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Commitment, Breakups, and Occupational Infidelity October 1, 2011

Posted by TimTheFoolMan in Commitment, Friends, Love, Relationships, Self-Worth, Work.

Recently, I experienced a breakup. Even when we started the relationship, we knew that it would end, and we knew that the end of the relationship would bring pain, regardless of which one of us initiated it. Although she knew, without question, that my heart was divided, and not exclusively hers, we entered into the relationship with eyes wide open and plunged forward. There was no formal commitment (though a relationship as deep and strong as this one would typically be the foundation of a serious commitment), but there was definitely the implication of one.

Having had a variety of relationships, both great and horrible, this breakup might not seem like the kind of thing that would impact me deeply. Hadn’t I, going from one relationship to another, and sometimes being in more than one at a time, become a “player”? Such types don’t get deeply or emotionally involved, but instead use their partners for selfish and self-serving motives, and tend to move on to greener pastures with little thought to those they leave in their dust.

Why then, has this been such an emotional thing for me? Why did I delay the last moments in this relationship, dragging them on for as long as possible? Why was I feeling so… defeated by this?

The “No Commitment” Relationship

The relationship began the way many do, as a by-product of a deep friendship. We have known each other, in many ways intimately, for several years. Over time, that knowledge led to each of us leaning on our friendship at one point or another, but never in a manipulative or hurtful way. Both of us had wondered, from time-to-time, if we might be taking advantage of this friendship, but it never felt that way.

As the relationship took a new turn, into something deeper than just casual communication, we were both unsure if it would work. After all, it was understood from the beginning that my time would not be focused 100% on her. I had, and was going to maintain, a previous relationship. This was an unspoken, but fairly obvious element of the trust we shared. The relationship, from the start, was rooted in division of my attention and… incompleteness.

Even so, I jumped in with both feet, at least while I was giving her my time. When moments came and my attention had to go to my previous relationship, I made sure she knew when it was going to happen. When the relationship had my attention, I was focused, intent, and determined to make it work.

And work, it did.

I blazed new trails, learned new things, and we engaged in a storybook, problem-free romance. In sharp contrast to almost any relationship I’d been in before, this one held healthy conflict, on those rare moments that conflict arose. We talked, openly, about everything under the sun. When problems came up, as they do, we addressed them directly. Every morning, I woke to the knowledge that, no matter what else might not be perfect in my life, the security (though unspoken and clearly not committed) was there. It was energizing and made every aspect of my life seem more successful.

Unfortunately, one of the sad aspects about commitment, is that it is a fickle and misleading thing. We all say that we want commitment from someone else, but at some level, a formal commitment from the other party can often be a way to let us off the hook. After all, if the other party is free to walk at any moment, we really need to “up our game” and make sure that we are attentive to their needs. If we “mail it in” on a regular basis, and don’t give it our best, there is the underlying knowledge that nothing is keeping them from severing the relationship.

Another word comes to mind here: Obligation. On a daily basis, we all create obligations, but what about when that feeling of obligation creates a situation that’s no longer healthy for one or the other? Is it good for her to stay in a relationship with me, even if it’s to her detriment? On the other hand, if we’ve made no obligations, but are both present, daily because we choose to be present, daily, doesn’t that paint a very different picture of waking up one day and that person is still there?

From the start, that caused me to see this relationship as something, higher, perhaps more pure, than any that I had experienced before. Here we were, voluntarily together, with no vows or ties to keep us that way. In the same way that I felt that I had to bring my best, every day, she felt the same way, and I received regular praise and compliments. I had a constant barrage of positive feedback.

This was working, somehow, for both of us. This was good, somehow, for both of us. In spite of everything we had both been taught, and thought we “knew,” this seemed to be working.

Somehow, this relationship, perhaps because of the lack of formal commitment, seemed to have  depth and satisfaction that I’d never found before. Had I inadvertently stumbled upon something better than what I had been taught was “right” all my life? Was this commitment thing dramatically overrated?

The Breakup

The day the breakup came, I felt something was up, from the very start. Everything about our communication that day seemed to be sparse and relatively meaningless conversation dominating the early part of the day. Late that day, when I heard “can we talk?”, somewhere inside of me, I knew what I was about to hear.

Now, the details of why we needed to end our relationship aren’t really pertinent. As I sat and listened, I nodded, added affirmation, and smiled as much as I could. It was difficult to smile, but I could look across and see the face breaking the bad news to me, and knew that my anxiety was much less. I knew that pain, because I had been the one to begin such a conversation before. I knew how it felt.

You see, I’ve ended relationships before, so I know how it feels to try to choose the right words. I know how it feels to be the bad guy… the bearer of bad news. I know how it feels to share what will be, no matter how we paint it, devastating news. Even when I’ve known it’s necessary, and beneficial to both of us to go our separate ways, it is soul-crushing and difficult to actually find the words.

Burning Bridges and Remaining Friends

Another friend of mine once told me about the end of a business relationship where he “burned the bridge to the ground, torched the sucker, and made sure every smoldering bit was gone.” To put it mildly, this has never been my style.

Yes, I have had my share of outbursts, and on more than one occasion, I’ve said and done things that have hurt others, sometimes deeply. Even so, I’ve tried to never completely sever a relationship, in spite of how difficult this can be to do. I’m happy to say that I have generally found a way to remain friends after relationships have ended, regardless of who ended it.

I wish I could say that I have always been successful at this, but I haven’t. Sometimes, things have ended with raw, hurt feelings, and no path to reconciliation. At least once, the hurt was completely my fault.

You see, part of the problem with staying friends is, there was an underlying reason that the relationship wasn’t working, or had issues that just couldn’t continue. No matter how hard you try, when the break-ee looks the break-er in the eye again, even if they are smiling and being friendly, the knowledge remains of the break-er being the one who chose to end things.

That choice is an initial blow to one’s self-esteem: “What is wrong with me? Why wasn’t I enough? What could I have done to have kept this from happening?”

If the breakup gets ugly, then things are even worse. Not only are bridges burned, but feelings are hurt and much is lost.

That day, I heard, without me asking, the answers: “There isn’t anything ‘wrong’ with you. On the contrary, you are an amazing guy. You’ve enriched things in my life in ways that I just can’t express. This isn’t about you. This isn’t personal. This is just one of those things where the circumstances won’t allow us to keep on this path.”

I heard the words, but was a bit numb at that point. It was sort of like watching a Charlie Brown special, where the teacher is speaking but all you hear is “wah waah wa wahh…” instead of actual words.

The Future of Two Boats

In my case, the circumstances couldn’t be denied, and we both agreed that we needed to bring things to an end. In the following days and weeks, we would have additional conversations about her life moving forward, and after we had those, that was that. There was no way to deny anything that was said. This was the right path to take… the best path to take, for her, and for me. I knew that my lack of focus on my previous relationship was putting it at risk, and had even verbalized this along the way. If I was going to make the previous relationship work, it was going to have to have my complete attention. It was going to have to fly or flop on its own merits, and not be kept artificially alive by me finding what I needed elsewhere.

I needed to focus.

Now, for good or bad, the breakup has forced me to focus. I have no safety net of this now-past relationship to keep me safe. Like a man who has been standing between adjacent boats, one foot in each and forcing them to run alongside. I need to let the boats go on different paths, but to do that (and not fall into the water and drown), I have to plant both feet firmly in the boat that I had chosen before.

The boats are now separate, and in standing here on the deck, I can look at and appreciate the vessel that has borne part of my weight for some time now. I can stand here, waving goodbye, and watching as she turns and charts a course, now unknown, by necessity, to me. It’s unlikely that she will be on a course that will be alongside mine in the future, and if not, that’s OK. She is seaworthy and sound, and is now headed to new places she needs to go, that I’ll not see.

I wish her well.


This past week, I came to the end of a long-term contract, working for a Fortune 100 company, and I was a contract employee–a “gun for hire” that does not have (or in my case, want) full-time (i.e. “committed”) status. Recently, a friend of mine compared the heartache and pain of job-loss with the breakup of a romantic relationship, and we discussed the nature of business today, and how employee-employer relationships are now taking on the same kind of short-term prospects that many marriages are. I don’t know if this is part of a larger social issue or not, but I found it an interesting paradigm to use. This entry was written with that parallel in mind, and many of my friends who have recently lost their jobs.


1. Allison - December 1, 2011

Very well done.

Favorite line among many contenders: “This isn’t about you.” So difficult to remember, but so very true almost 100% of the time. Not ‘you’ per se. All of us :-).

I hope this story has a happy ending if there were to be an epilogue part II because you had me with this as if it were a real break-up.

TimTheFoolMan - December 1, 2011


I have mixed feelings about saying “This isn’t about you” when I’m on that opposite side of the table. In the workplace, forced-rankings put you in a position of determining who you’re willing to give up, and in what order. In that regard, even if the driving force behind a RIF is business/financial, the choice of who to let go really is “about you.” In relationship/personal terms, doesn’t it play out the same way?

Well, I still communicate with “her,” so in that regard it’s a happy ending. I suspect that’s a far cry better than most romantic break-ups. – Tim

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