Breakups are sad. It wasn’t until the first time I broke up with someone that I understood it can be more painful than being on the receiving end. Then I started doing my clutter work, and I found a new level of sadness, which is when one person constantly thinks about breaking up, doesn’t do it, and the other person has no idea. I get random letters at least once a year from someone or other (who I barely know) who wants advice on whether to get a divorce. As a divorced person who remarried, this eats me up. I feel like almost all of these marriages have nothing wrong with them except that someone isn’t telling the whole truth.
Other times, I think the person who wants to leave is setting up not just heartbreak, but a bit of a disaster.
Look, you loved each other once. Why was that? What were the qualities inside this person that originally attracted you? Are they still there?
Have you actually said, in plain words, what’s bothering you?
People tell me the truth about why they want a divorce. They can tell me because they see me as a sort of bartender. It’s far easier to say these things to an anonymous string of text than it is to say them face to face. It’s also easier to say to a stranger, or an acquaintance, than it is to a friend or family member. Or the actual person!
What do they say? What are their real reasons?
Once it was... a stack. A stack of clutter consisting of books, magazines, mail, music CDs, computer disks, binders, folders, and random papers, this stack had been in a corner for over a year. Rather than mention it directly, this spouse and parent was ready to go to a lawyer and ask for a divorce over it. “It’s over a foot high!” I got a photo of it, as though I don’t know what clutter looks like. This stack represented a character flaw, a fundamental aesthetic difference, or from the stacker’s perspective, nothing at all.
Once it was... a dish towel. A white decorative dish towel, it hung on the kitchen wall directly next to the garage door. “Somehow” it kept getting greasy black handprints on it. This dish towel, just like the stack of clutter in the previous example, became a symbol of supposedly irreconcilable differences.
There are more examples. Often they are more complicated. Lengthy unemployment, significant weight gain, excessive spending, refusal to do an equal share of parenting or cooking or housework, constant gaming, refusal to get treatment for snoring or some other health problem. What they have in common, though, is that they are situational or behavioral. They are not character flaws or personality traits. They’re just actions, actions that are therefore up for negotiation and boundary-setting.
At this point I should say that at least some of the time, the relationship is doomed to failure and maybe never should have been started. When this is the case, it’s better to break up sooner rather than later. You’re never doing anyone any favors by dragging it out. The only exception would be if you’re in danger of abdicating a responsibility and breaking a contract. You should probably break up if you have incompatible values or if you want fundamentally different things out of life.
Also if there’s violence of any kind. If someone is being violent, then it’s not a relationship, it’s an association.
Let’s imagine you’ve already said your say, clearly and unequivocally. “I’d like you to move this stack of stuff to your desk or your closet by the end of the week, please. It’s driving me crazy.” “Stop wiping axle grease on the kitchen towels. Get some shop rags.” The partner’s reply is contemptuous, defensive, hypercritical, belligerent, or otherwise a sign of being a bad roommate. You’ve tried and you’re done trying and you know it’s time to go.
I didn’t see this option for myself in my first marriage; I didn’t see the divorce coming at all. I was blindsided. Due to my lack of preparation, I spent the next few years in absolute penury. It’s fair to say that it ruined my life. Granted, that was temporary. We never would have made it anyway. Splitting up allowed me to go back to school, get my degree, meet someone new, and eventually find a much greater happiness. The first year was freaking horrible, though. Do not underestimate how hard it can be, especially if you haven’t been on your own in a long time.
Before you break up, get your ducks in a row.
Do you have an emergency backup plan if things get weird?
(My backup plan: a couple of secret stashes of cash, a large credit line, private accounts of hotel and airline points, a go bag, and martial arts training. I’d go out the window naked and run down the street barefoot if I had to, but I’d leave some marks first).
Where are you going to go? Do you want to start over in a new city? Do you have some roommate options? Can you afford your own place?
What are you going to do for money? Do you have ideas for a career upgrade? A lot of times, the one who is planning to leave is the higher earner anyway.
Having your own money and your own sense of power and agency is really important to being a full partner in a relationship. You can stay when you know you can go, if that makes sense. My husband knows I’m with him because I want to be, because I like him, and because I like how he treats me. Why would either of us want anything else?
There are some other things that need to be said about fantasy breakups. If there are things you want that you aren’t getting, do you need to leave the relationship to make them happen? Were you somehow hoping that a romantic partner would get them for you? (Domestic contentment, life satisfaction, feeling healed and loved and pretty, material comforts you could buy yourself?)
Are there problems you’ll carry with you, even if you “start over” with someone new? Jealousy, resentment, being passive-aggressive, carrying consumer debt, poor communication and negotiation skills?
The reason I generally advise people to stay and work it out is that you can’t just replace a long-term relationship. If you got where you are because you won’t speak up or advocate for yourself, then being with someone different won’t help. You might as well use this possibly-expiring partnership to test out some better communication skills. Pay down debt, sort out your clutter, and make some solid backup plans while you’re at it. Consolidate your position. Make sure that if you do choose to leave, you’re doing it from a considered place of power and using discernment before you make your move.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.