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The Mature Breakup

How to end a relationship with self-awareness, integrity, and grace

With great strength and despite difficulty, you’ve made the choice to end your relationship. Maybe you made this decision with some ease, as trusting your gut comes naturally to you. Perhaps you stood at a relational crossroads for a while, weighing your options and seeking counsel from trusted friends and family. Regardless, here you are, choosing this path towards your next unwritten chapter.

The Right Choice and the Hard Choice Can Be the Same Choice

As we mature through the journey from childhood to adolescence to adulthood, we refine our emotion-regulation strategies. Yet ending a relationship at any age or stage in life is hard and understandably shakes the earth beneath even the hardiest among us. Even if breaking up feels like the right move, or the only move, the experience of losing someone who was once so significant inevitably stirs complex negative emotions. Shame, frustration, sadness, doubt, and anger, often complicated by nostalgia, are all feelings that are likely to appear over the course of a breakup process, and understandably so. These emotions are normal, natural, and expected!

But for the partner initiating the break up, negative emotions can create cognitive dissonance: If I am the one ending this, why do I feel so bad? One of the signs of emotional maturity is the ability to sit in paradox:

  • I am both clear and sad.
  • The right choice and the hard choice are the same choice.
  • I am a person who strives to be kind and I am a person whose choice is creating hurt.
  • Maturity is about making space for these competing truths without letting one obliterate the other.

Devaluing as a Coping Mechanism

Jobs, friendships, and relationships come and go with time, but as we move on, we are at risk of belittling those experiences after-the-fact by saying things like, “What a waste of time!,” “I never should have dated them in the first place” or “I’m so much better off without them.” There are a few reasons you may be tempted to reach for devaluing as a coping mechanism after a breakup. If you are ending the relationship because you feel wronged, mistreated, and unseen, your devaluation is a reflection of your hurt and anger. Alternatively, you may be devaluing the experience in order to ease the pain of goodbye. After all, how could you miss a relationship that was all havoc and pain? Finally, you may be devaluing your experience because you don’t trust yourself to maintain your goodbyes. If you are able to successfully squash the positive moments within that friendship or relationship, then perhaps you won’t be tempted to return.

Three Practices for Cultivating Maturity

None of these are bad or wrong. Coping mechanisms are there to help us get through difficult times. But you deserve to anchor your recovery in something sturdier and more sustaining than denigration. Here are three strategies to help you move on from this relationship with self-awareness, integrity, and grace. These strategies can help you integrate the loss of your relationship and help you prepare for your next one.

  1. Focus on your growth. Trashing the experience might hurt the feelings of the person standing in the rearview mirror, but it can also worsen painful feelings inside of you such as shame, guilt, and/or remorse. These feelings can keep you stuck. Replace the question, “Why did I ever choose that relationship?” with the question, “What did I learn about myself from that relationship?”
  2. Remember that someone can be “bad for you” without being “bad.” Choosing to end a relationship clearly means that something was not working for you, and your goal in moving on is to create something better. Your former partner does not need to be a “bad” person in order for you to opt for something else. As Glennon Doyle so beautifully states in Untamed, “Grace for you, grace for me,” (p. 130). Viewing your former partner as flawed rather than bad will help you look back on the relationships in a more nuanced, expansive way. Embracing their full and flawed humanity helps you remember your own. And your future partner will be a full and flawed human too!
  3. Trust what you cannot see. One of the most challenging parts of a breakup is that you are stepping into the unknown. Will you end up regretting your choice? Will you love again? When? Your efforts to hold a nuanced view of yourself, your former partner, and your relationship will help you tolerate the questions inherent in life post-breakup. Nuance comes when we name the “both/and” nature of life. Your relationship with someone can be both valuable and nonpermanent. It can be both something you miss and something you do not want back. You can be both scared and courageous as you begin again. Resilience comes when we face our next challenge by remembering what we have already survived.

The ending of a relationship is one of the more stressful life events we can face. In fact, on the 1967 Holmes and Rahe stress scale, divorce is second only to the death of a spouse (and marital separation is #3). Coping with the disruption and pain is mandatory, not optional. But we get to choose how we cope.

Denigration of the last relationship, while understandable and tempting, is the “fast food” of coping. Focusing on growth, remembering your former partner’s imperfect humanity, and trusting the process will help you heal and prepare for your next relationship. These mature coping mechanisms are more nourishing and satisfying... and will benefit you more in the long run.

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More from Alexandra H. Solomon Ph.D.
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