The breakup feels temporary

Dear Meredith,

My ex-boyfriend and I were together for four years. We were friends in college and eventually started dating. When we graduated, I moved to Boston and he moved to a different part of the country, and after a long talk and a three-month break to reevaluate the relationship and settle into post-grad life on our own terms, we decided to do long-distance, which we had been doing for almost two years before the breakup.

We each did our best to make it work. We'd see each other at least once a month, talk a few times a week and text almost daily, were honest when issues would come up, and would plan for a future when we would be in the same place. During this time, I was also going through some pretty severe health issues, which made him feel stressed and guilty that he wasn't there, and also put an added strain on our relationship.

Fast-forward to February. We decided to take another break after the holidays. He's been applying to graduate school programs and is stressed out at the prospect of making a future-defining decision. To further complicate things, his top choices are in places that don't have a ton of great career prospects for me – I would be willing to move wherever he ends up, but he doesn't want me to make any sacrifices on his behalf, particularly if the relationship is strained and ends up failing. When I went to visit him a few weeks ago, about six weeks into the break, he ended it. I was upset – we both were – but respected his decision and honestly.

Here's what confuses me: It doesn't really feel like a breakup. I asked him to shut the door for good on the idea of us getting back together so I could move on, but he said he couldn't. We are broken up – pretty unambiguously – but the language he used when describing his reasoning for ending it (we need to have a clean slate, get rid of all our baggage, see what "grows back") implies – at least to me – that this is more of a break than a breakup.

He’s not sure if we're fundamentally incompatible or if the stress of distance/grad school/illness has drained him to the extent that he feels that way. When he feels stressed, he has a tendency to panic and cut all ties. When he broke up with me on our visit, I offered to go to a hotel and he said no. We spent the whole weekend talking about our relationship – what went wrong, what had been right, how we felt. We would hold and comfort each other when we cried. We drank champagne and toasted the happy moments. He told me about the Tinder dates he went on while we were on the (non-exclusive) January break. My friends have been appalled that he would share those details, but it doesn't bother me and I enjoy that we can still talk about this with each other. It just felt like returning to our roots as friends who could tell each other anything. We both want to stay friends and decided to give each other space and start talking again in early May. He said by this time, he should be able to give me more of a definitive answer about whether he thinks that a relationship might be worth another try down the line, or if we should just cut our losses and try to preserve our friendship.

Is breaking up really this hard to do? Should I put much weight on how easy and natural it feels when we're together? Should I just assume it's forever-and-ever-over, for my own sake?

– Dazed and Confused

"Is breaking up really this hard to do?"

Yes. Often it is.

"Should I put much weight on how easy and natural it feels when we're together?"

Probably not. Because you were together for four years, and friends first. It's no surprise that you have a natural rhythm when you're together.

It's difficult to know whether the problem is distance or a fundamental incompatibility, but it's probably both – because he doesn't seem to want to make this work.

He's told you not to make sacrifices for him, but that's what partners do. They take different jobs to benefit a relationship. They take risks – because it seems worth it.

I’d treat this as a real breakup and see how it feels to make new routines, maybe have some local dates (if you're feeling up to it), and plan future fun that has nothing to do with him. Try not to think of this time as a countdown to May. I know it's hard to stop yourself from doing that, but really, May is just a conversation.

Also, just a little bit of homework: Please read your letter a few times – because it might shed some light on something I noticed. You never say why you want to remain committed to this person. You don't even say that you do. It sounds like this relationship has been a strain for you too, and that what you miss is what you had in the very beginning. That's not who the two of you are anymore. You should be thinking about whether he's the kind of person you really want to partner with now.

– Meredith

Readers? Real breakup?