Hi, it’s Anna…All throughout this spring, you have been sending us your stories of estrangement…we asked you to tell us about, and many of you have a story to share. If you’ve listened to us for a long time, you know this is the kind of thing we do…we ask you to share your stories about big, sweeping themes, and our listened do, and then we get to put together beautiful collages of very specific stories about things that can be tough to talk about in our personal lives.
We are still collecting stories of estrangement – please share an email or voice email with us if you’ve gone through, or are going through, the experience of separating from particular relationship…or even a community. You can send them to us in our inbox at email@example.com.
One thing that’s come up as the team has talked about estrangement…is whether breakups count. Like estrangement, with breakups, there’s a stark change….something that was so close and intimate becomes…shut off, past tense.
But what’s different…is estrangement can feel like an extraordinary step…somewhat unusual…while breakups? They are so mundane…and everyday…that it can compound the pain. Like you are deeply hurting, and also, you feel like a cliche.
We made an episode all about breakups back in 2017….and it’s still among my very favorites. It’s about your romantic breakups…but also other kinds of breakups…. We’re sharing it with you again this week. I hope you enjoy it.
That's the hard thing about breakups. They change you and it's not easy to come back from.
This is Death, Sex & Money.
The show from WNYC about the things we think about a lot…
…and need to talk about more.
I’m Anna Sale.
A breakup is one of those rare things in life where there’s a clear before and after. You were together, before. A team. Now you’re separate, and you're on your own.
Cynthia Penalva went through her hardest breakup four years ago.
CYNTHIA PENALVA: He was my rock. He was my person. I really miss that.
Her breakup was with her best friend. They’d been really close for about 15 years, starting when they were teenagers growing up in Miami. They went to the same church, their families knew each other. They even worked together.
CP: So we saw each other like six days a week.
And then, one day, they had a conversation that changed everything.
CP: I remember that he was trying to beat around the bush. And I asked him are you coming out to me? And he didn’t answer that. And he was so scared, telling me. And I was so scared for him. I was just worried for him.
ANNA SALE: What were you worried about?
CP: I was worried that his family was gonna disown him. And that it would change everything between us.
AS: So he heard you saying I’m worried for you so maybe think twice about whether you want to come out because you might lose a lot.
AS: Which to him might have sounded like, don’t come out.
AS: Is there something you wish you’d said in that conversation that you didn't say?
CP: God, yeah. I relive that moment a lot. I wish I would have said, I’m here for you, how can I help? How can I make this easy for you, or who is he? I can’t wait to meet him. That kind of thing. I wish I could have said that.
AS: Have you told him that?
CP: Yes. Yes, I’ve since tried many times to reach out and open things up and try and try. But I think it’s too late.
AS: How’s your life been different not having him as a close friend?
CP: Um. It’s hard to catch other people up.
That's something I heard a lot, in your stories about breakups. The pain after a relationship ends doesn't just come from being alone. It’s that you lost this person who knew you so well.
How do you cut someone out of your life who is a part of you?
I feel like no one talks about this.
I called his mom "Mom."
And then, one day, he said he was leaving the band.
It really hurt. I just never really got the closure that I wanted.
Breakups are personal.
We've been collecting your stories for the past several months. You've sent in hundreds and hundreds of emails and voice memos, exploring all the dimensions of a break up. Being left...
She was really cold and really rude.
"Hey, we’ve gotta talk."
She just didn’t look at me in the eyes.
"It’s not you, it’s me."
And of course, those are the worst words ever.
And we heard from a lot of you who did the breaking up.
I told my husband that I was done.
Our relationship SUCKED.
I wasn't going to change, and he wasn't gonna change.
I don’t want this to be my life.
AS: Do you think you’ve decided that this isn’t gonna be a forever relationship for you?
Listener: I feel like every time I decide that, oh okay, this is it, I'm done...it’s just he’s so sweet!
Going through all your breakup stories, I was reminded how the hardest part, can be the lead-up to a breakup. Especially when you’re the one considering leaving.
STEVE: This just seems like kind of a way to wipe the slate clean and start over and just kind of burn down my life as it is and rebuild it.
This listener, who I’ll call Steve, is thinking about breaking up with his boyfriend. He’s in his mid-30s. He was 19 when they started their relationship.
STEVE: I don’t know really what it’s like to not be in one. At least as an adult. You know, part of me wants the freedom to not feel like I have to text if I’m running late, or decide on what we want for dinner together, um.
AS: Are you bored?
STEVE: Yeah, yeah.
AS: Why haven’t you broken up?
STEVE: Um, because I love him and I don’t want to hurt him. And I am scared of being, you know, older and alone and unable to find somebody else if I wanted another long-term relationship.
AS: Do you think you’re going to break up?
STEVE: Um, I mean, point blank, completely honestly, no. My guilt is I know he’s open to fixing this and I worry that I’m not - I'm going to basically keep staying in the relationship and resenting him for keeping me in a relationship that is perfectly good, but that I still just wonder about.
A few days after we talked, Steve sent us an email. "I regret saying I resent my boyfriend" Steve wrote. "He loves me enthusiastically and without reservation, and I resent my own inability to fully return that love."
When's it's more about you than your partner, breaking up can be really confusing. You can't just blame everything on the person you're leaving.
A listener named Mia sent in a voice memo about deciding to breakup with her boyfriend after six years. It's a choice she still struggles with.
Mia: I realized I just wasn't happy. It wasn't anything that he had said or done. So I left. One day, about six months after we broke up, I told him that I couldn't talk to him on the phone anymore because it just made me too sad. Shortly after, he met a girl. And I’ve never heard from him again. That was three years ago. I think that breakups aren’t black and white. Even if you break up with someone that doesn't mean that it’s not ripping your heart out.
But breakups are not always sad. They can feel like a liberation, especially when you invest a lot of time and energy trying not to breakup. That's how it felt for Beth in Philadelphia, when she left her marriage after eight years.
BETH: I mean, I fell out of love with this person. And I was just so racked with guilt for a very long time about how I had committed in front of all these people to stay with him through thick and thin. It gave me so much shame to think that I could change my mind.
AS: What was the moment when you realized I have to get out of this relationship?
BETH: I was, uh, I mean there were so many little signs. And then one day, I ride my bike a lot, everywhere I go, so I spend a lot of time thinking on my bicycle rides. I was in the middle of a commute and every day I would think about what we were going through and what should I do, and how can I fix this? And then just completely involuntarily I just choked out the words "I don’t want to be married."
AS: You said it out loud.
BETH: Yeah. It’s like I just couldn’t hold it in any longer.
Beth’s husband moved out within a few months. Their divorce was finalized a year later.
BETH: And then, oddly enough (laughs) I met someone very quickly and got remarried.
BETH: Yeah (laughs). Which is the last thing I thought I would have wanted. It just kind of happened.
AS: Do you wish you’d initiated the divorce sooner?
BETH: Yes. I just wish I’d been more honest about my feelings sooner. I think it could have spared us both a good deal of pain.
JOUVON EVANS: We're just not meant to be in a relationship with each other and that's okay.
Honesty and directness are key to Jouvon Evans' breakups. She sent in this voice memo from Windsor, Ontario. She describes herself as a "serial breaker-upper." And she has it down to a science.
JE: I prepare a speech. Like, bullet point notes. I definitely like to do it face to face because I want that person to be able to have their fair share and say their piece, because I know that the reason that people go back to each other is because they didn’t say everything or didn’t explain or communicate everything that they felt during the breakup. And nope, I’m not doing this back and forth with you.
Of course, you don't always get the opportunity in a breakup to say your piece. Sometimes, your relationship is just over with no warning. That's what happened to a listener named Drew, in Iowa.
DREW: I think I've always been a person, like, you could tell me if you didn't want to be with me or if something was wrong.
It was about a year into their relationship when Drew's boyfriend asked him to take care of his dog while he went out of town. He told Drew he'd be back in a week.
DREW: One week turned into two or three, turned into a month, turned into a couple months. And eventually by the time the fall came around it had become apparent to me—or at least I had come out of my own delusion I guess—that he wasn’t coming back.
AS: Do you know why he left your relationship?
DREW: I don’t. I don't. And to this day that’s really the most difficult part about it. Just, you know, the imagination spins up and you end up concocting narratives and what ifs, and what did I do wrong, assigning blame. And that’s the most damaging thing.
Also causing damage was his boyfriend’s dog.
DREW: This dog had a lot of separation anxiety and eventually after destroying a couple of different kennels he just burrowed right through the wall to get out and try to get to me. And there was no interaction about the issue. Trying to call. Trying to text. And just not having any response. That was obviously the first signal of the road down to recognizing this had been over and I wasn’t informed.
AS: Did you get angry?
DREW: At first, yeah. As a matter of fact, it was the following summer he was in town very very briefly and I agreed to have lunch with him. At that point I was resentful but about all I could muster was to just say "Hey, this is fucked up." And I just left it at that.
AS: That’s amazing. I would come up with other things to say than just that. (Laughs)
DREW: (Laughs) Right. That was about all I could muster.
AS: What kind of relationship do you have with the dog?
DREW: Actually very good. It’s been kind of funny because it’s the best part of my day, when I walk in through the door after getting home from work, the dog goes absolutely ape shit. It’s actually been kind of nice to have him around.
AS: And just one final question. You noted in your email that you - that you're not in touch. Do you know what he's doing now?
DREW: I don't. I guess, sort of the, little bit darker part of me, when I'm sleepless at night, every once in awhile I’ll just Google his name, just to make sure no obituaries come up.
Drew wishes he could know why their breakup happened. But with no communication, he has to figure out how to move on without any answers. A lot of you had different opinions about whether staying in touch after a breakup was the right move. Sometimes, though, a clean ending isn't even possible. You have to figure out how to move forward, together. Like when you're related.
MATTHEW SLUTSKY: When that moving van pulled out of New York, it did feel like screw you in a way.
Matthew Slutsky wrote in about his relationship with his identical twin brother. They're 35 years old and for their whole lives, they've been close. Really close.
MS: We lived together. We did a lot of work together.
They went to the same college...
MS: We wrote "Please consider our applications together."
They got engaged the same summer...
MS: And then, same thing with our weddings.
They lived in the same neighborhood in Brooklyn. They even had the same car. Honda Civics, different colors.
PETER SLUTSKY: We always were, I think, expected to kind of move in one stream, and so we did that.
That’s Peter, Matthew's twin. A few months ago he moved with his wife and baby to Philadelphia, where the twins grew up. Matthew says it felt like he was dumped when Peter moved away. It was the final blow after a few years of drifting apart that started when they both had kids.
MS: Parenting between brothers doesn’t happen. Parenting happens between partners and spouses. And this structure that we had built, this way of being in the world, I feel no longer was supported and no longer possible when we had kids and for me that was really the hardest time. Trying to keep that sameness when things were diverging and we had two very different—amazing, but different—children in front of us.
PS: But it is kind of cool that we have this chance to meet these two new kids and bring them into these separate lives which is something that we've never had the ability to really do before.
AS: Hm. Your daughter saw you as an individual without your brother.
PS: Yeah. She sees me as an individual. And I really do think that as part of that, I am starting to see myself as an individual. I think that’s one of the dynamics that’s come out of fatherhood. This opportunity to be my own person and to do this in a way that’s really me, and not the team. Not the Slutsky brothers.
But now, Matthew and his family are now considering their own move to Philadelphia.
MS: Of course whenever I tell anyone that we’re considering this, they say, "Of course you are, because your brother did." And that is a dagger in my side. That really hurts. And I want to make sure that I’m perfectly clear within myself that if we move, it’s our decision that is in the best interest of our family. And if we do it, making sure that it’s a different relationship that we have and that I’m not doing it because my brother did. I’ve heard stories of married couples that get divorced and then get remarried and think about their second marriage as the first. And if and when we do move closer together and kind of get that physical closeness back, I really want it to be a new relationship.
NAN BAUER-MAGLIN: He emailed all our friends and he wanted support about returning and I felt like, how can I trust him?
More about what happens after breakups, including one woman’s story about rebuilding a marriage after her husband left her for his grad student.
NB: My daughter discovered he was on Facebook with her, so I got furious and so he unfriended her.
This is Death, Sex & Money from WNYC. I’m Anna Sale.
After a breakup, there is the recovery from a breakup. And it can be really hard to predict how long that will take.
SIMON: When we broke up, there was a span of like half a year, a year, when I still thought fondly of her. I think that’s what they say about heroin users, right? You just remember the good times.
This is Simon. That’s not his real name.
SIMON: The bad things that happened… the fights, the violence. It wasn’t part of the memory.
Simon wrote in about a relationship that ended about two and a half years ago. He met his girlfriend at a bar. Soon after, they were spending every night together.
But their relationship was a tumultuous one. There was a lot of fighting. Sometimes, he says, things got physical.
SIMON: There was a time when I think she had picked me up from work and another fight broke out. She said, that's it, I’m driving you home. At some point within a couple miles from her house, she just hauled off with a closed fist and cracked me in the face once, twice, three times in a row.
AS: Punched you?
SIMON: Oh yeah. Right in the cheek, cheekbone area.
AS: Did it hurt?
SIMON: Oh yeah. You don’t really anticipate how hard someone can hit until you actually get hit by them. It was uh, I saw a few stars.
AS: Did you think about leaving the relationship right then?
SIMON: (Sighs) No. And I think that’s when - I really do think that's when I realized I was experiencing what - I had girl friends who had domestic violence issues before and of course it was always like, why don’t you just leave? And when I would think about leaving, it was like, you know what, the things that I’m in it for outweigh those once a month blowup fights.
AS: Did you tell anyone she was violent with you?
SIMON: Not for awhile. Um, when I would talk to friends about it, my friends would either say, well, it’s not that big of a deal. You’re a guy, just hold her arms down until she stops. Or it was, shock and appalled that they couldn’t see it from the outside when it was going on.
AS: Could you just hold her arms down?
The fighting continued. And Simon told me, it got worse.
SIMON: There was one night where she pushed me down half a flight of stairs in the apartment.
He broke up with her after that. They got back together. And then, she broke up with him.
SIMON: It’s not to say I didn’t try to get back with her a few times. Which I think is the nature of domestic violence against you. You just always feel like maybe that was right where I needed to be. Or maybe it was something that I actually did wrong this whole time.
AS: Did she break your heart?
SIMON: Yeah. Yeah. Um. And I think that even now it’s still broken.
AS: If you could be back together with her, would you?
SIMON: That’s a question I think I deal with maybe more often than I’d like to admit. But yeah, I think there is plenty of things, I think back, and she unwittingly became the measuring stick from which I compare all of the relationships to. Whether it be the ability to be emotionally vulnerable or the personality types, the witty exchanges. Or the sex. Everything is always used as, "Well, I’ve had better." I do sincerely worry that I might not ever have better. And that's an uncomfortable thing to admit when the person who I’m talking about could make me feel scared for my life. All the things that have been threatened just by the things that she’s done. It’s really uncomfortable to say. But yeah. I think I would.
NB: I think about, why do people return to someone who’s hurt you so much? And I just felt like we had too much between us.
Nan Bauer-Maglin and her husband are one of those couples for whom a breakup didn’t last. She was 60 years old when they split up. Her husband was 61.
NB: He fell in love with his student who was 25. And it came as rather a great shock, actually.
AS: What was it like those first days after he moved out?
NB: Terrible. I thought about suicide. You know, there’s a great feeling of rejection especially, I think, if you’re older. You feel like an older woman who will never have another relationship. You just feel ugly and invisible and sad and quite gray. The feeling of grayness was very strong.
AS: Did you stay in touch with him after he moved out?
NB: Yeah, we did. And that might have - it might have been a mistake. I kept debating it. We emailed every day and talked every day, except on weekends. But then after about a year or a year and a half, I just decided I didn’t want to do that. If I wanted to move on, I had to let go. And so we stopped. And it was pretty soon after that it that he decided he wanted to return. And it was very hard because I felt like how do I know this is going to be it? But then again, we had 25 years between us and a family and everything and I just, I wanted to return to that relationship.
AS: How did you deal with the humiliation of your friends witnessing this whole thing and then reconciling?
NB: I don’t think I dealt with it well. I felt very humiliated. Very embarrassed. Very ashamed in certain ways. Like a failure. I felt all my rhetoric about being a strong independent woman was undermined and revealed that actually all I wanted was to be in a couple. And, a number of my friends were very angry that I decided to return to him and didn’t want to talk to him and didn’t want to see us. But actually I learned some things from the breakup.
AS: What did you learn that you wanted to change?
NB: Well, I learned that I was too negative. And that I nagged. And that little things bothered me. And all of that went away when we returned. It just wasn’t important anymore.
Like her husband, Nan was a college professor. And after they got back together, she published a book about the experience of being broken up with as an older woman. She titled it "Cut Loose."
NB: First I was gonna call it "Dumped." But that’s so negative. You're cut loose, you're betrayed, they break up with you. But "Cut Loose" is also about freedom. I sort of knew that I could be on my own and I had friends and I was very committed to keeping all my relationships.
Nan and her husband were together for 13 more years. And then, this past summer, he suddenly got sick. He died a week after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
NB: The horrible part was that we didn’t have really time to talk about anything, or to talk to each other or talk to the kids. Because it was so fast.
AS: Did your time apart and when you were broken up, did the feelings of abandonment from back then resurface in any way?
NB: It did and I thought a lot about the similarities and differences to that experience.
AS: What felt the same?
NB: The same was that I knew I was going to be totally lonely. And there was a sense of anger. I think people feel that when someone dies. I thought, you know, why did he do this? Didn’t he know it was going to be so hard? But I knew he couldn’t help himself. Whereas the first time I was angry and he could have helped himself. Um, but it’s much better, because I don’t feel rejected.
AS: Do you feel cut loose at all now?
NB: Yes. Yes. I think death cuts you loose and also pushes you towards, if you’re older, towards thinking about dying a lot. In some ways I would like to die. Because I miss him a lot. But also I don’t want to die because I want to see all the kids grow up—the grandkids, I mean, the kids are grown up—and I want to see them prosper.
AS: Yeah. When you think back on your marriage and your love story with your husband, do you think it’s a good one?
NB: Oh, entirely. Even the bad parts. But I also feel the loss a great deal.
MICHELLE: You know the stages of grief? I kind of went through all of those. I started reading more about divorce and death.
AS: You said death?
MICHELLE: Yeah, like divorce as a death in the family. Just the stages of grief and how you allow yourself to grieve.
A woman we're calling Michelle is going through a divorce right now. She called me while her five-year-old daughter was at school.
MICHELLE: I have somebody looking up at me. She depends on me for everything. It’s just sad.
AS: You’re being watched by someone that you want to protect.
MICHELLE: Absolutely. I can’t have those ugly breakdown moments. You know? I can’t let her see me that way. Sometimes I’ll snap at her and I’ll apologize later. But, I kind of am grieving in silence. At night when she goes to to bed, or when she’s not here, or maybe sometimes when I’m at work, I’ll have a breakdown on the way to the car, or whatever, you know.
AS: What is it that you’re crying for?
MICHELLE: I thought we were better than this, you know? I thought we were better than the infidelities, the resentment, the contempt. All of the stuff that happens and builds up in marriages throughout years. It just grows and then it explodes. I mean there were so many things wrong in the marriage and I’m glad that I made the decision that I did. But it’s still just incredibly sad because I feel like I broke my daughter’s heart. That’s - that is maybe one of the toughest things. You know?
AS: Yeah. When your daughter’s not around, when you’re by yourself, when a wave of sadness hits you. What do you do?
MICHELLE: I close my eyes. I go into myself and I just focus on my breath and I say over and over in my head, focus on me. I have to focus on my breath. That’s the only thing that I can control. Focus on my breath.
THOMAS: The only thing that I’ve got going for me is that I’m breathing. Trying to remember that. Still breathing.
This listener, whom we're calling Thomas, sent in this voice memo. He’s also right in the middle of a divorce.
THOMAS: I’m not sure if I’m mourning for the relationship or for the waste of time. It’s hard to see that there was really any value in the relationship at all.
Thomas is 25. He and his wife got married right out of college. Two years in, he found text messages she was sending another man.
THOMAS: That was the first time. And we tried fixing things after that. But that didn’t work and there was a second time. So this kind of repeated. And that was really difficult for me. And my house felt like a hostile place. So I asked her to leave.
AS: And you’re young. You’re at an age when I imagine many of your friends are not married. Do you know many people who’ve gone through divorce?
THOMAS: Not really, actually. At least growing up I never knew anybody who was divorced. I have met a couple of people through work more recently, but that’s it. I really don’t know anybody.
AS: How much are you talking with your ex?
AS: What are you talking about?
THOMAS: We rely on each other for emotional support to just - like we’re the only people who understand what happened to the other person. She reassures me that things are gonna go all right.
AS: Are you looking forward to your divorce being final?
THOMAS: In some ways. But only - I think those ways will be very fleeting. The scariest part for me is what else comes with that. Because I have to figure out where to live. I have to just figure out who I am. Like every box that I get to check I get closer to having to be on my own and figure out my own shit.
THOMAS: And that’s hard.
AS: Yeah. I got divorced when I was 30. Do you have any questions for me?
THOMAS: So many questions.
THOMAS: How do you look back on your marriage? Your first marriage?
AS: Oh, that is a big question. (Laughs.) With many answers. I look back on it now, and, um. And it feels like a completely different version of my life. It feels like a long time ago. I also think of it now like, with a kind of, um, compassion for both of us because we were young and we were figuring out a lot together. But I definitely feel like after that marriage was over, I felt stronger than I had ever had - like I never, it just summoned more from me than I ever had been asked of before. You know? When everything was wiped away, what did I want to build back? And that was terrifying and it also was such an incredible opportunity because you get to think about what are the things that you want in your life, and what’s important.
THOMAS: That’s good to hear. That’s really good to hear.
That’s a listener we called Thomas.
Since we first ran this episode five years ago, the listeners I talked to have experienced some big changes. The listener we called “Thomas” told us he’s now engaged. He and his fiance started dating in the fall of 2020 and they’re planning to get married later this year. (He emailed the update from a vacationing together in Tuscany…)
Cynthia told us that as a result of the episode, she reconnected with her childhood best friend. She says their friendship is better than it has ever been… she actually moved in with “Ben” and they quarantined together in 2020 while she finished her PhD dissertation.
Beth…who told us about the exhilarating period after the end of her first marriage..is remarried and lives with her husband and 4-year-old in the Philadelphia suburbs and reminisces on the freedom she felt after her first marriage ended in divorce. She said she loves her family, also misses those post-breakup days of eating black olives from a can for dinner and being alone.
Drew, whose break-up came as a complete surprise, says it’s still the best part of his day to come home to his dog. He’s happier than ever with his current boyfriend and writes, “With any luck, there won’t be anymore breakup stories coming from me.”
And Nan, now 80, told us she started dating again a year after her husband passed. She met a man she liked, and they’ve been seeing each other for four years.
Oh…and me? My divorce was 11 years ago now. I’ll celebrate my seventh wedding anniversary with my husband Arthur this summer, along with our two little kids.
Death, Sex & Money is a listener-supported production of WNYC Studios in New York. Our team is Julia Furlan, Zoe Azulay, Afi Yellow-Duke, Emily Botein and Andrew Dunn. Katie Bishop, Chester Jesus Soria and Adriana Rush contributed to this episode.
Our intern is Lilly Clark.
The Reverend John Delore and Steve Lewis wrote our theme music.
You can email our show at firstname.lastname@example.org…with your reactions, stories, or story ideas. . And subscribe to our weekly newsletter at deathsexmoney.org/newsletter.
And remember…breakups are losses, that also make way for something new. For Beth, the woman who decided to get divorced on her bike ride, a new ritual provided some comfort after her husband moved out and took most of their furniture with him.
BETH: It was so empty. I have these beautiful hardwood floors and so I would just dance. I would get home from work and I would drink some wine and then just play all the terrible music that I wasn’t encouraged to listen to during my marriage.
AS: Is there a particular song that you remember dancing to?
BETH: A lot of Enya.
AS: (Laughs) You really went there. You were like, self care man.
BETH: Yeah. My poor neighbors.
I’m Anna Sale, and this is Death, Sex & Money from WNYC.