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Handling Messy Breakups

What to do when relationships end badly.

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When Jamie broke up with Sam she thought it was all going to be okay. The breakup talk went seemingly fine. She explained to Sam that after 3 months of dating she realized that it just wasn’t working, she didn’t want to lead him on, and he seemed to understand. But now he is calling and texting all the time. He’s says he can’t stop thinking about her, he vacillates between sounding angry and pleading, he asks endless questions about why. One day he actually showed up unexpectedly on her job, freaking her out. She's not sure how she is going to be able to get through this.

Even the best breakups where both individuals agree to pull the plug can set off an emotional roller coaster as each deals with the sudden loneliness, the questioning on bad days whether it was the right decision. But when the breakup is more one-sided, the effects can be messy to say the least.

In handling these situations, one good starting point is mentally understanding yourself the emotional terrain. This helps you not be surprised by what may come next, not take it all quite so personally, and helps you sort out what is normal and not-so-normal behavior.

Realize the other person is struggling with grief

Sam is no doubt feeling rejected, but even in cases of mutual separations, there is still a loss – of companionship, of a vision of the future, of one’s sense of self. And because all losses tend to be connected, this latest one can bring up older ones. Sam’s mind can drift back to past breakups or the death of grandparent or a previous job layoff, all adding fuel to his current emotional state.

Realize that obsessing is normal

Sam is being honest when he says that he is thinking about Jamie all the time. His head is running (as hers probably is to some degree) about how and why this all happened. He is a bit shell-shocked; the obsessions are what comes with any loss, as our minds try to come up with a story that makes sense. Once we come up with an explanation, and with time, our minds are less out-of-control and begin to settle, but this can take weeks or even months.

Expect fluctuations of mood

The loss creates an emotional hole that is often filled in with anxiety. The anxiety causes us to think that we need to get more and more information to be less anxious, or somehow get the relationship back, whether or not it was good or bad, simply to refill that space. And the emotional brain moves between being nice, to being resentful and angry, to being depressed – all of what Jamie sees in Sam’s attempts to re-engage her. This is made all worse if Sam is isolated and lacks other supports and healthier perspectives, or has an underlying mental health issue such as chronic depression, anger issues, or is narcisstic.

Okay, so Jamie may know what to expect, but what should she do? The simple answer is she needs to do the best she can do. Here’s what that means:

She needs to help Sam understand how she arrived at her decision

Jamie’s “it’s not working out” leaves too many gaps that Sam’s brain fills in with anxiety and questions. What will help him begin to connect the dots and settle is understand what in particular caused her to decide that “it’s not working out.”

Here she needs to talk about her, about her feelings – how she felt that they didn’t have that much in common, or that he seemed moody and quiet at times and she felt lonely. She wants to talk about softer emotions like worry, loneliness, rather than anger and irritation. The goal here is help Sam fill in the gaps, help him understand what makes her tick.

She can do this in an email or letter so Sam can read it and not feel side-winded and have to react on the spot. She can follow it up with a face-to-face meeting or phone call.

She needs to avoid getting into the weeds of details

Despite her efforts, Sam’s emotional brain is likely to try and deconstruct whatever she said – What does moody mean? When was I moody, why didn’t you say something? What about the time when I said…. She needs to not get into the weeds of this tit or tat fact-checking. This is Sam’s anxiety talking and this will go nowhere. She needs to just stick to her explanation and resist Sam’s attempts to break it down.

She needs to hold fast to her decision

Sam may be persuasive, she may feel sorry for her him, but unless Jamie, in her rational mind, really has second thoughts and wants to give the relationship another try, she needs to hold firm. Any wavering on her part – even meeting again over coffee to talk about it, or to see each other as friends, only fuels Sam’s fantasies and keeps him ramped up.

She needs to set clear boundaries on contact

What is most likely to keep this all going is Jamie being inconsistent. If she sometimes answers his texts and other times ignores them, this lack of clear boundaries and patterns keeps Sam off-balance and again feeds his anxiety, fantasies and behavior. Being proactive, setting boundaries and absolutely sticking to them is essential.

That said, once she does this, Sam is likely to test the limits. If she no longer responds to texts, he may try to call or show up at work. She needs to anticipate this and think in advance how she is going to handle this – ignore the phone call, call security at work.

She needs to consider legal action

If, worse case, Sam’s behavior does increasingly escalate, if he makes threats, begins to stalk her, she needs to take decisive action to take care of herself and not encourage him – take out a protective order, call the police. If he is slandering her, she needs to consult a lawyer. What she doesn’t want to do is be a victim and not push back.

These are difficult situations that in most cases generally begin to resolve as the grief reaction subsides. The keys are being proactive, empathic, and clear.

Like most difficult situations, it’s about realizing and doing the best you can do.

More from Robert Taibbi L.C.S.W.
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