I Broke Up With My Partner Even Though I Still Loved Her

Photographed by Serena Brown.
"I felt like my world was going to end and like everything was going to come crumbling down," says 24-year-old Leah*. "I couldn’t work out how or why I could love someone so much and for that love not to be enough."
Leah, who asked to remain anonymous, had been with her girlfriend for five years when they made the decision to break up last October. It wasn’t a nasty breakup, spurred on by infidelity or toxicity. Far from it. In simple terms, the ways that Leah and her girlfriend wanted to live their lives no longer aligned so they decided to call it quits, not because they stopped loving each other but despite the fact that they still did.
"We both ultimately wanted the same things in life but how we wanted to go about achieving those things differed," Leah tells Refinery29. She’d just gotten a new job and wanted to move closer to her work so that she could focus on her career. Meanwhile, her girlfriend wanted to stay put to focus on her own job or move somewhere completely different, which Leah says "wouldn’t have made sense" for either of them.
There was no compromise to be made and after spending the first three years of the relationship in different cities, Leah was adamant she didn’t want to go back to long distance. It wasn’t an easy decision. The pair tried to make it work for six months but, eventually, they "both realised it just wasn't going to [work], no matter how hard we tried".
Of course, this was gut-wrenching. "It was probably one of the trickiest things I’ve had to navigate in my adulthood because I had to make a decision that, deep down, I knew I didn’t want to, but one that I knew was ultimately for the best," Leah says. It’s the classic 'right person, wrong time' trope. 

We both ultimately wanted the same things in life but how we wanted to go about achieving those things differed.

If you’ve ever been in this position, you’ll know just how soul-crushing it is. Love is a powerful emotion and losing it can be as painful as a broken arm, if not more so. Research has shown that intense emotional pain can physically hurt, like intense cramps or a dull headache, and broken heart syndrome is a very real medical condition caused by emotional distress. Researchers have also found that social pain (which includes the loss of a relationship) lasts much longer than physical pain because it can be relived and re-experienced more easily and more intensely.
Let’s be honest, nobody wants to be cheated on, but it feels much easier to leave someone who has wronged you than someone you’re still on good terms with. This, explains Dr Meg Arroll, a psychologist and author of Tiny Traumas: When You Don’t Know What’s Wrong, But Nothing Feels Quite Right, is because the anger and resentment we feel in those scenarios overshadow any positive feelings we have for the other person, helping us to make the decision to leave. "Those negative emotions actually lead us to taking action," she tells Refinery29. "Whereas still feeling attached to someone who you have a deep connection with can make it difficult to leave." 
On the other hand, it can be scary to choose romantic love over something like your career or other life goals. As Carolina Bandinelli, an academic studying love in the digital age, notes: "Love in the form of a relationship necessarily involves giving up something about yourself for the other, or with the other, or finding compromises … and for this reason, love can be perceived as dangerous." What if we throw our life goals away for a relationship that might not even work out? What if we can never shake off the resentment? 
There’s also the guilt of leaving someone you love, social pressure and, of course, fear of the unknown. 
The mere notion of 'right person, wrong time' is extremely contested. A quick Google search will throw up an array of contradictory articles and while some say that, yes, leaving someone to pursue a personal goal is completely valid, others suggest that there is no such thing as meeting the right person at the wrong time because if it was the right person, the timing wouldn’t matter. 
The idea that there is one right person for all of us comes down to the pervasive notion of The One. In our culture, spurred on by literature and romantic comedies, "there’s an idea that you will find The One, and if you find Mr or Mrs Right, you will be together forever," Bandinelli explains. "The underpinning idea is that love is about meeting someone with whom you have 100% emotional intimacy, perfect sexual chemistry, so eventually you can set up a life together." 
But is this realistic? Our happiness isn’t predicated solely on romantic love. These days, there’s so much more to fulfil us, be it a rich social life or a successful career, and many of us are opting out of the fantasy of The One. Maybe the reality is that there is no such thing as 'right person, wrong time' because, actually, there is no such thing as one right person. 
"It’s unrealistic that there is that one true love out there, and it’s also unrealistic to believe that the right person will always be the right person," says Dr Arroll. Successful relationships, she says, are about much more than love alone. "The things that make long-term relationships work are communication, compromise and not just wanting the same things in life but wanting them at the same time," she explains. 

It's unrealistic that there is that one true love out there, and it's also unrealistic to believe that the right person will always be the right person.

That means that somebody can be the right person for you at a certain point in your life but they may not be the right person forever because relationships don’t exist in a vacuum, and context matters. It’s much more likely that we’ll meet multiple people who are right for us at different stages in our lives. 
Ultimately, it comes down to our values, which are constantly shifting and changing, especially when we’re in our 20s. While it can feel scary and impossible to make a decision in the face of heartache, Dr Arroll says: "You need to work out what is most important to you, what’s most aligned with your values in life and let those lead the way." 
When it comes to making the right decision, it’s important to embrace the fact that you’ll never really know the outcome until it happens. And even if you do regret it at one point in your life, Dr Arroll says, things will change again and you might not. "Nothing is static," she says. "The way we perceive our relationships, our lives, our happiness is always changing."
This chimes with Leah’s experience. "Although it was hard, six months down the line I can say that I am the happiest that I’ve been in a very long time," she says. "Being single has allowed me to really focus on myself and the things that I want, and it has also given me a whole newfound appreciation for my life and the people that I have in it."
The truth is, there is no easy answer. The only thing you can reliably go off is the way you feel right now. If your values are less aligned with love than they are with progressing your career or travelling the world or starting a family, then you have to honour that. Conversely, if you decide that the love you have for your partner is more important to you right now than any hypothetical future plans, then you should embrace that and all the sacrifices that come with it.
At the end of the day, you’ll never be able to predict accurately how you’ll feel about your life choices when you’re on your deathbed. The only thing you can guarantee is that you’re true to yourself.
*Name has been changed to protect identity
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