Breathe. Let Go. Repeat: Getting Over the Guilt of Letting Go

Words by Elaine Mead

Recently I had the opportunity to see The Minimalists do a live talk and podcast Q&A. If you’re unfamiliar with Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus and the work they do as minimalists, they are worth seeking out. They offer some excellent insights and ideas around how to live a more fulfilling life by seeking joy in the things that bring true value into your life, other than just stuff.

The most interesting part of this talk was the live Q&A with audience members approaching the stage to pose their burning questions around different areas of minimalism to the two. The final question of the night was from a young man who asked about the end of relationships, and letting go of the guilt that often comes when a relationship ends.

As the final question, Ryan and Josh weren’t able to go into overt detail. But it did get my mind firing off into different corners of my memory, reflecting on ideas of letting go and guilt in relation to relationships.

Across society there are patterns that exist when it comes to the end of relationships. More often than not relationships do not end amicably, and there is the propensity for individuals surrounding the couple to take sides. Most of us will be aware of the outcomes of this. Mutual acquaintances suddenly start giving you the cold shoulder. Your own friends and family will put the departed partner down, advise you it is all for the best. Tell you to move on – and swiftly.

Well established though they may be, none of these are particularly helpful – or healthy – patterns of support.

Letting go in relationships is a long journey, and it involves a lot more than we initially allow room for. It can take many years to fully go through the process of letting go and learning from the experience.

I’ve experienced break-ups of both endings – amicable and definitely not amicable. With the amicable relationships, there comes a small sense of achievement. It takes a fair amount of emotional work to be able to have a conversation with someone that essentially begins with ‘I don’t love you anymore’, knowing the intense pain that statement inflicts.

Even more emotional work is required though, to get through the guilt that follows.

This guilt usually leads us to do odd things. We give in to the requests to remain friends, when in fact we’d really rather now distance ourselves. We feel the need to allow our inflicted ex-lover this request – and we were friends before, we can return to this status again surely?

This guilt can linger for a long time. We respond politely to drunk texts, the ‘accidental’ phone calls, the hopeful invites to coffee. We maintain some enthusiasm to see them when we are out, and we continue to participate in social events where we know our paths will cross.

Although we may have successfully let go of the romantic aspect of the relationship, we are still being held accountable through our guilt. The guilt of letting go of our part in ending the relationship.

By giving into this guilt, we give into the whims of someone we have decided we no longer want to interact with. The trouble is that by doing this, we are simply delaying the inevitable.

When we keep these doors open, it only makes it more difficult when we do reach a point when that door needs to be closed more firmly. By giving into our exes whims, even as a ‘friend’ rather than a lover, we invite their negative behaviour when we finally do decide to let go of our guilt.

This causes a drama that is two-fold. Our ex partner finally experiences the jilt they should have had at the beginning of the end of the relationship. They may suddenly feel they are not being treated fairly, and the knock to their ego is instantaneous. They may experience this even more harshly than perhaps during the initial break-up, as they have been allowed free reign to think you still hold them in high regard despite ending the relationship. In the process of now removing them from your social media or not responding to unwarranted messages, you have removed this false impression.

For us, it creates a new surge of guilt as we have to deal with the negative behavior that they (and those around them) now start exhibiting towards us. We may have ended the relationship years ago, but our recent decision to finally let go of our guilt, shut the door on our past and surge forward with a new chapter, is now coming full circle as we have to deal with the behaviours we sought to avoid.

The Minimalists in their response to the question around letting go of guilt made two very valid points;

  1. You have to ask yourself, ‘have I done everything I can?’ if you can answer that question peacefully then you are in the right to be letting go, even of your guilt.
  2. You have to meet your guilt head on and push right through.


I think these are important statements. If you are able to say honestly you did everything you could, then you owe it to yourself to pursue the second statement. To push through your guilt and not let it prevent you from letting go in its totality. We end relationships because they aren’t right for us. By allowing guilt to fuel your interactions post break-up, you do your ex the disservice of being able to fully explore the growth that can come from the experience. By providing them reassurance via your guilt, they can’t fully reflect on the role they played in the relationship that led to its dissolution.

Let go of your guilt quickly and surely. Don’t feel guilty for what that looks like for you either – if it’s removing them from social media, deleting photos, not responding to messages, declining coffee catch ups – letting go is about you and no one else.

Will it be easy? No. The grieving process is harrowing for both sides, but it has to be faced head on. No party should offer consolation through false means. If your ex was a nightmare who invalidated you at every turn, allowing a friendship with them in the aftermath won’t indicate to them that they have sincere work to do on the self. Think about point number one.

Do the things you know you need to do to close that chapter as you close it.

Both parties will reap the benefits in the long run.


Art by @ododua.aum

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