“How can I be reasonable? To me our love was everything and you were my whole life.” ― W. Somerset Maugham, The Painted Veil
The immediate requirement of a breakup is that, in the way in which you would sever a limb, you cut your partner loose. You physically cut the partner out of your life, purging them from your bed, your breakfast table, your couch passenger seat. But this involves more than just physical separation; it happens on many levels. On a logistical level, possessions may need to be divided up, accounts separated, friends or kids divided. All of these in themselves can be brutally hard, but their difficulty piles onto the simple pain of being alone, the need for filling time that had been filled, or for scrambling to reestablish any sense of routine.
For many, the logistical work of breaking up pales in comparison to the formidable challenge of disentangling another person from your own sense of self.
Just as children rely on their parents, we tend to rely on our partners to help us cope with ourselves. As the psychologist Heinz Kohut articulates it, we look to important attachment figures for mirroring—reflecting back a positive self image that supports our own self-esteem; idealizing—providing nurturance and help with self-regulation during times of stress; and twinship—a sense of connection and shared experience (Kohut, 1984). The more we look for these needs to be met by romantic partners, and the more we depend on partners to maintain our stable self-concept, the more devastating it can be to let them go.
One study found that the intertwining of selves in romantic relationships leaves individuals vulnerable to self-concept content change (altering the way we think of or describe ourselves) and reduced self-concept clarity (having less certainty of who we are) after a breakup (Slotter, Gardner & Finkel, 2010). An altered self-concept can have dramatic effects on everything from job performance and parenting to personal emotional experiences of security and safety.
So what buffers us against having our whole sense of self turned upside down in a breakup?
Smith and Cohen (1993) found that self-complexity can actually mitigate the negative effects of relationship breakups. A complex self is one in which we see ourselves as having different attributes or traits depending on the situation, as opposed to a simple self in which our attributes are more fixed across situations and roles. That is to say, if we see ourselves as more fluid and changeable—confident at times, insecure at others, strong in some cases, weak in others—we’re more likely to be able to integrate the loss of an important other with whom we deeply identify. If we think of ourselves in more simple terms, a breakup may pull the rug out from under us, as we’re not accustomed to any challenge to our identity, nor able to tolerate much contradiction.
In certain ways our self-concepts may feel out of our control. It’s difficult to decide how fluid or fixed we see our identity to be, and how to push back against constructs like low self-esteem to see ourselves with more complexity and sympathy. But it’s also not impossible to complicate the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves.
One particularly toxic narrative holds that in important ways, we are one with our partners. We merge our interests, worldviews, politics, and aesthetic preferences.
Research has found that people in intense romantic relationships often cease to describe themselves with unique identifiers, ascribing most of what is interesting about themselves and their lives to the shared territory of the union with their partner. One such study found that by identifying too closely with our partners, we can actually confuse our traits with their traits, and even our memories with their memories (Aron, Aron, & Smollan, 1992).
To prevent this blurring of boundaries, and the terrible breakups they put us at risk of, it makes sense to mind our boundaries during the course of a relationship. It’s also useful to maintain a concept of healthy relationships that includes difference, even conflict, rather than to embrace an ideal of coupledom as twinship, requiring the merging of identities.
We may also find it beneficial to monitor the stories we tell ourselves about the actual breakup. Are these stories too self-deprecating? Too self-blaming? If we make the interpretative leap of linking our experience of rejection to our own inadequacy, we increase the likelihood that our core will be shaken.
A narrative approach encourages us to externalize the stories we tell. Rejection may exist outside of ourselves as an arbitrary and unpredictable force, rather than being tethered to our own worth. Breakups may be necessary growth experiences, enabling us to take stock of our own contributions to the relationship’s failure and to improve upon it in future attempts (Howe, 2016).
As with most difficult experiences, reflection and self-awareness might also mitigate our pain. If we’re catastrophizing a breakup—thinking we can’t survive without the person, or blaming ourselves—some critical distance might be helpful. It might give us the space we need to better hold on to our own complicated histories of strength and weakness, to highlight the difficult experiences that we have survived, and to separate out the current circumstances from who we are as people.