In an ideal world, our relationships bring us joy. They’re a source of support, comfort, and happiness1. But what do you do when you still care about someone, but the relationship isn’t giving you what you need?
We know what we should do. We should leave. Unfortunately, we often allow our feelings of guilt to keep us in relationships that aren’t making us happy.
If this happens to you, don’t feel bad. Staying in a relationship out of guilt is actually really common2. In this article, we’re going to look at why staying in a relationship out of guilt isn’t good for you or your partner and how to end a relationship without feeling too guilty.
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The first step is to understand why we feel guilty. Don’t worry. This isn’t going to be a list of all the things you should feel guilty about in your relationship. We’re thinking about what guilt is supposed to do.
From an evolutionary perspective, our emotions are there to help us cope with the world and keep us safe3. Fear tells us to avoid a dangerous situation and the joy we feel when we see our friends makes us want to stay around people who will keep us safe. But, what does guilt do?
Guilt is there to stop you from doing things that will damage your relationships with other people. It prompts you to repair relationships, apologize for your mistakes, and generally be a good person to be around. That’s what healthy guilt does.
But sometimes our emotional reactions go beyond what we need to keep ourselves safe. Just as a phobia is a fear that has gone too far, we can have unhealthy forms of guilt4. Unhealthy guilt is when you feel guilty for something that wasn’t your fault, feel far more guilt than the situation requires, or when your guilt pushes you to sacrifice your own well-being.
Staying in a relationship because you feel too guilty to leave is definitely unhealthy guilt.
We all know that staying in a relationship out of guilt is not a great idea, but it’s not always easy to explain why. Let’s look at the real problems with staying in a relationship you want to leave because you feel too guilty about what leaving will do to your partner.
The most obvious problem with staying in a relationship out of guilt is that it’s actually pretty disrespectful. It’s also not honest.
When we’re in a relationship, we have to trust the person we love to treat us with kindness and respect. We need to know that they’re going to be honest with us, even when we might not like what they have to say.
When you don’t tell someone that you want to leave a relationship, you’re not giving them the opportunity to cope with that. You’re deciding that they won’t be able to cope and so deciding by yourself to keep it from them.
What you understandably see as kindness is actually you making assumptions about their capabilities, denying them the right to make their own decisions, and keeping them in the dark about the true state of their relationship.
Although you’re thinking “I don’t want to hurt them,” what you’re doing is disempowering them.
When you stay in a relationship out of guilt, it means that neither of you is able to move on to new, better relationships.
If you want to leave a relationship and are only staying due to guilt, it’s not a healthy relationship. Even if you tell yourself that “it’s not so bad,” it’s clearly not working. If it was, you wouldn’t be looking to leave.
Both of you deserve to be in a relationship with someone who is actively excited to be with you. You both deserve to devote your energy to building a strong relationship that has the chance to last. If you’re holding on to a relationship that is secretly over, both of you are losing out.
Sometimes you might stay in a relationship out of guilt, but not because you feel guilty about hurting your partner. If there are children involved, you might feel guilty about breaking up your family or disrupting your children’s lives5.
That’s completely understandable guilt, but it’s misplaced. When we stay in a relationship out of guilt ‘for the children’, we’re teaching them that being unhappy in your relationship is normal and ok. That’s probably not a lesson you want them to learn.
Children are better at picking up on complex emotional relationships than we tend to believe. They know whether their parents are happy together or not. They also assume that the way they were brought up is “normal”. When they see you in an unfulfilling relationship, they start to believe that this is what they can expect in the future.
If you want your children to have a better relationship than you currently do, you might need to show them what that looks like.
It’s easy to feel that we owe our partner something, especially if they’ve been with us through hard times or supported us financially or with practical help. Sometimes we can literally owe them something, such as money we need to pay back.
What we can never owe them is a relationship. It’s sad to think about, but we can’t force ourselves to feel a particular way about someone. However much support and love and kindness they’ve given us, we don’t have any obligation to stay with them.
Often, your emotional reaction to reading this will be to think “that’s easy for you to say.” That’s true. It’s much easier to recognize that you can’t owe someone a relationship when you’re not in that web of gratitude, grief, and guilt.
One question that can help is to ask yourself “Is this really how they’d want me to pay them back?” If they’ve supported you through painful times, would they want you to be unhappy to repay them? Does hiding your true feelings feel like the right way to honor their generosity?
The chances are, you know deep down that staying in a relationship with them out of guilt isn’t a good way to repay the kindness and love they’ve shown you throughout your relationship. Instead, it’s better to be kind but honest.
We’ve talked before about how dangerous abusive partners are, and how good they are at keeping you in a relationship that is actively harmful to you. One of their most powerful tools is to make you feel guilty for leaving a toxic relationship.
Remember that we talked earlier about the difference between healthy and unhealthy guilt? Well, this is one stage beyond unhealthy guilt. When you’re in a relationship with an abusive partner, they can use your feelings of guilt and responsibility as a weapon against you6.
Leaving an abusive or toxic partner is never easy, but it can be even harder if you’re already used to staying in relationships out of guilt. It makes their guilt trips seem reasonable and it pushes you to tell yourself that things really aren’t that bad.
Guilt is a huge feature in most abusive relationships but only features rarely in healthy ones. Training yourself not to stay with someone out of guilt can help you escape abusive relationships sooner.
When we feel guilty about wanting to end a relationship, it’s usually because we feel like the bad guy. That’s an uncomfortable feeling. Most of us want to be the hero in our own lives, not the villain. We stay in the relationship out of guilt because it’s a better fit for our own self-image.
Unfortunately, what happens next is that we start to miss out on things that we want or need. If we’re in a relationship that isn’t meeting our needs, we start to resent our partner. We feel like we’re sacrificing our happiness for theirs and, gradually, that lets us see them as the bad guy.
Seeing your partner as the bad guy in the relationship might reinforce your self-image, but it’s not a healthy way to end a relationship. It also makes it a lot more difficult to have an amicable breakup or stay friends.
Feeling guilty about leaving a relationship is usually a sign that you still have positive feelings toward your partner, despite knowing that it’s time for the relationship to end. Ending on a positive note hurts, but it makes it easier to keep all those positive memories and care.
Understanding why it’s important not to stay in a relationship out of guilt is great, but it still doesn’t mean it’s easy to break up. Here are some of the most important tips to help you overcome your own guilt about ending a relationship.
We talked earlier about how staying in a relationship out of guilt prevents either of you from finding the kind of great relationship you deserve. If your guilt is eating at you, try reminding yourself that you’re giving them a chance to find someone who can make them happy in the long term.
If you’re feeling guilty about breaking up, it’s usually because you still care about this person. Show that care by being both honest and compassionate when you tell them it’s over.
Make sure that they know straight away that this is a breakup conversation. If you launch in with all the things you think are wrong with the relationship, they’ll often assume that you’re asking them to fix things. This makes the breakup part of the talk feel like an extra unwelcome surprise.
Explain that you still care about them and that you still see all of their positive qualities but don’t offer false hope. Be honest about the things that simply aren’t going to work for you. This is often a good time to explain that “it’s not you. It’s me,” but don’t expect that to offer much comfort at that moment.
No one wants to start the breakup conversation, but that doesn’t mean you can just keep putting it off indefinitely. You’re almost inevitably going to feel a little bit guilty but waiting won’t make you feel any less guilty.
In fact, you’ll probably feel more guilty the longer you let your relationship drag on. As we mentioned, staying in a relationship you know you want to leave isn’t entirely honest. You’re hiding your feelings, and that can leave you uncomfortable and guilty7.
Stepping up and starting your breakup conversation might feel scary, but remember that you’ll probably feel much better (and less guilty) afterward. Often, the time before the breakup feels much worse than the breakup itself. You might even feel like a huge weight has lifted once you’ve had the conversation.
We all feel at least a little bit guilty about ending a relationship. Often, this comes from small things that we’ve done that we’re not proud of or that didn’t match our expectations of ourselves and our values.
If there are things you think you did wrong in your relationship, take some time to work through your feelings of guilt. It’s helpful to try to accept your feelings of guilt, apologize, make amends and commit to not doing it again. You can then start to forgive yourself.
Learning to deal well with “justified” guilt can make it easier to recognize times when you’re feeling guilty about something for no reason.
Learning to process your feelings of guilt is important, but it’s better not to do things you feel guilty for in the first place.
Trying to stay in a relationship where you’re unhappy or where your needs aren’t fulfilled can make it more likely that you do something you will regret. You might say something hurtful in an argument or be tempted into having an emotional or physical affair.
In the long term, you’ll feel better about yourself if you leave your relationship before you do something that doesn’t fit with your personal values.
If you find yourself feeling guilty a lot of the time, not just about having to end a relationship, you might be a people pleaser8. Being a people pleaser means that you put other people’s welfare above your own and it can be hard to get out of that habit.
Learning to stop being a people pleaser isn’t going to be a quick-fix solution if you’re trying to end a relationship now, but it will help you feel less guilty about having to end future relationships.
Practice being more honest about your feelings. Remind yourself that your needs and feelings are just as important as other people’s. When you start to feel guilty about ending your relationship, say “my happiness is just as important as anyone else’s. I need to look after myself before looking after other people.”
Breaking up with someone can leave you feeling like you’re the bad guy. It can sometimes feel easier to try to find a way to get them to break up with you instead. Not only is this not a great way to resolve a difficult situation, but it can also backfire badly.
You can’t force your partner to break up with you. When you try to get them to break up with you, it usually means that you start behaving in ways that you’re not proud of. They’ll end up feeling hurt and disrespected and they’ll have the stress of having to find a way to break up with you.
There’s also always the chance they might simply put up with you treating them badly. That leaves you feeling even more stuck in your relationship out of guilt.
If you find that you’re still feeling guilty after your breakup conversation, it can be helpful to have a list of reasons why your relationship had to end. These can help remind you that you made the right decision and even help you feel proud that you dealt well with a difficult situation.
This can also help you if he starts guilt-tripping you to try to get you back or repeatedly asking why your relationship broke down.
If you’re feeling guilty because they’ve supported you in some way throughout your relationship, it might be helpful to have a plan to balance out any sense of obligation. If they lent you money, for example, try to have a plan for how you’re going to pay it back.
If you’ve promised to help them with something in the future, you’re not necessarily bound by that but it’s helpful to think about whether you’d still be happy to pitch in. If not, it might be helpful to have ideas of other people who might be able to help in your place.
One way people make us stay in a relationship out of guilt is that we ‘didn’t give them a chance’ to change. While it’s often important to give people a chance to change and fix problems, it doesn’t mean they get a pass forever.
There are only so many times you can be expected to accept that someone might change. It’s up to you to decide how many chances, but it shouldn’t be unlimited. Being really clear about your boundaries and telling them that they’re on their last chance to change can help reduce how guilty you feel about saying that enough is enough.
Guilt often comes from feeling that you are doing something wrong9. We feel guilty ending a relationship because, deep down, we believe that our partner is entitled to the relationship continuing, especially if they haven’t actually done anything “wrong”.
Remind yourself that you don’t owe anyone a relationship. If you need to, remind yourself of that fact every day. Keep reminding yourself until you stop feeling so guilty.
If you know that your partner is likely to attempt to guilt-trip you when you try to end your relationship, it can help to tell some of your close friends what you have planned.
Once you’ve told your friends that you’re going to break up with your partner, you know that you’ll have to explain if you allow your guilt to make you stay instead.
This is about using one social pressure (embarrassment at having to explain to your friends) to counteract another social pressure (your partner’s attempt to make you feel guilty).
It might not sound like a big deal, but having something to do can help distract you from your feelings of guilt. Spending time with friends, working on a hobby, or trying to learn a new skill can all keep you distracted while you process your feelings.
Although you’re leaving your partner, it doesn’t mean you don’t want them to have the help and support they need. Sometimes, it can be helpful to tell significant people in their lives what has happened and ask them to look after your recent ex.
Even though you mean this kindly, be careful not to overstep any boundaries. You’re not responsible for your ex’s feelings. They might prefer to keep their feelings to themselves or wait before they tell their friends or family. Don’t get in the way of that.
It’s easy to feel as though you don’t deserve love and support as you deal with the guilt of a breakup you instigated but nothing could be further from the truth. The end of an important relationship is hard for everyone and you deserve any support you can find.
Talking to a supportive friend or family member can help you work through your feelings. You might also benefit from talking to a relationship coach or even a qualified therapist. Don’t let your guilt keep you isolated.
You might also look for ways to support yourself and practice self-compassion. Some people find it helpful to write themselves a letter where they forgive themselves for all the things they believe they did wrong in their relationship. You can re-read it whenever you feel guilty.
Lots of people do stay in a relationship even once they know it’s over because they feel too guilty to end it. Usually, they will only manage this for a short period of time before they realize that it’s not healthy but sometimes this can go on for years.
Staying in a relationship out of guilt isn’t healthy for either of you. You’re being dishonest, which makes you feel more guilty. They probably realize something’s wrong and don’t know how to fix it. Neither of you can move on to a better relationship.
Abusers are experts at making you feel guilty, especially for having boundaries or looking after your own needs. They want you to feel guilty because it keeps you under their power for longer. Leaving a relationship you know is unhealthy isn’t something you need to feel guilty for.
Staying in a relationship out of guilt isn’t good for you or your partner. Breaking things off is hard, but it’s always better to be honest about what’s going on.
If you’re feeling guilt over ending a relationship, has this helped? Do you have any other ideas that could help others? Let us know in the comments. And if you have a friend who keeps feeling too sorry for her partner to leave, why not send her this article to help her out?