Thinking of Breaking Up During COVID? Read This.

Unsure of whether to break up? Consider your context.

Posted Jun 11, 2020

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Couple watching television.
Source: Stockpic/Pexels CC0

The dissolving of a relationship under normal circumstances is a difficult process full of complex and often contradictory emotions. Under the current circumstances of isolation due to COVID-19, however, an added set of complexities emerge: Though you may want to be apart, you're inevitably stuck together. In this time of confusion, how do you know if breaking up is right for you?

Research shows breaking up can involve a 16-step process, which includes one partner losing interest, looking for alternative options, then trying to work things out, only for the loss of interest to occur again, but this time with both partners looking for other options, while still trying to make things work, all culminating in another few repeats of trying to stay together before finally breaking up.

Because over 85 percent of American adults have had at least one breakup in their lifetimes, it's a familiar script for most, but that doesn't stop the very real emotions which accompany a potential break up — frustration, confusion, guilt, regret, fear of regret, shame, and turmoil — from bubbling up. In this current unprecedented reality of confinement brought forth by COVID-19, wanting to break up with a partner you find yourself in quarantine with can be especially difficult because it's a trying time propelling anxiety, loss of control, and fear of an uncertain future or death, Adding low relationship satisfaction and growing grievances against a partner or relationship can further propel feelings of angst, depression, or hopelessness.

If you find yourself in this 16-step break-up cycle and you sincerely feel as though your relationship is not right for you, being honest about your feelings when you have decided to break up is best; consider putting your thoughts in writing for your own reflection, then having a calm but loving conversation about it, with your partner, even within quarantine, would still be kind to do, so long as you establish what a loving break-up might look like in terms of boundaries.

It could also help your partner talk through their own thoughts and emotions, ask questions about your decision to break up, better prepare for the end of isolation by sourcing a new living arrangement, and emotionally separate, in an understanding and kind way, which might even promote personal growth.

That said, given the surge of domestic violence since COVID isolation began, if you feel unsafe, or as though your partner may become erratic and put you in danger, put off the conversation until you can safely leave and consider employing strategies like distraction (watching films or TV shows together, or other activities that would distract from violent behavior) in the interim. If you fear you are in immediate danger, alert your local authorities.

If, in the midst of isolation, you've started feeling as though a breakup may be best because you've grown irritated or annoyed at your partner, consider the context you find yourself in: Our brains have a funny way of trying to find control where little exists, and we deploy a defense mechanism known as "displacement" to try to gain a better sense of control over our world. Essentially, we displace the emotions naturally arising from a government-ordered quarantine, like frustration, anxiety, annoyance, or a loss of control, onto something we have better control over — our relationship or our partner.

If you're suddenly feeling irritable, ask yourself: Am I frustrated at my partner or in general? Am I annoyed that you can't leave my home and do what I want, or by the way your partner does the laundry?

If you tend to be irritable or frustrated generally, it could just be a matter of displacing your negative emotions onto your partner. If, however, isolating has led you to discover true incompatibilities between yourself and your partner — like you abiding by isolation but your partner going out with friends and ignoring calls for self-isolation, and your expressed reservations or wishes for change being met with criticism, contempt, defensiveness or stonewalling — you may have discovered a deep difference in values, where breaking up so you can choose a partner who better aligns to what's important to you may be a healthy choice. 

Ultimately, the choice to break up is never an easy one, but understanding and reflecting on the context you find yourself in will help you make a healthier decision that's right for you.


Battaglia, D. M., Richard, F. D., Datteri, D. L., & Lord, C. G. (1998). Breaking up is (relatively) easy to do: A script for the dissolution of close relationships. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 15(6), 829-845.