How to have a healthy relationship break-up (part two)

July 9, 2009


The Left

If you’ve read part one, then you’re probably thinking that an appropriate alternative title for this article would be ‘The no-nonsense guide to breaking up’. Although the end of a relationship is a very emotive time for all involved, experience – both personal and in my work as a counsellor – has taught me that a healthy relationship break-up can only be achieved if there are clear boundaries – hence the ‘no-nonsense’ approach. As we have seen, the rule of thumb as the leaver is ‘Be firm but fair’. As the one left however, the rule is ‘Above all, hold your head high and keep your dignity’.

When you leave someone, you can guarantee that their true colours will come out. I often say – tongue firmly in cheek, of course – that if you’re unsure about how genuine someone’s feelings for you are, then try breaking off the relationship, as the way they respond will make it abundantly clear whether they really love you as a person in your own right or simply view you as an extension of their own ego.

To demonstrate what I mean, here are two very different examples.

Penny and Paul had been in a relationship for two years when Paul said that he wanted to break up. A few years younger than Penny, Paul felt that he hadn’t explored the world enough outside the context of their relationship, and wanted the opportunity to do this as a single man. Penny was utterly devastated, but respected Paul’s request and despite her grief, wished him well. Luckily Penny had a very full life outside of the relationship, with plenty of friends who all rallied round, and a number of creative interests which she threw herself into to help her move on. She did not attempt to contact Paul and asked mutual friends not to tell her if they’d seen him.

Six months after Paul left, he suddenly appeared on her doorstep. He told Penny that he’d made a mistake and that he missed her terribly. He asked for her forgiveness for hurting her and if she would consider taking him back. Penny agreed to consider his request and eventually decided that she loved him enough to give their relationship another go. A year later, they were married.

Contrast this with Kate and Karl’s break up. They had been married for fifteen years and over this time, the relationship had gradually become more like a business arrangement. Karl felt increasingly depressed and frustrated at the lack of affection and companionship offered by his wife, despite his best efforts, and felt that Kate was becoming increasingly contemptuous of him. A sudden death in the family was a real wake-up call for him, and Karl decided that life was too short to stay in a loveless marriage a moment longer.

Kate’s reaction came as a complete shock to him. As she had threatened to kick him out on more than one occasion, he believed she would probably be glad to see the back of him. Instead, she was mortified – ‘How dare he leave me!’- and she embarked on a series of manipulative behaviours in an attempt to keep him under her control. First she tried to seduce him with sex and gifts. When that didn’t work, she tried crying, pleading and threatening suicide to guilt trip him into staying. When this too failed, she became angry and abusive towards him, told anyone who would listen what a ‘bastard’ he was – with a big dollop of ‘poor me’ thrown in for good measure – and did her utmost to make his life as difficult as possible. She bombarded him with phone calls and texts and when he eventually began a more healthy and happy relationship with a former platonic friend who had been supportive of him, she did everything she could to try and destroy that relationship. She also refused to accept that she may have contributed to the breakdown of the marriage (despite the fact that her attempt at belatedly offering loving gestures in the form of sex and gifts demonstrated that she knew deep down what had been lacking) and put the blame totally on Karl and his new partner. Karl had initially felt guilty and sad about ending their marriage, but Kate’s behaviour quickly made him feel relieved it was over and killed off any residual positive feelings he had for her. As he said: ‘The way Kate has behaved is like a spoilt child throwing a tantrum. She treated me like an old toy which she no longer had any interest in, but when that toy was taken away, she screamed blue murder, demanding it back. She didn’t give a damn about me – the only reason she wanted me back was to satisfy her own ego.’

If you are the one being left, here are some dos and don’ts to help you through:

Don’t behave like a victim. Obviously you will need time to grieve, but reserve this for private moments. Don’t walk around with slumped shoulders, a hangdog expression and ‘he/she done me wrong’ written all over your face. Don’t bore your friends rigid with your tale of woe either. People will be sympathetic and supportive for a while, but if your complaints about your ex and the terrible thing he/she did to you continue for more than a month, then you are not only going to find yourself without your partner, you will soon be pretty short of friends too. If you are really struggling to come to terms with your loss, then consider seeing a counsellor or undergoing some other form of emotional healing to help you assimilate and accept your experience and move on.

Whilst it’s fine to wallow in your grief for a while, don’t torture yourself by spending the next six months listening to ‘your songs’, looking at photos of the two of you in happier times and visiting places which remind you of your ex. It is important to work your way through the stages of grief (as famously documented by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross) as if you don’t, you are simply storing up psychological problems for the future. However, don’t wear your grief like a badge of honour – there is much more to you than your former relationship, and the best thing you can do for yourself is to get out there and reacquaint yourself with you. If there’s something you’ve always had an interest in but never fully explored, why not contact your local college and see if they run classes in your chosen subject? It’s advice often given in agony columns, but with good reason – not only will you be able to distract yourself by throwing yourself into your new interest, you will also get the opportunity to broaden your social circle, which could be useful if the only people you know are mutual friends with your ex. If the thought of meeting people face to face seems a bit much to start with, then you could always ease yourself in gently and try an online course. Many of these also have forums where you can discuss the subject with fellow students, giving you the chance to chat with like-minded people. Alternatively, try undertaking some kind of project – something you can really get your teeth into and which will give you a boost. I once redecorated my entire house from top to bottom in 30 days after a relationship break-up and was really proud of my achievement. Or perhaps you could start an exercise program, go for a complete make-over, or travel to some places you’ve always wanted to visit. These are just ideas to fire your imagination  – only you know what appeals to you most and what it will take to kick start your life again.

Don’t, whatever you do, behave like a ‘bunny boiler’ (the prototype may have been female but this applies equally to men). Driving past their house, turning up on their doorstep uninvited on a regular basis, following them around town and ‘just happening’ to be in the same bars as them, ringing/texting/e-mailing a hundred times a day, then screaming, crying, begging, threatening suicide or being aggressive towards them when they reiterate that the relationship is over is NOT going to win back anyone’s love. It might just win you a restraining order though. Behaving this way has got nothing to at all to do with love, as Karl soon realised. If you genuinely love your ex, then like Penny, you will respect their wishes – as the saying goes ‘If you love someone, set them free’. The following quote also sums this attitude up beautifully, and refers us back to the initial ‘rule for dumpees’: “To behave with dignity is nothing less than to allow others to freely be themselves.” Real love means caring about the other person’s happiness – and if they are not finding that happiness in their relationship with you and choose to walk away, then let them go and wish them well, however difficult that may be. Consider again the story of Penny and Paul – would Paul have wanted to resume the relationship had Penny behaved like Kate, do you think? Keeping your dignity does not guarantee that your ex will come back to you, of course, but you will at least maintain your self-respect and get over the break-up much more quickly. It is two years since Karl and Kate broke up, and whilst Karl has moved on and is happy with his new life, Kate is still alone and living in the past, eaten up with resentment and bitterness,  and still thoroughly miserable and angry that she  (in her mind) ‘lost the game’.

On the other hand, if your ex tries to contact you – not to resume the relationship but because they want to ‘stay friends’ – then ask them to show you some respect and give you a chance to get over the break up. Your ex may be hanging on due to their own insecurity, or because there may be some advantage for them in continued contact, or even because they just don’t want to burn their bridges. If they expect to still be able to see you whenever they wish but have made it clear that they don’t want to continue an intimate relationship with you, then this is very unfair and selfish of them, and you would be wise to keep your distance until you feel you are over the relationship, however long that may take.

Above all, remember that clichés are clichés for a reason and that time really is a great healer. If you deal with your break-up in a healthy way, you will emerge from this time as a stronger, wiser and more self-aware person – and the better you know yourself, the more likely you are to find the person who you can truly be happy with.


One comment

  1. […] Equally, don’t allow yourself to be guilt-tripped into taking someone back when you know in your heart of hearts that the relationship is dead in the water. Seeing someone you once loved sobbing and pleading with you to come back can be very difficult to take, particularly if you are a sensitive and caring person, but if you do return the relationship will continue as it did before,  only this time tinged with resentment on your part due to your partner’s emotional blackmail. Again, no contact is the only answer. Don’t answer the door to them, get caller display and don’t pick up the phone when their number (or for a while, number withheld) comes up,  don’t respond to texts or e-mails  and definitely don’t agree to meet up for a friendly drink – in other words, don’t allow yourself to get engaged in any kind of personal interaction with them. If you refuse to respond, your ex will eventually get the message and give up trying. If they don’t, then this constitutes harassment and you will be justified in taking appropriate measures to stop this. Don’t be swayed by the tears – if they are refusing to respect your wishes then however much they protest, they actually don’t give a damn about you – this kind of behaviour is all about their feelings, not yours. And I’ll talk about this more  in part two – The Left. […]

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