After the Break-up: Embracing the Lessons
Reflecting on your role & lessons learned can help you move forward and thrive.
Posted May 26, 2015
When you’re trying to make sense of a break-up, it can be helpful to gain insight into the other person’s fears and motives, but remember, it takes two to tango. It’s even more important to look at how you played into the drama as well. What red flags did you ignore? What drama did you create? What dysfunction did you feed into? You can also explore what you might learn from this relationship, and what you might do differently in the future.
My previous post responded to a reader, “Wondering Why”, who described an intense love that led to a sudden breakup. She wanted to make sense of what went wrong. In hindsight, her lover’s charm seemed to be a mask that hid his insecurity, blocked intimacy, and created a foundation of enmeshment, unrealistic expectations, and dishonesty—all of which doomed this relationship from the start. This post contains Part 2 of my response to her. It provides a closer look at these issues and offers useful information on enmeshment versus true intimacy, guidance on confessing affairs, and encouragement for moving forward with wisdom gained.
Dear Wondering Why,
By learning from this relationship, instead of focusing on what you’ve lost, you can focus on what you’ve gained. Here are some of the lessons this relationship might hold for you.
There is a popular notion that the ideal romantic relationship entails falling deeply in love and becoming “One”-- inseparable and wide open, agreeing about everything, and sharing all. Unfortunately, this is enmeshment, and is an immature and unrealistic view of intimate relationships.
But doesn’t a desire for enmeshment indicate a desire for intimacy? No, enmeshment is actually a barrier to intimacy, because it requires a lack of boundaries, and for you both to lose yourselves in each other and the relationship. With enmeshment,
- you’re discouraged from knowing yourself because the relationship is more important than you are
- you can’t be true to yourself because you value agreement above individuality, which leaves little room for honest expression of feelings and desires
- you don’t assert yourself because differences and separateness are seen as threatening
- when you do assert yourself, as you’re likely to get conflict instead of understanding, which results in disconnection instead of intimacy.
Contrast this with healthy intimacy, which happens between two individuals who remain close, but distinct from each other.
With true intimacy,
- you’re encouraged to know yourself because you value individuality,
- you remain true to yourself because the relationship makes room for honest expression of feelings and desires,
- you assert yourself because individuality and differences are celebrated, and you’re encouraged to have interests and friendships outside the relationship,
- when you assert yourself, you’re likely to get understanding, which results in feelings of connection, cooperation, and intimacy.
On Red Flags:
If you want to avoid future enmeshment, you’d do well to become alert to the red flags, some of which you may have experienced, including:
- Quick intimacy—wanting to get very close very fast, sharing intimate and personal information and dreaming of a future together too soon after you meet.
- Isolation—wanting to spend all or most free time together; excluding others or trying to reduce interactions with others.
- Demanding loyalty—it’s imperative that you see it their way, not questioning their view of reality.
- Controlling—there’s no room for you to have a different perspective; your independence is seen as a threat.
- Draining—you feel drained of your time and energy.
- Scolding—you find yourself feeling anxious that if you don’t do things “right”, they will be very upset and/or punitive.
- Manipulating—coercing you with threats, sob stories, or “if you loved me, you’d….”. You may feel oppressed and want to leave, but you’re fearful that, as they may say, they can’t live without you.
- Alienation—troubled or estranged relationships with parents and/or other family members. Blaming others and/or not taking any responsibility for failed relationships.
- Arrogance—“I’m better than others”; refusing to learn from others; narcissism.
When you’re starting a new relationship, intimacies are a thrill, and infatuation blooms. It’s normal to feel a sense of “oneness” and get lost in each other. But infatuation always fades as you begin to see each other’s imperfections and face your differences. Whether this leads to a break-up or lasting love depends on your desire and ability to maintain healthy boundaries and cultivate respect for yourselves and each other as individuals. This foundation is built over time, and requires ongoing investment and dedication to working through issues and conflicts as they arise. Without a strong foundation of boundaries and respect, love and intimacy cannot thrive.
On True Intimacy:
True intimacy means knowing and presenting your true self, and getting to know the other’s true self. As such, true intimacy entails two whole individuals, sharing lots in common and joining forces, but remaining distinctly separate. A healthy intimacy also means that you remain true to your own self, and remain curious and nonjudgmental about each other. You both invest in working together to build a mutually satisfying partnership in which each of you can stretch, grow, and seek contentment.
On Honest Sharing:
The virtues of openness, trust, honesty—these are building blocks of lasting love and true intimacy. But these virtues also require healthy boundaries and mutual respect.
Honesty starts with being honest with yourself. It means being clear about who you truly are, how you truly feel, and what you truly want. It means genuine self-reflection and being aware of your weaknesses, your agenda, your wounds, and your bias. This foundation of honesty with self is what enables you to be honest with others.
Honesty is sharing what you want to share and keeping private what you want to keep to yourself. Honesty also recognizes that sometimes the truth is destructive and hurtful, and silence is the higher good. And sometimes honesty is just your opinion, which can be kept to yourself, as it may have little to do with what’s really going on or what’s important to the other person.
On Answering Personal Questions:
Whenever someone asks you a personal, intimate question, you can practice healthy personal boundaries by posing another question, such as, “Why do you ask?” This inquiry can get at the heart of their intentions, fears, or curiosity. When asked about past sexual relationships, you don’t owe anyone “the truth” especially when it’s private or confidential. It is also reasonable to say, “I’d be happy to tell you what I’ve learned from past relationships, but I’d rather share new experiences with you than relive the details of my past loves.”
On Confessing Affairs:
While many people view confessing an affair as “honesty”, a higher moral calling is to consider the injured party’s best interests, and whether “the truth” would only be destructive or hurtful. Think about it: when someone confesses an affair, whose interests is this really serving? Whose feelings of anxiety are soothed by “coming clean” or “making things right”? Whose guilt is relieved by clearing the conscience, seeking forgiveness, or bearing the punishment? And who might be getting revenge on the former lover, by spilling the beans? On the other hand, who is utterly devastated? Or possibly harmed, as in, “Oh yeah, duh, I knew that s/he stepped out on me. Why are you raking up old hurts?”
In your situation, for this woman, is it even relevant now? It might not have even been relevant then! Will knowing the truth improve a bad situation or solve a current problem? Will it protect her from imminent harm? Will it make her feel better about herself, her past marriage, or her current rapport with the father of her child? Given that they’ve already been able to repair their relationship, which enormously benefits them and their child, I see not one whit of support for the idea that a confession is in order.
On Your Contribution:
There is a reason why you chose this man and ignored or were blind to any red flags. In order for you to not repeat your mistakes, you must become aware of your own relationship issues, habits, and fears, and adjust your perception of what makes a good relationship and a good partner. A therapist, a mentor, self-help books, and self-reflective journaling can guide you through this process.
By seeing your broken relationship as presenting lessons for you to learn, you can boost your resilience and bounce back from heartache. Embracing lessons also leads to fewer regrets and helps you see each breakup as an opportunity for growth and a better life, rather than a reason to lose hope, feel diminished, or die.
For a time, you may need to grieve for what might have been and learn to accept what is. But keep holding onto the idea that you can go forth with your newfound wisdom and thrive.