The Case For Messy, Gut-Wrenching Break-Ups


In an email to a friend a few months ago, I wrote: “I just had the most positive, loving, life-affirming break-up ever.”

She wrote back, “I don’t think I’ve even heard of such a thing before.”

We both agreed there was an article in it somewhere.

I hadn’t dated this man very long – maybe five or six months. It wasn’t a huge investment of time.

He turned up in my life most unexpectedly, and he was nowhere on my wish list. Outside of a few minor interests, we had very little in common. It was clear from the very beginning that this wasn’t going to be the sort of soul-baring, life-changing, heart-rending, intense romantic relationship I’d always had.

However, I was ready for a change like this: no emotional commitment, no deep involvement, no risk, no pain. I thought I would benefit from a shallow, simple dating friendship. I thought my soul needed the break. Most importantly, our simple dating friendship was a much-needed break from the Relationship X-ray Machine, the impulse to over-think and over-analyze every turn in a budding bond.

In fact, I understood this relationship as a message from God that I could be free of the RXM and continue dating. This RXM-free relationship was exactly what I thought I wanted: five months of shallow interactions. Jokes, visits, dinners and get-togethers with friends.


Square peg, round hole

On the surface, it looked perfect. We never argued, did fun things and laughed non-stop. I saw our time together as a vacation from my usual way of living; I was not willing to risk heartache again after so many awful experiences.

One night at a bar, I explained the RXM to him. His response was, “I’d never put up with that, no matter how much I loved her.”

At the time I took that as a sign of our compatibility. Now I see it for what it is: a lack of appreciation for analytical thinking.

Looking back on that night, his response perfectly encapsulated the problem that our relationship would not be able to overcome. He would always view introspection and analysis – not the neurosis of the RXM itself, but real critical thinking – as something to “put up with.” I realized how truly incompatible we were.

I still think it’s possible to have an RXM-free relationship that is intellectually and spiritually stimulating. But I was wrong in thinking I could so easily change who I’ve always been, who God made me to be.

I learned that I would never be satisfied with a shallow dating friendship because it’s against my nature. From my very first boyfriend – whom I dated from the age of 15 until 21 – I’ve had soul-baring, life-changing, heart-rending, intense romances.

The unfortunate side of that involvement – the apocalyptic breakup, the heartache, the life-altering lesson – was part of the deal, and I couldn’t sacrifice one to avoid the other. Trying to avoid the messy emotions robs all of us – me, him, and the relationship itself – of passion, conviction, and spirit. I wasn’t being fair to myself or to the relationship.

I wasn’t living out God’s will.


No to him, yes to me

I realized this while talking to a dear friend, a newly-divorced woman whose husband, she feels, abandoned their marriage by becoming emotionally vacant…just as I’d tried to do.

“You live in the world of ideas,” she told me once. “I live in the world of emotions. He lives in the world of limits.”

She pointed out that even though he was emotionally stifled in his interpersonal life, he supported the emotional world of artists. My friend is an artist herself and resents his uninvolved patronage. “He’ll buy our records, watch our films, read our novels, but he won’t give me time to do my work when there’s laundry to be done.”

In the same way I willingly entered into a passionless, emotionally vacant relationship, my friend’s husband forced her into one. I didn’t want to be who he was. I wanted to stay true to myself – my messy, emotional, deep, intense, passionate, spirited, heartbroken, loving self.

It was dishonest for me to try to be less.

We both got out; neither one of us regretted it.

I referred to this break-up as loving, life-affirming and positive, and it was.

When he and I finally talked – after months of shallow, distant acquaintance – I didn’t mention any of these things. In fact, I let him initiate the decision.

But in my mind, I’d denigrated him, the relationship and (most importantly) myself by not being true to my nature. In leaving behind this shallow dating friendship, I was giving power to the part of me that wants total involvement – spiritual, intellectual and emotional – with someone. I would not compromise my nature in order to prevent getting hurt. I would not deny God’s will for me any more.

I often think of the aphorism “To thine own self be true,” and this break-up encapsulated that. I realized that acceptance of myself in all my aspects is part of being true to myself.

I’d rather suffer a painful break-up than be with someone who doesn’t know me; or worse yet, would never “put up with” my analytical nature. I’d rather risk the soul-crushing pain of true involvement than the soul-robbing void of a shallow relationship.



  1. Renate-888346 April 24, 2013 Reply

    Hi Cate. I have just read two of your articles and wanted to say thanks for being so insightful, honest, and absolutely right on. How beautifully said and how true. I am going to think a little bit now about my own RXRMachine and my true nature as something not to avoid but to acknowledge, accept, and embrace. Thanks!!!

  2. Joey-642464 July 5, 2011 Reply

    The most interesting thing to me about this article is the following, “He turned up in my life most unexpectedly, and he was nowhere on my wish list.”

    My thought is that the relationships that teach you the most happen when you’re not looking, when you least expect one to come along. But it does anyway.

    I look at it as a teaching relationship thrown into your life between the relationship that preceded and the relationship that is to come. Almost like you’re given constructive use of your time. Like you needed to experience and learn something before the graduation to your next relationship. That maybe the relationship that is to follow would not have been able to happen without that lesson or two you learnt from the unexpected relationship.

    Good on you, Cat. It looks like you’ve taken something from your experience and turned it into something positive.

    Joey K.

    • Cate-291547 July 12, 2011 Reply

      Joey, I’ve been convinced for a while that this unexpected relationship’s appearance – and ending – has prepared me for whatever is next. Very true. How wise of you! Thank you for your thoughts!

  3. Dawn-58330 July 2, 2011 Reply

    Well done, Catherine! Just another reminder that each relationship has something to teach us and helps make us ready for the right one, if we but allow it. I too have had the experience of a break-up be a wonderful thing. Sometimes those wonderful endings that don’t tear our insides out can teach us something to help us avoid the ones that will. On to the next one!

    • Cate-291547 July 12, 2011 Reply

      Dawn, you’re so right – so get yourself ready for the next one!

  4. Anne-238166 July 1, 2011 Reply

    Cat, this is FANTASTIC!!!!

    • Cate-291547 July 12, 2011 Reply

      Thank you! By now you know what an inspiration you are to me … so nice to see you back here! XO

  5. Stacey-101742 June 29, 2011 Reply

    What a great reflection and so honest . God bless you in your journey .

  6. Barb-505508 June 28, 2011 Reply

    I am guilty from time to time of not telling Mr. Right exactly what’s on my mind. Case in point – I always have a major 4th of July party for all of my family and they look forward to it each year. This year, Mr. Right asked me to come to him and see what the holiday is like in his area. It was a promise of fun and merriment. I accepted, and then feeling quite guilty about my family, I called Mr. Right and explained the situation. He immediately told me to have the party and we scheduled time to meet later that week. He is definitely a keeper! That old adage is right,honesty is the best policy.

    • Cate-291547 June 28, 2011 Reply

      Thank you for sharing that, Barb. It’s so important to be honest with our loved ones and really show them who we are. Glad you found your Mr. Right!

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