When Breaking Up is Best
Have you ever gotten to a point in your relationship where you just felt like crap all the time? (-or at least more often than not?)
-Maybe you and your partner fought constantly.
-Maybe you struggled with financial stresses or difficulties.
-Maybe there wasn’t enough physical intimacy.
-Maybe it was the quality of the physical intimacy that was the problem.
-Maybe you didn’t feel supported.
-Maybe you felt constantly criticized.
-Maybe you or your partner were depressed, and the storm cloud of that depression cast a dark shadow over both of your lives.
Or maybe you were too entrenched in things to even realize that you were miserable.
Sometimes it’s only when we’re able to take a little time and get some space or distance (whether physical, emotional, or both) from our partner and/or the routines of our relationship that we can truly recognize exactly how unhappy we’ve become.
And yes, my friends - I speak from experience.
In the first week or two following the particular breakup in question, I was dealing with a lot of grief - and on more than one front. A family member of mine had passed away around the same time that my relationship fell apart. So, rather predictably, I’d swiftly devolved into a hot mess - consumed by a total jumble of emotions, including but not limited to anger, sadness, and desperation.
But gradually, as some time passed, I began to establish a new routine for myself. I started living life on my own terms. And I also began to notice something unexpected in the wake of my breakup…
...in fact, much happier than I’d been in quite some time.
...which, yes, struck me as a fairly odd thing to be experiencing in the wake of a breakup from a long-term relationship.
However, in fairness, he and I had been fighting incessantly over the months leading up to us calling it quits. Tensions had been running high.
We had slipped into a weird, dark, uncomfortable and codependent place.
He’d been struggling with depression, and I’d been so focused on trying to make him happy - on trying to make “us” function as a couple - that I’d allowed my own happiness to fall by the wayside.
I think I’d assumed that if he was happy and “we” as a collective were content, then I’d end up happy too as a natural byproduct.
Only after taking some time and getting some space would I later come to realize that the reverse was actually more likely to be true: if I first made myself happy, only then would I be genuinely able to focus on my partner’s happiness and on our happiness as a couple.
I suppose that after being as emotionally on edge as I was for such a long period of time, I’d simply grown used to feeling like I was walking on eggshells and living life in that state - to the extent that I didn’t even recall what my potential for happiness was on my own anymore.
I’d been trying to accommodate his will and his preferences for so long that I’d forgotten what my own were. (And, to clarify here, that had been my choice and my fault - not his).
In the misery of things, I’d somehow lost track of my natural homeostatic state and forgotten what “normal” felt like for me. I’d genuinely forgotten how happy and drama-free I could be on my own.
I hope that you haven’t experienced this, because it’s a painful and generally shitty circumstance to find yourself in. But if any of my tale resonates with you, or if you’re simply feeling unhappy in your relationship, then here are some actions I’d recommend taking:
1. Note how your relationship is affecting your feelings of self-worth.
In my own case, upon reflecting on my relationship, I noted that (1) my partner had been having an impact on my feelings on self-worth, and (2) that impact had been very negative in nature.
The way I’d been treated had made me feel more like a nuisance or inconvenience than a valued partner. And being treated that way had gradually led me to grow deeply insecure. My interactions with my beau had been damaging how I felt about myself, to the extent that I’d begun to question my own worth.
My self-respect had eroded from repeatedly backing down in situations where I shouldn’t have – situations in which I was being mistreated, but would still end up apologizing in an effort to end the argument.
I’d developed a false and limiting belief that I wasn’t valuable. And this whole dynamic was making me feel like I needed to cling to the relationship, because I was clearly luckier to have him than he was to have me. I believed that I wouldn’t be able to find someone else as good as him out there in the world who would put up with me.
Anyway, you get the picture. All in all, it wasn’t very healthy.
(And if you’re unsure whether a similar dynamic might be at play in your own relationship, it can be telling if you begin to feel better about yourself and/or take better care of yourself when your partner isn’t in your life anymore).
If your relationship is leading you to question your self-worth or breaking you down as opposed to building you up, then that’s a serious problem that warrants attention.
2. Take a hard look at your (or your partner’s) level of dependence on your relationship.
During my initial post-relationship period of grief and general emotional “messitude”, I felt like I was going through a withdrawal. My partner had seemed to take our breakup in stride. But I’d been reduced to a shaky shell of my former self.
The evenings were especially difficult for me. I’d imagine him out at bars, meeting other women. I would try to read or work, but find myself endlessly distracted by my own tormented thoughts.
Before long, I realized that I’d allowed myself to develop a certain level of emotional dependence on our relationship, and - more generally - on just being in a relationship. I needed to learn how to live my life as a single person. To thrive on my own.
I came to recognize that I’d been leaning on my partner to an extent that I shouldn’t have been.
In a healthy relationship, each member of the couple should be stable and independent enough from their partner that if one of you were to step away, the other might stumble, but they won’t fall. You should each have enough of a separate root system - a strong base and life of your own - that you’d be okay without the other person.
If that isn’t the case for you, I would recommend trying to cultivate that sort of healthy independence within your relationship. You may need to temporarily prop yourself up at first (whether by independently exploring one or more of your own hobbies or interests, by forging stronger friendships with others, or by other means) until your base has grown robust enough to provide you with sufficient support.
3. Acknowledge and own your unhappiness, if it’s there.
So often, we try to deny or conceal our own unhappiness. We feel like something is wrong with us if we aren’t happy. I mean, we should be happy, right?
Happiness is socially acceptable and encouraged. Happiness is “normal”.
And so, we feign it - sometimes even serving to convince ourselves that we’re happy and content when we really aren’t.
Well, guess what? It’s actually healthy to be unhappy at times. It can serve as a valuable cue that some sort of change is needed (whether externally or some kind of internal attitudinal shift within us).
If your partner is making you unhappy, that’s an issue you shouldn’t ignore. After all, what is your motivation for glossing over it or trying to force it and feign your happiness? Are you acting that way because you secretly think or hope that your partner will change? Are you doing it because you want to be someone you aren’t?
Regardless of your reasoning, it’s not a winning strategy.
The good news is that pain and discomfort are the gateways to change. As soon as you start allowing yourself to experience your own unhappiness, you’ll be on the path to taking some action to address it.
Every relationship is different. But some general rules still apply. If you assess your own relationship across these three areas and find it to be falling short, I would suggest that you work with your partner in attempting to tackle whatever issues exist.
Unfortunately, sometimes you’ll find that the problems extend deep down into the bedrock of the relationship, and its foundation may be compromised. When that’s the case, taking a break or ending things might be the best course of action.
If you or your partner lack a healthy sense of self-worth, independence, and happiness, you shouldn’t just forge ahead in the hope that things will improve on their own. A change of some kind is needed, one way or the other, even if that change means the relationship’s end.
But in that case, know that letting go isn’t always synonymous with giving up. And sometimes the act of breaking up is just the catalyst needed to set both people free.