Subscriber OnlyHealth

‘How do I break up with my long-term girlfriend without being the bad guy?’

Postponing the conversation is trading short-term discomfort for long-term unhappiness

Dear Roe,

I’m a 33-year-old man and my girlfriend is 30. We’ve been together three years now, and she’s kind, fun and caring.

Our friends and family all think we’re great together, she wants to settle down and have children, and the questions about when there will be an engagement and pregnancy announcement have started coming in from all directions. But I want to break up.

She hasn’t done anything, she’s great, and I’m not cheating on her. I just don’t see myself with her for the rest of my life and I feel like I need something different.


I’ve felt like this for a while but because nothing has been explicitly wrong, I haven’t known how to. She’s been treated badly in the past and made me promise that I would never hurt her, and I know breaking up with her will which is why I’ve been putting it off.

But now that there’s been more talk of marriage and kids, I’m starting to feel guilty and scared for staying with her when I know I don’t want that with her. Is it possible to end this relationship without being the bad guy and hurting her?

Firstly, a request: For the love of all that is holy and unholy, could people stop asking couples when they’re going to get married and/or have children. It’s such a tired, presumptuous and intrusive way to pressure couples into fulfilling a set path that they may not want in the near future, or at all.

Particularly when it comes to discussing pregnancy and having children, there are so many factors around the basic question of whether a couple wants children, fertility issues, processes like IVF, miscarriages, that even “casually” asking can involve trampling over sensitive subjects.

A couple’s trajectory is their business, not yours, and if they want to include you in their thought processes they can initiate that conversation. Otherwise, mind your own business.

Now, back to you. I’m afraid both you and your girlfriend have fallen into the same trap, believing that ever causing her any pain or hurt inherently makes you a bad person. It does not.

Emotionally, I understand your girlfriend’s desire to make you promise that you would never hurt her. That is the request of someone who has been deeply let down in the past and is trying to protect herself and exert some control over her life. It’s completely understandable. And completely unrealistic.

As was it both completely understandable for you to indeed promise that you would never hurt this woman you loved and who had been hurt badly in the past – and completely unrealistic.

People in any and all kinds of relationships hurt each other, every day. Not because they’re bad people or because they’re intentionally or maliciously causing pain, but because we are human beings, not robots. People make mistakes, people are careless, people misunderstand each other, people’s needs and desires sometimes don’t align, and people end relationships. These things can cause hurt – without anyone being a bad person.

And now, ironically, your belief that breaking up with her will make you a bad person is actually stopping both of you from getting what you truly want and deserve. You want and deserve the chance to explore, and find a life and relationship that fulfils you more. She wants and deserves someone who wants to love her wholeheartedly, who wants to get married and have children. By staying, by pretending, by trying not to hurt her with a break-up, you’re actually hurting both of you more in the long-run. Postponing a difficult conversation is simply trading short-term discomfort for long-term unhappiness.

Avoid any days that are emotionally charged: holidays, birthdays, the day before a big interview or exam

Internalise both that you are allowed leave a relationship that no longer works for you, and that breaking up with someone is not inherently a cruel act – sometimes people just do it in a cruel manner. And the possibility of that actually increases the longer you stay in a relationship you no longer want to be in. People emotionally withdraw or become resentful and act out, and that can be hurtful and confusing and draining for everyone involved. You can end this relationship respectfully and decently. She may be hurt, because break-ups are hard, but you are not doing anything wrong. On the contrary, you’re doing the right thing for both of you.

No break-up is identical because no relationship or situation is identical, but there are some good rules of thumb for practicalities and emotions. The practicalities first: Do it in person. Avoid any days that are emotionally charged: holidays, birthdays, the day before a big interview or exam. Pick a place where she will have privacy afterwards, and make sure you have your own transport options so you’re not stuck together in a car afterwards.

If you live together, make sure you have somewhere to stay so that she has space and isn’t left scrambling for somewhere to go. If possible, have a plan and timeline in place for moving your things out so that process isn’t a drawn-out exercise of forced interaction. You may have overlapping social circles but for at least a few months after, try give her space so you can both adjust to your new realities.

As for the conversation itself, it’s going to be tempting to try couch the facts with endless apologies, excuses and reassurances – but this actually can be confusing and make it less clear that a break-up is happening. If you’re certain you want to break up, rather than work together to fix an issue in the relationship, this needs to be clear. Be brief, be clear, be kind. Say what you have said to me: that she’s wonderful and caring and you appreciate her deeply, that there’s no-one else, but that this relationship has simply run its course and you want to break up.

It sounds like she may be surprised and confused, and may start pushing for more specific reasons. This is rarely a productive line of discussion, so be honest without being detailed or derogatory. “You bore me” is not necessary. “I appreciate you but I just don’t feel the same way as I did”, or “This relationship has been so important to me, but I don’t see it lasting forever so think it’s best to end it now” is truthful without trying to blame anyone.

And when she gets upset, remember that breaking up with her now is doing her a kindness in the long run. It’s allowing her to move forward and find what she wants.

As for you, make sure to be kind to yourself as you move forwards, too. You’re worried about her, but you’re also ending a serious relationship and are allowed to have a range of complex feelings as you also adjust to being single again. Make sure you have your own support system in place.

Good luck. I really hope you both find what you’re looking for.

Roe McDermott is a writer and Fulbright scholar with an MA in sexuality studies from San Francisco State University. She is researching a PhD in gendered and sexual citizenship at the Open University and Oxford

If you have a problem or query you would like her to answer, you can submit it anonymously at