Disclaimer: None of this – none – applies to abusive relationships or relationships with a narcissist. With that out of the way…
It’s easy to think about a breakup as "someone did something wrong" or "someone was a bad person".
We’re encouraged to think that way. And there’s plenty of selfish, horrible people who take advantage of others to provide plenty of anecdata.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. As they say, "People change."
And as they leave off, "and sometimes the price of admission changes as well."
I like the idea of using "price of admission". It implies boundaries. It implies a recognition of the things we give up to be with our partners.
And there’s always a price of admission. They’re often assumed, even they shouldn’t be. One common "price of admission" is a monogamous commitment. For some people, that’s a tiny price to pay. For others, it’s a larger price. For others, it’s a price too high. (/me waves to the polyfolk!)
They’re a lot of the things you list as preferences on dating sites – wanting kids or pets, religiosity, and so on.
And they can change. Sometimes without warning or notice.
You’ve seen this in movies and films, where one partner (usually female, but in this one it’s a guy named Bubba) suddenly tells the other (Sandra) "I want kids", and then explains how their views changed.
I suspect that in nearly every case this shift is not malicious, and not even really intentional. It can be both – if you desperately wanted kids and dated someone who doesn’t and lied about that, well, yeah, that’s both intentional and malicious. But again, I’m pretty sure that’s the exception.
I think that people grow. As they grow, they learn new things about the world. As they learn new things about the world, they learn new things about themselves. They might even see whole possibilities they had thought closed to them.
And they change.
And as they change, their boundaries change. What they’re willing to be and accept changes.
And the price of admission changes.
And maybe the price of admission gets too high to pay.
It’s right here, by the way, is where the analogy and the Hollywood plot suddenly go wrong.
Remember our couple before – Bubba and Sandra? Where Bubba suddenly wanted kids? Both the movie plot and the analogy are restrictive. They create a simple "yes" or "no" dichotomy, and that’s so destructive. Even if one of them "wins" they’re both going to lose as resentment flourishes, or they both "lose" as all relationships between them dissolve.
I want to take a second to pause and note that I am very, very aware of how easy this alternative view I’m about to write about sounds. I am also very, very aware, particularly as I write this, of how painful and difficult it can be. So yes, this is difficult. It’s painful. It’s also better than the scorched earth scenario that our culture tells us is "normal".
There’s an alternative because there isn’t just a single "price of admission" for one person.
Because everybody’s got multiple prices of admission.
Let’s say that they’re monogamous, so no polyamorous workarounds. Sandra is adamant about not wanting children. Likewise, Bubba is determined to have children naturally with his romantic partner. The price of admission is too high for either to pay.
Hollywood would tell you that relationship is over. That they should go their separate ways and never interact again. That they are no longer compatible.
That the price of admission became too high.
But that’s not quite right. It’s that the price of admission to be romantic partners is too high.
It’s the toxic idea that once you’re romantic partners, your only choices are staying romantic partners or exiling the person from your life.
Relationship is an awfully flexible and wide word, though. Relationship can mean lots of things – and even different things to different people. And in this kind of situation, where circumstances or what people want and need changed, gives you the best opportunity to still have a meaningful relationship – not as romantic partners, but as friends – later on.
Don’t get me wrong: Trying to pivot immediately from a romantic relationship to a friendly one is … well, problematic at best. There needs to be time for the pain to heal. For any bad loops to fade. To be able to approach each other again without just getting stuck right where you were. To let feelings cool enough that it’s not just causing one person harm.
Sometimes it can’t work at all.
But it’s worth trying. Because there were reasons you liked each other, and enjoyed each other. Maybe the price of admission for a romance is too high, but you’ve already got the framework to be great friends, and that price may be within your budget.
Taking that approach – an approach that avoids blame, that accepts each person’s experience, that accepts the needs and boundaries of the people involved – means that the worst possible outcome is the same as the best possible outcome if you’d done it the "Hollywood" way.