Breaking up Better
by Amy Vigliotti, Ph.D
As popular lyrics and experience tells us, breaking up is hard to do! Even when something is the right decision, it does not mean it is not a loss. Letting go of your significant other (SO) means letting go of an important person in your life, and may mean letting go of shared friends, activities, and places. You are also giving up that wish that it could be better. It is a sad, messy, confusing and heartbreaking time for both of you. That said, there are steps you can take to soften the pain a bit!
Don’t put it off.
There is no good time to break up. The longer you put it off, the more likely you could act in riskier ways. Since your mind has already left the relationship, your behaviors will likely follow. You might notice you are spending more time apart, starting new relationships, and/or saying unkind things. These behaviors may indicate the wish that the breakup happens for you, instead of you being the one to orchestrate it. This is very common but leads down a very slippery slope. Be honest with yourself and your SO, and initiate the conversation in a way that conveys thoughtfulness and respect.
Be mindful about the “when” and “how” of the breakup. I’m going to look like I’m contradicting myself here. While there is no good time to break up, there are certainly terrible times to do it! Be together in person in a place that is preferably private. Please don’t go the Sex and the City route and leave it on a post-it note. Be considerate of important events in your SO’s life. Perhaps don’t break up with your SO the hour before a job interview or important meeting. When you do set aside the time, describe your intention for the conversation upfront, e.g., “I want to talk to you about our relationship. I think it is time for us to separate.” Be prepared for all kinds of reactions – loss hits others in unique ways.
It’s important to take the two-way street here. Making yourself accountable for your part in the relationship conveys respect, integrity and gratitude for the other person. Let your SO know your role: e.g., “I started taking you for granted and stopped putting in effort.” Or “I started feeling resentful and didn’t take steps to address or reduce my anger with you.” This will also invite your SO to take responsibility for his or her part in the relationship. Allow your SO to ask questions. If this comes as a shock, your SO may need some space and consideration for the relationship to close. That doesn’t mean you should stay in a conversation that becomes nasty or abusive. You have every right to walk away from those and protect your emotional health!
Keep good boundaries.
Boundaries are crucial here. They are the collection of invisible barriers that protect each other’s personal and emotional space. For many couples, no future contact is the preferred boundary, but as the separation is happening there may be some intermittent contact. You’ll need to decide how to handle shared friends and spaces. For example, one of you might offer to switch gyms if you enjoy the same workout classes. Honor what you need but also be flexible.
It is important to be patient through the process of your relationship ending, and even treat this as a time to learn more about one another. You have some agency here to treat this goodbye with sensitivity and integrity, as you would want someone to say goodbye to you. No matter how your SO handles the breakup, this is no time to compromise your own integrity. It can be tempting to act out your disappointment, anger or guilt. If you haven’t felt heard, it can also be tempting to find others who will hear your side of things. Keep your messiness off of social media!
One of the key reasons you may have broken up with your SO is a lack of compatibility in certain aspects. Perhaps you didn’t connect spiritually or emotionally; or he leaned introverted, while you leaned extroverted. In this time on your own, you can reconnect with the parts of yourself and your lifestyle that did not shine in this relationship. This could mean getting in touch with friends you didn’t see as frequently, putting more time into your career goals, exploring your spiritual side, etc.
While you are reconnecting in your community, this is also the time to reconnect with a kinder, gentler, side of yourself. Compassion can be your life raft through this unpredictable sea of emotions. Lovingkindness, or metta, comes from the Buddhist tradition of cultivating compassion and love for living things. It can be practiced by anyone, irrespective of your religious and spiritual beliefs. To practice lovingkindness, you simply wish yourself and others in your life: health, happiness and freedom of suffering. You can start with people you deeply care about and extend to people like your SO who you may have mixed feelings about. It is equally important to direct some compassion at yourself so you embrace kindness and self-love.
Increase social activity.
While you may need some days to curl up with a good book or movie, increasing your social activity will help reduce typical feelings of loneliness, emptiness and anxiety. Be mindful of the types of activities you engage in – you might need some distance from emotionally provocative situations like bridal showers or your intrusive Aunt Sally. But do reach out to old and new friends to join in pleasurable activities – sports, hobbies, interests – preferably anything that fully engages your body and spirit.
Don’t rush your healing.
When a relationship ends, it is normal to feel lonely and doubtful. Many people confuse these emotional states with a sign that they have made the wrong decision. And many people will then rekindle unsatisfactory relationships out of loneliness and uncertainty. Don’t be fooled by this! As a part of your healing, you will experience all sorts of negative emotions. Walk through, not around, the difficult emotions. It will make things much easier in the long run! Avoid criticizing the amount of time it may take you to process this breakup and move on. Take as much time as you need; judging only leads to more pain. Lean on loved ones and, if you need additional support, consider starting therapy for a safe, nonjudgmental space to heal.