> Dating > Dating Wisdom

The Break Up

May 9, 2009 | by Lauren Freedman

He was trying his hardest, but still couldn't commit. How do you know when to call it quits?

Three years ago, I went out with a boy I already knew. We'd met a few years before that, when he dated a friend of mine. He was a great guy. So when someone suggested setting us up years later, I was game.

We dated. He broke my heart.

We had clicked powerfully at the beginning and, just as things seemed to be getting serious a few months later, he took a conversational detour one night: "I have no feelings for you," he informed me.

I felt as though I'd been tossed off a bridge.

Apparently, things had just... shut off.

For three agonizing weeks, I hung it out while he consulted various friends, rabbis, and his kishkes. The final answer - delivered via a friend! - was that he just couldn't. Just couldn't do it.

"How good can he be if he's leaving a body count behind him?"

And then came the explanations from his proxies: He has intimacy issues, he'd shut down weeks before, he couldn't sustain it, he's afraid of commitment.

I hadn't been the only one, I knew. He'd been engaged and broke it off, and, besides the dramatic ups and downs with the friend a few years earlier, hadn't been able to get into serious relationships.

"This isn't about you," a friend who knew him told me. "He shouldn't be dating. He is toxic."

"But he's a really good person," I protested.

"Perhaps," she said, "but how good can he be if he's leaving a body count behind him?"

In the end, we met once more and I told him that he was wonderful and kind and decent and would be a loving husband and father... but that he owed it to himself - not to mention to any women he might date - to work out these nefarious intimacy and commitment issues. And if he didn't, he shouldn't be dating.

I moved on, and I forgave him, and I would think of him only in passing... and without any bitterness at all.


Flash forward to last year. An email exchange and then a phone call to my office one day, and it was as if I'd spoken to him just the day before. We'd always cracked each other up, always had an easy, fun, simple intimacy... always just liked each other. And, in a moment, it was back and we both commented on it.

"I forgot how funny you are!" I said.

I'd forgotten how much I'd liked him, how much I'd loved him. And I had forgotten how he'd broken my heart.

"I didn't forget how funny you are," he replied.

But I had. I'd forgotten how much I'd liked him, how much I'd loved him. And I had forgotten how he'd broken my heart.

Just as I was thinking that it was too bad we couldn't be just friends, he asked me if I would have a cup of coffee with him.

"A friendly cup of coffee or a date cup of coffee?" I replied, perplexed.

"A date cup of coffee," he said, evenly.

"But why?"

"I never got over you."

"Never got over me?" I laughed. "The last time we spoke, you said you 'had no feelings' for me! Why would this time be any different?"

He explained: He remembered everything I had told him that last time we saw each other, and I had been right. He had had serious problems with intimacy and commitment. He had been seeing a therapist, had worked on them, and now, he said, he felt ready to try. He had support and awareness and motivation.

I laughed - vindication coming three years later. But now that I remembered how crazy I'd been about him, I remembered how I'd been hurt. And I didn't want it to happen again. I wasn't sure. I said no.

I kept saying no for a week or two, until he finally went to see a teacher of mine and - with me anxiously awaiting her more-wise-than-me verdict - convinced her that he was serious, and ready to work. He was in a different place.

And so it began, again.

The connection, the friendship, the fun, the chemistry were all there - but better. He was more emotionally available, more sensitive to my needs, patient with my own fears. For a few months, it just felt good, despite my occasional worries that he'd shut down like he had before. He termed these my "emotional pings" and was supportive and patient and kind each time.

He opened up more than he had before - more, he said, than he'd ever been able to before - and I understood the deeper issues. His fears, the reasons why he had behaved the way he had. He took responsibility for hurting me, for the fact that he ran. He understood my fears, and he was patient with my own imperfections and struggles.

At first, I was afraid to "let go" and trust that the relationship was real; I kept waiting for him to run, but he reassured me with his words and his actions and things were good. I slowly let myself go, let down my guard, believed that this might be, at long last, It. I stopped wondering when he would disappear and I trusted him. I was happy.

We discussed the future in general terms. We spent time with each others' friends.

When people - his friends more forwardly than mine - pressured me about when when when, I laughed them off. I knew he needed to take his time, and I was in no rush. I could wait; he was worth it.


But then it began.

It started slowly. A night gone sour, he revealed too much and withdrew. A bump in the road. I thought.

The sourness clung to us somehow. He couldn't let it go, needed space and more space. I tried to give it to him. I tried to ignore my own discomfort, my own fears. I tried to soften my own dramatic responses.

Our dating expanded to include a roving cast of therapists, rabbis, trusted friends, experts - parachuting in to help him explain that he was having trouble communicating, trouble moving ahead.

He learned early that love leads to loss and that letting someone in would lead to pain.

It was a classic case: like me, he comes from a less-than-Brady-esque family, and then he lost his parents at an early age. He learned early that love leads to loss and that letting someone in would lead to pain.

But he was trying. He needed time, space. He needed me to help him work through his fears, his problems.

His therapist explained that letting me in was terrifying because he'd learned too many times that love leads to pain and loss.

But I was already in. And I believed in him. And I believed in us, and I believed - devoutly, more than almost anything I'd believed before - that our imperfections balanced each other out, that our strengths made the other a better person. Never had I felt more acutely the sense of having been made for someone. It wasn't sunshine and roses, but I knew that together, we could build something solid and true.

And so I rode it out as best as I could. As soon as I thought I couldn't take it anymore, he'd reappear - the man I adored, respected, admired - and I'd remember why I was still there.

All The Experts concurred with what I saw: He was working so hard, trying so hard... and I loved him more every day for it.

But then finally the twisting and turning stopped and it happened. Again.

He just couldn't do it. He couldn't move forward. He was sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry...

He kept repeating the word, as if it meant a thing. As if the word could do anything to make me feel whole when I was shattered, when I felt utterly foolish for having waited it out, for believing in him, for giving him chance after chance after chance...

As if there was anything that anyone could say that could ease feeling abandoned by someone who had become my best friend.


That kind of pain, of course, can be healed only by time. But the secondary pain is the voice whispering constantly in the back of my head that I was a fool, that I put myself in harm's way, that I should have known better.

Could I?

In retrospect, it's easy to go back and point to this and that, all the signs of the eventual ending. But it would be just as easy to point to all the things that gave me - and everyone else - hope.

#1: Clarity about why you're dating
From that first phone call, the agenda was on the table: This relationship was about seeing whether we're suitable for marriage.

It was on the table because I had a warning sign: the previously crashed and burned relationship. But he took responsibility for that.

#2: Expressed readiness to get married
He acknowledged the problems that had derailed him before, had worked on them, and had support this time. When someone dates and dates and dates, says dating expert Rosie Einhorn, some meaningful change has to happen before he or she can take that step forward. It could be going into therapy, some sort of a psychological breakthrough (an epiphany of sorts), or some galvanizing event – but something has to change. It's nice to think that we're all just waiting for the right person... but chances are that the thing that needs to be set right is within the person who can't move ahead.

#3: A normal progression of feelings
The real warning signs for me started when the gloom descended - when he claimed he couldn't move forward while I was ready to go ahead. There needs to be parity in a relationship. Once either partner feels that the other is significantly ahead, that's a major warning sign - especially if the one lagging behind is one with a history of commitment or related issues.

All relationships have bumps, but there are warning signs when there's a constant tangle of worries about feeling "pressure" (especially when you're not pressuring), a surfeit of inexpressible fears, or some other knot that prevents the normal progression of a relationship. Things don't need to move at break-neck speed, but they do need to move.

Sub #4: Owning your own issues
I was being shlepped from therapist to rabbi and back, helping him work on the issues he had that were blocking us. I was only too willing to help him in whatever way I could, to look at how my actions were affecting him, etc. This is a normal part of any relationship. But I should have grasped more clearly that the issue was his, not mine.

A romantic relationship, I realized too late, is too volatile a connection to "try" as a test case. His issues should have been resolved - or at least progressed significantly - before I entered the picture. He should have first "tried" with his friends, his family, his therapist... not his girlfriend. You can't do that sort of work in a relationship where the question of "breaking up" is always on the table. The safety both sides need isn't there. It was a totally unreasonable expectation of himself, and an unfair burden to place on me.

#5: Get a game plan
Ultimately, says Rosie Einhorn, in a case like this one, where it's the second time around, the game plan should be very clear: 10 dates, and then a decision (for example). When she suggested that, in retrospect, this would have been a good plan, I immediately knew that it would have been too much pressure. My boyfriend-that-was could never have agreed to it. And therein lies the answer: Could I have predicted the outcome? Perhaps so. It's one thing to not rush a relationship, but knowing from the get-go that minefields surround every possible move indicates that, in fact, he just couldn't do it.


So now... with all the glorious, clear vision of hindsight, perhaps I could have known. Perhaps I did set myself up to be knocked down once again. But does it matter?

Maybe there's a lesson to be learned, and hopefully I will internalize it - once my wounds have closed over a bit.

For now, I feel as if I gambled and lost. I was given a taste of something so sweet - being with a man so worthy of love and respect, who made me feel like I was a better woman when I was with him - and it was taken away from me for no good reason I can really accept.

But at least I know that I had the courage to gamble.

And I just have to be ready when the next bet comes along.

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