Unfortunately, breaking up with someone is a part of life. We usually dread it because it’s painful and it hurts. How can we make it as “healthy” as possible? Here are five steps – ideas – to consider:
Step One: Be sure that you want to break up.
Don’t rush this part: it’s the most crucial of the five steps.
Have the two of you talked about the state of your relationship, specifically:
- Is it really hopeless?
- Have we tried everything?
- What will our lives be like without each other?
- What will this cost us emotionally/financially?
Are you both ready to call it quits, or is one of you still hopeful?
Do you two have a history of breaking up and then getting back together again? If so, take a good, hard look at your pattern and ask yourselves, “Is anything different this time?” If nothing’s changed, the outcome probably won’t change either.
In your decision-making process, get feedback from good friends/people you trust/a therapist. Remember that no one is neutral: everyone’s feedback to you will be colored by their experiences. Ask your optimistic friends as well as your pessimistic friends: get feedback from both the “you two should stay together and work it out” and the “you’re better off if you break up” people in your life.
Step Two: How to Talk about It?
Wait until you’re both calm. Make it a time that feels “neutral”, not right after a big argument or a great vacation.
How to bring the subject up? Will your partner be surprised? If so, what’s your strategy to minimize the shock? Put yourself in their place: how would you want someone to bring up this topic with you?
Before you decide to talk about it, get clear on what you want and be willing to ask for it. Give your partner the opportunity to do the same.
Set an intention to be respectful to each other in your discussion. This can be tough: strong emotions often overwhelm us and encourage us to say mean and hurtful things. If either of you are headed in that direction, have an agreement that the other person can call a “time out” and the discussion will take a break.
Breaking up usually doesn’t happen from one conversation: it’s usually a series of conversations that eventually lead to either a reconciliation or a break up.
Step Three: The Actual Separation
Consider “divorce counseling”: this is a service I offer couples who want to have as pleasant a break up as possible. The longer you’ve been together, the more may be at stake. Consider:
- Your mutual friends
- Commonly-owned property
If you don’t live together, breaking up may appear to be fairly simple, except for your mutual friends, your shared subscription to the Old Globe, and all your emotions.
If you’ve lived together for a long time, are married or share pets or property, you probably want to work with a lawyer and/or meditator.
If you have pets that you both adore, you may need to have several discussions about this. For many couples, their pets are like their children, and, like children, custody battles can be intense.
On the other hand, without shared pets or property, separating could be as simple as an agreement re. who gets what in your (shared) rental apartment.
As a therapist who has helped many couples have a “good” break up, I’ve noticed that lots of emotions get played out through arguments over “stuff”. It’s usually not the stuff that people want, it’s that they still have a lot of resentmenttoward their partner and want a way to vent it, so they argue over “stuff”.
Step Four: Emotional Recovery
Whether you initiate the break up or the other person does, it’s painful either way. I’ve had clients say, “I want to break up, but I don’t want to hurt (name of partner).” While I respect that intention, I tell them that it usually isn’t possible: breaking up hurts. Realizing that the relationship isn’t working – for some folks – is admitting failure. And being the one who gets dumped is harder than hell on your self-esteem.
After the break up is a good time to get emotional support from people who love you: friends, family, colleagues and counselors. It’s usually a rough time, don’t be stoic! Get some help.
And don’t continue to follow your ex on social media, unless you love torturing yourself.
Step Five: Moving On
The healthiest way to break up is to give yourself time to grieve the end of the relationship. Yeah, this brings up painful feelings, but it can also be a time where you learn a lot about yourself, what you want and what you didn’t get from that (now-ended) relationship.
This can be a great time to reconnect with friends you may have pushed aside when your ex came into your life.
Everybody wants closure, because we think it will feel good. Sometimes it does, but, often, it just feels so damned sad. There’s no “perfect” way to end a relationship. Sometimes you can’t avoid seeing your ex, but you can sure avoid driving by their house every night.
How long to stay single? You’ll know. It’s different for everybody. Some people mentally check out of their relationship a long time before it actually ends: they’re ready to date again as soon as the ink dries on the divorce papers. Other people are still in shock for months after the break up. Give yourself time to heal: a break up is no small thing.
—Michael Kimmel is a licensed psychotherapist who specializes in helping LGBTQ clients achieve their goals and deal with anxiety, depression, grief, sexually addictive behavior, coming out, relationship challenges and homophobia. Contact him at 619-955-3311 or visit lifebeyondtherapy.com.