Breaking Up Is Hard to Do, but It Just Got Easier for Some

Woman sits at table while man is on sofaOne “holiday freeze” is over.

Many people, reluctant to break up the family amid the hustle and bustle of the holiday season, postpone a relationship breakup until the new year. Amid resolutions to change and optimism about new beginnings, January traditionally sees a spike in both divorce filings and online dating sign-ups. “Out with the old, in with the new” thinking is everywhere.

The decision to break up ranges from no-brainer to gut-wrenching and can, in some cases, take years to execute. The level of difficulty is often commensurate with the intensity of love or hate, religious beliefs, investment, and guilt. The rulers for measuring these moving parts (personal happiness, quality of relationship, dedication, loyalty, and marriage vows) are subjective and vary greatly.

I work with many people in therapy who struggle to find clarity as it pertains to matters of the heart, people who often wrestle with trusting themselves to make the “right” decision. Replace the word “right” with a better word: “best.” I recommend they acknowledge their negative feelings and allow themselves to be curious about why they feel so badly. Unlike a broken leg, a broken heart is intangible, invisible, and difficult to assess.

The simplest version of a Subjective Units of Distress Scale (SUDS), a useful tool for assessing emotional upset, runs numerically from 0 to 10, 10 being the highest level of disturbance. People often report that they experience a range of distress depending on the day and the issue. When the measurements are 7, 8, 9, or 10 on a regular basis, it’s important to acknowledge the pattern. These numbers represent a toxic level of negativity. Denial, blocking bad feelings in favor of wishing, waiting, wanting, is a common coping mechanism.

Relationship ambivalence, confusion about not knowing if it is “too good to leave or too bad to stay,” often indicates that the relationship is in worse shape than that which was initially reported. Calling it quits is easier thought than done. It baffles many assertive people, so accustomed to acting on what they know, when they cannot bring themselves to end things. It’s particularly difficult when they feel like both staying and leaving. Thoughts about delaying a breakup sharply contrast with thoughts about getting out, creating a nagging level of internal conflict. Internal dialogues of “do it, do it” and “don’t, don’t” perpetuate doubt and prolong indecision.

I reassure people that the state of personally not knowing, initialized as “idk,” is reasonable. It is a necessary phase when you really aren’t sure. It’s a way to acknowledge and carefully consider the proverbial pros-and-cons list.

In my experience, guilt is the most expressed reason for staying in a relationship. “I feel guilty.” “I don’t want to hurt my partner.” “My partner is a good person.” Some people, conditioned to believe that hurting the feelings of a good person makes them bad, feel unjustified or undeserving when it comes to breaking up for their own happiness. I invite people to think differently about this belief by suggesting, “Two good people may, in reality, be wrong for each other.” Unlike family, who we cannot choose, there is enormous pressure to choose the “right” partner, particularly in a first marriage.

Self-recrimination is high when there has been infidelity. Decisions to have extramarital relations or to cheat on a partner are often complicated. At a basic level of understanding, they represent voids in the primary relationship. While they may satisfy needs in the short term, there are typically repercussions in the long term. I recommend that the tough decisions, to stay or not to stay, be made before pursuing a sexual or emotional relationship with another person.

In my experience, some incarnation of “I don’t matter” is the top reason for ending a partnership. Disappointment, anger, and resentment lead to fights over money, kids, and sex. There are few ways to move forward when people feel they don’t matter. Some people say something to the effect of, “I have lost myself in this relationship.” This is serious. It’s a miserable feeling to have low to no sense of self-worth as it relates to others, and extremely demoralizing to feel unimportant with a partner of your own choosing.

In my experience, guilt is the most expressed reason for staying in a relationship. “I feel guilty.” “I don’t want to hurt my partner.” “My partner is a good person.” Some people, conditioned to believe that hurting the feelings of a good person makes them bad, feel unjustified or undeserving when it comes to breaking up for their own happiness.

When doubts subside and clarity increases, a surge in confidence may lead to definitive answers. “I’m in it to win it!” proclaim people who want to stay in their relationships. Conversely, the proclamation “I’m done!” is a familiar expression for saying they have had enough and wish to end it.

Either way, the ambivalence isn’t necessarily over. Doubt, in the form of second-guessing, frequently revisits. Take the refrain, “I don’t get it. I don’t want him/her back, but all I do is think about him/her.” Hurt and sadness are common feelings when a relationship ends. They are two of the uncomfortable phases of grief, for which many people have little to no tolerance.

Loss of the person is understood, but it’s only half the explanation for the emotional and physical struggle. Loss of dreams, the future pictured with the other person, is an explanation for unexpected heartache. This helps people, surprised and confused by their post-breakup symptoms, to make sense of the backlash of emotion. A less-known phase of grief is “bargaining.” It circles back to a search for reasons and ways to not grieve, sometimes in the form of reconciliation.

Many people fear social judgment and shunning. I frequently hear, “I am so worried about what people will think!” It really is remarkable: divorce rates are high, but the stigma still exists. Divorce is culturally viewed as weakness and failure. I recently reframed this fear for a woman I know as loyal, hard-working, and devoted to her family. I suggested those who know her and respect her will support her decision to divorce because they trust her judgment. There will be others who do not. I also suggested that friends may look closely at their own relationships, scanning for quality with greater confidence because of her.

Fear of being alone is a common reason for staying in an unhealthy relationship. If this resonates with you, I strongly recommend seeking counseling for individual support as compared to couples counseling. This fear, in particular, deserves thorough exploration with a therapist who will help flesh out why you feel the way you feel.

February, with Valentine’s Day falling right in the middle of the month, brings about another potential “holiday freeze.” Are you going to wait it out?

References:

  1. Fottrell, Q. (2015, January 6). Why January is a popular month to file for divorce. Retrieved from http://www.marketwatch.com/story/divorce-filings-jump-by-one-third-in-january-2015-01-05
  2. Wolpe, J. (2016). In New World Encyclopedia. Available from http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Joseph_Wolpe

© Copyright 2016 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Pandora L. MacLean-Hoover, LICSW, therapist in Blue Hill, Maine

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • 16 comments
  • Leave a Comment
  • elena

    elena

    January 19th, 2016 at 9:00 AM

    I’m not going to stay in any relationship that will disrespect me

  • Pandora MacLean-Hoover

    Pandora MacLean-Hoover

    January 20th, 2016 at 3:38 AM

    Elena,
    Good for you!

  • Naomi

    Naomi

    January 19th, 2016 at 10:23 AM

    I stayed in my marriage probably about 10 years longer than I should have. As a matter of fact if I look back on it I probably married him out of guilt in the first place. I think that there was this guilt over not wanting to break up and that it might hurt his feeling so I stayed. Wrong reasons but good intent I guess. Things are better now but I know that there is still some resentment there, on his part for me leaving him and on my part too because I am a little resentful of the years that I lost to that unhappiness. But ultimately I take the responsibility for that so onward I go.

  • Pandora MacLean-Hoover

    Pandora MacLean-Hoover

    January 20th, 2016 at 3:35 AM

    Naomi,
    Thank you for taking the time to write!
    Glad things are better for you because of your awareness and the difficult decisions you have made.

  • Hal

    Hal

    January 19th, 2016 at 2:14 PM

    Replace the word “right” with a better word: “best.” Thanks- I definitely needed to find that quote today!

  • Pandora MacLean-Hoover

    Pandora MacLean-Hoover

    January 20th, 2016 at 3:32 AM

    Glad it helped Hal!

  • Marc

    Marc

    January 20th, 2016 at 9:14 AM

    I will fight til the bitter end, I don’t want to give up on something if I feel like there is still some potential left there to make a change. Now I know that this is not always going to be the case, but giving up is not in my DNA

  • Pandora MacLean-Hoover

    Pandora MacLean-Hoover

    January 20th, 2016 at 2:20 PM

    Marc,
    Thank you for taking the time to write this comment.
    I wish you well.

  • Terrell

    Terrell

    January 21st, 2016 at 8:00 AM

    Look, we all know what makes us feel right and what doesn’t. I think that you instinctively will know if there is something in your life (or someone ) who does not need to be there. The trick is to find the courage to say that and to get rid of that negativity. I do not mean that you have to be mean about it, but if the person loves you then they will understand where you are coming from and will only want the best for you. And if they do not want that for you despite how you have told them this makes you feel? Then they were not right for you to begin with.

  • Pandora MacLean-Hoover

    Pandora MacLean-Hoover

    January 25th, 2016 at 9:35 PM

    Terrell,
    Thank you for taking the time to comment on my article.
    You expressed many meaningful points.
    I offer two additional thoughts.
    Yes, people often have instinctual clarity about ending a relationship. Following through on this depends on a person’s sense of deservedness to take action toward improving their quality of life. Also, to your point about “if the other person loves you…,” I’d add a note about how secure the other person feels in themselves. Many people hurt around the thought of being broken up with because they dread feeling rejected. They may intellectually agree that things are not good but fight an ending when they fear being left with the message they weren’t good enough.

  • walker

    walker

    January 21st, 2016 at 11:10 AM

    Life is hard, and it can be even harder to step out of a comfort zone and leave behind someone, even when you know that in the end it will be better for you. You have become attached and breaking that connection can be pretty difficult. That is why many of us backslide after we resolve to do something but it was so comfortable to us that it is easy just to slip back into the same old habits and patterns.

  • Pandora MacLean-Hoover

    Pandora MacLean-Hoover

    January 25th, 2016 at 9:39 PM

    Walker,
    Thanks for writing. You’ve identified a huge reason that people stay in damaged and even irreparable relationships. We err on staying in that which is familiar, “comfort” as you call it, even when it is painful and doesn’t work well anymore.

  • Melissa

    Melissa

    January 25th, 2016 at 11:24 AM

    If you are strong you can get through this!

  • Pandora MacLean-Hoover

    Pandora MacLean-Hoover

    January 25th, 2016 at 9:41 PM

    Melissa,
    The word “strong” confuses a lot of people, those who stay and those who leave relationships.
    Thanks for commenting, much appreciated.

  • Gabe

    Gabe

    January 26th, 2016 at 3:38 PM

    I had my heart shattered pretty recently, and I can’t figure out that much if it was all about the girl, even though I do miss her, or whether a lot of it has to do with missing the IDEA of what we would build together. I think that In my mind I had so much of my future wrapped up around her that it has gotten hard to think about a future without her. But not because I love her so much, even though I think that I do, but I don’t know, it gets hard to put into words but I hope someone knows what I mean.

  • Pandora MacLean-Hoover

    Pandora MacLean-Hoover

    January 27th, 2016 at 3:12 AM

    Gabe,
    Thanks for taking the time to write a comment.
    Yes! Loss of the dreams, as much and sometimes more than loss of the person, intensifies grief after a break-up.
    Hope you have support while you adjust and your life transitions forward.
    Best Regards,
    Pandora

Leave a Comment

By commenting you acknowledge acceptance of GoodTherapy.org's Terms and Conditions of Use.

* Indicates required field.

GoodTherapy uses cookies to personalize content and ads to provide better services for our users and to analyze our traffic. By continuing to use this site you consent to our cookies.