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Breakups as Breakthroughs

What if the way we look at breakups is all wrong?

Breakups hurt. I think we can all agree on that. We’ve read about how the pain of a breakup lights up the same parts of the brain as physical pain, and how it can take one month for every year you were together to get over it. Advice on how to get over a breakup is as common as advice on how to find the “perfect” relationship. We’re all trying to get it right, to do it better, to ease the pain and to increase the joys of love. But what if our attitude about breakups is missing something?

Change is inevitable. We all know that. Change happens in long-term relationships as each person grows and evolves and shifts how they relate to one another, what they ask for from the relationship, and what they want in their lives. Relationships based on strong, flexible, and resilient bonds survive these normal changes, while many relationships don’t. Researchers have been studying love relationships for decades trying to figure out why some survive for a lifetime and some can’t make it for one year.

It’s normal in our culture to think of breakups as failures. People who have been divorced may think of their marriages as failed marriages, and people whose relationships have ended often have to cope with feelings of trauma, regret, and self-doubt, wondering why they have yet another “failed” relationship under their belt. “Why can’t I ever get it right?” they cry. One book famously tells us, “It’s Called a Breakup Because It’s Broken”.

But what if breakups aren’t failures, but merely growing pains?

I’ve been lucky enough to have remained friends with most of my exes. Some are simply passing acquaintances now, people I see occasionally at parties, while a few are people I consider to be in my pantheon of close friends. I suspect this is because A) when I like someone I really like them and don’t see the need to kick them out of my life if we stop being intimate; B) most of the men I’ve dated have been good guys who were not liars, abusers, or cheaters, thus making it easier to remain friends with them; and C) I’m pretty good at taking responsibility for my own contribution to difficult relationship dynamics. I’ve seen my exes move on from our relationship, and vice versa: new relationships, new jobs, new interests, as well as new struggles and new learning experiences. I’ve called on exes for help when I’ve been struggling, helped them through hard times, introduced them to my new love interests, and met theirs.

In every case, my exes and I have picked ourselves up and created new lives that, at least to a certain degree, have woven into them what we learned from the relationship we had together, and from the breakup. In some cases, my exes and I have a special closeness because we know one another so well and have forgiven each other so much. Often, my exes and I have moved on to do wonderful things after our breakup, to have more enduring relationships, to have kids, to progress in our careers, and to accomplish long-treasured goals.

So what if, instead of seeing breakups as failures, we saw breakups as quantum leaps into our new lives? What if our intimate relationships don’t exist to survive forever, they exist because they’re teaching us valuable lessons, and breakups are the graduation?

Do you remember making big changes in your life, and how scary and even painful some of those changes can be? Leaving your parents’ home for the first time to attend college. Ending an addiction. Moving from your hometown for a challenging new job. Helping your parents with illnesses or watching them die. Facing childhood trauma. Having your first child. Changing careers in midlife. Opening your own business. Nobody ever claims that those transitions aren’t supposed to be scary and sometimes painful. But yet breakups are considered embarrassing failures.

What if breakups are signs that we’re ready for a new chapter in our lives? What if breakups were seen as a step in the right direction for both partners’ happiness?

Breakups will always be painful. After all, someone we love dearly is moving out of our lives. We’ve shared joys and tears, and loved and fought, met one another’s special people, made friends with them, hatched plans and plots, and now have to let go of much of that. I’m not arguing that breakups shouldn’t be painful; they should be. They’re a major transition, and it’s painful and frightening to see things shift, especially when it’s not a shift you wanted. But it’s possible that much of the pain of many a breakup is because of our clinging to the idea that relationships should last a certain amount of time, and that certain things should happen within them (marriage, kids, rings, dogs, house with a picket fence). What if relationships aren’t about this fantasy life, but about learning, growing, and evolving? And what if breakups mean that both we and our ex-partners are ready to move into another phase of the person we are becoming, sort of like a butterfly leaving the chrysalis?

Of course the issue is complicated. There’s abuse and cheating and dishonesty, and people's cruelty to one another once they realize that things aren’t working out. The nasty things people say to one another during breakups are mind-boggling. Relationships often bring out the best and the worst in people.

But perhaps we’d heal more quickly if we thought of breakups not as a failure or a mess we’ve made of our lives, but as a doorway to a new life, one that will take what we learned in our relationship that’s ending, and create something exciting and new with it.

More from Melissa Kirk
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