Mistaken assumptions can make a breakup even more painful

Celebrated songwriter Neil Sedaka wasn’t far from the truth when he co-wrote the hit song ‘Breaking Up is Hard to Do.’ The emotional impact of a breakup can be devastating, with feelings ranging from bewilderment to shock, from hurt to abandonment and anger—even rage.

During and after a breakup, it’s interesting—and sometimes downright startling—to hear the reactions and insights of those who knew at least one member of the couple in question. Often, friends and family can observe things that the person experiencing the breakup could not—at least, not at the time. In my job, I see the aftermath of a lot of breakups, and one thing that stands out is the degree of denial people can have about the flaws that were present in their relationships before they ended.

For example, a man whose girlfriend ended their relationship might reveal that he knew about her multiple affairs while they were together. And yet, when she finally leaves him for good, he’s not only hurt, but genuinely bewildered. ‘How could she leave me? Especially after I stayed with her through all the pain she caused me!’ This man needs to examine—and question—the underlying, subconscious assumptions he held about that relationship. One of the benefits of counseling and psychotherapy is that it can help you identify these false assumptions before they can do you harm. Somebody who would react this way to a breakup—in spite of all the evidence—has some seriously mistaken notions about people and love.

One mistaken assumption is that there is still a relationship at all, once someone has betrayed you. This is where denial often takes over. A spouse finds out about his or her partner’s betrayal. Perhaps he confronts her, or perhaps he does not. Either way, he allows himself to be deluded into thinking that since the two of them still go through the motions of their daily lives together as a ‘couple,’ that the bond has not been broken. Of course, it has been broken, and often there’s no going back.

When the final break comes, there’s shock and even anger. This reveals the second mistaken assumption, held by a surprising number of people. Sometimes called, in self-help language, the ‘Heaven’s Reward’ fallacy, it refers to the false belief that if you do something for somebody else, even if it’s a profound sacrifice, then you will somehow be rewarded at another time. For instance, if you find out that your husband or boyfriend cheated on you, and you stay with him anyway, you will be rewarded with’what, exactly? It’s not logical; it’s more of an unspoken feeling. If the unspoken feeling could speak, it would say something like: ‘If I love him enough to put up with anything, then I’ll be loved in return.’ Again, this is more ’emotional reasoning’ than logical and rational reasoning, but this is how it works in the back of people’s minds. And, when you’re dealing with someone who recently experienced a breakup (whether it involved affairs or not), you’ll sometimes see this emotionally based reasoning rise to the surface.

We’d all love to see less suffering in the world, and it’s easy enough to preach that people should treat each other better. But we all have to take care of ourselves, too. I know it’s hard, but looking at flaws in your relationship or marriage with clear-headedness, even when it hurts, can prevent much greater pain later on. The Heaven’s Reward fallacy claims a lot of victims, because it lures people into a false sense of security that they’ll ‘somehow’ be taken care of (again, by whom, exactly?) no matter how self-defeating their behavior.

If you experience some terrible betrayal by a loved one, you naturally have to give yourself some time to absorb the shock and hurt. But once the dust starts to settle, it’s crucial to not allow yourself to slide into denial. Denial is the enemy of so much happiness in life. It can creep into your subconscious mind, take a grain of truth, mix it with a large portion of wishful thinking—and cook up a mental dish that seems truly digestible at the time—until the heartburn of reality finally sets in.

I see and hear the symptoms of denial all the time, especially when people are feeling lost or abandoned after a breakup. They might say: ‘How could I have been so stupid?’ When I reply, ‘You weren’t stupid. You just weren’t facing all the facts,’ I’m not trying to be nice—I’m simply identifying the real issue. They tried to reason with their emotions—a contradiction in terms, at the very least.

Some people respond to hurt and rejection with a permanently harsh and cynical attitude, including a refusal to trust anyone ever again. This is just as much a mistake as the Heaven’s Reward fallacy. It’s a different kind of false assumption that assumes that no matter what you do, you’ll be punished. The truth just isn’t that simple. In matters of love, marriage and relationships, there’s no guarantee of hurt or pain. I still recommend giving love a chance, no matter how you’ve been disappointed in the past. Every person you meet offers the potential for a fresh and unique experience. Just watch the denial, and keep a clear-headed view of what’s real, as you embark on the age-old process that could very well lead to ‘happily ever after.’