Welcome to the Sidebar’s advice column, where we sit down for a chat with our very own Muffle. Her advice might be bad, but hey, at least someone’s listening. Today we’re talking about breakups and guilt.
My girlfriend and I recently broke up. We had differences on some very important issues (recreational drug use, birth control, religion, etc.) so it was probably for the best. However I can’t shake the feeling that I let her down.
You see, the straw that broke the camel’s back was my going to a movie with two female friends without telling her. Understandably not a good look. I tried to explain that my friendship with both ladies has always been and continues to be 100% platonic. I tried to explain that I’ve known both women for years and if there were any feelings of interest on any of the three sides, it would have manifested over the several overlapping periods when we were single. I’m also not the kind of person to make a move in a public movie theater. However, my now-ex couldn’t get past why I would “put myself in that situation” and that I should want to hang out with my girlfriend instead of other women.
I held and still hold the belief that I didn’t do anything wrong by seeing my friends. I admit I should have told her about seeing two women she didn’t know.
The breakup itself isn’t the major issue, I just offer the circumstances for context. This girl is one of the kindest most caring women I’ve ever met and the fact that I hurt her still really bothers me. We’re on good terms and the actual break-up conversation was mature and civil, something I take some pride in.
My main question is, how do I reconcile the guilt I feel at having hurt someone I love with the fact that there’s nothing I can do at this point to fix it?
She accepted my apology when we discussed this (aforementioned break-up conversation) but it didn’t make me feel much better. Is this just something I have to live with going forward? What do you think?
Love’s Loss Belabored
It’s times like this that I realize that a lot of people are really just better human beings than I am. You’re one of them, LLB, because reading this letter filled me with such righteous indignation on your behalf that I had to take a minute before I could write this response with any semblance of coherence.
It is my understanding that many relationships involve rules like this one, where neither half of the couple is permitted to socialize with members of the gender(s) to which they are attracted without consent and/or supervision. It is my understanding that this, sometimes, works for those couples.
It is also, in my personal and indubitably flawed opinion, complete and utter horseshit.
You indicate that you believe you did nothing wrong, but I want to really bring that home for you, LLB. In prohibiting you from hanging out with women without her express knowledge and consent, your ex made three statements that show flaws in not only your relationship, but in her understanding of the world:
- First, she did not trust you to be faithful to her in the face of even a modicum of temptation.
- Second, she believes that men’s relationships with women are inherently sexual, and that any friendship between genders presents a compromising “situation.”
- Third, she believed that she should be your sole and entire source of non-familial female interaction, and that no further socializing with women should be necessary or desired.
The first is insulting to you. The second is insulting to everyone who doesn’t consider themselves a lust-driven primate unable to contemplate people as human beings when they have a set of genitals similar to those they find pleasing. And the third is insulting to women, because your ex doesn’t seem to recognize that men can have fulfilling, necessary relationships with people of a different gender. (It’s also ill-advised; no romantic partner can or should be their lover’s entire world. It’s limiting, short-sighted, and pretty much ensures that you’ll eventually drive each other insane.)
So, first, I want you to understand that you’re right that your ex was out on a limb here. I don’t disagree that you should have told her that you were going out with your friends, but that’s just from a communication standpoint: I check in with my partner because I know he’s interested in my life, and I want to show respect for him by letting him in on even the parts of it that don’t involve him.
That said, you can’t take ownership for other people’s feelings. You did something you were perfectly justified in doing, and in no way betrayed your then-girlfriend in doing it. (I would feel differently on this point if this were a problem that had come up in the past and your girlfriend had made her feelings clear. In that case, your actions would have constituted a betrayal, even if her position is utter nonsense, because you would have been disrespecting her express wishes. I don’t get that vibe from your letter, though, so I’m proceeding under the presumption that this was a matter of first impression.) Regardless, she was hurt, and your relationship ended as a result. You apologized, and it appears that your friendship has been able to continue despite what happened between you. That’s pretty much the best possible outcome under relationship-ending circumstances.
That said, other people’s feelings are beyond your control. All you can do is behave in the manner best in line with your principles, and be as good to others as you can. This won’t prevent them from being hurt, even by you. But if you’ve done what you can to be good and kind and respectful, then all you can do is empathize with other people’s pain. Guilt is only appropriate when you’ve done something deserving of blame, LLB, and I don’t see that here.
Which leads me to think that you might be misinterpreting your feelings somewhat. Are you sure this is guilt you’re feeling? I wonder if you’re not just mourning a relationship that, while flawed, meant a great deal to you. You’re at the point where, intellectually, you understand what happened and why, but I’m not convinced that you’re all the way there emotionally. And that’s okay! It’s good (and necessary) to grieve our losses, even those that we know were ultimately best for us. Take some time to sit in what you’re feeling with your heart before you relegate everything to your brain; you can only really move forward when they’re both on the same page.
Snark and tipples,
Got a question for Muffle? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.