Everyone knows that breaking up is hard to do. But few know how to do it right. What behaviors are rational under the difficult circumstances of a breakup? And what sort of thinking is required to make it possible to break up rationally?
Psychologists and self-help authors are generally so caught up in helping people save their relationships that they overlook the importance of making a necessary or inevitable breakup a healthy one.
A relationship (or friendship) that’s right for its time is not always right for all time … and that’s OK!
Here are some guidelines to help you out—along with my sincere wishes that you will never need them!
How to Think During a Breakup
It’s for the best.
If you’re doing the breaking up, there must be good reasons for it. It’s hard, but you are ultimately aiming for a happier life. Your partner is hurt and you don’t like hurting him.
But it’s more hurtful to live a lie and have him learn this later—in addition to feeling rejected.
If the breakup is not your idea, then the same applies in reverse. You’re hurt, but at least you know the truth. There probably were a few things not working out on your end either.
It’s like being fired from a job. It never feels good and sometimes it isn’t the best thing. But it’s better than staying with someone who resents you or is not really interested in a relationship with you.
Closed doors in one area mean open doors in another. Right now it’s natural to focus on the closing of this door. It might seem impossible that any door will ever open again. The closing of this door really feels like the closing of all doors. It makes sense that you feel this way. Perhaps this was the first and last relationship door you ever expected to open, and now it’s closing forever. But feelings do not describe all of reality.
Reality consists of positives too. Reality consists of as-yet unexplored territories on the relationship terrain. You have no concept of what might be coming and of what you might yet experience. Right now you grieve, but it’s also quite reasonable to hope.
Blame is no longer of primary relevance.
Blame and responsibility were important when you both were trying to improve or save the relationship. Each of you would have to honestly assess changes that would be needed on either’s part to make the relationship better. But that phase is over. With the ending of the relationship comes the end of any need to improve it. If your partner is guilty of such a horrible wrongdoing that you never want contact with him again, then blame is relevant but only to that extent. You can keep him separate from yourself and start the process of moving on. Resolve not to dwell on how you have been wronged. Instead, dwell on making your life right.
Transition from romance to friendship won’t happen overnight and not necessarily at all.
Many people who break up want to remain ‘friends.’ However, it’s difficult to assess how much of this desire is sincere and how much of it is an attempt to hold onto what once was. It isn’t necessary to resolve this question right now, in the immediate aftermath of the breakup. You can’t trust your or your partner’s feelings in this regard. If you’re breaking up, then act like an adult and break up. Pay the emotional price for what you need to do. Don’t try to escape pain which is inescapable.
You can decide later—maybe in 3, 6 or 12 months—whether friendship is desirable, but for now each of you have to move on with your lives as separate individuals. Otherwise, why break up in the first place? You can’t have your cake and eat it too. Attempts to do so are as impossible as they are dishonest.
Separate your feelings about property and children from feelings related to the breakup.
When experiencing a strong emotion about a piece of property or a child you have in common, you should stop yourself and say: ‘What is this feeling really about?’ It’s possible that the emotion you’re having is what it seems, and nothing else. But during a breakup, it’s also possible that anger, hurt or other strong emotions might get projected or displaced onto a piece of property or an innocent child. Guard against this. For example, if you’re struggling not to feel hurt that your spouse rejected or disappointed you, this is no reason to attack the high-quality relationship he has with your son. Just as you’re not duty-bound to stay in this marriage (and face certain misery) for the sake of your son, your son is likewise not duty-bound to abandon his great relationship with his father for your sake. Hopefully your reasoning mind already knows this, but during the stress of the breakup it could be easy to forget. Make sure to hold onto reason and not blindly forge ahead with emotions, even understandable ones.
Remember that most problems in the relationship were merely symptoms.
Even the worst sort of problem, such as discovering that your spouse has been unfaithful, is ultimately a symptom. Yes, it’s a character problem if your spouse was deceptive towards you, and you’re better off no longer having a spouse with this character problem. But her affair is also proof that her marriage to you was no longer working for her. As hard as it is to face this fact, it’s better to know it than not to know it. Tell yourself that you deserve to have a relationship with someone who not only is free of character problems, but who also knows what she wants romantically and knows that you are it. Now that you’re free, the possibility exists for finding such a relationship. It was impossible to have that before, whether you wanted to face it or not.
Feel all the feelings without discrimination.
In this area, your subconscious will be your guide. It will tell you what to feel simply by feeling it. Talk the feelings out, write them down, vent them to those willing to listen—whatever works. If you entirely suppress these feelings, they will end up taking over and, as a consequence, your behaviors will become irrational. If you refuse, for example, to accept that you’re hurt by the sense of loss and abandonment, then you will turn into an uptight, psychologically pinched and even bitter person.
At the same time, your feelings cannot be a blank check for any action you feel like taking in your hurt. Hold onto reason even as you feel whatever you need to feel. The goal of feeling whatever you need to feel is not to indulge in feelings for their own sake but rather to accelerate the healing process so that you can better move on.
Concluded in tomorrow’s column.
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