Stephen, 30, who only wants to share his first name to protect his identity, tells Refinery29 he is going through breakup guilt right now. “I just turned 30 a few months ago and I was in a 10-year relationship," he says. "I’d literally been with her for my entire 20s. I realized I wasn’t where I wanted to be in life at all. I’d barely done anything. I wanted to change that, and I just didn’t think I could do it with her.”
So, Stephen broke up with his girlfriend of 10 years. "It would have been easier for everyone if someone had been a dick, if there had been something for one of us to blow up at each other over," he says. "Something to make us hate one another."
"The hard thing was, it wasn’t about her," he continues. "I wanted a different life, and hating my current life meant I couldn’t give the relationship everything I had. It wasn’t her fault, but that’s so difficult to say in a way where I’ll be believed."
It’s now been three months since Stephen broke up with his girlfriend, and he’s struggling with overwhelming guilt. "I feel so guilty for leaving that I can’t sleep. I really don’t want to get back together. I know I made the right decision, but it’s hard to feel happy with it because I feel like I’ve ruined her life," Stephen explains.
The majority of us will know the pain of a relationship ending all too well. But those breakups where things have simply come to an end, when you’ve fallen out of love but no one has done anything particularly bad, are uniquely hard to endure.
Breakups always hurt — no matter how they’re delivered — and that can result in overwhelming guilt for the person doing the breaking. It’s our instinct, in those situations, to make the breakup as easy as possible for the person on the receiving end. We want to time it perfectly, explain it perfectly, and leave everyone without emotional scars. But usually, our efforts to soften the blow of severed ties are in vain.
This is simply known as breakup guilt, and it can be an intense and ruthless emotion. Elena Touroni, consultant psychologist and co-founder of The Chelsea Psychology Clinic based in London, describes breakup guilt simply as the intense guilt we feel after leaving a relationship.
“We may find ourselves ruminating over the break up and the role we played in it and feeling like we’re a 'bad' person for ending the relationship,” Touroni tells Refinery29. “When we’re feeling guilty we might experience feelings of shame and doubt ourselves and our decision. It can even lead to us isolating ourselves.”
Touroni says break up guilt is quite common. “It can be disappointing when a relationship doesn’t work out, and we may feel bad for hurting another person’s feelings," she says. "Of course, some people are more likely to experience this than others, depending on the circumstances around the break up and a person’s own vulnerabilities."
Touroni explains that we can feel intense breakup guilt even when it’s obvious that the relationship should have ended. "We can still be paralyzed by guilt, despite knowing that it was the right decision. This is because they are two separate things," she says. "Our reasons for ending the relationship may be clear, but the guilt is usually a result of feeling as though we have hurt another person."
“When there is no clear-cut reason for ending the relationship, it can sometimes be harder,” she adds. “This is because it’s easier to externalize an emotion. Blame allows us to avoid taking responsibility for our own part in a relationship ending.”
Like Stephen, Jess*, a 22-year-old HR assistant, is also experiencing intense breakup guilt. “I recently called off my engagement and I feel like I’m just going crazy,” she tells Refinery29. “I thought I was so ready to dive with him and get married and spend the rest of my life with him. And then one day I didn’t feel that way anymore.”
"I, admittedly, handled the breakup really badly,” she says. “I didn’t know how to leave without a proper reason, so I ended up creating them. We got into so many horrible arguments that could have been avoided. I think we probably could have been friends if I’d gone about it differently.”
Now, she’s struggling with breakup guilt. “It’s been seven months since I called the engagement off and I’m still lucky if I make it through the day without feeling a horrible twang of guilt over what I did, how it must make him feel,” she says.
Like all emotions, guilt serves a function. It doesn’t just exist to hurt us. Touroni explains that guilt is not inherently bad, in and of itself.
If there’s a specific thing you said or did (more specific than the breakup itself) that’s causing the guilt, such as the way you spoke to a partner or a Really Bad Thing (cheating, shouting, etc), your guilt might be a sign you need to change your actions.
“The purpose of guilt — when it is justified — is to get us to change our behavior or to make amends when we have hurt someone,” Touroni explains. “With this context we can seek to understand whether the emotion is justified or not and whether we need to take action. If not, we can take steps to regulate the emotion and remind ourselves that no matter how hard it may feel at this moment, we made the right decision.”
Regardless of whether your guilt is there for a reason or it's just creeping up on you over the breakup in general, there are steps you can try to lessen that all-consuming feeling.
Touroni says if you’re suffering from breakup guilt, you need to acknowledge the guilt for what it is. It’s simply a feeling — nothing more. She recommends reminding yourself of this by saying, I’m feeling guilty, but I am a good person. You can say this in your head, out loud, write it on your mirror, whatever you need.
“You also need to be kind to yourself,” says Touroni. “Breakups are hard. Take extra good care of yourself. Get plenty of rest, and allow yourself to feel all your feelings. The latter might be helped by trying journaling — getting your thoughts and feelings down on paper can be a helpful way of processing a break up.”
While it is common to feel some level of guilt after a break up, it’s important that we move through it. In the long term, guilt can end up having a negative impact on our health and lead to symptoms of anxiety and depression, according to Touroni.
It’s also important to remind yourself that guilt is temporary. It will eventually pass, as all emotions do. Touroni says the word emotion comes from the Latin word emotere, which means energy in motion. “Emotions are like waves," she says. "They rise, peak, and eventually pass in their own time.” So allow the emotions to pass through you without judging yourself, and they’ll eventually leave. It’s hard to break the habit, but shaming ourselves only prolongs the time guilt sticks around.
If breakup guilt is seriously kicking your ass, Touroni says therapy is also an option. We know that therapy is a great place to explore feelings and work through complicated emotions like guilt or self-blame. That goes for breakups too.
It’s also important to keep in mind that, as harsh as it may seem, it’s not your responsibility to guard another person’s feelings over your own. Of course, as partners, we should take care of one another. But breaking up when the relationship is no longer right is ultimately a very caring thing to do for you and your partner. It’s never right to avoid difficult conversations, and not help yourself, in order to protect someone else’s emotions.
As Touroni says, “when we refuse to forgive ourselves for ending a relationship, what we are really saying is that we don’t trust ourselves and our own judgement.” Acceptance is key. Ending a relationship and starting again, especially when no one has done anything wrong and the relationship has simply served its time, is an incredibly brave thing to do.
*Names have been changed to protect identities.