I’ve been contacted by a doctoral student in clinical psychology who is researching break-ups. She writes:
It is estimated that 1 in 3 of us experience the pain of a relationship break-up each year. Yet amazingly, little is known about how people deal with this highly stressful event.
The Break-up Study, would like to gather information about your experiences, reactions, and attempts to cope with the breakdown of a romantic relationship. The results will enable Clinical Psychologists to better understand and assist people who struggle with break-ups in the future.
If you have experienced a relationship breakdown within the last year and would like to help, please take the time to fill out a brief online survey by clicking on the link below.
Or visit ‘The Break-Up Study on Facebook.
If you’re thinking about breaking up with your girlfriend and ask friends (or Google) for advice on how to do it, you’ll probably come across this standard advice:
- Break up with your girlfriend face to face, not through an email or text message.
- Use the approach of “It’s not you, it’s me.”
- Speak from your heart and then allow her to have some space.
- Be sensitive to her feelings.
While these tips are useful, they don’t help those of you who are having trouble getting over the first hurdle to break-ups. What you’re looking for is a method of breaking up that minimizes the pain and suffering for you both.
You may be hesitant to break up with your girlfriend because you feel guilty about ending a long relationship, or you’re afraid of how she will react. Or maybe your girlfriend depends on you and you worry about how she’ll do on her own. But at the same time that you don’t want to ruin her life, you are desperate to get your freedom back.
Here is the most important thing you need to know right now: You have permission to go.
Heartbreak is a part of life, and you can’t protect your girlfriend from getting hurt. There are no guarantees in love and everyone should enter into relationships with that understanding. People grow apart for many reasons, and you have permission to let go for any reason.
Maybe things started out perfectly, but your girlfriend eventually revealed an uglier side that was jealous and controlling. Or maybe you simply had a change of heart and want to move on. The point is: You have permission to move on.
Being in a relationship is a choice, and just as you made a choice to enter into a relationship, you can make a choice to leave it. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been together for 10 days or 10 years. A healthy relationship can’t be built on pity. Otherwise you are simply wasting your time and hers.
I’ve noticed that there’s not an adequate place to intelligent discuss relationships and (especially) break-ups. Too often, people need go to Yahoo! Answers or similar places, where good advice is hard to come by. That’s why I added forums to RelationshipBreakup101.
The forums went live just moments ago.
It only takes a second to register. Even though there’s not much there now, don’t be shy about posting – this site gets more and more visitors every day, and if you post, others will reply. In fact, I’ll personally be monitoring and giving advice to early posters, so go there now!
Emotional abuse is more difficult to diagnose than physical abuse because the symptoms can slowly work their way into a relationship. This starts with unhealthy behavior patterns and escalates to something more troubling. For example, an emotionally abusive partner tries to manipulate you to get what they want. They often don’t mean to hurt you, but their controlling nature makes them behave in ways that are emotionally harmful to you.
What signs should you look for to determine if your relationship is an emotionally abusive one? Here are a few:
- You are afraid to express yourself freely with your partner, and feel like you have to watch what you say.
- Your partner’s jealousy often keeps you from doing things you want with the opposite sex, even friends and colleagues.
- Your partner frequently criticizes you, humiliates you in front of others, and you feel like your self-esteem has taken a blow since you met him or her.
- Your partner prevents you from spending time with your friends, family, and anyone else outside of the relationship.
- Your partner monitors your internet usage or reads your email correspondence.
- Your partner has hinted at the possibility of hurting you or your loved ones if you ever betrayed him or her, or if you ever broke off the relationship.
- Your partner has hinted at the possibility of hurting himself or herself, or even committing suicide if you ever broke off the relationship.
This is by no means a comprehensive list of what to look for in an emotionally abusive relationship, but it gives you an idea of some of the major warning signs. The last sign – a partner who threatens suicide – is an especially dangerous manipulative tactic. If your partner threatens suicide if you don’t do what they want, they are essentially taking you as their hostage in the relationship. If this is the case in your relationship, you need to get a third party involved as soon as possible.
If you think you’re in an emotionally abusive relationship, you need to get help or get out as soon as possible. Even if the situation never escalates to physical abuse, you should be aware that emotional abuse is just as harmful and can lead to stress, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and other problems that will disrupt your life.
If you’ve tried to break up with this person before and failed, you may have become embroiled in a codependent relationship.
Codependency is the psychological term for staying in a relationship because the other person is providing something that you need. You may not realize it, but your giving in to their pleading is because some aspect of their personality fulfills a need that you have. This used to be called having a rescue complex, a need to “fix” an emotionally damaged person.
When you are dealing with a codependent relationship it’s important to admit that you are keeping it alive just as much as the other person. Giving in to their refusal to let go tells them that they are in control. It gives them the power to stay in your life. When this happens you need to take back your life and let them know that they cannot control you or the relationship.
Be Compassionate but Firm
Study the list you made carefully and use it to reason with him or her. Most people will accept the break up when confronted by your reasonably expressed feelings that neither of you are being fulfilled. If they are still in love with you, it will hurt them much less when you break up with them this way; they will be sure of the reasons you’re leaving and won’t have to struggle with unresolved feelings.
The most important thing to remember is that you are the one that controls your life. The people you choose to have in your circle are your choice and no one can stay without your approval. Take back your power, be assertive but compassionate and stand firm in your insistence that the relationship is over.
Nobody gets married with the idea of getting a divorce if it doesn’t work out. We marry because we love each other and we’re sure that it will be that way till death separates us. But even the best of intentions and the most Herculean efforts must sometimes meet a brick wall and that’s when we know that it’s time to move on.
What are the Symptoms?
If you think you’ve hit the wall, ask yourself a few questions:
Do they expect you to make them happy?
Do you have to account for every moment of your time?
Has your spouse lost interest in being alone with you?
Does your spouse make excuses not to go places or do things?
Are you arguing over silly things, or do you both fly off the handle at the least little thing?
If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms in your marriage you should run, not walk to a marriage counselor or trusted clergy member that is qualified in couples counseling. It won’t get better on its own, just as an ear infection doesn’t disappear without antibiotics. Just as an untreated ear infection can result in a ruined eardrum, ignoring the strife in your marriage can lead to divorce.
What if Nothing Works?
If your mate refuses to get counseling or admit that the two of you have a problem, you have two choices; you can live with it or you can end it. Before you make a decision that is such a significant life changer you should do a bit of research.
First, make two separate lists. One will consist of the negative things in your marriage in one column and the other will list the positive things. Your second list will concern your mate; list the traits that he or she had when you were first married and then their personality traits at the present time. How have they changed? Is there something on the first list that corresponds to the second? Lists are a good tool to use in taking an objective look at your marriage. They can also allow you to see events and consequences that correspond. Perhaps your spouse began to disconnect with you after the loss of a job or an illness.
If you can find no connections to the disruption in your marriage, take another look at your first list. Do the good things outweigh the bad? Are they something that can be fixed if you share it with your spouse? If not, perhaps it’s time to have one last conversation and discuss ending the marriage.
A Happy Ending?
It’s important to realize that every couple goes through difficult times. Most of these trials can make the couple stronger and more committed but sometimes even the most dedicated marriages break apart. Knowing when to end it can spare everyone more pain and may even result in parting as friends. The end of the marriage could actually be the beginning of a rewarding friendship.
Ending a long-term relationship can feel traumatic. You may encounter some emotional hurdles before you can relax and enjoy the single life.
When you’ve been in a relationship for a long time, even if it didn’t end well, you’ll probably experience a sense of loss: Loss of companionship, intimacy, routines, rituals, and shared pleasures. Suddenly you have more time than you know what to do with. There’s no one to talk to about the ordinary day-to-day concerns, and you have to start inventing things to do on a Saturday night.
Remember Why You’re Separating
The emotional intimacy is something you can’t immediately replace. If you initiated the break up, you may start to have a creeping sense of regret as the benefits of companionship come to light. If it was your partner who initiated it, you may feel a sting of painful emotion whenever you’re reminded of things you’ll miss.
While you’re in that period of adjustment, you need to come up with ways to see this as a positive time in your life. Don’t wallow in thoughts of what you miss; concentrate instead on all the things about the relationship that led you to leave.
Even if your partner initiated the break up, you should realize that it’s for the best: You deserve someone who wholeheartedly wants to be with you. And regardless of whether you wanted a separation, there’s a good chance that your relationship was strained in the end – you probably feel as if a burden has lifted. Try to fixate more on that feeling of freedom that any sense of loss.
A New Beginning
It’s important to look at the emptiness of the post-break weeks and months as the germination period for a brand new beginning. You’re free to explore the social world and seek some of the things you missed in the relationship.
The time after a break up of a long relationship is the chance to investigate who you are as an individual, what you love, and how you enjoy spending your time. In as many ways as you can, surround yourself with things that give you pleasure and people who share your passions.
It’s also important that you spend time with yourself during the post-break-up time, and not rush desperately into finding a replacement. Rebound relationships rarely work (unless they’ve been simmering for a long time already) because they are undertaken to fill a void.
Whether you’re open to a new sexual relationship may depend on how vulnerable and emotionally stable you feel (as well as whether you prefer to save sex for a committed relationship). But if you’re seeking a substantial relationship before you’re recovered, you may be setting yourself up for disappointment.
Confidence in the Future
You might feel anxious about your future prospects, and be filled with doubt over whether you’ll ever be happy, especially if this is your first major relationship. Just realize that anxiety and painful emotions are fleeting, and keep the phrase “this too will pass” as your mantra. Life often works like this: You experience some hardship, but then your future brings unexpected people and events that make you grateful for the experience. Take pleasure in imagining a future that’s much more fulfilling than your recent past.
It’s easy to leave someone who hasn’t treated you well: You give them a piece of your mind and then say goodbye. But what if you find yourself in a relationship with a “nice guy”? He’s kind, sensitive, not a game-player or emotionally manipulative, but he just doesn’t “do it” for you.
Perhaps you’ve decided you’re more into “bad boys,” or maybe you’re just bored, but for whatever reason you want to get out of the relationship. Breaking up with a nice guy takes a little more finesse.
The traditional advice holds true: A telephone call generally isn’t appropriate (unless it’s long-distance, or other circumstances demand it). An email isn’t any nicer, and a text message is inexcusable. The only nice way is in person.
Arrange a time to see him so that you can tell him how you feel. Once you’re together, it’s best to say what’s on your mind sooner rather than later. You don’t want to have to fake your feelings or pretend that everything is OK.
There’s no easy way to let him know. The words you’ll say will depend on the exact reason you want to leave, but let him know that he deserves someone who wants to be with him with all her heart…but right now that person isn’t you.
This may be difficult for him to hear. On the other hand, he may have felt the same, but because he is a nice guy, he didn’t have the heart to tell you. If you’re really lucky, he’ll be relieved, and you can relax and start on a journey towards “just-friendship.”
Of course, he may be crushed and feel horrible. Tell him how sorry you are to cause him any pain. If he tells you how much he loves you, ask him if he would be happy with someone who didn’t love him equally. The only reasonable answer is “no.”
Most nice guys are great, but for others it’s just a mask behind which they can manipulate people. Watch out for emotional manipulation: attempts to elicit pity, accusations of cruelty and selfishness, or other similar behavior. You can cut him some slack because of his pain, but be careful of taking him back out of sympathy.
If you’re overcome with guilt, relax: We all sign up for the possibility of heartbreak when we enter a relationship. You owe him your honesty, compassion and kindness. You don’t owe him another chance, sex, or anything else that you don’t want.
Finally, remember to be cautious about pursuing a friendship – give him a proper amount of time to recover (which will vary depending on the length of the relationship). Here’s a good test: If you think he’d feel bad when hearing about your new boyfriend, you shouldn’t be friends.
For more advice, see my ebook:
The Break Up Guide: A Woman’s Guide to Leaving Unhappy Relationships – your guide to leaving as painlessly and compassionately as possible.
Unlike physical abuse, emotional abuse can be harder to identify, because it can slowly creep into a relationship without either partner realizing it. Often, the abuser isn’t even aware of what he or she is doing (and would probably deny it if it were brought to light).
Emotionally abusive partners seek to manipulate you. They often don’t want to hurt you, but their controlling nature makes them act out in a way that is mentally and emotionally harmful. Here are some signs that you are in an emotionally abusive relationship:
- You feel that you can’t express yourself freely with your partner, or you have to “walk on eggshells.”
- Your partner frequently express jealousy, and keeps you from engaging in normal interactions with the opposite sex
- Your partner frequently yells at you, criticizes you, or undermines your self-esteem
- Your partner keeps you from your friends, family and support groups outside of the relationship
- You caught your partner monitoring your email or internet usage
- Your partner alludes to the possibility of harming you or your loved ones if you “betrayed” or left him or her
- Your partner implies that if you were to leave, he or she may commit suicide or engage in other self-harm
This is not an exhaustive list, and is just meant to point out some of the trends of an emotionally abusive relationship. Regarding the last bullet point — threats of suicide — it is an especially manipulative tactic. If your partner holds their potential suicide over their head, they are essentially attempting to take you hostage. You need to bring in a third party if they resort to this or any other form of violence.
Emotional abuse can be just as damaging as physical abuse, and can lead to chronic anxiety, depression, and even post-traumatic stress disorder. If you are in an emotionally abusive relationship, you need to get help and get out, and you need to do it fast. There are two immediate steps you should take:
1) Realize that this situation is NOT OK and can’t go on any longer. Don’t kid yourself: Your partner’s yelling, constant criticism, “freaking out,” etc., is not a “quirk” you should tolerate.
2) You need to create some space for you to get your mind back. Do whatever you can to create some physical and psychological space. Once you’re away from your partner’s controlling domain and able to find refuge with family and friends, you’ll gain the perspective you need to take the steps to leave.
Leave an Emotionally Abusive Relationship (for women)
Often times, there’s a significant gap between the time we realize a relationship isn’t working and the time we pull the plug. Most of us make the mistake of staying too long. Here are some common reasons why people get stuck in unhappy relationships:
1) We do it for “his/her sake”
A common reason for delaying a break up is to prevent our partner from feeling pain. We may feel that the decision to spare our partner’s feelings is a noble choice, but in fact it’s usually more damaging in the long-run. Your partner has the right to an authentic relationship with someone who wants to be with him or her. By drawing things out and wasting your partner’s time, you’re doing a disservice to both you and your partner.
Don’t use the “I don’t want to hurt him/her” excuse to avoid this important decision.
2) We forget we have a choice.
You’ve become a pair. You more commonly use the term “we” than “I.” It takes you a while to realize that relationships aren’t written in stone. Relationships should broaden your horizons and add to life’s joys. When you find that your relationship has closed you off and made happiness impossible, it’s time to remember that you chose this, and now you can choose again.
3) We’re so invested
It’s the same mentality as the businessman who keeps throwing money at a failing business: You can’t stop now, after all that you’ve invested. This is a common but irrational mentality: The fact that you’ve spent a lot of time together does not mean that you can’t leave in the future.
4) People expect us to stay together
Your friends know you as a happy couple. Perhaps you’re even engaged, and families and friends expect a wedding. Maybe you fear you’ll be judged by your community or religious organization if you don’t keep trying.
Staying on account of other people’s expectations is a prescription for continued unhappiness. Be true to yourself first.
5) Obsession with “fixing” the relationship
I’ve seen sources of relationship advice that maintain that under almost no circumstances should a couple “give up” on making it work. That’s nonsense. Sometimes the dynamic between a couple can give rise to a perpetually unhappy — or even unhealthy — relationship.
Yes, there are countless resources that will give you advice on how to save a relationship. However, you first have to determine that the relationship has enough value in the first place. Don’t go on a mission to save a relationship you don’t truly desire.
6) Fear of the break up
If you’re with an emotionally volatile, verbally abusive, or physically abusive person, you may be so conditioned to keep the peace that you refuse to even think of breaking up. You know you won’t be able to take their reaction, and you may even fear that they’ll resort to violence or self-harm (suicide threats, etc.). If this is the case, it’s no wonder you’re feeling stuck.
The good news is that once you bring these reasons to light, you’ll realize that your excuses no longer have merit. If you decide you want to break up but still don’t know how you’re going to do it (or get through it), I suggest you either seek professional counseling, or get my books: