When Is the Right Time to Break Up?


Dear Dr. NerdLove: I know you mostly help people get into relationships, but how do you get out of one? I (M, 28) have been with my girlfriend (F, 27) for three years now and I think it’s time to end it.

If I’m being real, it’s been time to end it for a while. We’ve been drifting apart for a while now. We barely have sex, when we do it’s not that great, and most of the time we live like roommates who share a bed. And it’s not like things are bad or anything, just not there. It’s not even like the spark is gone, it’s like everything that made the relationship work is gone.

I feel like I have to say that we’ve been trying. We’ve tried counseling, together and separately, we’ve been talking and talking and putting in work to make things better, but everything is staying the same and I can’t put my finger on why. Maybe if I could, it’d be easier, but my girlfriend doesn’t see it that way. She just says that relationships take work and we need to keep at it and it’ll get better. I don’t know if she’s right, but I know at this point I’m not sure I care if she is. I just feel tired, you know? 

I think part of what makes this hard is I’ve never actually broken up with someone before. Both of my previous relationships ended with me being dumped, and the girls I would date casually would just either ghost me or be the ones to call it off.

But the other reason I’m writing is because I don’t know WHEN to do this. We’re going to stay with her parents for Christmas and New Year’s and I don’t know if I can be the guy who dumps his girlfriend before Christmas. So what do I do? Do I wait until after the holidays? How do I tell her I just can’t do this any more?

One Out of Three Is Bad

Let’s address the initial problem first, OOTB: you can break up with someone for any reason at any time. Part of why you’re having a hard time with this is that, like a lot of folks, you seem to feel like you need a reason to break up with someone.

Well, you have that reason: you don’t want to be in a relationship with her any more. I realize that this seems obvious, but a lot of people tend to feel as though that they “can’t” break up or end a relationship without some sort of causus belli. It’s easy to look at a relationship where one partner’s cheated or treats you badly or did something demonstrably wrong and say “ok, this needs to end”. It’s a lot harder when the relationship is generally just shambling along like a zombie. It’s going through the motions of life, but the animating spark just isn’t there any more.

And I get it. It feels like admitting failure, or saying that you didn’t try hard enough or that it was a functionally ok relationship so do you really want to let go? But if we get right down to it, all that is is a sort of sunk-cost fallacy. You’re staying in it because leaving would mean that all that effort and time was for nothing. And that’s really not the right way to look at it. You didn’t waste time in this relationship – certainly not if it was mostly good, and if you and your partner have a level of affection and respect for each other, even if the spark may be gone. It’s just that not every relationship is meant to last until death do you part. Relationships have lifespans; some are long, some are short, and yours just came to the end of its life. Not every love story is meant to be an epic poem. Some are short stories, and that’s fine.

So let me give you the first stage of permission that you’re asking for: yes, break up with your girlfriend. You don’t want to be in a relationship with her any more. This relationship no longer meets your needs. You have my permission to end it, unilaterally.

Now, the next part is the part you may not want to hear. As a general rule of thumb, the worst time to break up with someone is “tomorrow”. There’s never a good time to end a relationship, even if that ending is totally amicable. It will always be the wrong time and there will always be a reason why ending it will be bad. If it’s not the holidays, it’s close to their birthday. Or some important milestone. Or something awful that happened and how can you be the person who ends their relationship when that awful thing just happened?

But here’s the other side of that equation: how much worse do you think it’s going to feel when you break up with someone after the holiday, or their birthday or whatever and they realize how long you’ve been waiting for this chance to break up with them? Yes, breaking up with your girlfriend before Christmas may be what makes someone the asshole in a Netflix Christmas special. But imagine how much it’s going to taint those memories for her when she realizes that the entire time you were celebrating with her family, you were quietly counting down the days until you could pull the trigger? That’s going to leave a much bigger stain on things than if you were to end things now, when she could use this trip as a chance to recover with the loving support of her family and friends and the hunky small-town bookshop owner/Christmas tree farmer who she has a weirdly antagonistic relationship with?

Yes, it sucks to have to be the one to end things, and it’s to your credit that you don’t want to make things worse than they have to be. But pain is inevitable; it’s suffering that’s optional. And prolonging this is only going to make things worse. Do yourself (and your girlfriend) a favor and break it off now. Make it quick and clean – acknowledge that you can’t keep doing this, that this relationship no longer works for you, that you care for her and respect her, but you’re breaking up with her. Don’t explain, don’t argue, don’t rationalize; that’s just going to prolong things and it won’t help her gain closure. It’ll just make everything more painful. The short, sharp pain fades the quickest, and a clean break heals the fastest. She can mourn the loss of her relationship with the loving support of her family. If you feel like you need to do some sort of penance for breaking up at Christmas, then hey, the guilt you’re feeling works.

But as much as it sucks for everybody, this really is the kindest thing you could do.

Good luck.


Doc, I’m 34, never had a girlfriend, don’t really work or even have a post secondary education. I have been on two dates with the same women in 2010 which was basically two free dinners for her and teasing me that was just cruel in hindsight. No friends and only family died in 07. I gave up on dating at 23. I still have illusions of 3 kids and a wife. Incel could be a correct term.

The last time I had sex was 2014 with a escort that turned out to be a hooker with drug ravaged face and teeth. I believe I have antisocial personality disorder which combined with ADHD is my mental scapegoat excuse. I yearn for companionship yet haven’t spoken to a women in any form including: text, apps, social media, since 2019. I wonder if accepting perpetual solitude is just a hard reality.

With no experience, I have multi decade arrested development. How can I possibly be any sort of a draw to the fairer sex?

Alone For The Holidays

You know, I get a lot of questions like yours, AFTH; in fact, I’ve got several of them sitting in the question bucket as we speak. All of them – like you – focus on their lack of experience or dates or relationships, and dwell on their supposed faults.

And every single one of them are convinced that their past means they have no future, and treat being Forever Alone as being the price of their continued existence.

But since this is going up a couple days before Christmas, I want to draw your attention to a particular story that’s popular right about now… someone who’s life is dull, lonely and empty, and has been for a very long time… even if they can’t quite bring themselves to admit it.

And yes, I’m talking about Ebeneezer Scrooge. Yes, I’m going to just lean into the cringe and use A Christmas Carol as a metaphor. Because the whole point of A Christmas Carol isn’t that Scrooge was a bad person who needed to be scared into rediscovering the meaning of Christmas. The point of the entire story, to my mind, comes down to this one line:

“It’s Christmas Day!” said Scrooge to himself. I haven ‘t missed it.

Scrooge spent a lifetime isolating himself, alienating himself from his family, from friends and lovers. He deliberately chose a life of solitude and loneliness for decades. But in the span of a night, he decides to turn everything around and change his life.

“I haven’t missed it”.

There’s nobody telling him that it’s too late, that he’s doomed himself to die alone and unloved. Nobody is telling him that he can’t change, that his past has determined his future for all time. Nobody is saying “you missed your chance and now nobody will ever care for you.” What he realizes is very simple:

“I haven’t missed it”.

The whole point is that change is possible, that redemption is possible and that even someone who spent their life trying to justify their own misery by externalizing it to others can change, even late in life. His joy and love and relationships aren’t lessened by the fact that he came to them so late in the game. Nobody is saying that since he missed out on so much, he can’t have anything good in the time he has left. They just say “We’re so glad you’re here.” “We’re so happy to see you.” “We’ve been waiting for you and we welcome you home.”

You’ve had a long, hard past. But none of that means that your future’s been carved in stone. You can turn things around and make things different, if that’s truly what you want.

Just as Scrooge had his chance to change his story, you are going to change the story you’re telling of your life.

Now where things differ is that it’s a lot easier when you’re fictional and you have supernatural forces interceding on your behalf. You’re not a character from a book, you’re a flesh and blood person, and that means that changing things won’t happen instantaneously. But again: the point isn’t to turn things around in one night and reap the rewards. The point is very simple:

“I haven’t missed it”.

So here’s how you can have your own holiday miracle: you declare your past to be just that: your past. It’s not the thing that dictates your future, it’s the challenge that you rise to meet and overcome. Today isn’t the beginning of the end of your story, it’s the peak of your second act, when the protagonist (you) is at his lowest. It’s the point where he rallies his strength and determination and finally rises to the occasion.

And if you know stories, then you know that this is never easy. You’ve got obstacles to overcome, trials to endure, tests to face. But part of what the protagonist needs to do is to focus his will and determination and do the things that need to be done. He learns. He trains. He improves. He endures.

This is where you are. You are now at the point of your own personal training montage; you’re going to start taking up the challenge of making things better.

The first step is to get to a therapist. You say that you think you have antisocial personality disorder and ADHD. That’s certainly a distinct possibility, so find out for sure. If you’re right, then getting diagnosed means that you can actually address them, get treatment and therapy that will help mitigate things and get it all under control. If you’re wrong, then at least you’ll know. Maybe you’re dealing with something else entirely, or maybe this really is just an excuse you’ve been using. Either way, having that knowledge will inform what you need to do next.

Similarly, talking to a therapist will help you process the shame and hopelessness you feel, help get your mind and emotions into good working order, and get yourself into emotional shape. That improvement will make it easier for you to work on your social skills, get you to a place where you can enforce your boundaries and build a better life for yourself. It’ll make it easier for you to build new connections, find new friends, even family. Family don’t end in blood after all, and sometimes the family you choose (and who chooses you) is stronger and more important than the family you had before.

Now, like Scrooge, this is going to require that you acknowledge that the past happened. A big reason why a lot of people in your situation feel stuck is that they ultimately want a redo of the past. They want the past to unhappen, so they can go back to who they could have been. That, unfortunately, is the province of fiction. Your past is your past, and there’s no “making up for lost time”. What there is, instead, is looking to the future and resolving to make the most of it, to not waste it by constantly looking backwards. You can acknowledge your past, and the choices and forces that shaped it, but you can’t erase it. But your past informs your future, it doesn’t dictate it. You can look at your past and acknowledge that you made mistakes or struggled against things you couldn’t overcome and forgive yourself for doing the best you could with what you knew and what you had. Now you know differently. You have resources and knowledge you didn’t have then. You have experience that tells you what you did that lead you to here and that experience means you can make new, better choices.

So while your past dreams may change with your present and your new future, that’s not a bad thing. That’s just acknowledging that things have changed. That you have changed. Our dreams should change with us; the dreams we had as younger men aren’t always the ones we truly want or need. Yes, the life you have in the future may not be the one you dreamed of back in your bad old days… but that doesn’t mean that your new life will be lesser for it. It will just be different, because you will no longer be the person you were. You will be the person you mean to become, and his needs and wants will be different. And that’s OK. That’s good. You’ll discover that there are other things that you long for and work towards, other dreams and other goals. That’s all to the good.

Because the most important thing that you need to remember is this:

It’s not too late. You haven’t missed it. You can still build an incredible, satisfying and fulfilling life, full of warmth, caring and companionship. You just have to start.

All will be well.


As before, a couple notes:

First: I’ll be doing a live Q&A for my Patrons on December 29th, with Q&As open to my general audience coming in the future. If you’re interested in taking part, consider supporting the site by becoming a patron at patreon.com/DrNerdLove; patron questions will get priority in future live streams.

Second: As the we’re coming to the end of the year, I have a couple requests. First, since January is National Break Up Month, I’m putting out a call for questions about ending relationships: when you need to end it, how to end a relationship the right way, when a relationship can be fixed and how to handle break ups – either as the dumper or the dumpee. As always, submit your questions via the submission form, or send them to doc@doctornerdlove.com with “National Break Up Month Question” in the header.

Third: Since that’s also a hell of a downer, for February – especially for Valentine’s Day – I want to hear your Relationship Wins. Tell me about ways you and your sweetie turned things around, what you’ve learned about making things work, how you two solved problems together or otherwise made each other’s lives better. Let’s share some happiness and spread hope, especially in a month when a lot of folks may feel at their lowest. Who knows, maybe you’ll see your story featured here.

This post was previously published on Doctornerdlove.com and is republished on medium.


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The post When Is the Right Time to Break Up? appeared first on The Good Men Project.