On Breakups, Honesty & Integrity

For those of you who follow along on Twitter (@mysexprofessor), you’re likely familiar with the fact that I sometimes take on the challenge of answering Twitter followers’ sex questions in 140 characters or less – at least when I can manage (some responses take several Tweets).

There are other questions that come in via email, however, that I can’t fathom how to answer in such limited space. Some of these Q&A may start winding up here. Here’s one from this morning:

My girlfriend and I have been together for more than 2 years. She wants to get more serious (live together, maybe get engaged) but I’m starting to have my doubts. I love her but I don’t know that I’m “in love” with her anymore. There’s nothing wrong with her, she’s a good person and beautiful but I’m not feeling it. How do I end things?

Years ago when I was in a very uncomfortable space, trying to figure out how to end a relationship, I came across a book that wasn’t about relationships or breakups at all, but had good general life advice. There was a passage that – to paraphrase – essentially said something like “When you’re not sure what to do, but you are clear that you want to act from integrity, kindness or goodness, just go with that.”

In the years since, I’ve shared this idea with friends, students, and readers of my columns. For me, it hit home. In my case, I had come to a place where I knew that the relationship wasn’t going to move forward in the way my partner at the time wanted. Delaying the inevitable breakup wasn’t going well. It wasn’t kind to either one of us. Being honest and telling him what I needed to tell him was important. A key aspect of honesty, though – at least in my experience – is to be honest from a place of awareness. Sometimes people use honesty to wound or get back at other people, which I don’t personally feel is using honesty with integrity or goodness. So you may need to choose aspects of what you share, and aspects of what you don’t, but ultimately by breaking up with someone you don’t want to be with any longer, you’re giving her a chance to move on with her life as well.

I think this is one of the hardest parts of being in a relationship. In a subsequent one, a guy I dated didn’t want me to be honest with him about my feelings. It was very strange, didn’t fit with me, and I had to break up with him because he seemed to want to pretend a lot of things and I wanted to face even the difficult parts head on. Sometimes friends and family have been surprised with the honest conversations my relationship partners and I have been able to have; sometimes I’m even surprised by them.  However, I always value the honesty even when it hurts, so long as the honesty comes from a place of love, goodness and/or kindness.

So, something to think about. Recently I’ve been reading the graphic novel, Paying for It, and in it the main character’s live-in girlfriend tells him, early in the book, that she’s fallen for someone else. She wants to explore it and see where it goes. When he tells his friends, they’re shocked but he’s happy for the honesty. And yet it’s true that in real life, people can share all kinds of things with people they love and care for. Many people choose not to, but there are ways of working out even some of the most sensitive conversations if you just try. I’m not saying it’s easy – I think attempting difficult conversations is something I still struggle with – but I’m getting better at it and that’s something.

I’ll add a science-y bit here as well. We know from research that most people are pretty resilient when it comes to heartbreak. But people don’t do as well when they’ve been betrayed. If you truly care about your girlfriend as a person – even if you don’t see yourself with her over the long term – try to keep that in mind and be caring for her. There may be no way around a break-up. However, you can likely manage a breakup that, when you look back at it, you’re proud for having done it with integrity.

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About Dr. Debby Herbenick

Dr. Debby Herbenick

Dr. Debby Herbenick is a sex researcher at Indiana University, sexual health educator at The Kinsey Institute, columnist, and author of five books about sex and love. Learn more about her work at www.sexualhealth.indiana.edu.