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‘I want to break up with my boyfriend but I don’t know how he’ll manage without me’

Ask Roe: I feel guilty because he’s such a good guy and treats me so well and he has no idea I’m having any doubts

Dear Roe,

I’m a woman and I have been with my boyfriend for two years, living together for one. We’re both in our late 20s and renting. I work full-time while my boyfriend is in the middle of a PhD that will likely take him another 18 months to two years. I think I want to break up, and am feeling so guilty about even thinking about it. My boyfriend is warm, kind, funny and there are no big issues in the relationship. I’ve had two other relationships before this and it was easy to see what the problems were (lots of arguing, no trust, or completely different life goals). This relationship is running smoothly but I just feel like we’ve reached a plateau of growth and while everything is fine for now, I know I won’t feel fulfilled if we stayed together forever. I feel guilty because he’s such a good guy and treats me so well and he has no idea I’m having any doubts. He’s at a hard stage of his PhD and his commitment to that course and student budget contributes to the lack of freedom and adventure in the relationship right now, though that’s not the only problem. I believe he’s going to have a wonderful career but I just don’t think he’s the man for me. I know breaking up with him will cause him a huge amount of pain and stress, and I’m also worried for his mental health. He has let a lot of his friendships fall to the side and often says I’m his “only person”. There’s also the issue that he’ll have to find somewhere affordable to live, which will be hugely difficult. I pay more rent than him, which felt fair because I make more than him and he’ll now have to find a room to rent in a shared house or move back in with his parents. I really don’t want to hurt him and think that maybe it’s really selfish to end this relationship when I don’t really need to. If I had to stay with him for another year and a half until he finishes his PhD I could, and I wonder if that’s the ethical thing to do? Please help.

Repeat after me: you are allowed to end a relationship that is no longer working for you. You can leave someone who is a good person, and that doesn’t make you a bad person, it simply means that the relationship has run its course – and that is fine.

Some relationships (most relationships!) do not last forever, and that does not mean that they’re not meaningful or important or that you’re not grateful for them. You’re in your 20s, you’re working hard, you’re figuring out what you want, and you have realised that you want something different. All of this is natural and normal and does not require any guilt. This relationship is not allowing you to grow and no longer feels emotionally fulfilling – they are good reasons! You are allowed to leave.


You are doing a lot of support work, financially, socially, and emotionally, and I want you to acknowledge that because you have fallen into the trap of assuming responsibility for nearly every facet of your boyfriend’s life, and that is contributing to your sense of guilt and fear for him. I admit, I’m wary when I hear people say their partner is “their only person”. I am very aware that society is incredibly disconnected right now and there is an epidemic of loneliness in modern Ireland. But individuals cannot become responsible for doing the work of an entire support system for their partner.

This has been proven to have negative impacts on relationships, particularly among straight people where damaging patriarchal ideas of masculinity often prevent men from expressing themselves emotionally in friendships or going to therapy, causing them to rely solely on their female partners for emotional and mental health support. Research published in The Psychology of Gender and Health in 2017 by John L. Oliffe, Mary T. Kelly and Joan L. Bottorff showed that this dynamic can have a negative impact on relationships generally and on the female partner’s emotional health, as their resilience and caregiving abilities are stretched to their limits. While romantic partners of course want to support each other, individuals cannot become not only partner but friend group, confidante, therapist, parent, spiritual leader etc. It’s not sustainable or healthy.

He deserves the opportunity to be with someone who is utterly crazy about him – and if he needs to start making plans for his future that don’t include you, he deserves to know that sooner rather than later

Your letter shows that you have internalised the need to act as your partner’s entire support system. Your entire letter is worrying about his future, and you’re even considering staying in an unfulfilling relationship for two years to prevent causing him pain, inconvenience or distress. What about your future? What about the pain and inconvenience and distress of postponing your future, your chance for adventure and new connections and emotional fulfilment? Your concerns for him are real and thoughtful – but unfortunately, adult life is difficult and break-ups are unpleasant. It is not your responsibility to remain miserable for years to protect him from either reality.

Please remember that he has options. He can live with his parents like many people in their 20s do (the fact that this is a normal state of affairs in Ireland is absolutely ridiculous, but neither you nor I are solving that problem today). Or he can try to find a room with other PhD students, and ask his college for some information and support on housing. He has options, and he will figure it out. It may be difficult for a while, but your partner is obviously smart and determined and hardworking, and he navigated life before meeting you. Living with you is not his only choice – and remember, being with someone who is no longer in love with him and doesn’t want to be with him isn’t a good option for him, either. He deserves the opportunity to be with someone who is utterly crazy about him – and if he needs to start making plans for his future that don’t include you, he deserves to know that sooner rather than later.

Pick a time to tell your boyfriend honestly and clearly that you want to end your relationship. Don’t mollycoddle or be vague; confusing him or giving him false hope will only prolong the hardship. You can be kind and give him some time to figure out his next move, whether that’s one of you sleeping on the couch/in the spare room/spending more time at friends’ or parents’ houses. You could also help him with some life admin, such as looking up low-cost counsellors or the number of housing assistance on campus. But remember that you can be kind to him without being completely responsible for figuring out his future.

It will be a difficult time, but you can be kind and respectful while setting boundaries. Remember that by ending this relationship, you’re letting both of you move into your futures. The best of luck.