Off the Couch

Thoughts about the therapeutic process, and the dynamics of client-therapist interactions.

What's the Best Way to Break Up?

What can stop the pain?

I'm sitting at my desk pondering my last therapy sessions of the day. Dori*, who just left my office, has been agonizing for months over whether or not to break up with her boyfriend. She is worried that if she says she wants to end the relationship, she will damage her lover for life. He says he cannot survive without her. Maybe, she worries, that's true. She would feel terrible if he really cannot recover from a breakup with her.

She is also worried that she will never find anyone who loves her as much as he does. But he is suffocating her with that love. He wants to know about everything she does, every detail of every minute of her life away from him. He tolerates her going to work, because he has to go to work as well. But they are on the phone or texting or IM-ing constantly during the week. And on the weekends, he insists that they do everything together. She cannot have a cup of tea with a friend or even go to a yoga class without him. She has tried to explain that she needs just a little space. She has asked him to go to couples therapy with her. But her requests have led to arguments, to his repeating that she does not love him as much as he loves her, to tears and recrimination; and eventually to reconciliation.

I am fairly sure that they will eventually separate, but I wonder how it will happen. Will Dori actually take the step of ending things? Will her boyfriend, feeling that she is pulling away from him, find someone else before she can tell him that it's over? Or will she fall in love with someone else herself?

Estelle*, whose session was just before Dori's, is a woman who breaks all of the traditional rules about what is supposed to make men find women attractive. She is a large, heavyset woman who states emphatically that she never does anything resembling exercise. She wears clothes that even she thinks are unattractive; but she is smart, funny, sensitive, and very loving, and she always has men who are interested in her. Estelle recently broke up with her long term boyfriend. She was sad, but resigned. "He's a great guy," she said, "but I don't think we can make it work. Might as well end it now rather than drag it out." He was also sad when she ended it, but they were able to agree on how to move forward - who got to keep the apartment, who was going to keep the cat, and how to divide up shared furniture, books and cd's. It happened quickly, amicably and relatively cleanly. That is not to say that Estelle got over it so fast. She spent some time mourning and remembering all of the good things about her boyfriend. She wondered if she had done the right thing; but then she started dating again and her life seemed to move forward.

As I think about these two women, and the very different ways that they have gone about ending - or trying to end - a relationship, I find myself thinking about a number of other clients, and friends, who have struggled with this process. It occurs to me that the process of ending a relationship is something like taking off a band-aid. (This does not mean that being in a relationship is like having a bandage on!). Some people prefer to rip it off fast, getting the pain over with quickly. Others go very slowly, peeling off one small part at a time, hoping to escape the worst of the discomfort that way.

Each way has its advantages and disadvantages - but does either actually stop the pain of a breakup?

And when it comes to that, is there a reason for the pain? And even a reason to allow ourselves to sit with that pain for a little while?

If you end a relationship quickly, without thinking about it too much, you get the ending part over with quickly. But that doesn't always give you time to think out possible consequences of the split, to consider whether you're ending something because you're frustrated in the moment or because you're really not happy in general, or whether the relationship itself is what's wrong. If an ending comes too quickly, you might find yourself mourning on the other side - feeling the sadness you avoided by ripping the bandage off so fast.

If you end slowly, you do a lot of the mourning ahead of time -- which, depending on your personality, could be good or could be bad. You also have a chance to think out how you will feel, how your partner will react, what you will do about living space if you're living together - in other words, you might get some practical advantages by having time to daydream about possible solutions. You also get a chance to explore the possibility that you are taking out your unhappiness about your job, for example, on the relationship; or that you are looking to a change in your relationship as a way of dealing with a depression that has dogged your heels since college and really has nothing to do with your lover. But on the other hand, you can end up being stuck in your ponderings, unable to move forward but unhappy staying still.

So maybe it doesn't matter how you end, but how you manage the pain that goes along with ending. When two people have been close, they will hurt when they end things. Most of us avoid feeling hurt, or feeling that we are hurting someone else. But hurting does not have to mean that we will be destroyed, especially if we can hold onto the loving feelings that are part of why an ending hurts. Ending with anger, even rage, is one way of trying to keep the pain down. In essence it's a way of saying, "I don't hurt, because I hate you too much to even care!" But it's not always true. Even when we don't feel like we are hurting, hatred and anger can reflect a wish to give the other person a taste of our pain. It's like we want them to hurt as much as we do.

So whether you use the "rip it off fast" or "take it slow and easy" approach, the real trick is to acknowledge that it is a painful process. And to try to do it in a way that allows you and your partner to heal as easily and as healthily as possible.

*Names and identifying information changed to protect individuals and families

 

F. Diane Barth, L.C.S.W., is a psychotherapist, teacher, and author in private practice in New York City.

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