Breakups and Broken Hearts

By Jim Selman | Bio


There are two kinds of break-ups. The ‘soft’ breakup is where both parties in a relationship more or less stay in communication and talk about their differences, their discontent or their changing needs until they arrive at a conclusion that “This just isn’t working” and agree to go their separate ways. Sometimes they remain friends. In any case, this kind of mature and honest ending allows both parties to let go of past expectations or disappointments, eventually reach some degree of  ‘completion’ with the romance and move on with their lives.

The ‘hard’ breakup is when one person unilaterally declares that the relationship is over and abruptly shuts the door on any possibility for recovery or working through specific issues. In most cases, this is what happens when one party feels betrayed or when one individual has ‘perpetrated’ some wrong against the other and projects a strong—and usually compelling—negative story onto their partner to justify and conceal their own actions. This is called a ‘perpetuation withhold’, a common (though often unconscious) and irresponsible strategy for dealing with guilt.

It is the latter kind of breakup that can” break our hearts.”  A broken heart is the profound sense of loss we feel when someone we’ve loved deeply with all of our ‘being’ suddenly terminates the relationship and kills future possibility. This should not be confused with a ‘blow to the ego’ that hurts, but passes fairly quickly. A broken heart is a kind of emotional and psychological ‘death’ that can take years—if not a lifetime—to get over. The rejected party can often worsen their own situations with endless circular thinking about what might have changed the outcome or variations of self-blame.  No matter what the process, it is painful and generally leaves us feeling powerless, ‘lost’ and not connected with ourselves.

I don’t think there is a formula for how to recover from a broken heart. It takes some time and, more often than not, another person or some ‘higher power’ to assist in recovering. Here are some basic ideas, however, that I have found useful when coaching people to ‘be complete’ with a sudden breakup and all the emotion and sense of loss that accompany it.

1.    Don’t call—let it be. The normal reaction to another’s declaration that “It’s over” is to call, to plead, to do anything to somehow keep open some possibility for continuing the relationship together. This kind of resistance to the other person’s stated commitment to ‘’end it” usually ‘hardens’ their resolve and, more often than not, forces the other person to say a lot of negative and hurtful things to justify their decision.  If there is any hope of restitution, it must be initiated by the person who declared the relationship ‘over’ in the first place.

2.    Be grateful you are getting to see this side of the other person now.  When someone feels compelled to exercise the ‘hard’ ending, it is almost always a function of immaturity, lack of responsibility or some form of ‘hidden lie’. While no less painful, these kinds of characteristics would almost certainly play out sooner or later. Better sooner than later.

3.    Be grateful for whatever you shared. Although it can seem like a thin rationalization, it is true that there were times in the relationship that were wonderful and probably very loving. If not, it is doubtful there would be enough of a bond to leave one with a broken heart upon its ending. Everything changes in life, regardless of what we think or what we want. A measure of maturity is learning to appreciate what we’ve had even when we lose it.

4.    Don’t blame yourself.  The hardest part of feeling betrayed or having someone leave abruptly is to accept that, at some level, we are responsible in the sense that we can ‘own the fact of it’—even if we didn’t cause it. Being responsible is the opposite of self-blame and the key to getting over it sooner than later. There will be plenty of time to reflect and learn what, if any, mistakes were made.

5.    Letting go is easier as an act of love. Getting over a bad experience is harder than getting over a good one.  In relationship, if we can stay connected to our love of the other, we can more easily ‘let them go’ if that is what they say they want—even if it hurts or we would wish it otherwise. When we resist or try to control the choices and actions of our loved ones, we only fuel resentment and turn a very difficult process into one that can become ugly and even more hurtful and harmful to everyone involved.

6.    The only choice you have is the interpretation (the story) you create about it all. The ‘truth’ of the breakup and the relationship in the future is whatever we say about it. The more we dramatize the emotion and struggle to understand it or make sense of it, the more we begin to believe the story and buy into being either villains or victims. The wise will generate an interpretation that is empowering to both parties and that can leave us feeling whole even if we are sad and wish things had turned out otherwise.

7.    Don’t rush into another relationship—have some fun. This maxim is almost universal when people break up. Unfortunately, it’s not always taken to heart after a serious relationship. The ‘rebound’ typically feels wonderful and can be very healing. But more often than not, it is either a replay of the previous relationship or short-lived because it lacks a sufficient foundation to stand on its own.

8.    Forgive the other person and yourself. At the end of the day, the relationship is finished. But ‘finished’ isn’t necessarily the same as ‘complete’. We all know people who, after a breakup or a divorce, continue to live in the story and replay tapes in their head about why something happened or didn’t happen. Generally they are being controlled by their past experiences or expectations. To be complete means to put the past in the past and be whole and complete and fully present in the moment. To be complete with a relationship at any time requires that we absolutely forgive—forgive whatever we’re blaming ourselves or the other person for.  Forgiveness is a state-of-being: it is a relationship in which we are open to ‘give as before’.  To forgive doesn’t proscribe any particular action.  But it can only be authentic when we’ve owned or taken responsibility for whatever wrong we perceive and when we commit ourselves to accepting things as they are without regret, resentment or further recourse. Genuine forgiveness means we give up our right to blame.

Last fall, I wrote about relationship mastery. I’d like to add that, when we think about it, all relationships are with ourselves—our feelings, our thoughts and our points of view. Even what we perceive and listen to from others are our perceptions and our listening. So in a very real sense, relationships are like mirrors that enable us to know ourselves and create space for others to know themselves. If we can remember this when we encounter breakdowns in our relationships, then we may have fewer breakups. More importantly, we can begin to master who we are in relationships and who we can be for each other. 

© 2010 Jim Selman. All rights reserved.

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