Usually when two people break up, we sympathize with the dumped— not the dumper. “He didn’t deserve you!” we console our crying friend when her boyfriend of fives years leaves her, “You can do so much better!”
As we enact every romantic comedy cliche and bash the entire male gender while guzzling gallons of mint chocolate chip Haggen-Daz ice cream, we become more and more enraged. How could he do this to her? She loved him more than she’s ever loved anyone or anything. She made countless compromises for the sake of their relationship, both large (moving to New York when he landed his dream job) and small (agreeing to stay in on Saturday night even though she’d rather be reveling in the cheer of champagne and convivial conversation at a party, conceding to watch yet another stupid Bruce Willis film instead of a romantic comedy). She called him affectionate nicknames, she gave him tender kisses every morning, she knew that he despised when people used “effect” instead of “affect” and that Star Wars was his favorite movie. She never lied or cheated or betrayed him in any real way. How could he be so heartless to leave her without warning?
Because we’re loyal friends, we construct a narrative in which our friend is the hero and her ex is the villain. “You did nothing wrong!” we assure her time and time again. He was a selfish piece of shit. He was an asshole. He deserved to rot in a hell of horrible Tinder dates and long, lonely nights for what he’s done to her.
We don’t consider how difficult it must have been for him to leave. After he uttered those irrevocable words “it’s over,” we imagine he simply went to the bar and got shit-faced. No tears, no remorse, no wondering if he did the right thing.
But chances are it broke his heart to leave. He didn’t want to hurt our friend: he loved her for five years, half a decade. He just couldn’t be with her anymore. Maybe they had grown apart, maybe they simply wanted different things.
When he told her it was over, he couldn’t bear to look at her in the face. Her tears, her quivering lips, her eyes pleading “please don’t leave.” “I have to go,” he insisted— not because he was heartless— but because if he looked at her for one more minute, he’d second guess his decision and call off the whole thing.
Though we imagine he rejoiced in the newfound freedom of bachelorhood, he actually spent the weeks after the break up listening to a nostalgic playlist of their songs and sobbing himself to sleep. There were no wild, wasted nights at the bar; no crazy one night stands; no hot Tinder dates— he passed most Friday nights in the depressing confines of his bed, wondering if he did the right thing. What if he made a terrible mistake? Had he been wrong to think a difference in long-term goals/values/political opinions was grounds for a break up? Maybe it didn’t matter that she was a Democrat and he was a Republican. Maybe it didn’t matter that she wanted to have children and he didn’t. After all, didn’t they love each other? Wasn’t that the most important thing?
Besides doubt, he is consumed by guilt and self-loathing. In the courthouse of his head, he finds himself guilty for the demise of their relationship. Indeed, he comes to believe it’s he who deserves a harsh sentence. After all, what kind of loathsome creature leaves a woman— a beautiful, intelligent, charismatic, devoted woman— for no real reason? She wasn’t guilty of any contemptible crimes: she had never called him a name, never raised her voice or broke a dish, never cheated. She was only occasionally guilty of less serious offenses: she was grumpy if you woke her before eight, she had a tendency to pout instead of express her true feelings. One Christmas she unwrapped his gift— a rare first edition of a long-coveted book— only to toss it aside and say, “Oh, you shouldn’t have!”; another time at the bar he caught her unabashedly flirting with his best friend.
Still he loved so many things about her: the adorable way she laughed at his jokes, even when they weren’t funny; the determination with which she completed the New York Times crossword puzzle every week. She possessed many admirable qualities: she was caring and considerate— she’d pick up a latte for him anytime she stopped at their favorite cafe; she offered a sympathetic ear when he had to vent about his dysfunctional family; she listened attentively while he read her his senior thesis, only interrupting to commend the genius of his argument or note a smart turn of phrase. What did she do to deserve such a terrible fate? He hated himself for hurting someone he loved so deeply.
In her advice column Dear Sugar, compiled for the first time in the gorgeous, gutting collection Tiny Beautiful Things, Cheryl Strayed suggests the dumper— perhaps more than the dumped— deserves our sympathy. Though it’s heartbreaking to hear the words “it’s over,” to feel rejected, abandoned, betrayed, it’s in some ways more devastating to leave. Leaving means bearing the unbearable burden of responsibility (“I broke up with him; therefore, I am to blame,” the dumper believes). Leaving means torturing yourself with “what if’s” and “maybe’s” (maybe this time he’ll finally stop drinking, maybe we’d stop bickering about dirty dishes and politics if we had sex more frequently). Above all, leaving means hurting the one person you promised to love dearly.
In the same letter that urged us to trust in the unfathomable beauty of our becoming, Strayed counsels her younger, twenty-something-year-old self, an agonizing period when she struggled with this dilemma of leaving. There was no justifiable reason to leave her husband: he wasn’t abusive; he didn’t shove her or call her names. They weren’t some estranged middle-aged couple who suffered long dinners in silence or had renounced intimacy. Yet she still wasn’t happy. They had married young— when they were only nineteen. She wasn’t ready to commit to one person for all of eternity.
But how could she divorce a man she still loved enormously? Was her desire to dissolve their marriage irrefutable proof that she was a horrible human being? How could she simply walk away after he consoled her during her mother’s death, her life’s greatest tragedy? after he wiped her tears and made her laugh and kissed her sweetly? Didn’t they make a commitment— before God, before their friends and family— to love and cherish each other in good times and in bad?
She couldn’t just leave.
But—she realized— she could; indeed, she had to.
No matter how much she loved her guitar-strumming, rabble-rousing husband, no matter how much history they shared, no matter how many good times they had, she needed to leave— for her own sake and his. Her husband deserved a woman who loved him unconditionally, a woman who didn’t always have the word “go” whispering in the back of her head.
So if you or someone you know is struggling with the heart-wrenching decision of whether or not to leave a relationship, I encourage you to recite these words over and over again. Be brave, be bold and adopt Cheryl Strayed’s radical self-forgiveness:
“You are not a terrible person for wanting to break up with someone you love. You don’t need a reason to leave. Wanting to leave is enough. Leaving doesn’t mean you’re incapable of real love or that you’ll never love anyone else again. It doesn’t mean you’re morally bankrupt or psychologically demented or a nymphomaniac. It means you wish to change the terms of one particular relationship. That’s all. Be brave enough to break your own heart.”