I was tilting back a cocktail to slurp the traces of whiskey when Amy told me she had no interest in marrying her fiancé. It was 2014 and we were in midtown Manhattan, seated in leather chairs at a bar decorated like the parlor of a landed nobleman ― all rich wood and pastoral oil paintings. Amy’s wedding was in less than a week. I froze in surprise.
“Are you going to call it off?” I asked.
She caught the waiter’s eye and twirled her finger. “The whole relationship is a joke,” she said to me. “I care about him a lot, but we fight constantly, and my family doesn’t like him.”
“OK … yikes,” I said. “How does he feel about it?”
“He says he loves me. But on some level, he must know this isn’t ‘happily ever after.’”
I inhaled to speak, but Amy held up a flat, halting palm. “It’s too late to call it off. It would destroy him. The invitations have gone out. His whole family has booked flights from Australia. I just have to do it.”
“But it’s just one bad moment … versus the rest of your life,” I said.
“It’s almost impossible to get the Carlyle this time of year for the reception,” she replied. “We can’t turn it down.”
I searched her face for evidence that she was kidding. When I found none, my concern swelled. “You need to cut this off. You’re going to leave him someday, and that’ll be way worse.”
“Honestly, it’ll be easier,” she said. “The stakes aren’t that high. If we can’t find a way to make it work, we can always just get divorced.”
Amy and I had been friends since law school. In our late 20s, we had fallen out of touch, but we had a lot of mutual acquaintances, and gossip moved swiftly. I had heard that she was engaged.
She no doubt knew that I had recently terminated my own engagement. Her nonchalance about marriage scraped against a raw emotional wound, and the request to get drinks roused suspicion. Perhaps she saw meeting me as a preview of her fate, should she walk away from her fiancé. If so, this fate was slightly manic, 10 pounds heavier than usual, and glugging a dicey amount of whisky.
After the waiter dropped off our third round, Amy asked me about my breakup. “Are you glad you called it off?”
I paused. The decision to end a floundering relationship is far from straightforward. People ask whether you love the person, as if a simple “yes” or “no” will resolve the matter, but the truth is always more complicated.
I cared about my ex deeply. We lived together, so we shared intimacies and banalities ― routines, chores and money. My family, friends and co-workers knew him and loved him. They had come to think of us as a unit, so our relationship was integral to my social identity. Walking away from an engagement meant exchanging the delights of a bride for the embarrassment of a deserter ― not to mention enduring the intense pain of a breakup, and the miserable work of starting over from scratch.
When I ended the relationship, I deeply hurt a truly good man and his family, whom I knew and loved. I disappointed my own parents by appearing to turn away from a certain kind of life. I was on the brink of 30, emotionally shattered, and facing the prospect of beginning again after all the “good ones” were taken. I experienced the grotesque power of unmet expectations ― those arbitrary fatbergs within us, which, if not managed down to reasonable scale, clog the entire system.
But when I’d asked myself whether I could promise to love my ex forever, I’d faced endless uncertainty. Ultimately, it came down to this: I could not base a lifelong commitment on a foundation of doubt.
“Yes,” I said to Amy finally. “I’m glad I cut it off. I should have done it sooner. I wasted too much of everyone’s time.”
The next Saturday, the day of her wedding, I sent her a text. I said it wasn’t too late to call it off. I added that my apartment was just a few blocks from the church, and she could take refuge there if she needed to. She never replied. Later that day, a friend confirmed that she committed to her fiancé until death did them part.
As we emerge into a new phase of the pandemic, I suspect many people are struggling with whether and how to reshape their intimate relationships. To those facing an inner conflict similar to what Amy and I faced, I would offer a few observations ― things I wish I had known when facing my own paralyzing uncertainty.
First, the guilt you feel over hurting someone you care about is irrelevant to your decision about whether to break up with them. It is better to pay someone the respect of telling them the truth now, even if it hurts, than allow them to start building a life based on doubts, half-truths and outright lies.
Disregarding that guilt is far easier said than done. Our anatomy works against us. Human brains are made up of various layers that are not well integrated, with many different operating systems exercising influence. The outer layer of the brain ― our cerebral, rational prefrontal cortex ― is the latest technology, the most recently developed in human evolution. It attempts to guide us with reason. The older parts of the brain include what researchers call our “attachment system” ― an ancient, fundamental drive to form and sustain bonds with other people. Sometimes, different parts of the brain pursue contradictory goals, which helps explain how people can say one thing (“my relationship with my fiancé is toxic”) while doing another (planning their wedding). (See, for example, “Loneliness” by John Cacioppo and William Patrick).
Before I ended my relationship, part of me knew it was the right thing to do, while another part felt that I was committing an unconscionable betrayal by leaving my ex, and the guilt was broadcast like static across my other thoughts, muffling clear thinking. Good decision-making involves reconciling these coexisting impulses, the rational and emotional, into a coherent narrative and a sustainable internal compromise — what might be called an integrated sense of self. Your reason must properly weigh the emotions coming from the older parts of your brain. Search your heart for feelings of love, respect and support — an abundance of those feelings should undergird a decision to marry. Other emotions, like guilt and an aversion to pain, should be disregarded as useless, no matter how powerful they feel.
Sorting through these complicated feelings is not easy. It can require dealing with deep-seated emotional issues and traumas from the past. Often, our impulse is to turn to friends and family for guidance. But we sometimes get an onslaught of simplistic advice, which typically boils down to two dueling imperatives: “stop being so picky,” (the advice that Amy followed) versus “never settle” (the advice that I followed).
Friends and family are not disinterested third parties offering unbiased advice. They have their own preconceived ideas about how your life should unfold and their own emotional stake in the outcome of the relationship. They often give advice with one eye on justifying their own choices. We all need the support of loved ones to make tough calls. But ultimately, you cannot crowdsource this decision. It is about reading emotions only you can access. If people disagree with you — even your best friend or your parents — that is their problem. They don’t have to live the life that results from your choices.
Finally, be skeptical of a narrative that you want to walk away because you are fundamentally broken or have a “fear of commitment.” We all know people who have never felt comfortable in a serious relationship. Fear of commitment is a real thing, and it is possible that your desire to leave a relationship is coming from an unhealthy, “avoidant” impulse. It is also true, however, that in general, people have a powerful psychological bias against leaving relationships, even very bad ones. Psychologists argue that people tend to exhibit what they call a “progression bias” ― an overwhelming inclination to push forward with a romantic relationship, regardless of red flags or doubts. This is true regardless of financial considerations (though money can make it even harder for some people — usually women — to leave even an abusive partner). Every situation is different, but the data shows we are predisposed to stick around longer than we should (See “We’re Not That Choosy: Emerging Evidence of a Progression Bias in Romantic Relationships” by Samantha Joel and Geoff MacDonald).
If you do feel a fear of commitment, the marriage vow is not a magic enchantment to make that go away — your fear will still be there the day after your wedding, possibly exacerbated by the fact that you have gotten in even deeper. If you can afford it, see a professional therapist to work through these issues before you make a lifelong commitment. If I have one regret, it is not seeing a therapist before ending my engagement.
In the years after my breakup, my romantic life was hard. Amy had her fancy wedding at the Carlyle, went on her honeymoon in Hawaii and started a family. I went on countless terrible online dates. I sat alone at friends’ weddings, their children’s baptisms, their toddlers’ birthday parties. My contemporaries moved into a new life stage that I was not part of, experiencing meaningful milestones while I sat in the audience, swiping left. I felt panic. I experienced loneliness deep in my bones. I spent a small fortune on therapy. And eventually, I met someone else, and got engaged again.
I feel lucky to now be in a healthy relationship. But even if I never met someone else, I would not second-guess my decision to call off my wedding. That choice opened the possibility of finding uncomplicated happiness. It is far better to be alone and hopeful than to live a life plagued with doubt.
Eight years later, my text to Amy on her wedding day sits unanswered in my phone. I have heard rumors of bad fights, unhappiness, a marriage that is endured rather than enjoyed, but still not abandoned. I don’t know her anymore. I never met her husband. Perhaps my understanding of her life is a false narrative that serves my interests and reinforces the things I need to believe to justify my own choices. But I shake my head in amazement, because I was very close to her fate. And I can’t help but think that she made the wrong decision.
Do I think she cared about her fiancé deeply? I’m certain she did. But when she took a vow to love him until death, she did it with her fingers crossed behind her back. In the modern world, Amy’s marriage was not necessary. She didn’t need a husband to help run a farm or ensure the legitimacy of her offspring. She had an independent income. She lived in a city seemingly designed to accommodate single people, with solo dining options, studio apartments and dating apps.
But marriage is still a powerful status symbol, and the social pressure to marry undoubtedly played a role. Being married is, as Andrew Cherlin put it, the most prestigious way to live a life. Married people benefit from a presumption that they are responsible and competent. (The quality of the marriage itself is rarely investigated.) Yet we pay a price for pushing people down the aisle. Divorce, though clearly necessary and very understandable in some situations, can have deep personal and social costs.
For some unknown difference in personality or circumstance, I picked a different struggle. Whether it was my friends, my basic sense of self-esteem, or even a fatalistic ability to, every now and then, throw my hands up and say “fuck it all” and go with my gut, I will never know what rope allowed me to pull myself out of the quicksand. But I’m grateful I did.
Note: Names and identifying details in this piece have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals mentioned.
Mary Kate Leonard is a lawyer and writer based in Philadelphia. She is completing a memoir about the dilemmas of dating and relationships. Follow her on Instagram at @bookthiswoman.