“Breaking up is hard to do” is the popular wisdom, and anyone who has ever been in a relationship knows it. But why is breaking up so hard, when we all know that nothing can truly last forever? I believe that our feelings about breaking up are rooted in our ideas about growth and change. I also think that the way we think about relationships has a direct correlation to how we think about break ups.
We know that death is a natural and essential part of life, that an ending and a beginning are two sides of the same coin, and that each person goes through life alone. But knowing these things doesn’t make breaking up any easier. For many people, a break up represents a loss, a failure – “giving up” instead of working through problems together. And while I know that working through problems and issues is part of being in a relationship, sometimes “holding on” is not the answer. Many people “hold on” to people and situations out of fear – fear of failure, fear of change. Conversely, many people “let go” of people and situations out of the same fear.
Relationships are very complicated. I’ve come to think that relationships carry a certain kind of energy that is created and shared between the people involved. I’m focusing here on monogamy, defining a relationship as a “couple.” Even so, these ideas are applicable to those who choose a poly lifestyle. When two people are involved with each other in an intense way, there is a “twinning” energy. This kind of energy can either double strength or split power. I’ve also heard this described as “the royal we.” An unavoidable part in being a couple is that one person’s identity becomes enmeshed with another. Adding to this, many people seem to think that a partner is someone who “completes” another. In any partnership, there is an interdependency, and the best relationships seek to balance individuality and togetherness. Even having this awareness and taking a mindful approach, it can be challenging to maintain.
As someone who has been in several long term relationships, I’ve come to realize that a relationship is a constantly evolving process. It is one of the most important ways that we learn about ourselves and others. I’ve always thought of relationships as learning experiences. Even if you are with the same person over the course of many years, there is still a process of break and renewal. Life changes. People change. Relationships are organic, and they need to change as we do. The person you loved a year ago, or five years ago, even ten years ago, is likely to be a different person now, even if you have been in a relationship with the same person the entire time.
When a break up occurs, it means that you are making a choice to not stay in a relationship with another, at least in the capacity you once shared. That choice is sometimes reciprocal, sometimes unwelcome, and sometimes indicated by the actions and behaviors of the people in the relationship. In a best-case scenario, people who have shared an intense and close relationship will remain at least friends. However, usually this positive end result comes from an amicable break up.
Unfortunately, breaking up is not always amicable. A break up is the final result of what didn’t work in a relationship, and that is sometimes very hard for people to deal with, because often the cause for the break-up is what they’ve been struggling with as a couple throughout their relationship. There is an idea that when we meet someone new, there is a glimpse of the ending in the beginning. Meaning, all of the potential (good and bad) between you is there, right from the onset. Many people are so swept up in the idea of a relationship that they focus on the positive, and either ignore, downplay, or reconcile the negative aspects by thinking that the other person will change.
One of the most important things I’ve tried to teach my children as they enter dating is to be kind. For the most part, I’ve been lucky to have been involved with kind and good hearted people in my relationships. But I have also had relationships with people who were not exactly good, people who were troubled and confused about what they wanted, and people who were incapable of actually being in a healthy relationship – accepting, giving, and receiving love, starting with themselves.
One of the relationships I was involved in ended very badly when I discovered that my partner had been lying to me. This betrayal of trust was a deal breaker for me, and he knew it would be a deal breaker for me. He loved me, but he also lied to me. He never intended that I would find out about his “omissions of truth” and when I did, the results were catastrophic. Other truths were revealed. But instead of feeling sorry or taking any responsibility for his behavior, he tried to blame me for what happened. When I refused to take the blame, he became angry and defensive. He talked badly about me to his friends, manipulated the truth about why we broke up, and blamed me for everything that had gone wrong between us.
Even though I told myself that the truth existed, and anyone who knew the both of us would understand the truth no matter what he said, it still hurt. But what hurt the most was that the person I loved, and the relationship we shared, didn’t exist anymore. Because of how we broke up, a terrible shadow cast itself over our entire relationship. Everything was thrown into question. I didn’t know what had been true or what had been a lie. I didn’t even know who this person was anymore. The backlash after we broke up showed me that, even after what happened, he still didn’t want to face his own truth. He still was blaming me. He still was lying, but in the face of all evidence; he was lying to himself. Our break up was much more painful than it needed to be. Any relationship between us, even friendship, became impossible.
This is an example of why I feel that kindness is so important in relationships. When we love another person, we have to open ourselves up. In the process of opening up, we also give the other person a set of tools in which to hurt us. This leaves us tremendously vulnerable. Trust is necessary in a relationship, and trust also leaves us vulnerable. We all experience this. And I think that knowing this should make us feel a sense of responsibility towards the people we love – to be more mindful about how we treat others, and to understand how our actions and behaviors affect others. The importance of reflection and communication in a relationship can never be underestimated.
Even though it is usually painful, breaking up with someone you have shared a close and intense relationship with can provide an opportunity for change that is unlike any other. We always have choices. We can repeat our mistakes. We can learn from our mistakes. We can do the work necessary to really look at ourselves, no matter how hard that may be. The fact is that a relationship is a dynamic. Nothing is one-sided. We all make mistakes. We all are learning.
In the past relationship I used as an example, even though the person lied to me and we had a “bad breakup,” I didn’t blame him for everything that went wrong. I was a participant in the relationship, not a victim of it. I tried to understand what happened between us, but I also tried to understand what happened to me, throughout our relationship. And in retrospect, there were other problems between us, other issues not involved with why we broke up, but just as important, maybe even more so.
I think that breakups magnify the fault lines in a relationship, but sometimes obvious problems also underlie other problems. Human beings are strange and complicated creatures. We lie to ourselves. We have blind spots. We stay in unhealthy situations. We seek out unhealthy situations. We give implicit consent when we allow others to treat us in certain ways. We even participate in our own undoing. We have a deep sense of self-preservation, even if it means preserving an illusion. We do all of these things, and we do it without even realizing it, unless something provokes us into realizing it.
When we look at how complicated the motivations for our choices, behaviors, and actions can be, with or without our subconscious awareness of such, we can begin to see how our behaviors and actions can reveal something else entirely, which goes a lot deeper than what is apparent on the surface. Only when that deepness, that root, is touched, can we truly change. And people can consciously change. We have that potential, always. I think that potential is strongest when we are shaken, awakened. That is why I feel that breakups offer a unique opportunity for growth. In magnifying the fault line we’ve encountered with another, breakups also give us the chance to encounter ourselves. Ultimately, in an abstract but fundamental sense, any relationship we have is not simply about our relationship to another; it is also about our relationship to ourselves.
A break up can also be an opportunity to care for yourself, to heal yourself, to nurture yourself. When most people end a relationship, they feel that their heart has been broken. They feel acutely alone. Many times, they are losing someone who has become, above all else, their closest friend. But instead of thinking of what has been lost, it is important to see what has been gained. There are reasons why people break up, but there are also reasons why people were together. When people hurt each other and are left with pain after being in love, it is sometimes harder to see that. But the depth of pain is directly relational to the depth of love. It’s important to remember that the love and the positive aspects of the relationship you shared are lessons, too.
After a break up, it is very natural to be wary of getting involved with other people again. Some people will jump right back into dating. However, I think that time alone is important, especially if you are coming out of a long term relationship. It is important to reconnect with yourself, and to strengthen your relationship with yourself. You have spent so much time as part of a couple, it is important to reassert yourself as an individual. I think that the issues we confront in our relationships are lessons we need to learn. I also think that each lesson we learn brings us closer to understanding ourselves, and what we want and need in a relationship. We can try to understand and learn from our experiences; we can transform our lives. We can grow and expand and develop, and embrace change in healthy and positive ways. An ending is a new beginning, another opportunity to start again, anew.