What Can You Do If Your Boyfriend Wants to Break Up?

Dear Neil: I have dated a guy for 6 months. I’m 38; he’s 60.When we first got together, I told him I didn’t want my heart broken. He said: “I’m not the heartbreaking type. I’m usually on the other end of that.” He wanted to be exclusive early on, and suggested that we spend our entire weekends together. We went to France for a week in May, I had dinner with him and his parents several times and met his three grown children.

The last few weeks he has grown distant, saying he has to sort things out. Then I received an email from him saying that his feelings for me are “complicated.” He said: “It seems clear to me that you are bringing a lot more emotion and passion into the relationship than I am. Something is missing for me. I haven’t had a real relationship in 15 years, and the thought of it scares the hell out of me. I am having a hard time opening since my divorce—I know I have a problem with this.”

I don’t know how to respond, or if I should. Right now I’m heartbroken. What should I do?

Stunned in Memphis, Tennessee

Dear Memphis: Your boyfriend kept a shield up in order to protect himself from getting hurt in the relationship. You didn’t, so you were less protected and more vulnerable—and therefore more hurt.

Many people keep this emotional armor or shield up in a relationship, and especially in the beginning of a relationship. They’re afraid of rejection—or of being abandoned, controlled or betrayed—so they hold back emotionally and don’t allow themselves a very deep personal investment. They are half-hearted, which keeps them safe, but not close, and not wild about someone.

You cannot make someone choose to be in a relationship with you, regardless of how deeply attached you are, and regardless of how heartbreaking the loss is to you. Virtually every adult learns the painful lesson that it takes two people to create a relationship, but only one to end it.

You may not fit the image he has of a woman he envisions his future with. It could be that he has never gotten over his ex-wife, and therefore was unable to give his heart to you. Maybe he has his sights set on someone else, or perhaps he is uncomfortable with bonding with a dramatically younger woman. It could be that he doesn’t see you fitting in with his family. Or maybe he told you the truth when he said that his heart was shut down and that committing to an intimate relationship scares him to death. All of the above could be true.

Perhaps you were given one warning, however. If you were bringing more emotion and more passion into the relationship like he says you were, that would be something to pay attention to in the future. If you are putting a lot more effort into a relationship than a man is, consider that a sign of possible trouble—because the relationship may be becoming too emotionally unequal. If that happens to you again, confront it as soon as you notice it. It’s not that everything in a relationship should be 50/50, but you do want to know if you’re considerably more invested in the relationship than he is.

What you can do is to inquire about what happened. Would he be willing to honestly talk about what his hesitations or reservations are regarding a relationship with you? Is his mind made up, or is he wavering about this decision? Is he open to reconsidering his decision, and if so, what could you do—or stop doing—that would allow him to give the relationship another chance? What does he need different in order for him to come back to you?

If he still says he’s not wanting to continue a relationship with you, honor it. In truth, you don’t want him if he doesn’t want you—it hurts too much, and there’s nothing satisfying or fulfilling about it. You want someone who values your happiness, your needs and your desires. You want someone who wants to please you, wants to be close to you and wants a future with you.

If he won’t do it—after you lick your wounds—go out and find someone who will.

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