On New Year’s Day 2021, my first serious relationship ended. Odd timing, you might think, but what better day to start a new chapter in your life than the first of 365? My partner and I sat down for the long overdue talk, which I knew would end with me being dumped, something I still didn’t want but had come to accept was long overdue and necessary.
The next few months were filled with all the usual post-breakup feelings: sadness and grief at the loss of someone who’d been my person for the past three years, frustration with myself for not growing a pair and ending things sooner, a little anger at how much he’d hurt me, whether he meant to or not, and fear for what my future looked like now. Underneath all that, though, there was also a rogue feeling of guilt, its origin unknown.
As I’d been promised, time was indeed a healer. I threw myself into work and spent more time with friends, which kept my mind off him, and my self-worth eventually recovered enough that I genuinely believed I could do better. But as all my feelings of sadness and anger dissipated, the guilt persisted.
Several months after we split up, I saw a photo on social media of him with his new girlfriend and those feelings of guilt rose to the surface once again. He looks happy, I thought, happier than when we were together – I’m glad he’s happy. He probably could’ve been happier sooner if it wasn’t for me. How long did I keep him unhappy for? My inner monologue and I have never got along.
None of us can control how we feel, but I was frustrated to still be experiencing recurring guilt when I knew that I had nothing to feel guilty for. The end of our relationship was no one’s fault, least of all mine – it was just one of those things. More importantly, he had moved on and I was in the butterflies and sweaty palms stage with someone new, so why was I still letting the past get to me?
Talking to friends, I realised that guilt after being dumped is something that a lot of people seem to experience, but few seem to talk about. But why should we feel guilty when we’ve done nothing wrong, and why isn’t guilt talked about in the narrative around being dumped?
I don’t have any concrete answers to these questions but I do have some ideas.
It’s long been accepted that women are more emotional than men, though for many that’s still up for debate. Although psychological, evolutionary and nature-versus-nurture debates rattle on, I believe – at least where breadth of feeling is concerned – women are more likely to feel a greater range of emotions than men: in particular, guilt.
A 2016 study found that, on the whole, women are more prone to feeling guilt than men, and attributed this largely to differences in the way boys and girls are raised. Most pertinent for me was the suggestion that “guilt has an adaptive function”, which allows people to regulate themselves in order to prevent future guilt. Suffice to say that if I’ve learnt anything from my experience it’s to not repeat my experience.
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I also believe that the societal expectations placed on relationships are likely to play a part, because any relationship that doesn’t end in marriage is viewed as a “failure”. Society’s traditional, heteronormative view that you date, you move in together, you marry and then you have kids, attaches a sense of shame to any relationship that doesn’t end that way.
As for why we don’t talk more about guilt after a breakup, many of the existing discussions focus on the guilt of the person ending the relationship. There isn’t much out there for those feeling guilty after being dumped, and this is probably part of the problem. I suspect people believe that expressing feelings of guilt somehow equates to taking responsibility for the breakup, or admitting to having done something wrong. When I started asking around, I discovered that I was not alone in the guilt I was feeling and I realised the need to start the conversations I wanted to hear. I’d encourage others to do the same.
For me, my guilt came from feeling as though I’d kept my ex unhappy and, with no explanation as to what went wrong, I naturally blamed myself. There’s no simple explanation as to why some of us feel guilty after being dumped – it could be human nature, it could be a social construct. Who knows?
What I do know is it’s time to ditch the guilt that comes with being dumped and keep looking forward, not back.