Breaking up is hard to do

I'm off to grad school, and I told my girlfriend I want to go it alone.

Published May 23, 2005 9:06PM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I never thought I'd write asking for advice, but I feel sort of like Dante at the beginning of the Inferno (not to be too dramatic): entering a strange dark woods at the center of my life. I'm 35 and about to start a grad school program in a distant state. I'm fully funded for three years of study, and while I'm sad to leave the beautiful but expensive city where I live, this is too good a thing to pass up.

The rub is that I also have a girlfriend with whom I've been living for the past several years. Things started out great with us but have been stagnant more or less since I moved in with her. We both know this. There have been breakdowns, arguments, serious talks about changing things, and a handful of near-breakups in the past year alone. Although she has professed a willingness to make the move with me, and I know that she's the type of person to take to this change with enthusiasm and energy, I'm very reluctant to bring her along, both because of my own natural proclivity for solitude and doubts about the "rightness" of our relationship, especially our ability to cohabitate.

Ironically, once I admitted this, after a recent couples therapy session, we both seemed to feel so relieved that a decision was being made (after months of aimless angsting) that we've been getting along really well. But the fact remains that I've said I want to make the move alone, which has prompted me to find a place to crash until the actual move date later this summer. So it's been a very strange breakup, full of tenderness and regret and holding each other close every night, knowing it's almost over.

Even though we still love each other, it seems as though we've gone through the looking glass and there's no turning back. We've talked about continuing to see each other after I move out, and perhaps having her join me after a year or so if things are going well. As hopeful as that sounds, people look at me like I'm crazy when I mention this plan and it makes me think we're fooling ourselves. So I'm grasping at any sort of perspective on this, because it's all happening so fast.

Clueless Student

Dear Clueless Student,

What do I have to offer you? My hand on your shoulder, my calm, reassuring voice? Does it help to remind you what you already know -- that you are still a little bit in love, that you are leaving, that the thought of leaving is making you crazy, that it is natural for it to make you crazy, that it is natural to hope for reconciliation and to dream of a reunion, and that it is a very special kind of torture indeed to know that we love someone and yet cannot live with them? I am happy to remind you of these things if it helps, even if it is only the reassuring repetition of the obvious.

If I could belt out a thunderous ovation that would shock you into a new view of things, would that help? Would I even do it if I could? Perhaps even if I were God I would be a petty, annoying God, amusing myself at mortals' expense, withholding vital knowledge. Hard to tell. I don't know what brought that thought on, except another obvious fact -- that I am not God and can do nothing to change your fate. I would like to help if I could, but I sense my only role here is to try and steady you as you go, to give you encouragement and wish you well, and to remind you that all you really need to do is keep putting one foot in front of the other until you arrive at this distant university.

You know what you are doing. You have made a choice. You are in the middle of carrying out that choice. It's going to be rocky for a while. But you are leaving. So leave with dignity. Face the truth: This relationship very well may be over. Of course it is human to hope for reconciliation. And you have every right to begin the relationship again in another town, in another apartment, if you should decide to. Nobody says you can't live with the person you love even if it drives both of you crazy. Your relationship doesn't have to be perfect.

But for now, you are leaving. You have told the truth, that you want to do this by yourself. So conduct yourself accordingly. Do what you have to do.

When you are gone, you will be sad. You will miss her. But life will go on. You will probably meet someone else and have a new relationship. The new relationship may be better than you could imagine. Or it may be just like the relationship you left. Or it may be crazy but in more interesting ways. You can't ever tell. All you can do is what you are doing. You just move forward. So go. Godspeed to you.

These things are survivable. They are what we go through. So study hard. Bring knowledge to the world. Teach others. Play good records. Stay fit. And think carefully before you move in with anybody.

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