My Broken Engagement Saved Me

An attempt to explain what went wrong

by Amanda Balgaard

woman sitting alone and holding cup of coffee

When there’s a beautiful sparkly rock on your finger and everyone is cooing over your new status as a fiancée, it’s very easy to stifle the small but insistent doubts that keep whispering in your ear. After all, you’ve been “chosen” by someone. You’re welcomed into this strange club where everyone smiles at you and thrills in the happiness they assume you’re feeling, and it can be easy to get swept up in that current.

When I became engaged, my brain kept assuring me this was what I wanted, but my body was crying out in a million ways that marrying myself to this man would be a mistake. For months, I was locked in a painful stalemate between my body, my mind, and my heart. The man I was engaged to was offering me a deep and special love. It came from an honest and vulnerable place in his heart. I have no doubt that our love for each other was real and good. Because of this, I brushed off reservations that pestered me.

I thought that if you love each other enough, you can make it work. To willingly walk away from love seemed utterly foolish. But for some reason, the alchemy of the two of us together did something strange to my being. My joy fizzled and hummed at a dangerously low vibration. Despite the affection between us, I felt small and sad and confused in our relationship.

I desperately tried to work through these feelings, to share them with him, to get support, to get answers. I read books and articles about how “doubt doesn’t always mean don’t” and how fears and worries and sadness during engagement are normal. Being engaged can cause a complex array of emotions to reveal themselves even when you are sure of the relationship. But as much as I tried to wrestle with these ideas and reconcile my fears, that small voice begging me to end it never went away. In secret, I read articles about ending engagements. I struggled with guilt and felt paralyzed by uncertainty.

Relationships take patience and communication and intention, but I was barely getting enough energy from the relationship to help me get through those times of trial. I felt minimized in ways that were hard to put into words. My hair was falling out, my skin was a wreck, and I was often plagued with stomachaches. It was easy to blame it on the stress of wedding planning, which certainly didn’t help, but it was so much more than that. I was losing myself in a terrifying way. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was emptying myself out, that I was dying inside, that I was withering away into a fraction of the person I knew I could be.

One day, for no particular reason, a few things happened that finally hit the tipping point. They weren’t profound moments, but my energy was so depleted at that point from the internal struggle that something broke in my body, and my head and my heart finally got the same message. The stalemate ended and every last bit of energy, strength, and courage in me rushed to do what needed to be done. I found the words to end it. I found the strength to pack up my things and leave. I found the bravery to break the heart of someone I dearly loved.

In the end, I came to the conclusion that we were deeply incompatible in a way that drained me dry. And it can be hard to give that as a reason to people when they ask why, because it doesn’t feel concrete enough. But that gut feeling is something I’m trying to listen to more.

I have cried a lot since my broken engagement. For the loss of love, yes, but also in mourning for the parts of myself that I stifled, silenced, and diminished along the way. There are tears of deep sadness, but also infinite grace and tremendous relief. For me, the right relationship will be expanding, life-giving, and energizing at its core (even on the days when it’s not these things). I may yet find someone with whom I can create this kind of relationship. Until then, I will be reclaiming the parts of myself that I lost, brushing them off, loving them, whispering kindness to them, and polishing them until they shine.

Amanda Balgaard

Amanda is an English teacher living in Minneapolis, Minnesota (the best-kept secret of the North). While she’s a teacher by day, she’s a writer, singer, dancer, and professional organizer by night. She stays sane by drinking pink bubbly, curating her ’80s ballads Pandora station, and remembering to live with gratitude.

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  • Megan

    Wow. Just, wow. This was so beautiful and honest and raw. Thank you for sharing.

  • lnf

    Thank you for your story. I want to applaud you for listening to your gut. I feel like so many of us have been conditioned to think that our gut instincts are wrong – that it’s just your inner crazy talking. Maybe that’s just me. But whenever I have an extreme gut feeling, my automatic response is, “No, be reasonable, think about this logically.” Even though sometimes, you can’t process these sorts of feelings logically – at least, not easily. I am where you were, but I didn’t listen. I ignored my inner vocie, and we got married. Three years in, we are months into counseling, and I can’t shake the feeling, the deep, intense feeling, that we do not fit together.

    Your line really hit me: “I came to the conclusion that we were deeply incompatible in a way that drained me dry. And it can be hard to give that as a reason to people when they ask why, because it doesn’t feel concrete enough.” Talking about this with friends or family can be impossible. People want a reason – someone cheated, you don’t feel the same about having children, you don’t want the same things in life, etc. It’s harder to explain when you realize that your personalities don’t mesh together in the way that you thought they did. It’s hard to explain why that matters – why you can be in a relationship with a decent, good person who loves you very much and decide it’s not enough. If someone hasn’t been through that feeling, I think it’s incredibly difficult to understand.

    So, again – good for you. I wish you the best in your new start.

    • Hugs to you, Inf.

    • Thank you, Inf. Sending peace and deeper understanding to you in your own journey right now as you’re working through these things with your husband.

  • Genevieve

    I hear you. I’ve been there and I can promise you it does get better. Good luck. I suspect you’ll look back at this as one of the most difficult yet strongest and best decisions you’ll ever make.

  • Danielle

    TBH, I broke off an engagement several years ago, when I was deeply unhappy in a relationship. When he told me he cheated, my heart was broken, but at the same time a deep sense of *relief* filled me. I finally had a reason to leave him!

    It says a lot that I needed a “reason” like that to leave.

    Recently I’ve been reading “All the Single Ladies” by Rebecca Traister and it’s SO GOOD. It’s reminding me that there’s this fear of being single in our society, that staying in an unhappy relationship is often considered better than being happy by yourself, and I’m really questioning this cultural rhetoric.

    • stephanie

      I’ve been wanting to read it! This pushed me to buy.

      • Danielle

        Omg it’s sooo good!!!

    • Yes, that book is absolutely on my summer reading list, too!

  • Annabelle

    “In the end, I came to the conclusion that we were deeply incompatible in
    a way that drained me dry. And it can be hard to give that as a reason
    to people when they ask why, because it doesn’t feel concrete enough.
    But that gut feeling is something I’m trying to listen to more.”

    Screw anyone who doesn’t think incompatibility isn’t enough of a reason. It’s the biggest and best reason of all to end it. At least you saved yourself from the inevitable divorce. I wish I had done the same.

    He and I are friends still. We have helped each other. Doesn’t mean we should have married though.

  • Liz

    I want to reach through the interwebs and give you a gigantic hug. I had similar feelings/reservations and ended an engagement in 2014. It was an immensely challenging period of my life, but one of the best decisions I’ve made. My only advise is to be kind to yourself. Nurture and care for yourself in the ways that work best for you. Wish you all the best.

    • Thank you, Liz! And thanks for the hugs. :)

  • Violet

    This was so good. I’d send you strength, but it seems you have it in spades already. So instead I’ll just say that I hope others who are covertly Googling right now, as you did then, find this and take hope from your experience.

  • Helen

    I applaud your self awareness! Retrospectively, my first engagement joy hummed at a dangerously low level too. I bulldozed ahead (as I often do) and didn’t even stop to analyse my feelings. We had a really lovely relationship, and I don’t like to absolve myself of my part in its breakdown by chalking it up to incompatibility, but I always wonder how differently it might have turned out if I’d looked harder at what I wanted.

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  • JL

    Breaking up my ex-fiance was the best thing that ever happened to me. Surely in the moment it was terrible but I am so much happier and engaged to a man who is WAY better. I know it is painful now, but you did the right thing and when you find the right relationship you will know it deep in your spirit.

  • Lauren

    This absolutely resonated with me, as I broke up my 6-year relationship last year (not engaged, mostly due to my reticence). I didn’t realize it at the time, but I think subconsciously I was wrestling with this choice for months, having trouble sleeping and constantly feeling either listless or restless.

    I don’t really question that I made the right choice, but sometimes it’s bothered me that I couldn’t really come back to a solid “reason” for the necessity of the breakup that seems.. satisfying. I do feel that I wasn’t excited about my future while in that relationship, and the line here about mourning the loss of those parts of yourself you “stifled, silenced, and diminished” really struck a chord – I feel like there were so many tiny things that I either knowingly or unknowingly gave up or conceded on during the course of that relationship, bit by bit, to the point where my future didn’t even feel like mine anymore. The person I’d become didn’t feel like me, but a dull, faded version of myself… and it’s only now that I am slowly uncovering those pieces of myself.

    Thank you for this. It’s a fresh reminder of why I’m going through this period of my life, and helps me to focus on what I hope to get out of it. All the best to you during your own period of rediscovery.

    • Same to you, Lauren! Thank you for your thoughts and encouragement. I applaud you for doing what you needed to do even though it was hard to explain the “why” in a satisfying way initially.

  • Louise Danger

    /hug for you, if you’d like one

    “The stalemate ended and every last bit of energy, strength, and courage in me rushed to do what needed to be done. I found the words to end it. I found the strength to pack up my things and leave. I found the bravery to break the heart of someone I dearly loved.” I don’t remember what the specific catalyst was in my own previous engagement, but I distinctly remember the deep breath I took before I said the words and the shot of adrenaline that accompanied that blind leap. And I remember being cold, icy cold, distant, while his world melted around him and he sobbed, but I just couldn’t feel that same passion any more. Mine had gone long ago. For me, the hardest part of breaking the engagement and the relationship was throwing out our mini Christmas tree that we’d decorated together.

    Things will get better. And I know everyone says that, but it’s true. It takes time. And it sounds like you’re on the right path. Flinging open the curtains in you after the rooms have been dark and silent for a while is such a healing and energizing journey to start. I wish you the best and thank you for sharing your story with everyone.

    • Thank you for the encouragement, Louise. Sending hugs to you too!

  • Kayjayoh

    One very difficult break up was about a year post college. We had been dating for about three years and were living together. I realized that, while we had no *reason* to break up, we also shouldn’t be married. If we stayed together, at some point that would come up. Once I realized “I love this person, I like this person, I absolutely cannot be married to this person” I had to end thing. And not having a *reason* made it so, so difficult.

  • E. K. H.

    Just remember that the point of marriage is to give love with not a second thought to what you could/should/want to receive.

    • This is definitely something I struggled with too in this experience, my belief that marriage should be this selfless union, that you should give more than you get, etc. And I still believe that. But it’s also a fine balance in standing up for what you know you need and holding each other to high standards. I wrestled with these two notions a lot.

  • Mallory

    This definitely hits home. Leaving someone you care about deeply is so so hard. Having left a decade long relationship 3 years into our marriage was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. And like you, it was months of a deep gut feeling that it wasn’t the right thing and my heart battling my head until a seemingly normal day when I couldn’t bear it any longer and told him I was leaving. It would have been easier if we had been screaming and throwing dishes at each other, but we weren’t. We were just slowly asphixiating our relationship and becoming shells of ourselves.

    Sending you internet hugs and reminding you that you are so very brave.

    • Thank you, Mallory. Sending the hugs back. :)

  • up_at_Dawn

    I’ve been going through something similar. Or was. I ended my engagement back in October. It was one of the hardest things I had to do, tell someone that I loved, and that I had been with for over 5 years that I could not marry him.

    Though I think I can point to more concrete reasons why I didn’t work. On many levels we were wrong for each other. On some level I actually struggled to respect him.

    it’s gotten easier for me, I hope it gets easier for you too.
    Many internet hugs.

  • Anna

    We weren’t engaged, but we had been dating for close to ten years, and I had strongly considered us “pre-engaged,” when I finally gathered the courage to break up. In retrospect I now see a painful turning point in our relationship at about the seven year mark. I pushed too strongly about getting engaged, essentially proposing to him but not quite, and he told me he wasn’t ready. I saw the fear in his eyes though, there were these five awful minutes where I thought we were on the cusp of proposing/accepting and he realized that I thought we were really there and I saw that his body could. not. do this. But we were young and tensions were high because of other big life changes, and so at the time I saw that as “he’s not ready YET.” In retrospect I understand that he was saying, “I CAN’T.” He likely didn’t realize it either, so we kept dating for close to three years, but each year we sailed further and further away from each other.

    A year later, we still talk. Just this week he sent me a message and I only realized after I responded that he was turning to me for emotional support during a stressful time. I oscillate: sometimes I’m frustrated that he still looks to me for things, other times I feel this deep well of kindness towards him, now that I don’t have the stress of having to hitch myself to his star. And a year later, my social media stalking is for real easing up, not just me being all, “oh look I totally haven’t checked his profiles in like several hours.”

    By the end I just knew in my heart that I was trying to fit myself into a container that was the wrong shape and size for me. Sure it can be lonely outside the comforting walls of the ill-fitting container, but it is such a relief to have my whole self back, and to no longer demean myself because I couldn’t fit inside this thing that wasn’t the right shape for me anyway.

    I’m dating a man I was friends with for several years, and knows my back story more or less. In conversation recently, I referenced something I was afraid of because it had been a source of real stress and incompatibility in my last relationship. My man just said, “Thank you for your strength, with [last guy.]”

    There are a lot of unknowns in my current relationship. If we stay together it will soon transition to long distance. But no matter what happens next, I cannot describe how freeing it feels to come to the person I’m dating and say, “this is me, this is my shape, these are my scared parts and my hard parts,” and he just nods and says thank you and kisses me.

    • “…I was trying to fit myself into a container that was the wrong shape and size for me.” YES. I so appreciate all these lovely, thoughtful comments sharing your own experiences. Thank you!

  • Anon.

    Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
    This website and its authors have helped me so much trough the years.
    (hint : if you’re in a relationship and the text you love most to read on APW are about divorce, red flag is up)

  • anon today

    good for you for realizing this before getting married. i can so so relate – but my moment of clarity hit about a year after we were married. i realized that things weren’t changing, that it wasn’t the transition – that fundamentally at my core this wasn’t the person to match my essence. once i admitted it myself, it was so clear and i knew what i had to do. i feel awful that i didn’t have that moment before the wedding, but i kept telling myself that in order to go through the transition and the feelings, i needed to get to the other side of the rite of passage. congrats on listening to yourself and taking action for yourself. that’s admirable self love right there and will serve you immensely. you just set a powerful precedent of self care and it will make that it that much harder to not be true to yourself in the future. :) xxx

    • Those “rites of passage” can be such a mind bender. I am such a supporter of embracing rites of passage, but I totally fell into the trap of blaming the transition instead of looking hard at the two of us together. Thank you for your kind words.

  • runaway bride

    thank you for sharing your story! although i’m sure the finer points were very different, about two and a half years ago i found myself in a near identical state of being; engaged, emotionally drained, exhausted, and actually quite uncomfortable. the cognitive dissonance of choking back tears (of paralyzed guilt) to smile for engagement photos probably should have tipped me off to how wrong things were, but i persisted.

    on paper, there was nothing really wrong with the relationship; we loved and cared for each other deeply, got along well with each others’ families, had built a shared life together, etc. there was a shiny rock on my hand and we were six months out from the wedding. what could be wrong with that? except i was exhausted all the time, drained by the energy he required and absorbed without effort. i ignored the nights i woke up sobbing, pushed away the dreams of drowning, and stubbornly plowed ahead (draining myself even further). instead of listening to the gnawing feeling that getting married was absolutely the wrong thing to do, i planned and fussed over the wedding even more, threw myself into furnishing the sweet loft we were buying, and did everything possible to distract myself from the voice inside my gut that was screaming at me to please get out.

    while nothing dramatic happened, the second night in our new house (six months before the wedding!) i came home from work with a pit of dread in my stomach that had grown to a size i could no longer ignore. the fear that this relationship was eating me alive overtook any guilt or fear i had about being alone. sitting in the new house, waiting for him to get home, i finally accepted what i had known for a while; it was time to leave. i gave back the ring, cried, apologized, and left in the middle of the night with only a few pieces of clothing i tossed in a bag. i headed straight for a friend’s home (six hours away) and stayed a few days before coming up with the courage to tell my parents, family, friends, wedding party, etc. all were extremely understanding but slightly confused. the best answer i could give them was, “i just felt like it was the wrong decision and had to trust my gut.” that was the best explanation i could give at the time.

    i’ve spent a LOT of time reflecting on the situation but was still never able to come up with a better way to explain/understand what happened until I read, “One day, for no particular reason, a few things happened that finally hit the tipping point. They weren’t profound moments, but my energy was so depleted at that point from the internal struggle that something broke in my body, and my head and my heart finally got the same message.” and got chills down my spine. THAT. is what happened.

    i’ll fast forward the awful bits (which i’m sure you know all to well) to the good stuff. i’m newly engaged to an absolutely wonderful guy and it’s pretty much the best thing ever. i didn’t realize how detrimental the “broken” relationship with fiance #1 was to my soul until i met fiance #2 and our energy exploded (think nuclear fission). trusting my gut in leaving fiance #1 was very difficult (and was for a long time) but it put me much more in tune with what i really needed (or needed to avoid) in a partner. when fiance #2 came around and my gut started singing (and dancing, and doing bellyflips, and exploding into a thousand fireworks), i knew well enough that trusting my intuition again was the right choice. while neither of us is perfect, and we have had our share of challenges, the connection we have is, as you say, “expanding, life-giving, and energizing at its core”. i didn’t know what i needed until i trusted myself to accept it.

    thank you for bravely sharing your story and for giving context to my own experience. i wish you nothing but the absolute best and hope that trusting your intuition will also lead you on the path straight to a partner who gives more than he/she takes and will settle for nothing less than a dynamic and energizing connection.

    • Thank you for sharing your story and experience! Amazing how similar our situations were. I am thrilled that you have found someone that makes you feel such goodness deep in your soul! Thank you for your kind words and encouragement. I am so grateful there were words and phrases in here that helped you to process your own experience. Love, love, love!

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  • a d

    Thank you for sharing. I broke off an engagement with an outstanding guy who I loved very deeply over similar feelings. He was doing everything right, I was just depleted as you describe. I realized after going through a grieving period over the death of my father that our energy levels didn’t match and it was draining me. He was the high energy person and spent a lot of this energy differential taking care of me, but this love for me often felt suffocating and I could not reciprocate.

  • KM

    Thanks for writing this. I went through similar feelings after breaking things off with my boyfriend of six years/fiance of about a month. He is/was a wonderful person, it just took me too long to figure out he wasn’t the right person for me. We were comfortable but not dynamic. We didn’t inspire each other to be our best selves. I knew something was missing but couldn’t admit it to myself because I wanted him to be the right one.

    When I broke up with him, he made it quite public that I broke his heart. This is what I still regret. I was waiting for a “reason,” and when one came, I think that just made the break up harsher because I was pointing to something he did wrong. I wish I had known I didn’t need a REASON to leave. I could’ve just said “I’ve changed and the things I want have changed. You’re still a wonderful person who I love deeply, but I realize we’re not right for each other.”

    Fast forward a few years and I’m getting married to the right person! He’s exciting and inspiring and brings me so much joy..My only hang-up is the guilt I feel for hurting my ex. He’s a good person and didn’t deserve to be hurt that way. Is there any good or tactful way to reach out and apologize for hurting him, or is it better to just leave him alone?

    • I would let him be, but that’s just me. I understand the guilt that comes with hurting someone that much though. I still reel at the thought that I was capable of causing another human pain like that. He might find an apology to be a much-needed piece of closure, but it could also bring him back to some emotions that he was happy to move on from. I think it’s okay to give yourself some grace after all this time for doing what you needed to do even though it hurt someone you cared about. Don’t let that past guilt hold you back from knowing and trusting that you deserve to be with someone who lights you up! Relish it!

      Best of luck with your wedding! <3

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  • Laura

    I’ve recently come out of an engagement, I read this article to help me come to realisation of things, for the last 3 months of our relationship things didn’t seem right but i pushed myself to keep going and keep the spark between us, however I was only becoming a person I wasn’t, I became depressed, isolated I really deteriorated away from the person I actually am, however one night he stole money and then denied it, he told me to obtain cctv to prove his innocence and the cctv came back as him, this majorly broke my heart and I knew this was the final straw, although it hurts me to not have the man I thought I was going to spend my life with, I really have become myself again, I’ve reconnected with so many people and surrounded myself with better people, I couldn’t be happier, although breaking an engagement is heartbreaking, it’s nice to read about other experiences to know I’m not alone and reassures me there will be someone out there that will look after me to the fullest. Thank you for this post!

  • Steven J Compton

    I just went through this exact thing. Reading your article gave me some relief because I struggled for a long time just not listening to my gut and not having “concrete” reasons. Like you I read articles, books, even started talking to a counselor all to convince myself that it was cold feet. For months I had this stomach ache that would not go away. I kept thinking that I was a horrible person but I got to a point where I just could not bare it anymore. I had the roller coaster of feelings right after I ended it but one that maintained was the feeling of relief. I do regret waiting as long as I did. The “listening to your gut” saying means more to me now then ever. I think I got here by doing what I think everyone wanted me to do and slowly giving up who I was and what I wanted out of my life. It was and is still hard but I think If i continued it would have just come up later and been harder and more complicated. Thank you for writing this.