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4 Things You Shouldn’t Blame Yourself for After a Breakup

Never blame yourself for trying too hard.

Antonio Guillem/Shutterstock
Source: Antonio Guillem/Shutterstock

After a breakup, it's not uncommon to engage in harsh self-criticism, analyzing everything one said and did and asking where they went wrong.

While some degree of self-reflection can be helpful—after all, we do sometimes make relationship-ending mistakes, and learning from those mistakes is important—we can take self-recrimination too far, blaming ourselves for things that are not at all our fault. This excessive self-blame can, in turn, delay the recovery process and make it harder to move on.

Following are four things people unfairly blame themselves for when a relationship doesn’t work out:

1. Not being attractive enough.

Feeling rejected by a romantic partner can take a toll on self-esteem, making people feel unattractive and undesirable. This may be one reason why people often try to change their appearance or other aspects of themselves after a break-up.

But while physical attraction may play a key role in the initial formation of a relationship, it is rarely the primary reason for a breakup. And even if it is, one person’s evaluation is just that—one person’s evaluation—and doesn’t have much bearing on how others will feel. There is considerable variability in our perceptions of attractiveness. Further, research suggests that what people find attractive is reliant more on dynamic emotional expressions than superficial characteristics in static images. Someone who doesn’t seem particularly attractive in a photo can turn out to be very attractive in real life when their personality is able to shine through—and the reverse can also be true.

Research on appearance-based rejection sensitivity suggests that you can counteract appearance-related insecurities by thinking about people who accept you unconditionally (not based on your appearance), and by reflecting on your strengths and positive qualities.

2. Deserving poor treatment.

It might seem obvious that in a relationship in which one person was physically or emotionally abusive, the other should not blame themselves for the victimization. But there are many reasons this can happen: One is the effects of gaslighting, a form of emotional manipulation in which an abusive individual makes their partner question their perceptions and memories. Over time, gaslighting can lead people to lose confidence in their own sense of reality. They may come to blame themselves for eliciting or failing to prevent a partner’s behavior, or for being oversensitive.

According to Robin Stern, author of The Gaslight Effect, the first step in combating gaslighting is identifying it—and then taking steps to regain trust in one’s own judgment, potentially with the help of a therapist.

3. Moving too slowly—or too fast.

Relationships sometimes fail because people are not moving at the same pace—one partner might be ready to take things to the next level (for example, getting engaged), while the other is not. In some cases, it’s possible to find a middle ground that is acceptable for both partners. At other times, the gap is too wide.

When a relationship doesn't work out in a situation like this, no one is really at fault. Everyone is entitled to their feelings, and sometimes those feelings just aren’t aligned. It’s not always easy to see things this way, though, especially when voicing your true feelings can mean losing a relationship altogether. But not voicing your feelings just to "save" a relationship can be even worse—research suggests that self-silencing is associated with relationship dissatisfaction, depressive symptoms, and risky behaviors.

Social pressure also doesn’t help. Social norms about appropriate timelines can create a double bind, in which almost any action seems blameworthy. For example, adolescent girls often can’t escape the dueling labels of “easy” or “prude”; having kids either early or later in life can both activate stigma. Whether you’re 16 or 60, it’s important to do what feels right for you, regardless of social expectations.

4. Trying too hard.

Clearly, disregarding your partner’s feelings, or treating them poorly, is no recipe for a lasting relationship. But what about the opposite behavior, when one person seems to be doing all the work? Is it fair to say they drove a partner away by “trying too hard?"

In some sense, it's true that people may take for granted those who are especially giving. But kindness and sacrifice are integral to healthy relationships, and a good partner will return kindness with kindness, not exploitation. In other words, if you feel like you tried too hard or cared too much, the problem may not have been you.

So don’t blame yourself for trying—it's the only way to give a relationship a fair chance. If the other person doesn't return your efforts, it hurts, but at least you know you gave it your best shot.

These are just a few of the many ways people unnecessarily blame themselves for a breakup. When you go through a painful experience, it’s natural to try to find an explanation for what went wrong, and to zero in on things that feel more controllable (i.e., your own actions). But it’s critical to distinguish between what you did wrong and what just went wrong. There may be valuable lessons to learn, but they’re not all about you.

More from Juliana Breines Ph.D.
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