“Recently I broke up with my boyfriend because I needed space to work on myself. He did nothing wrong and the guilt is eating me alive for leaving him. Is it selfish that I broke up with him? How do I deal with these conflicting emotions?”
When I was younger, I felt responsible for ensuring everyone around me was okay. I’m the oldest of four, so naturally, I wanted to protect, to nurture, and to ensure everyone was safe and cared for. This eventually trickled into my romantic relationships.
One relationship comes to mind. We dated for a few months before I realized I wasn’t ready for that kind of commitment. I wanted to work on myself and not feel burdened by a relationship that I knew was destined for nowhere. But I didn’t say anything, not right away at least.
In retrospect, it was the guilt I felt at the thought of ending things. I didn’t want to hurt someone I cared about. He was a great guy and did nothing wrong. I wondered if I was selfish for wanting space. It took weeks for me to end things, and I felt terrible afterward. I felt guilty. I felt selfish. Most of all, I felt like my desire to work on myself wasn’t a real or valid reason.
Relationships are messy. There is often guilt when things end, especially in a seemingly great relationship. I’m not going to sit here and tell you not to feel guilty about breaking up with your ex. What I will say is that, despite the guilt, you did the right thing. You did the brave thing. It’s so much easier for us to forgo self-care in the name of others. Especially for women, we’ve often been told it’s selfish to prioritize ourselves, our wants, our needs.
But what you did isn’t selfish; it’s intuitive and courageous and necessary work for growth and long-term health. I probably don’t need to tell you that by pushing off your needs and burying your emotions, you’re only stalling an inevitable breakdown. The best thing we can do for our relationships is to take care of ourselves first. It’s like that old saying about loving yourself to love others well.
So, as far as practical advice goes, I’d suggest a few things. First, start by acknowledging your guilt. Write it down if that helps (here are some tips on starting a journal). Welcome the guilt and any grief you feel into the room with you. It may sound silly, but try talking to those emotions, asking them why they’ve shown up and what they have to teach you. When you feel ready, release your guilt, your relationship, and any responsibility you still carry. Your relationship has ended; you are not responsible for it or for your ex. Trust that he will find healing and move on. Believe in that for him.
Finally, it’s your turn to move on. This is, of course, so much harder than it sounds, and you will sometimes need to repeat this process daily, if not by the hour. But release yourself from the relationship and from the guilt. Do what you set out to do: self-care. Work on yourself as you intended.
Acknowledge, release, and move forward. I am confident you will find your way and look back on this decision with grace and gratitude.
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Kayti Christian (she/her) is an Editor at The Good Trade. Growing up beneath the evergreens in the Sierra Nevadas, she returns to California after a decade split between states—including three years lived abroad. With an MA in Nonfiction Writing, she’s passionate about storytelling and fantastic content, especially as it relates to mental health, feminism, and sexuality. When not in-studio, she’s camping, reading memoir, or advocating for the Oxford comma.