Whether you’re dumping or being dumped, breaking off a relationship is a giant suck sandwich with a nightmare filling of pain, guilt, fear, rejection, remorse, pity and self-loathing.
Which is the only excuse for the incredibly bad idea that tends to pop out of our mouths at that point:
“Let’s still be friends.”
In our minds this makes total sense, as if a sort of downgrade of the relationship will be easier than just ending it. As though slowly sawing through a gangrenous limb is better than hacking it off with an ax.
It’s going to be bad either way, but trust me, chopping is going to be a whole lot less agonizing.
“That’s ridiculous,” I hear you saying. “We genuinely like each other; we’re just not meant to be together as a couple.”
My sister and her ex-husband are not only the best of friends, but have been roommates for the last four years. Their mutual daughter is very happy with the arrangement of having both of her parents living amicably under the same roof, a loving, supportive, if nontraditional family arrangement that somehow works for them, even as they each date other people.
But… before they found this happy, healthy new relationship as best friends and co-parents, there was a whole lot of rough turf to travel. Right after they divorced more than a decade ago, they couldn’t be in the same room together — by their own preference as well as our pleading as an extended family — because emotions were too raw, too tender to allow for any contact without constant explosions of vitriol. Before they could find common ground as friends, they had to work through the pain of their irreconcilable differences as a couple.
You can’t end a relationship based on a certain kind of intimacy and immediately transition to less intimate one without a period of healing. It’s like trying to heal a burn while your hand’s still in the fire.
Friendship is generally a relationship between equals. But in most breakups there isn’t equality — there’s usually a dumper and a dumpee — and feelings are stronger on the dumpee’s part, while the dumper is moving past the relationship.
The new “friendship” is charged with all that emotion, as well as all the history between you as a couple. So when your ex starts dating someone new, she’s more than just your buddy’s new girlfriend — she’s the woman he chose to be with after he didn’t want to be with you.
Or when you find yourselves out together one evening, perhaps with alcohol involved (it happens), and she gets a little flirty, it seems harmless to have a casual hookup — you’re just “friends with benefits,” right? But when you wake up and reach for the woman you still love, and she avoids your embrace and asks her “pal” to leave, it’s like breaking up all over again.
That’s when the jagged wound of the breakup starts to fester — because you’re still sawing away at the gangrenous limb. Instead of facing the pain and letting yourself heal, you’re trapped in the agony of a breakup that goes on and on and on.
Here are some tips for making — and surviving — a clean break.
• No backslides! No calls, no emails, no texts. Delete him from your social media; remove her contact info from your phone.
• Get your things. You need closure, and having your belongings at the other person’s home is a loose end that gives you a false sense of connection. Over means over — have a friend go fetch whatever you left behind.
• Avoid Pavlovian responses. Don’t go back to your favorite restaurant as a couple, or the bowling alley where you went every Friday night, or the bar right near her house where you always had a nightcap. Stay away from places you know you will see your ex or those close to him; it only brings up memories that keep you trapped in the past instead of focused on the future.
• Accept the casualties of war. As much as you may love your ex’s friends and family, and vice versa, you have to sever contact — at least for now.
• Lance the wound. Doctors drain an infected wound to let the healthy tissue heal. Take advantage of close friends to talk it out — but know when to stop; there’s a fine line between letting out the pus and digging deeper into the wound.
• Distract yourself. Stay busy: Do things with friends, pursue a hobby, work, take up a new skill you always wanted to try. Idleness is the devil’s playground — and the devil, for now, is your ex.
This total dissociation isn’t forever — once you’ve started to heal you can reintroduce activities you used to do as a couple, shared old haunts, mutual friends and perhaps even try for a friendship, if you still want one.
But once that doomed limb is gone and the wound is only a scar, you might be surprised to find you don’t even miss it.