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Gay Men and When It’s Time to Break Up a Relationship

Gay Men and When It’s Time to Break Up a Relationship

They say, “Love is grand.”  And it is, really.  In my 29 years (in 2021) as a gay men’s specialist psychotherapist, couples therapist, sex therapist, and life/career/executive coach, I’ve worked with hundreds of gay male couples to help them improve their relationships to try to stay together and make a go of it, usually focusing on the Three C’s of relationship success:  Commitment, Communication, and Compromise (my article on that is here).  Many times (or, most of the time, if that’s not too immodest to say) it works.  The problems are solved, or at least mitigated, and the couple moves on from therapy (or relationship coaching) to be happier together for years to come.  But not all the time.  Today, I’d like to help guys by offering some thoughts for those who find themselves, after careful consideration, in the position of needing to break up with their partner.

The Dating Process

When I work with single gay men, there is often the discussion of “where do you find good men to date?”  And that’s a huge, “$64,000” question.  If I knew that answer, I’d have bottled it years ago and retired, or at least spent more time on a beach somewhere.  But I don’t have that answer, and how to meet good guys for dating is another whole topic.  But every long-term, committed, successful-on-many-levels relationship starts with the dating process.

Dating is a process of being exposed to a person who evolves from stranger, to acquaintance, to boyfriend, and then to partner, spouse, life-long companion, etc., by any other name.  The dating process is about learning about each other, experiencing each other’s behaviors and emotions, and then noticing our own responses to those shared experiences.

Dating is about having an experience, then reflecting on its effects and meanings for our quality of life.  When we have repeated good experiences, our levels of bonding, emotional investment, trust, and connection grow with that person.  Many times, our experience of that person is accurate; if we think they are a good person, through and through, they usually are.  If we think they are a good partner for us, they are, especially given time.  But there are times when the dating process, even a long one, fools us, and later we come to realize that the person we “thought” was right for us, for a long-term, committed relationship (and that includes committed relationships that are Consensually Non-Monogamous, by the way) isn’t the person we thought they were.  We come to realize that we were just wrong about their long-term potential, because we overlooked something in them, in ourselves, or they changed, or we changed, or the world changed.  But not every relationship that “works” at one point in time still works at a later point in time.  And that’s OK.

Evaluating a Relationship

In stable, happy relationships, if ain’t broke, don’t fix it.  Sure, all relationships take work, but many relationships that are stable, happy-enough, and enduring don’t require the partners to sit back and evaluate the relationship, or question it, all that often (a little coming-and-going of ambivalence is normal, though).

But there are times when concerns about a relationship involve a subjective uneasiness that we feel about the “balance” of reflecting on our experiences in that relationship, day to day, that leave us feeling, instead of supported, amused, validated, and loved, leave us feeling suspicious, anxious, undermined, invalidated, mistrustful, abandoned, frightened, or just plain un-happy.  That’s not good; that’s a gut feeling that something in our relationship, something in the way we currently are living in that relationship, is wrong for us.

Living day to day in the days, weeks, months, or years into a relationship means listening to that “inner voice” that evaluates our subjective experiences in relation to that other person.  Done periodically, and very subtly cumulatively, we “arrive at” a certainty of our feelings.  We either learn to relax and place our trust in that person, in a profound commitment, which leads to cohabitation or marriage, or other markers of commitment like combining finances or owning property or a business together, or we “hold back” because we are responding to our own internal psychological defenses, not quite “letting go” and placing profound love and trust in that other person.  We hold back from committing in our relationship the way we might have seen our parents, grandparents, or siblings commit to theirs, often for decades.

Experiences with our partners guide us. When they do something that is a romantic gesture, we might smile, laugh, get horny, or feel relaxed and relieved to be with them. But when they do other behaviors, we feel like our defenses are activated and not-so-nice feelings get triggered.  We get scared when we see them express anger in ways that make us feel on guard or intimidated into a “fight or flight” response.  We feel “icky” when they do something that shows a betrayal, such as their looking into our phones without permission, or doing some kind of snooping or surveillance that make us feel “watched” or mistrusted, often out of some pathological jealousy or possessiveness.  We feel embarrassed when they treat someone else badly, like service workers, or when they say something to someone else about ourselves or our relationship that should have been kept private.  We feel suspicious when we know that their actions and their words don’t match, and we calculate the logic of the situation and know that, for whatever reason, they are not telling the truth.  Or, it’s more blatant: they break a monogamy agreement, or they break a ground rule set in a Consensual Non-Monogamous relationship, and we’re left to confront, discuss, understand, and carve a path forward in the aftermath of the incident.  Or, they have a mental illness, substance abuse problem, or other condition that just demands too much of us to cope with.

When enough of the experiences that make us feel anxious, divested, scared, or just unhappy accumulate, we dance around a feeling that eventually leads to a conclusion that we are not happy in this relationship, and we realize that this person is not who we wanted them to be, or expected them to be, or thought they could be, or fundamentally needed them to be, and we reluctantly come to a deep-seated conclusion that this relationship is not good for our mental health and well-being, and likely never will be. We would be better off without them, without the relationship, without living this way.  We want out, even if the relationship is entrenched with sharing a living space, “being a couple” day to day, being known as a couple to friends and family, and having emotional, physical, or financial ties together that would be time-consuming, and emotionally and practically difficult to untangle.

That’s the time when, after revisiting our options in our mind, we need to confront our partner.  We need to sit them down, acknowledge that we are not happy, and either propose (insist) that we identify and engage gay-affirmative couples therapy, or we assert breaking up.

How to Do It – When You Have to Do It

Over the many years of my practice, I’ve worked with clients on this process.  It happened again just recently.  In these cases, my clients were clear that the situation they were in was not at all likely to benefit from couples therapy or relationship coaching.  The differences that the client perceived, experienced, and really “knew” on a deep level were not things that could be fundamentally changed by behavioral change or increased/improved communication or negotiations.  Their partners just were not “made from the cloth” of the kind of partner they existentially needed in this lifetime according to their own value system. Their character, their values, and their deep-seated neuroses were just not ever going to be compatible, and they didn’t want to even propose the option of couples therapy – which takes some courage, because, as a couples therapist, I’ve been able to help sometimes even the most complex cases improve their relationship enough to be happy again, for the long term.  But for some of my clients, they know, on a deep level, that the couples therapy option is not something they feel will work, and they don’t want to waste time and money when they know they need something different – someone different – for their life partner.

One client recently, “Mark,” was this way.  He “processed” his feelings with me in individual therapy sessions for weeks beforehand.  He enumerated and described various events in the recent history of his relationship, what happened, and how he felt about each incident.  He discussed these in the context of his own vulnerabilities, such as his history of relationships, his family of origin influences, his own neuroses and insecurities, his own trauma history, and his own cultural and developmental influences for where he was from, and how old he was in the lifespan.  He was convinced he wanted to break up with his partner, and was frank that he didn’t need or want my “permission” or validation, but only my support in the process of carrying out the “conscious uncoupling” (as actress Gwyneth Paltrow once described) of his relationship.

We talked about approach.  When you need to do this, pick a time when you can sit your partner down and not be interrupted for a while.  Ask to put smart phones away or be otherwise free of distractions.  Be in a place that has privacy, preferably in your home.  Don’t do it if one of you is acutely ill, in a rush, under some kind of work pressure deadline, drunk or high, or distracted by another major life event (such as being concerned about a sick relative) or contemplating taking a new job offer.  There is no “ideal” time, but try to clear the decks for what will inevitably be a significant (if perhaps dramatic) conversation.

Be clear about your intentions.  Don’t ever have a “I’m thinking of breaking up with you” conversation if what you really mean to say is, “I’m breaking up with you.”  Don’t confuse your partner by couching it in euphemisms.  Have the resolve to say what you mean.

You can root your statements and your feelings in the classic “I” statements.  Don’t say, “You do or don’t ___________”, but instead say, “I have been giving this a lot of thought, and very careful consideration.  And I have decided that I need to leave this relationship.  I need something else for my life, and this is conclusion I’ve come to.”

Then, let your partner respond.  If their defenses are working properly (which they probably will be), they will either be very sad (appealing to your sympathies), angry (“you’re making a big mistake; you’ll find anyone as good as me”); in shock (“I can’t believe what I’m hearing…you can’t mean that”), or some other strong emotion.  Be resolute.  Let them have their reaction, but if you’ve done your preparation, there is nothing they can say that will make you back-track or change your mind on the spot.  This is why it’s so important to give a lot of thought to this (and maybe processing in your own therapy) before you “drop the bomb” of this conversation.

A word of caution: If you are a victim of domestic violence, that’s another situation.  That’s another whole topic that I’m not covering here.  We know from research that the most dangerous time for a victim of domestic violence is when they state, or act, on leaving the abusive partner, who can become enraged at the abandonment and become lethally violent.  Please be aware this discussion is not for domestic violence situations.

It’s natural for your partner’s feelings to run high, but after you’ve stated your intentions, let them have their reaction.  They may, or may not, have “seen this coming.”  In my experience, they have not, and it is a shock they have to process in the moment of responding to you.

Have some preparations for the immediate.  Where will you sleep that night? Where will they?  Will you move out to somewhere else (a friend’s, a hotel, an Air B&B, a family member’s), or will you ask them to (which may depend on whose name your housing is registered in, if you’re not on a joint lease or tenants-in-common mortgage).  A discussion of the practicalities of who moves out, and how soon, can be briefly discussed, or can wait until possibly the next day.  Issues of what kind of housing is affordable or available is also a consideration, especially in urban centers with high housing costs.

A discussion of “who to tell, when” about family and friends can take place.  I think it’s only natural that your partner will need to discuss this with someone close to them, such as a sibling or best friend; I would let them have this.  I think it’s also helpful for both you, and them, to realize that you both will probably run through, in non-sequential order, the classic Elizabeth Kubler-Ross stages (originally describing people diagnosed with terminal illness, but I think it applies to other emotional reaction situations as well) of Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance.  If you look at your partner’s emotional reactions in the days ahead (as evidenced by what he says verbally), as well as reflecting on your own emotional states and reactions, you will probably recognize these five states, sometimes in rapid and alternating succession!

Part of Life

Even people (in this case, gay men) who have, in their lifetimes, long and happy relationships, will almost always also have the experience, at least once, and probably a number of times, the experience of going through a difficult breakup, often when they’re young.  Either they were the dump-er, or they were the dump-ee, or both.  But, as a saying from Alcoholics Anonymous says, “living Life on Life’s terms” means that we will probably not get through this lifetime, whoever we are, without having to face the classically emotionally painful experience of breakup.

distressed looking man sitting on the floor hugging his knee with face partially obscured by knee

The Aftermath

But the breakup pain is not the last word.  We (generally) are not masochists.  We don’t “do” breakups because they’re fun.  We do breakups when we find it absolutely necessary to “preserve, protect, and defend” our profoundly existential mental health and well-being.  We leave one relationship not because we sadistically want to punish someone else – even those we feel might “deserve” it – but because we love ourselves enough, and cherish our lifetimes enough, that we act in order to give ourselves the opportunity, the chance, the “clean slate” to allow a more appropriate, more comfortable, more nurturing, more stable, more rewarding relationship (and the partner it comes with) to come into our lives.  We go through the cruelty that it can feel breaking up with someone, only to be kind to ourselves, and also to let that partner go, and let them have the opportunity to be loved in the way that we can’t give them. And, to give ourselves the opportunity to be loved in the way that they can’t give us. It’s difficult only in the relatively short term, to be easier in the much longer term.

Taking care of ourselves to do the things we need to do to get by in life is part of the adult prerogative to love ourselves and to practice self-care, in small ways daily, and in big ways like how, where, and with whom we live, day to day.  It’s part of the job of adulting, and it can be positive in the long run, even if it feels difficult, or even painful, in the short term.

Ken Howard, LCSW, CST

If you need help with big decisions and actions like starting, or ending, a relationship, or a job/career, or any major life decision, please consider LGBT+-affirmative therapy or coaching.  Life’s challenges do become a bit easier when in the context of getting help from a supportive other.  Email, or call/text 310-339-5778 for more information on therapy or coaching services. 


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