With the new decade upon us, perhaps you have taken stock of what you want in the future. Maybe you have set some goals or set intentions to let go of a few things. One of the hardest things to do can be letting go of a relationship. Breaking up is hard to do (thus the song), whichever side of the break-up you are on. Keep in mind, relationships can mean romantic attachments, platonic friendships, professional relations, or even family dynamics. And we now live in a time where, although we have more awareness of toxic dynamics and more options for how to meet people, there can be more emotional distance between us. When Carrie got broken up with via Post-It Note on Sex and the City, it was painfully groundbreaking; now, ghosting happens all the time. Even though we know we have to do it, we can often avoid and evade the painful emotions attributed to the end of a relationship. By carving out some space and time to process our thoughts and feelings, we can fully let go and allow ourselves to move forward.
Uncertain about a break-up?
People avoid the tension and difficulty of break-ups because we are programed to numb, deny, or block ourselves from negative emotions. I mean, who likes being in pain? Avoidance often can keep us in a relationship too long when we know we don’t actually want to be in that relationship. Dating can be really soul-crushing, which can cause us to stick with the devil we know versus the unknown devil on the other side of our dating apps.
According to the Transtheoretical Model of Change, often referenced with addictions, making a change or even a decision such as what to do about our relationships can involve multiple steps. Why use an addiction framework to talk through relationships you ask? Because love—even the not-toxic, healthy kind—can be addictive and overwhelming, akin to using a substance. We often get stuck and do not move forward to make changes. We can be in the “Precontemplation” or “Contemplation” phases for a long time of either not being ready or starting to consider that we need to leave a relationship. These two phases can take awhile before we prepare to take or actually take action.
While considering the state of your relationship, it is good to evaluate what is really keeping you in the relationship. If you are investing in another person and your future, do you feel like you are getting a good return on your investment? Do you feel like you can trust and grow with your partner? Are you proud to be with this partner? Do you like who you are in your relationship? Certainly nothing and no one is perfect, but often we silence our intuition or feelings because fear takes over. So if you are unhappy in your current relationship, another important question is what is keeping you from leaving? When speaking about addiction, physician and researcher Dr. Vincent Felliti has said, “It is hard to get enough of something that almost works.” Equally, it is hard to let go of something that almost works. But if a relationship is toxic, beyond repair, and makes you feel profoundly unhappy, it is important to let go of the fantasy of it working one day and accept the reality that it does not work now. And has not for a while.
Take time to end things
If you have decided that it is time to end a relationship, make sure that you take the time to tell the person you are ending the relationship in person. You likely started a relationship in person and it makes sense to end it the same way. Think about what you need to say and do your best to communicate how you are feeling. Also, be mindful that who you are leaving may feel very differently than you do. And they have every right to have those feelings. Have empathy for them, which means allowing your former relationship partner to say how they feel and really listening to them. But then you hold up the boundary of needing things to end. The goal of a break-up is not necessarily to agree, but to communicate and make space for emotions to be expressed on both sides.
(One caveat: No need to break up in person if there is an issue of safety. If you are ending a relationship because you are in danger, then skip the processing part and get yourself out and to a healthier, safer place!)
Once that tough conversation has happened, it means you actually have to leave. So often we get caught in this stage, almost like a relapse. We know we need to quit something and we have done it but then we backslide. The easiest way to work through this is to make sure we have time and distance. It is way too hard to let go when you are still connected. There is really something to “out of sight, out of mind.” It may be tempting to reconnect or try to stay friends, but just as a relationship takes time to build and start, the end needs time and patience as well. Emotional whiplash happens if one minute you are saying things are over and the next, you are reaching out to the person you just hurt. Breaking up is painful—do not prolong the pain or heap on confusion by sending mixed messages. Maybe far down the road friendship is a possibility, but give yourself and the person you are breaking up with plenty of time to get to that place.
Let go and move on
Whether you are on the giving or receiving end of a break-up, it can be tempting to speed through the pain, confusion, relief, sadness, frustration, etc. Hence the societal norm of rebounding! But the end of a relationship is like grieving a loss. There is the literal loss of the relationship but often there is much more like the loss of friendships, of a shared space, of family, of a lifestyle, and most importantly of a future together. So instead of numbing, denying, and avoiding, do your best to give yourself an outlet for that very normal, but often tricky, grief. Write down your thoughts and feelings. Instead of texting or calling your now ex-partner, write them a letter. But don’t send it! Allow yourself to say the things you didn’t get to say. Get out those feelings in some way. Use healthy self-care. Lean on your support system. Go to therapy. Figure out what went wrong and how you feel about yourself now that the relationship is over.
And then, one day in the future, you will wake up with what feels like acceptance and you will be ready to move forward. You may be a little sore and weary, as painful things often make us feel. You may even be a little skeptical or fearful. But you will be ready to dip your toe into love and relationships again. Every one of our relationships end until we find ourselves in the current long-term one. And every relationship, the good, the bad, and the ugly, move us forward. Have hope; you are not broken.