After the Break-Up: Making Sense of What Happened
Understanding the barriers that led to your estrangement and disconnection.
Posted May 26, 2015
Whenever someone breaks up with you, especially when it happens suddenly or unexpectedly, it’s normal to ask “why?” and try to make sense of what happened.
This week, I received an inquiry from a reader who is mystified by a sudden break-up. She describes the relationship and how they broke up, revealing some clues as to what tore them apart.
I’ve been in a relationship with someone who is really special. We’ve been seeing each other for several months, falling deeply in love, and really enjoying each other. The only big problem we’ve had is that he prides himself on being totally open and honest with me and he wants me to be completely honest and openly share everything about my past relationships. I resist, trying to guard my privacy, but he badgers me, telling me I don’t love him as much as he loves me. But then when I do open up, he gets upset. He’s either mad because I “didn’t tell him before now” or jealous and insecure because I’m still friends with some of these guys, or he’s judging me for past mistakes. Now he’s telling me I need to confess an affair to the former wife of a friend, because I had sex with him just before their divorce was final. Those two now have a great relationship, sharing custody of their daughter. I don’t want to wreck that. This happened years ago and I’ve never even met her!! He’s breaking up with me over this. What do I do? (He’s also often joked about breaking up with me before I can break up with him.) -- Wondering Why
Dear Wondering Why,
What you describe as “the only big problem” is actually a set of barriers, which allowed him to keep his distance and feel totally justified in breaking up with you—before you broke up with him. People put up barriers when they are reluctant to truly invest in an intimate relationship, perhaps because they are insecure about their own lovability, and/or afraid of closeness, commitment, abandonment, and/or conflict. As you read through this list, also ask yourself how you might have been complicit in erecting or submitting to these barriers.
Barrier #1: A lack of psychological boundaries. This means he doesn’t know where he ends and you begin. His push to be “totally open and honest” with no filters or any regard to privacy or consequences is a red flag for enmeshment. When you are enmeshed with another person, your differences are intolerable, rather than respected. Enmeshment is a barrier to intimacy and authenticity.
Barrier #2: Unable to tolerate privacy. True intimacy is sharing what you want to share when you feel comfortable sharing it, not having it dragged out of you. It’s normal, natural, and healthy to want to keep parts of yourself and your experiences private. A healthy relationship makes room for personal privacy.
Barrier #3: Discouraging honesty. By asking you to trust, open up, and share deeply, he implicitly promised to be open, understanding, and nonjudgmental, all of which would build intimacy. But when he responded with anger, jealousy, disgust, or disapproval, he broke that promise, violating your trust, and destroying intimacy. And when he asked difficult questions but was unable to tolerate difficult answers, he was actually encouraging dishonesty, not honesty.
Barrier #4: Holding impossibly high standards. Part of personal growth is making mistakes and learning from them. Expecting you to be perfect—especially in your past—is not a realistic or loving expectation. And perhaps he wasn’t trying to get to know you better as much as he was trying to prove he’s better than you, which was a way of creating distance and disconnection.
Barrier #5: Intolerant of disagreement. When two people are enmeshed, differences become intolerable because there is no room for different viewpoints. He thinks confessing an affair is right; you know it’s wrong. But it’s his way or the highway. (In your case, I agree that silence is golden. For more on this judgment call, see my next post.)
Barrier #6: Controlling. Coercing you into sharing private matters; insisting you handle your life his way; feeling jealous of past relationships—these were all ways of controlling you. Being controlling is another hallmark of enmeshment, and also demonstrates a lack of respect for your values, judgment, and insights.
Someone who is insecure and/or fearful of intimacy can, at first, present as honest, open, and loving. But when you look back, can you see that his behavior created distance, disconnection, and an easy out for himself?
Furthermore, by “discovering” that you were not good enough for him, he protected himself from his stated fears that you didn’t love him sufficiently and were certain to break up with him. He essentially made sure he broke up with you first.
Now that you know how he operates, your next step is to reflect on how you operate, including your willingness to be in this relationship, your contribution to it, and the lessons you can learn.