Fear of starting over – the unhappy couples afraid to break up

worried female laying in bed with her husband looking anxious and concerned while thinking of her relationship issues a man sleeping while his wife lays awake at night feeling depressed and troubled
The unhappy couples afraid of breaking upLaylaBird - Getty Images

As clichéd as it might sound, there’s nothing quite like the first few months of a new relationship; that all-consuming whirlwind of hanging out, having sex, learning everything there is to know about each other, then having more sex is just the best. 29-year-old Gabriel* remembers this period of his relationship fondly. He and his partner, Nick* met at a gallery almost six years ago. “It was very romantic,” he recalls, “almost movie-esque”. They’d spend hours talking about their dreams, ambitions and hopes for the future.

But, as is often the case, everything changed when the pair moved in together three years later.Domesticity began to dampen their spark; their sex life dwindled and, as Gabriel tells Cosmopolitan UK, it began to feel like they were housemates, rather than lovers. “I always told myself, ‘maybe it’s just a phase’ or ‘he’s stressed at work’,” Gabriel continues. “I tried to fight the feeling [of unhappiness and wanting to break up], but it kept coming for me.”

And yet, despite having had doubts about his relationship since the end of 2022, Gabriel has no plans to actually end things. “We live together in the apartment that he bought thinking this would be our forever flat,” he says. “I’m scared what could happen to me [if we broke up and I had to move out].” So, like many people who stay in unhappy relationships, Gabriel’s fear of what the future might hold keeps he and Nick together.

This is a tale as old as time, only now there’s a buzzword for it: FOSO – the fear of starting over. And, according to Plenty of Fish, it's is set to become even more prevalent in 2024, with 45 percent of singles surveyed saying they’ve experienced FOSO, and 44 percent citing it as the reason they stayed in a doomed relationship for longer than they should have. Whether this phenomenon really is on the rise is up for debate, but there are plenty of reasons why it might be.

As with most miserable things, FOSO can partly be traced back to the pandemic. In light of lockdown restrictions, when non-cohabiting lovers were banned from seeing each other, many couples rushed to move in together – whether they were ready to or not. This impulse has since been fuelled by post-pandemic living conditions, like the record-breaking rising cost of rent, soaring energy bill prices, and the ongoing cost of living crisis, which have all made it harder for live-in couples to part if things go sour.

This same fear plagued 24-year-old Faye* from London, who’s now out of the two-year live-in relationship she was afraid of leaving. “Our lives were very intertwined,” she says. “A lot of my identity rested on him. And because we lived together, I felt very trapped, like I wasn’t in control of my own life.”

But it’s more than just logistics driving this trepidation. The dating landscape feels increasingly bleak, characterised by dead-end chats, endless first dates and burnout; Gen-Z are even starting to swear off dating apps altogether. It’s a lot of work charming someone into falling in love with you, let alone finding them in the first place. So in this climate, who can really be bothered to start all over again? “I’m reluctant to venture into the unknown,” explains Gabriel. “Dating today is rife with ghosting, superficial connections, and the pressure to conform to certain standards – this is a particularly daunting prospect after the familiarity of a long-term relationship.”

Getting comfortable with a new person takes time, too – not to mention a lot of nerves, learning curves, and sometimes, stress. This is part of what’s keeping 29-year-old Gina* from Liverpool in her current situationship, even though, as she puts it, “it’s been doomed from the start”. After meeting on Feeld a year ago, the pair made their relationship official after eight months, only to break-up shortly after due to how much they were arguing. Now, they’re seeing each other in secret. “One of the main things I’m afraid of is being with someone new,” she says. “I’ve really struggled feeling comfortable sexually with new people, but this person has made me feel very safe and cared for. The sex has been amazing from the start, and I worry I’ll never get that with anyone else.”

Gabriel, Gina and Faye share another, even more common reason for being afraid of starting over: being alone. “I’m specific about who I date, and I was like, ‘There’s never going to be anyone else who’s good for me’,” reflects Faye, “which in retrospect is absolutely ridiculous. But people make you think that in relationships; one thing my ex would say to me is, ‘No one else would put up with you like I do’. So I think that factored in quite a bit.”

For Gina, this threat of loneliness was more stark. “I lived in London for a long time, and since moving away, my social circle has shrunk dramatically, so I’ve really appreciated having someone close to me,” she explains. “This has definitely made it harder for me to completely stop seeing them.”

Still, society puts so much weight on romantic relationships that even if a single person has the biggest friend group in the world, the prospect of life without a partner may still feel frighteningly lonely. “There’s a general taboo and social discomfort around break-ups,” says psychosexual psychotherapist and sociologist Jordan Dixon. “Many of us are constantly bombarded with romantic ‘gold standard’ messages from a variety of sources – from religion through to films, media, and even social policies that financially reward couples above single people. These are often layered with owning a home, having children, and being successful at work.”

This pressure can be even more anxiety-inducing when you’re approaching a particular milestone – in both Gabriel and Gina’s case, turning 30. As we’re all encouraged to adhere to the same scripted timeline – establish your career and find a partner in your 20s, start a family in your 30s – if our own goes in a different direction, we feel ashamed. This, in turn, is likely to influence our decision-making, encouraging us to stay in unsatisfactory relationships to avoid feeling like, or even being perceived as, an outcast. “There’s so much pressure to find the right person to spend your life with,” says Gina, “and it feels very daunting to go back out looking for that.” This can be especially true for women, who’ve historically been bombarded with warnings about their supposedly ticking ‘biological clocks’.

shot of a woman embracing her husband from behind while sitting in their bedroom
Yuri Arcurs - Getty Images

Ironically, though, it can be more lonely staying in a lousy relationship than outside of one. This is especially true if one or both partners are mentally, verbally, or physically abusive (itself a major reason why people can be afraid to end relationships). “I know a lot of my friends and family were worried about me when I was in this relationship,” says Gina. “I haven’t really told many people I’m still seeing [my partner] and I kind of feel like my life is on pause.”

For Faye, elongating her break-up made her depressed and isolated. “I stopped doing things I wanted to do, like being active, doing hobbies, or seeing friends,” she says. “I became a shell of myself. It really impacted everything in my life.” Eventually, Faye’s ex ended things with her. “I was shocked,” she reflects. “I didn’t expect it. But then, very quickly after that, I felt relief. Obviously I went through a grieving period, but I’ve now met someone who seems really nice, and I’ve even started exploring polyamory because the end of that last relationship really taught me that I can’t rely on one person to fulfil my needs.”

So how do we get over FOSO and all the factors that influence it? First, be sure that you really want to break up. “It’s important to recognise that it’s not useful to leave a relationship as soon as you notice some turbulence,” says Dixon. “Try to work through this before you make big decisions.” It seems simple, but talk to your partner about the way you’re feeling; it might be that the two of you just need a shake-up, rather than a break-up (sorry).

If you definitely do want to break up, Dixon suggests trying to envision what positives might come out of it. “Gaining the experiential wisdom that comes with starting over again can actually be rewarding for some people,” she explains. “There may be some healing and self-reflection involved when breaking up which can be painful, but this developed self-knowledge can be used as an opportunity to create more long-lasting relationships further down the line.”

Importantly, urges Faye, “make sure you’re in contact with your friends”. As well as a useful sounding board to offer an outsider’s perspective on your relationship, it’s much easier to feel empowered to break up with someone if you have a support system around you. “My friends have been amazing,” she concludes. “[With their support], starting over has definitely not been as difficult as I dreaded.”

*Names have been changed

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