How to break up with someone you loveMay 19, 2018
How to break up with someone you love.
Making the decision to leave somebody you love and have been in love with is usually a slow and painful process, especially if there is no obvious reason
to break up e.g. an affair or some other betrayal. If you have children, finances and a community you are both connected to and involved in, it can
feel impossible and overwhelming. You are often not only breaking up with your partner but also breaking up family, extended family and friendships.
Many people come to see me confused about this decision. They don’t want to hurt their partner and they don’t want to hurt their children or other affected
people. How does one know if it’s the right thing to do? I tell them that every situation is unique and every relationship is worth restoring or repairing
if both people are willing to put in the effort to make changes. (As long as there is no abuse involved.) But if you are at the point where you have
made the decision to leave it’s likely to be because your partner is unwilling to do the work to change, you no longer wish to do the work, or resentments
are far too deep to overcome. Whatever your reason, you are at this place. And you have the right to make this decision despite any noises from others
This is not about how to make the decision to leave your partner or not.
It is for those of you who have made the difficult decision to leave your partner, a partner you still love and still possibly want to be friends with and/or co-parent with.
This is for those of you who have made the decision to leave but want to do it well.
So here you are. You are standing on the edge of the cliff hoping like anything that you, your partner, your children will survive. If you are like the
majority of people in this position, it is likely that there will be one overriding feeling right now – it is the feeling that I see time and time again
in my practice. It is the number one reason I see well intended people ending up in a pickle over a break up.
The fear tends to be about three main areas:
1) Hurting your partner (and
what might happen to them).
2) Hurting your children.
3) Being alone and never
finding somebody else.
I have seen fear stop people from breaking up with their partner – even though they feel in their heads and hearts that it’s what they want.
This often prolongs the current relationship pain. It can also feed insecurity and low self-worth issues for the other person, who at some level may instinctively
already know that something is wrong. It can result in unnecessary mess, pain and hurt and can delay the grieving process. If you are going to do this
well, you need to be brave and you need to think more than you feel. It will take approximately 12 months to work through the really painful part of
the process. If you lead with your heart (feelings) it will take a whole lot longer and you will have less of a chance potentially being friends with
your partner down the track – if you want that.
Now that you have decided to be brave here are 10 points to implement if you want to break up well:
1 You need to have an immediate plan
One of the worst mistakes I see is couples deciding to break up and then not making an immediate plan for living arrangements. Living together after you
have separated will increase the level of angst and day-to-day pain for both of you. But you can contain the situation if you have a sensible plan
about who will move out and when. Both of you need space to react to the separation without the other being present. If you are the one doing the breaking-up,
have your plan prepared for when you deliver the news. There is nothing worse for the person receiving the news to then wonder what you are planning
on doing next. Having a plan will provide immediate containment and space for both of you.
2 Tell your partner
One of the many pitfalls I see are people not knowing how to tell their partner or being afraid of their partner’s response. It will be awful. There is
no way to do this without feeling pain and causing pain. Therefore, you need to be thinking not feeling when you deliver the news. Have one or two
paragraphs rehearsed in your brain ahead of time. Take a deep breath and deliver your paragraph. Be clear and concise. Make sure you are not in a public
place. Equally made sure there is an exit route for you both – so that one or both of you can get away from the room you are in. This is not the time
for a discussion or argument. If an argument or discussion starts, then quickly excuse yourself. If you don’t have children then it’s a good idea to
have somewhere else to stay until you have worked out a longer-term plan. If you do have children, you will need to take into account who is the primary
carer, the age of the child/children and their needs before deciding how you are each going to get the immediate space that you need. A Family Therapist
can help you with this decision.
3 Be prepared for backlash
You have possibly had more time to get your head around this than your partner has. It is likely that your partner will be shocked, extremely upset and
possibly angry. They may say a lot of things that they don’t actually mean. Understand that this is a normal response to hearing this kind of news.
Now is not the time to go into detailed explanations about why this relationship is over or what your partner has done. This is why an exit route is
important. You can go back to this later when you have both had time to process the news.
4 Consider a trial separation
Ordinarily I am against trial separations as I think they often prolong the grief process and confuse a whole lot of people, including children, in the
process. However, if you have loved – and still love – your partner, it’s worth considering. It will at least be a circuit breaker from the ambivalence
you feel. It will help you know if breaking up is really the right decision, or whether you can find the motivation to make the relationship work.
I have seen some people get back together after a person has moved out and I have seen others make the decision to end it permanently. You will get
a chance to see if you miss your partner. You will also get a chance to see how you go on your own. Often great work can happen in therapy when a trial
separation occurs as it really forces both people to do the work. Sometimes in therapy it leads to post-separation work. It’s important to note that
if you are going to have a trial separation, one person needs to move out. It is also important that you put down a realistic time frame for a final
5 Expect emotional fallout
This will happen for both of you in different ways and at different times. One day you will be feeling strong and resolved. The next day you will be feeling
distraught and left wondering whether you have made the right decision. You may be feeling lonely, distressed, angry or relieved all at different times
and in no particular order. This will also be happening to your partner. Sometimes people we love do really strange and unexpected things at this time
like posting nasty comments on social media or contacting people inappropriately or being hostile to you. This can be an unfortunate reaction to the
grief and deep pain a person is experiencing. Try to be as empathic and forgiving as you can be while still being firm with boundaries and rules. When
you are the person who has made the decision to break up, you are not facing the same shock as the other person. If the other person doesn’t want to
end the relationship they will be experiencing not only grief but bewilderment and feelings of losing control. In time, most of the negative behaviour
6 Ground rules and boundaries
When you break up, make a time to discuss and agree on some very firm ground rules. Ground rules apply to how you speak about each other to your children.
What you tell your children about why you have separated. How and what you tell family and friends. How much contact you have with each other and through
which channels. Boundaries around approaching pre-existing shared spaces are important. For example, if you own a home together and somebody moves
out, then that person should knock on the door if they visit. Think about shared friends and social events and some basic rules for these.
One of the first ground rules that needs to be in place is limitations on contact with each other. Unless you have children, you really should be limiting
if not ceasing all contact with each other. Maintaining contact causes all sorts of problems and increases the chance of you having a serious falling
out with each that can be difficult to come back from. Especially if there are new partners involved.
Be generous and realistic with these rules. If your partner says they don’t want to see you out socially then respect this and work out rules for these
events which are fair on you both.
Working through a separation where there are children involved adds a whole new layer of complexity. It doesn’t matter how old your children are they will
experience, as you both will, the loss of the family. I see a lot of people stumble around a potential break up with their partner sometimes lasting
for years because they fear damaging their children somehow. To balance this out you need to think about the impact an unhealthy relationship has on
your children. Parents can forget that children notice a whole lot more than they think. They have a lot of time to be looking at the two people they
love the most – their parents. Children worry when a parent is unhappy and they can take this on emotionally. Be mindful that you are not loading your
children up with your pain and grief. You need to be clear with children about this decision not being about them at all. And that they will always
be loved and cared for by both of you. If you are anxious and uncertain when you tell them they will become anxious and worried as well.
As a general guideline once you have both made a plan – i.e. living arrangements and about why you are separating – you should both sit down and tell your
children together. And you should reinforce that parenting together and loving them will not change.
A Family Therapist can help you both work through issues regarding your children together.
8 Extended family and friends
One of the hardest aspects of breaking it off with someone that you love is the fallout from others in your life. Especially if your partner is loved and
liked by those closest to you. Be prepared to be firm with people and to tell them that this is your life and your decision. Tell yourself that they
will adjust in time – everyone does. If somebody is particularly negative towards you about your decision, then limit contact with them for a while.
Creating good boundaries and surrounding yourself with those you are supportive is crucial at this time.
9 Your distress and self doubt
There is always a point, post separation, where people begin to doubt their decision. This is usually around the time just after a person has moved out.
But it can pop up at any time. This will be particularly strong if you have children who are also dealing with the break up. The loss of the family
– the story – cannot never be underestimated. Little things like dropping off your child to school and watching a family together can bring pain
and self doubt. All of these feelings are normal and will pass.
Some people get overwhelmed by their feelings of pain, guilt and distress. Looking too far ahead can easily raise anxiety levels. Chunk down your grieving
time to blocks of time. You will find that each block of time – say every 4 weeks – will actually bring a different part of the grieving process on
both a practical and emotional level. Feelings just don’t stay the same. If you know the sadness and pain are not going to last, it is often easier
to deal with them. If you write a journal and look back, you will see that you are not actually staying in the same place with your emotions and thoughts.
Each block of time will see you become stronger and stronger, and so will the most important people around you.
Work through the feelings with a good friend or Therapist and tell yourself you will not always feel like this. Your story will not end – it’s just going
in another direction.
10 Lonely and alone
Another aspect that can be difficult to deal with in the early days is the feeling of being alone. And feeling lonely. Wondering whether you will ever
meet another person is a common fear. These feelings give you a good opportunity to ask yourself what it is that you are looking for? What you are
looking for in a relationship? Start making some small short term goals. When you feel these feelings tell yourself that they will not last. Go back
to your goals and allow yourself to become excited by them. Nothing ever stays the same. What I have noticed with my clients are the ones who continue
to feel lonely are the ones who do not focus on their own goals or development – they are usually the people caught in the trap of feeling immense
guilt over leaving their partner and have thrown themselves into over-compensating their children. This kind of parent/child relationship intensity
is not good for the adult or the child.
It doesn’t feel like it right now but in time – you will be okay. And so will the people that you love. I have walked this journey with so many of my clients
over so many years and I am yet to see somebody who has regretted their decision. That’s because if you are a decent person (as most people are) you
will not be making this decision lightly. There will be a very good reason for it.
You may be wondering as you read this how a Therapist can help you and the ones you love during this process. There are a variety of different ways. You
can see somebody individually to support you through the process. You can see a Family Therapist to help with children and general post separation
work. You can see a Couples Therapist to help with either restoring or ending your relationship and facilitating post separation work if needed