Guidelines for Breaking Up
As I mentioned, I’ve been giving a lot of thought to teens, relationships, and breakups, and I’ve decided to pen some instructions here. (Do you like how I used “pen” as a verb?). I’ve been on both ends of the break up so many times, and consider myself a rather sorry expert on the matter.
So here goes, guidelines for decency.
For the Dumper:
Be sure you mean it before you break up. There’s nothing more cruel than using your partner as a yo-yo. If you think there’s any chance of continuing the relationship, don’t do it! It’s hurtful and unkind. Once in a while, after a break up, you learn more about yourself or your partner, and are honestly compelled to try again based on new information. That’s cool, but don’t use breaking up or the threat of it as a tool, and don’t be cavalier about ending a relationship. That’s just wrong.
If you aren’t sure whether your discontent is break-up worthy or not, consider these questions:
Have you tried to communicate about the issues that bother you? Have you felt listened to and understood, or do things remain unresolved? Sometimes, you momentarily feel generous enough to move on without resolution, but the same things will come up repeatedly until there’s either acceptance or resolution.
Are things unresolved because, when it comes down to it, you have different values, communication styles, needs in a relationship, or are lacking the tools to work through things together? Sometimes, the issue that sets things off is pretty minor, but in trying to resolve that, you learn something worse than the original problem, like that your partner doesn’t have the capacity to listen with generosity and an open mind, and accept you at your word.
Do you still enjoy each other when you spend time together, or is it effortful, stilted, awkward? Have the unresolved issues eclipsed the fun and/or highlighted qualities that don’t work? Do you admire him/her?
If the answers to these questions suggest this isn’t a good fit for you, don’t linger!
A sidebar about breakups. They're always mutual, but sometimes there's a problem of rectifying the mutual-ness on the time-space continuum. One person has already figured out that it's not a good match, and names it. The other person also knows it isn't working, but is either willing to settle for less, is just generally more optimistic about the prospects for change, or, things are working for them. (This deserves a side bar within a side bar, but that’s not the kind of blog this is. No no no. But maybe if I can garner the focus, I’ll come back to it later).
In the name of bringing more peace and kindness to the world, don’t drag it out, because that’s cruel. Think horse with broken leg. But first, prepare. Prepare by summoning all of the compassion you can muster, because it’s painful to be on the receiving end of a break-up. A breakup touches the persons’ deepest core of worthiness. Be kind. As someone once said, “It’s like smashing a kitten.” I know. If you’re having trouble coming up with compassion for the person, think about their inner kitten.
Also, try to understand the true meta-story line that allows each person to leave the relationship with their dignity intact. Because that story is always there. A break up is about two worthy people, each right for someone, just not each other. Sometimes, you have to squint through your irritation, sadness, and frustration to see it, but if you do one thing at all, figure this out before you talk to the person. For example, “you and I want different things out of life”, or “our communication styles are so different that it leaves us both frustrated,” or, “we are looking for different models of a relationship – you seem to be looking for X, and at this point, Y is what I need” are non-judgmental explanations that don’t degrade the other persons’ self-worth. And, the work of identifying that story will help you in the future. Trust me on that! (Oh wait, I'm the one about to get all the cats. But really. . . ) Don’t plan to use a tired old untruthful cliché, like, “it’s not you, it’s me,” because everyone deserves better than that.
Do it in person. Even though you might be tempted to e-mail or call, show up and give the person the chance to honestly talk to you.
Don’t be surprised if your ex lashes out. This is, thankfully, pretty rare rare, and its a sorry indicator of your ex’es maturity level, but keep in mind that they’re doing the very best they can, and try to have compassion. They’re obviously hurting, and it’s probably related to wounding that happened long ago and far away, unrelated to anything you’ve done or said -- you've just pulled the scab off. But the sad fact is, they’ll try to hurt you back. Remember that Dreikurs, who identified the levels of discouragement and matched them with types of behavior? Yeah, the ones who are only mildly discouraged do attention-getting things, but the people who are extremely discouraged try to hurt others. Think of him/her the way you would a drowning person. They’re swimming for their emotional life, and will suck anyone they can down with them, especially you, because in their mind, you’ve pushed them off the boat.
Sadly, this behavior confirms that you’ve made the right decision, and soundly eliminates any opportunity you two would have had to leave the relationship with everyone’s dignity intact, or maintain any kind of contact, let alone friendship. Distance yourself from the person as much as you’re able. Efforts at explaining your side will go nowhere with the angry drowner, because their primary goal is to hurt you. Even though it’s tempting to try to defend yourself against the barbs that he/she will sling your way, don’t go there. It’s okay to name the obvious, though, e.g., “This behavior right now illustrates why we can’t be together.” At all costs, don’t get pulled down to their level. It may take extra effort to manage your own hurt, anger, and frustration in this scenario, but try to picture your ex as the angry toddler that they've become. Be the adult. Remember, it’s how you behave in the difficult times that reveal who you are. Everyone can be easy-going when the going is easy.
A much more common scenario is when the person has a lot of questions for you. Be patient, and keep coming back to the positive story that you’ve teased out of all the heartbreak and disappointment. See if it resonates with them, and if not, see what, learn their thoughts on the meta story. Don’t get bogged down in details, because they can be hurtful. This person is trying hard, through their hurt and disappointment, to be mature, but it’s not easy. Appreciate that. Try to gently encourage your ex to look at the bigger picture: that you’re both lovely people, but incompatible romantically. Even if you think it might be helpful for their future relationships to tell him/her something distasteful about the way he/she behaves, smells, or dresses, don’t be tempted. This isn’t the time or place for that. Even if the pants do make their butt look big, and they should have pitched that hairstyle in 1983. Confine your comments to the truth, and to what's positive about your ex and the relationship you shared.
Rules for the Dumpee
If it’s a decent relationship with a mature person, you won’t be surprised when you have the breakup talk, because you’ll have been involved in difficult conversations that remain unresolved, and you won’t be enjoying each other’s company any more. So when your ex tells you the relationship is ending, stay calm, and learn what you can. This will be useful to you later, as you begin to heal and move on. Be grateful that they had the courtesy to end things cleanly, rather than let you two nit-pick each other to death. Forgive them for taking on the nasty task of breaking up, and recognize that they, too, are losing a relationship that started with hope and optimism.
Don’t delve into the details, because you’ll learn nothing that helps you. I’ve mistakenly gone down that road and learned that various people found me fat, unattractive, unable to hold a smile for long enough (I know!), am low-energy, not very interesting, and not athletic or funny enough. None of that has been particularly useful to me.
If you’ve been dating a chicken-shit, you may be completely shocked when they end things, because they haven’t brought up a single problem or issue. Maybe they’ve seemed a little busy and unavailable lately, but you thought they really were busy. The good news here is that the people who surprise you with the break up never do it in person. You’ll get a text, e-mail, or phone call. At least you don’t have to face him/her right away -- you'll have privacy to gather yourself before seeing them. Be grateful for this, and realize that, as inconsiderate as it feels, they too are doing the best they can. This is all the conflict they can handle, and they’re afraid, as ridiculous as it sounds, of hurting your feelings. I know, like the sting is removed if you’re dumped over a text message…
Remember that no one owes it to you to be in a relationship. Unconditional love is for parents to give children, but a peer-to-peer romantic relationship should be one that both parties enjoy. Forgive them for wanting more.
Try to understand and come to terms with the meta-story of why you aren’t right for each other. If you're quick on your feet, you can even help the person who just dumped you see it in a more global way. Remember, this is a mutual break-up -- they just said it first!
For both parties
Remember who you are, and keep your sights on who you want to be. Some of the less mature humans on the planet blame their ex for their poor behavior. Like the abusive guy who is driven to beating his wife because “she asked for it”, some people feel like the behavior of another gives them license to act poorly. Don’t let someone else cause you to behave in any way less than awesome, thoughtful, respectful, and full of self-worth. If your kids or your mom knew how you were behaving, would they admire you?
Take care of yourself. Spend time with friends who love you, do things you like to do, talk to a therapist, eat ice cream in bed. In short, do what you need to move on gracefully without antagonizing your ex.
There. Not that was one long preachy blog post, but that's what's on my mind right now. Thanks for reading.