When Relationships End

During my last breakup, I had a clarifying moment. You know the kind? You wake up and the world feels untouchably out of alignment if things stay the way they are, Maybe you see something or hear something, then loose and ephemeral thoughts snap into place, the road becomes evident before you and you just know that you must act on the compulsion for this, everything about this state of existence with another person, must end.

It’s not always like that. Often, relationships fade out. One or the other partner “ghosts” and pulls away physically or more often, simply emotionally. Other times, there is violence. One of my relationships ended when she told me both God and Satan had visited her in a dream to tell her not to marry me. It was probably one of the only times in history that both God and the Devil agreed on something, but ah well! No coming back from that kind of madness, is there?

For me, it was the continued line of insults, slights, and physical repulsions. I didn’t want to share the few happy moments I had with her, I wanted to keep them for myself where they were safe from her existence. There was no joy, no life, no cause for hope. It was, I suppose, a mutual waste of time for both of us which is why I felt such relief when it was over. In the days that followed, discussing it with friends, I felt such overwhelming relief – as though I had come to my rightful senses again and could feel joy where there had been such heaviness and stomach-churning anxiety.

Signs like those, where you are in a constant state of anxiety around your partner, should be a clear indicator that something isn’t right. Your body is continually trying to protect you and will give you warning signs when it knows there is a threat. But for many of us, we ignore and rationalize what our bodies, our friends, the universe, even our head and heart are soberly telegraphing. I’ve known at a primal and chemical level, that it was time to end things when I kissed a woman. I’ve also ignored that, believing that “it’ll get better.” If humans do anything well, we insist that we know more than we know.

Read that again.

If humans do anything well, we insist that we know more than we know.

You and I are really good at denying, ignoring, suppressing, and dismissing ourselves. What’s worse, we spend even more energy trying to convince ourselves of something we know to be false. When that moment of clarity comes, it’s important to apologize to ourselves for ignoring what we refused to accept. We knew all along it wasn’t going to work with this person and we should have listened.

I’m convinced that a great deal of the sadness we feel during and after a breakup isn’t about our ex-partner. It’s not even negative. It’s instructive. “I should have known.” Your brain is now active, turning all the signs to face you, all flight courses lead away from this person, every little comment a friend gave you that you brushed aside, the disappointed expressions of family – they are clear now and aligned to help motivate you to do better and be better.

Dr. Susan Krauss Whitbourne, a retired professor from the University of Massachusetts, names five of the worst ways to experience a breakup.

  1. Ghosting: Not providing any warning at all, nor any opportunity for contact, can leave you and your partner in limbo. Just disappearing is not the answer.
  2. Self-blaming: Relationships involve two people and when they don’t work, each contributes to the dysfunction. Moving out of a relationship by focusing only on your role will not help you see the warning signs in potential partners of what might be the next ill-fated relationship.
  3. Bad-mouthing: Focusing only on your partner’s contributions, in turn, will not allow you to refine further your own intimacy strengths and weaknesses. Talking to others about how everything was your partner’s fault can also create awkwardness for the people who know both of you.
  4. Fantasizing: Presumably, the people in the Belu et al. study who engaged in PRCT also spent considerable time wondering what their partners were doing. As a result, they became less able to move on to new relationships.
  5. Stalking: Again, as we saw in the Canadian study, an inability to pull out of a relationship only makes the emotional pain much worse. You may spend some time wondering if your ex is okay after the breakup, but extensively tracking your partner will impede your own recovery.

Based on her work and collecting together studies on breakup behavior, she goes on to name the five best ways to handle a breakup:

  1. Preparing for the end: As we saw in the study by Belu and her collaborators, the surprise element only made a breakup worse. In general, as you head into important life transitions, it’s best to give yourself time, and to give your partner time as well.
  2. Accepting a share of the blame, but not all: Growing your own intimacy means that you develop a more informed understanding of your strengths and weaknesses in a relationship.
  3. Protecting your, and your partner’s, dignity: Previous research on divorce adjustment has shown the importance of “saving face.” It’s important to maintain your self-respect, and that of your partner, so that you can avoid the shame of relationship defeat.
  4. Establishing boundaries: Extensive post-relationship contact is, as we saw, a very poor way to end things. Instead, make it clear over the course of the relationship’s ending just how much contact you wish to have with your ex-partner.
  5. Taking the long view: Our relationship histories become key factors in the life stories we create as we get older. As painful as it might be, the effects of the breakup you’re going through now will not endure forever, and may even set the stage for future relationships that you can’t predict from your current vantage point.

Allow me to ground these. Almost a decade ago, I had just bought an engagement ring for my girlfriend. The day I bought it, she called to say she wanted to end things and that I was “so stupid for ever thinking that I loved you.” Now, in fairness, we had discussed marriage several times. She had cried at our favorite Chinese restaurant one night, saying that she didn’t want to finish college because “I just want to get married and have your babies.” She had tried on a dress. She had picked out the cut of diamond she wanted. She had tried a few rings on to locate a band she liked. Her mother had finally come around, acknowledging that we were probably going to get married. Our friends teased that it was going to happen soon. And when she broke things off, a good friend of hers called to apologize for how she was behaving. Another friend refused to believe any of this, though, insisting that she broke things off because she was just scared and would come around. What I had to do, he said, was make one last effort and win her back.

It’s a compelling narrative, isn’t it? The schlub who makes “one last attempt” and convinces her, despite his faults, despite their misunderstandings, despite her fears and anxieties, his love is enough to make her happy. We see this in movies all the time – the Hallmark Channel and Nicolas Sparks make millions off this plot. To be honest, my romantic heart wanted to do that very thing – drive out to see her and win the day.

But the reality of that story is pretty scary when you think about it. All I would have done is made myself look foolish to someone who no longer wanted me in her life. I would have stalked her, violated a boundary, and ignored her expressed statements on the state of our relationship. In short, she would have had a great story about a “scary” ex and I would have hated her forever for refusing a desperate attempt to win her back. Besides, she was cheating on me – it would never have worked out.

Or what about the recently divorced woman with two daughters? Should I have tracked her down (because after all, she was busy! She wan’t ghosting me, right?!) and forced her to tell me why she wouldn’t answer my calls? Or should I have just set her (and her daughters) to the side, like I did, and acknowledge that I had a pattern of women who were not emotionally stable and were willing to dismiss both me and the relationship entirely?

The point is, we create all kinds of stories in our heads and convince ourselves they are true to protect our sense of self, our identity, our fragile ego. That’s human. But it’s not exactly intelligent or even the right way to read things. As a professor of Literature, one of the things I drill into my students is that there is important distinction between reading superficially, reading deeply, and reading well. A mantra I have for myself is “the truth takes time” and that’s a life lesson I reinforce over the semester. The truth of a text, of a relationship, of life, is that it takes time.

When it comes to breakups, we need time and distance to sort things out and very often, it takes time to process. This is why so many blogs insists on a full disconnect from social media – don’t even try to peek at an ex online because it will just confuse things for you. Breakups, whatever form they take, are very often not as sudden as our initial shock would cause us to believe. Even in the moment, through the haze of war, we know this to be true. There were reasons. Good reasons. It wasn’t a surprise. It was right there all along, and we kept ignoring the caution signs.

Breakups follow a relatively common script that researchers have broken down into ten general steps:

  • Breakdown in communication
  • Physical avoidance
  • Further breakdown in communication
  • Assessment of the situation
  • More physical distance between the partners
  • Arguments and fighting
  • Attempt to work things out
  • “Bidding” other people in a search for validation
  • Communicating feelings to the partner
  • Breakup

Although these steps do not necessarily appear in this order and some may be skipped, this script gives a good idea of the breakup process for most non-marriage relationships. Just last week, I was talking to a friend about a divorce she is going through right now. For an hour, she “verbally vomited” everything that had transpired in the last year and a half. It’s been awful for her! But in the process of talking it out and rehashing some of the things she is working through in therapy now, each of these stages were present. Still, she kept beating herself up because of all the signs she missed. I agreed! I have been there too! If you had been there, you would have shared similar stories, I’m betting. We’ve all been there, the last person to recognize when the circus has left down. Things like

  • You are no longer a priority. Like… at all.
  • They don’t ask about your day because (gasp!) they don’t care.
  • They are pulling away and distant.
  • They are somewhere else with someone else. Physically, emotionally, spiritually, they are gone.
  • In fact, they’re so “gone” that they start sounding like a different person entirely.
  • There is a constant feeling of dread and anxiety.
  • No more dates, no more talks, no more fun times.
  • When you do go out, it’s a group thing – they invite more people to come with, they’ll bring the kids, family members will “just” show up.
  • There’s no indication of a future, no plans, nothing on the calendar with you.
  • They’re defensive, argumentative, pick fights, and blame you.

For me, this meant that my most recent ex invited me to breakfast after I got back from a family vacation. There we were, sitting across the table, when she asked if I had seen the news that week. I hadn’t, since I had been with my family. When I asked what had been going on, she began to tell me. I asked for clarification on something she said – I can’t even remember what it was – and she accused me of arguing with her. I was taken aback and confused. “I literally don’t even know what you’re talking about to argue,” I said, thinking I must have missed a verbal cue. But she insisted that I was arguing on a topic I wasn’t informed enough to argue on because – again – I didn’t even understand the event she was talking about. That was the moment I completely unplugged from the relationship. Everything came to full attention, and I no longer felt like “this won’t work out” but I began to develop an exit strategy. It wasn’t the first time she had done something like that. Conversations had often been a zero-sum game for her; it wasn’t enough for her to win, I also had to also lose. She would destabilize, question my intelligence, assert her own education, politely explain that my job wasn’t a “real job” because I “didn’t work as hard” as she did, despite teaching at two AMAZING high learning institutions. Her insecurities caused her to become hostile and toxic without provocation or apology and, I’m going to be honest with you – I must have been as stupid as she said because I made excuses for her behavior until the morning we had breakfast.

Like I told my friend when we discussed her separation last week, we’re never blameless. Breakups and divorces are, more often than not, a result of mutual failures. Whether we’re the one at fault, our partner is at fault, or whether it’s something in-between where we’ve worn each other down, we are still responsible for our own mental and emotional health. When one of my exes called to tell me God, no wait it was Satan, no wait it was God told her to break up with me, I was hurt, sure. But I also recognized with a deep and abiding sadness that I had pushed her to those extremes – she didn’t feel like she could just break up, she needed to go nuclear and burn down every chance of ever repairing the friendship. She wasn’t crazy out of nowhere. I had made her crazy. I was immature, too young to know how to love well, and there was no way to make it right. I was blind to her cheating because I wanted to believe he was telling me the truth. That was my fault because I wanted to hold on to her. Naturally (logically?), she did what she did because she probably felt like it had to be done. Did she do it well? No. But do any of us do things out of desperation especially well? I would aver no, probably not. You’ve got to own it when

  • You don’t trust your partner or foster trust.
  • You have different values.
  • You intentionally provoke them.
  • You no longer include them in your plans or want to be included in theirs.
  • You no longer see a future (and you’ve tried!) with them.
  • You’re not fun to be around, not investing, and not trying to make it work.
  • You’re selfish or immature.
  • You’re not emotionally healthy.
  • You fantasize about someone else.
  • You can’t get excited about the idea of marrying them, having kids with them, or building a kid-and-marriage free life with them.
  • You’ve become a stranger or realize they have… and don’t want to know this new person they have become.

Yep, time to own your part of the hassle. You chose to be in a relationship with this person, and even now that you are out of it, you caused yourself undo stress by lowering your standards and staying. It’s time to get to work rebuilding your sense of self (spoiler: you deserve better), stop blaming them (spoiler: making it sound like it was all their fault robs you of autonomy and direction), recognizing who you are now (spoiler: your ex wasn’t that cool), and rebuilding or repairing your heart (spoiler: you’re in charge of yourself and can bounce back). It’s like Elizabeth Gilbert says, “I’ve never seen any life transformation that didn’t begin with the person in question finally getting tired of their own bullshit.” Owning your b.s. helps move the process along.

Can you think of an example of anyone who ever earnestly changed themselves without first doing an honest accounting of their own mess? Or without taking accountability for their own dysfunctional behaviors, their own self-inflicted dramas, their own role in the dreadful storyline, their own lies, their own manipulations, their own willful blindness, their own enabling, their own addiction to being the victim, their own addiction to aggression, to fear, to blame, to never being wrong, or to always being wrong? I don’t mean to say that transformation begins with sitting down and whipping yourself into a hot froth of shame for all your horrible faults. (Addiction to self-abuse is just another garbage storyline — another way of delaying your own transcendence and dragging attention and energy away from your destiny.) But I’ve never seen any sincere transformation that didn’t start with somebody sitting down and being soberly, calmly, bravely honest with herself.

“Dear Ones…” on May 7, 2014

Blaming yourself is a fun game if you want to stay depressed. Your mind and heart will continually be torn up and you’ll have a smaller amount of optimism and self-worth each day. But blaming your ex really makes it sound like you weren’t in control – and you were. You were the whole time. Even if they were horrible to you (been there too!), you need to focus on building yourself up and identifying the flags that will help your warning lights go off sooner.

Think of it like this: Every time a space shuttle crashed, NASA learned. And yes, people died. It wasn’t some small thing. I’m not saying “get over it.” I’m not minimizing the experience. It hurt, it was awful, it was messy, and you lost a lot in the process. What I am saying is you need to learn from it. Each failure, each explosion, each unsuccessful launch attempt forced the greatest minds on the planet to recognize where they had made a mistake. They kept building, kept securing and supporting, and they got to the moon. And then they went to Mars. And they launched satellites to collect more images and more information. With every catastrophic loss and setback, they kept moving forward.

That’s where you are right now, on a quest of discovery to bury the failures with honor and dignity, learn from your mistakes each time, build new warning systems, and keep going. You have to take responsibility if you are ever going to do something great, and I say this as someone who fails every day and keeps learning from the process. Taking responsibility is not the same thing as blaming yourself. Blame tears you down, responsibility empowers and reminds you how powerful you really are.

Further Reading:

These books have been really helpful to me over the years. I am not being endorsed by any of these authors (gosh, I wish I was!) so I can honestly suggest them since they are the ones I have bought for friends and family who are going through a breakup, divorce, or separation.

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