ever boyfriend broke up with me when he graduated from university and moved to London to begin his career, while I was still working a minimum-wage pub job in the north of England, consuming an ungodly volume of ketamine and eating sardines straight from the tin.
At the time, I was bitter that I didn’t fit into the shiny new life he was building. I thought that it indicated a shallowness on his part, imagining him taking up with a guy called Hugo who voted Lib Dem and worked for the Adam Smith Institute. But actually, it made sense. For him. We were becoming too different, we couldn’t relate to each other as we had before, we didn’t have the same aspirations (chiefly because I had none). This was a good decision on his part. As for me? I spent the following year in lacerating pain, spiralling further and further into substance abuse, disordered eating and unsatisfying casual sex… but enough about that!
If your lives are becoming too different, you can’t stay with someone out of sympathy or loyalty to the past. The resentment will eat you up and it’ll only get worse for both of you. Am I advocating breaking up with your partner if they earn less money, or are otherwise less ambitious, than you? No, although I’ve never been richer than anyone I’ve dated, so I’m not really in a position to say. I guess my take is: ‘‘Break up with your partner if the fact that they’re less well-off is going to be a problem for you, which it often is.” I’m not saying that doing so doesn’t kind of make you a dick.
HOW MUCH YEARNING ARE YOU EXPERIENCING?
Yearning, I’ve found, is the most acutely painful aspect of being single. When I’m not in a relationship, I’m consumed by a longing for someone to love me, for a transformative romance… or, at the very least, a decent hook-up.
Being in a relationship ought to be a respite from this – a cleft in the rock of the world you can hide yourself in – but often it's not, and never more so than towards the end. Obviously, it’s normal to still fancy other people, but when this reaches a certain pitch of intensity, when you’re driven mad by desire for other people, this is probably a sign that your current relationship isn’t doing it for you. “I want – I want – I want – was all that she could think about,” wrote Carson McCullers, “but just what this real want was she did not know.” If this resonates, it might be time to make a change.
Of course, lots of couples try to get around their increased desire to fuck other people by entering into an open relationship. There are pros and cons to this, but it’s never a good idea to do it as a last-ditch attempt to save something that’s simply too boring to function. Open relationships are best entered into from a position of strength: if you start one when the chips are down, obviously you’re going to meet someone who you want to bang more than your partner, which is likely to be messy and hurtful for everyone involved.
To be honest, if you’re even daydreaming about breaking up with your partner, that already suggests you know something's not working and are merely stalling for time. Sure, things might get better in the long run. But they probably won’t. Gillian Rose, in Love’s Work, writes, “There is no democracy in any love relation: only mercy.” Basically, you always have the right to end a relationship, and if that’s painful for your partner then that's kind of just too bad – even in a pandemic.
But also, equally, you don’t have to be a dick about it.