Breaking up is hard to do

// 29 April 2012

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Ada Nkechi enjoys all things comedic, all things outsized and all things thought-provoking. She’s particularly enthused by things with all three qualities, such as religion, politics, poker with massive playing cards


There are many ways to leave a marriage, but there are only two ways to leave your own wedding: as the bride, or as the bitch who did a runner.

I broke off an engagement at the start of 2012. It’s a thing that, to be fair, few people ever expect to do once they’ve proposed or accepted.

In my case, it became clear that the engagement, unexpected in the short term but not undiscussed in our six-year relationship, bore no resemblance to the marriage I’d been talking about with my partner. Further to that, the piqued self-awareness that such moments bring made it clear that I could not commit to what my partner had in mind, nor he to what I had in mind. It was impossible to continue. The deed had to be done.

Whereas a ‘normal’ breakup is followed by tea and sympathy, the reactions of some close friends and family surprised me. A few people took it upon themselves to feel sadder than the protagonists in the wedding drama. One friend put in, ‘I knew it wouldn’t work from the moment you told me you were engaged… I’m not judging you, but breaking off an engagement is something I could never do.’ A rather unscrupulous (divorced) aunt suggested that as long as someone was putting a ring on my finger, it didn’t really matter.

These comments left a strong sense that it took me a long time to define – that an engaged woman should be grateful. Someone offers you a ring – that’s the most you can ever hope for. You’re a fool to turn it down. Why would you expect anything more? There was also the bind that keeps so many in bad relationships: once you’ve committed, it’s better to be consistent than self-aware and single.

It also became clear that things became clear: the proposal, like most life crossroads, was a wake-up call. I was lucky enough to heed that my partner and I were headed for parallel and not converging lives. It’s easy to see how wives-to-be can be swept up in the heady air of approval, attention and affection between engagement and marriage. Breaking up, or building your relationship, are pushed to the bottom of a long to-do list.

The awful day came to give the ring back. I’d seen this done only once before. I watched Sex and the City and followed in Carrie’s high-heeled steps. Sardonic and pragmatic Miranda asks, “I’m going to ask you an unpleasant question now – why did you say yes?” Carrie, wracked with doubts, replies: “A man you love kneels in the street and offers you a ring. You say yes; it’s what you do.” Most of us advocate a less flaky and socially constructed response than Carrie. I said yes because I’d come to terms with whatever in our relationship had made me think of leaving before. I wanted to work towards him and he towards me, for good and all. I never anticipated anything derailing my decision. But it did.

In the end, the responses I was most affected by were positive. My father: “You’ve had to make a tough judgement call. But we trust your judgement and will support you in your decision.” My cousin: “It’s not even an issue – we are happy that you’re happy.” (FYI – this sort of episode highlights who you really do and really don’t need to invite to any eventual wedding.)

If Tolstoy is right, “all happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”. Perhaps that makes it easier for friends and family to rally blissfully around a relationship in the good times, and find the bad times somewhat incomprehensible. So if ever you find yourself teetering on the diamond-encrusted brink, know two things:

No-one will have to live with the consequences of your decision but you.

Self-acceptance can take a lifetime to achieve. A ring won’t change that.

Long Live Love.

Photo by Jason Eppink, shared on Flickr under a Creative Commons license

Comments From You

Nicola Stott // Posted 29 April 2012 at 2:52 pm

Great article. Reminded me of the many, many unhelpful things people said when I left my long term partner (we had 2 children). Being true to yourself sounds such a cliche but it’s the only way to be really happy. Knowing what you actually want makes this easier but most of us just struggle through slowly working our way through what we don’t want. X

Em // Posted 29 April 2012 at 2:53 pm

Thanks for this, I have nodded and smiled my way through reading it and was considering writing a similar piece myself about the reactions I’ve had to ending my marriage recently. How could your friend say that, “I could never break off an engagement”. Rude as it is, it’s also pitiable if it’s true, that someone would stay in a relationship no matter what, just because of a bit of jewellery and social convention. Times like this certainly let you know who your real friends are and it can be very surprising!

The comments about my breakup that upset me most include:

“You’re throwing your whole life away!” (My mother) -thanks but I think ‘my whole life’ consists of more than a man?

“You must be mentally ill, you could get medication.” (My father, meaning well I’m sure…)

There were plenty more but I think you get the picture.

Ending a serious relationship is very, very hard, no matter what the circumstances, and it’s such a shame some people can’t see past the conventions and dogma to just support their friends. Add to that the assumption that your aunt obviously subscribes to – a woman should be married if she possibly can, and is tainted by choosing to walk away from that – and we are up against a whole lot of unnecessary pain and stigma.

The Goldfish // Posted 29 April 2012 at 5:49 pm

Wow, I think you’re deserving of double congratulations for that timing – you worked it out just in the nick of time! If you’d hung on, the whole thing would have been much more difficult to get out of, much more expensive (even the most amicable divorce costs hundreds of pounds in court fees) and may have been much harder on your friends and family. In the face of that pressure, it might have been much harder to leave at all, and then you may have spent years making one another miserable, let alone any children that came along.

So without making light of such a monumental decision – great save!

It must have been extremely tough – it is one of those times in life where folk can feel very very trapped by the excitement and emotion of other people, quite apart from the fact that leaving a six year relationship is never going to be a simple or easy thing to do. Hope things are settling down and working out for you both.

Laura // Posted 29 April 2012 at 7:36 pm

Well done for doing what was right for you, and thanks for sharing this with us :-)

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