Celebrated songwriter Neil Sedaka wasn’t far from the truth when he sang 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.
I speak to many people in my office, and sometimes it’s startling to hear the reactions of those who knew at least one member of the couple in question. Friends and family can often observe things that the person experiencing the breakup could not. In the aftermath of a lot of breakups, one thing that stands out is the denial that people exhibit about the flaws that existed in their relationships.
For example, a man whose girlfriend dumped him might reveal that he knew about her multiple affairs while they were together. And yet, when she finally leaves him for good, he’s genuinely bewildered. “How could she leave me? Especially after I stayed with her through all the pain she caused!” This man needs to question his underlying assumptions. Psychotherapy can help identify those false assumptions before they can do harm. Somebody who would react this way, in spite of all the evidence, has some seriously mistaken notions about people and love.
One mistaken assumption is that there is still any sort of relationship once someone has betrayed you. This is where denial kicks in: He finds out about it; perhaps he confronts her, or perhaps he does not. Either way, he deludes himself into thinking that because they still go through the motions of their “coupled” life that the bond has not been broken. Of course, it has been broken, and there’s usually no going back.
When the final break does come, there’s shock and even anger. This reveals the second mistaken assumption. In self-help language it’s called the “Heaven’s Reward” fallacy. It refers to the false belief that if you do something for somebody else, you will 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 more of an unspoken feeling, and it’s not logical. If it could speak, it would say, “If I love him enough to put up with his cheating, then I’ll be loved in return.” No, it’s not logical, but this is often how it works.
Clearly examining the flaws in a relationship can prevent greater pain later on. The Heaven’s Reward fallacy claims a lot of victims by luring them into a false sense of security that they’ll “somehow” be taken care of, no matter how self-defeating their behavior.
After a betrayal by a loved one, it takes time to absorb the hurt. But once the dust settles, it’s crucial to watch out for denial. Denial is the enemy of happiness. It can creep into your subconscious mind, mix a grain of truth with a portion of wishful thinking, and cook up a mental dish that seems truly digestible – at the time, until the heartburn of reality sets in.
I see the symptoms of denial all the time, especially during the abandonment of a breakup. They say, “How could I have been so stupid?” I reply, “You’re not stupid. You just weren’t facing the facts,” The simple issue is that they tried to reason with their emotions — a contradiction in terms, to say the least.
Some people respond to rejection with a permanently cynical attitude. This is as big a mistake as the Heaven’s Reward fallacy. It’s another false assumption that assumes that no matter what you do, you’ll be punished. The truth isn’t that simple. In matters of love, there’s no guarantee of hurt. You have to get past the past and give love a chance. Every new encounter offers the possibility of a fresh experience.
Breaking up may be hard to do, but avoiding denial and keeping a clear-headed view of reality carries a much better chance of “happily ever after.”
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