How to Unhook From Your Partner

Healthy strategies to help you break from unhealthy relationships.

Posted Aug 07, 2020

There is true torment that comes with deciding whether to walk away from a relationship. As author Elizabeth Gilbert put it about ending her first marriage, “The only thing more unthinkable than leaving was staying; the only thing more impossible than staying was leaving.” There is a painful stickiness that comes with remaining in a familiar situation even as it’s hurting you. The struggle we face in “unhooking” from someone and moving on brings up bigger questions about who we are and how we operate in relationships. Why are we comfortable in such discomfort? Why do we feel safe when our wellbeing is threatened?

Much of the time, I find myself working with couples to help them stay together and get back to lively feelings of love, appreciation, and intimacy. I often say the best place to work on yourself is in a relationship. I remind them that separating may be a necessary solution, but it can also be an unnecessary escape from dealing with issues that will follow them into their next relationship. In other words, I don’t take leaving lightly, but when a relationship is hurting either person’s mental health, and one person is suffering excessively in their quest to stay together, I believe it is time to move on.

Ironically, moving on can often be the most difficult for the person who is suffering the most within the relationship. The reasons for this tie into the person’s attachment pattern as well as a destructive connection they form with their partner called a “fantasy bond,” a concept developed by my father Dr. Robert Firestone.

Our patterns of attachment are initially formed early in our lives in our primary relationships with our parents or significant caretakers. If a parent is present, emotionally available, and attuned to our needs enough of the time, we form a secure attachment to them. A parent who is intermittently available and at times intrusive or emotionally hungry can leave us with an insecure attachment pattern. These early attachment patterns serve as models for how we expect people will treat us, and they can inform how we interact and behave with a romantic partner as adults.

There are three types of insecure attachment patterns in childhood and three patterns of insecure attachment in adulthood, which you can learn more about here. Studies have shown that breakups are often the most difficult for people with a preoccupied attachment pattern. People with a preoccupied attachment tend to feel insecure and may be more inclined to cling to a relationship. They may experience exaggerated fear or worry about being left or abandoned by their partner, because they have internalized a sense of uncertainty that people will be there for them from their earliest relationships. 

Alternately, people with dismissive attachment, another form of insecure attachment, often act as if they do not care about their partner's feelings and that their partner's needs are a bother to them, almost as if they would be better off single. The adaptation they made based on their earliest relationships was to disconnect from their own wants and needs to avoid the shame generated by not having their needs responded to. However, when they feel threatened with relationship loss, their strategy of suppressing their own needs may falter, and their underlying insecurity often comes to the surface. 

A person who has an insecure preoccupied type of attachment may be willing to accept much less than their partner. This is true in many relationships where one person is over-benefited, while the other is under-benefited. We see this all the time where one person, often the preoccupied one, is more pursuing, while the other, often the dismissive one, creates distance. This push-pull dynamic is common, and it typically leaves both people unsatisfied. 

The goal of any healthy relationship is for two whole and equal individuals to come together and maintain a sense of themselves while being able to link closely with each other. However, when a person feels insecure, they are drawn to relationship patterns that are similar to those they experienced growing up. Even though these are painful, they are familiar, and they reinforce a person’s beliefs, expectations, and built-in patterns regarding relationships. As bad as this type of relationship may make a person feel, leaving feels almost unbearable because it stirs up a well of unresolved pain left over from one’s past.

In addition to attachment patterns informing the decision to break up, when a couple forms a fantasy bond, they are much more likely to experience fear and anxiety around separating. A fantasy bond, a concept developed by my father Dr. Robert Firestone, is an illusion of connection we form to feel safe and secure in our relationship. Unfortunately, the creation of this type of bond often involves forgoing our individuality for a false sense of oneness with our partner.

When a couple enters a fantasy bond, real substantive acts of love are typically replaced by the form of being a “couple.” People typically become less respectful, affectionate, and passionate about their partner, and instead act in ways that are more controlling, reliant, or passive. As a fantasy bond develops, the spark fizzles, but the sense of safety remains. Couples find comfort in the illusion of connection and are too frightened to break it.

Very often, when we consider moving on from a relationship, a “critical inner voice” we all possess starts to get louder, stoking the flames of our insecurities and fears. Many of us have thoughts like, “This is the only thing you can have,” “You don’t deserve anything better,” “You’ll never find anyone else,” or “You’ll wind up alone.” We fail to realize how heavily these “voices” are informed by both our attachment pattern and the degree to which we’ve started relying on a fantasy bond to feel safe.

For this reason, our hesitance to break free from a destructive relationship is deeply personal and entangled with our history. That is why it’s so easy to tell a friend to move on from an unhealthy or unequal situation but so hard to do it ourselves. In order to become stronger in ourselves and make better decisions for our romantic futures, we have to work on developing our own sense of inner security and understand our patterns and tendencies. When it comes to unhooking from a relationship, we can adopt the following psychological strategies to keep ourselves centered and on a healthy path.

Give up the fantasy. It is easy to look at relationships and our partners through rose-colored glasses when it comes to the thought of leaving them. We all get haunted by thoughts that they are the only person for us, when in reality, we should remind ourselves that this is just another person. This one individual is not the beginning or the end when it comes to love.

Think about ways to break a fantasy bond. You can systematically work on breaking a fantasy bond by refusing to turn over the power to define yourself to your ex. Keep reminding yourself you’re a whole person on your own. You do not need this other person to complete you or make you worthwhile. Your feeling lost and alone is a sign that the relationship is unequal and unhealthy.

Be disciplined about your actions. Once you make a decision based on your values and what is important to you, stick with it. It’s very likely when you leave that the other person’s attachment system will be activated, and they’ll want to pull you back in, but it’s important to stick with your decision and keep moving forward.

Challenge your critical inner voices every step of the way. Your worst enemy during a breakup will usually be you. It's way too easy to get lost in your head and go down the rabbit hole of listening to those sadistic voices telling you, “You won’t do better. You made a mistake. You’ll never meet someone else who makes you happy.” Remember that the longer you ignore and resist these voices, the weaker they’ll become over time.

Develop your own inner security. There are ways to better understand your attachment pattern and form more inner security. These include making sense of and feeling the full pain of your story by creating a coherent narrative, seeing a therapist, or developing a long-term relationship with someone with a secure attachment pattern.

Breaking up is always painful, but adopting these strategies wholeheartedly can help keep you on the right side of yourself, and it can orient you for healthier, more fulfilling relationships in the future.

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