Many people ask me if I think there is ever a right time to break up. Well, let’s explore the possibilities.
POSSIBILITY NUMBER ONE
“I can tell it’s time to break up the moment I start feeling bad. Better to end it now than feel this way for one more minute!”
Couples stay in the relationship while they are still in the madly-in-love, everything-is-easy stage. As soon as any sort of effort or discomfort enters the scene, they break up. This is quite a popular strategy, but it is definitely associated with the younger population. After breaking up several times using this strategy, it occurs to people that perhaps occasional discomfort is just a feature of relationships.
Given that thoughts come and go with varying levels of quality and duration, human beings can expect a daily dose of emotional discomfort. We all have days that are filled with ups and downs. However, if we feel negatively about work one afternoon we don’t just decide to immediately quit. We accept that, depending on our mood and our thoughts, sometimes we will feel good and sometimes we will feel bad. In the same way, anyone that uses the first sign of discomfort as a signal to leave a relationship will certainly break up with their partner sooner rather than later. If you use this strategy you’d better expect to have lots of short-term relationships.
POSSIBILITY NUMBER TWO
“My unhappiness has been building for a long time. I just can’t take it anymore.”
Couples stay in the relationship until they have what they would consider to be a crisis point of emotional stress and distress. Forty years of working with married couples has taught me that this is indeed the most popular strategy. Advocates say, “If my life is about attaining happiness, then why would I stay in a relationship that I’m not happy in?”
This strategy would make perfect sense if it wasn’t for the fact that happiness and unhappiness are completely generated by our internal thoughts and not by outer circumstances.
Imagine if someone said to you, “I broke up with her because I gained weight when I was with her. Before I met her I was twenty-five pounds lighter. It is important to me that I am a proper weight.” You would be incredulous that he had linked the two together. You might suggest to this person that his weight is determined by his diet and exercise, not his partner. He might retort that it was her good cooking and lack of motivation to exercise that contributed to his weight problems. You might sympathize with him, but would probably still conclude that his eating and exercise habits were the only factors in his weight gain.
In the same way that this person blamed his weight gain on his partner, many couples blame their unhappiness on their partner rather than looking towards themselves. I grant you, it’s not as easy to see your accountability for your own thinking as it is to see your accountability for your body composition. In actual fact, however, people ultimately have just as much control over their psychological well-being as their physical well-being.
POSSIBILITY NUMBER THREE
“We are no longer in love. I was in love with him for a long time, but something changed. That tells me it’s time to get out.”
This would make perfect sense were it not for the fact that our experience of love can get overshadowed by our thinking. Just like knowing the sun is above us even when it is obscured on a cloudy day, our thoughts of dissatisfaction, insecurity, and judgment can make it difficult to see the innate love we have for our partners, but it is still there.
It was very common for couples to tell Linda and I that they have lost the love they once had for their partners. Yet after a four-day intensive with us they leave brimming with love for each other as if it had always been there. Believing that your love is lost is ultimately just a thought. When you become scared by this thought, your fear acts like a cloud obscuring your love. I’m essentially suggesting that “we don’t feel the love” is not a legitimate deal breaker in relationships. It’s a temporary way of looking at your relationship that changes as soon as you go on to a new thought. Love is truly always just one thought away.
POSSIBILITY NUMBER FOUR
We had a good thing going back then. Now I’ve outgrown her. I’ve evolved, and she hasn’t. I think it would be better for both of us to break up. At least then we would get the chance to find people who are on the same level as us.
This sentiment of “outgrowing” your partner is often shared in spiritual or “self-help” circles. It doesn’t jive, however, with my understanding of true spiritual, emotional, and psychological evolution.
Imagine someone telling you that they have gotten into good shape through an exercise program and a proper diet. They tell you how much their balance, strength, endurance and flexibility have improved. Then they say, “Getting into shape has interfered with my sports participation. I’m just not playing as well as I used to before.”
I expect you would find that puzzling. Any improvement in physical conditioning is obviously going to enhance sport participation. To suggests otherwise would be an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms.
I suggest the same correlation between a spiritual, emotional, and psychological evolution and relationship improvement. When people “evolve” spiritually, emotionally and psychologically, they become closer to their true selves. The true self, the core of human beings, is love and joy. Thus, evolution would make a partner more loving, more compassionate, more joyful, more understanding and more appreciative. These are all things that will improve a relationship, not ruin it. It’s likely that the “un-evolved” partner would respond in kind and ultimately gain from their partner’s evolution. The net result: the relationship would get more loving, more understanding and more resilient. It’s a win-win.
POSSIBILITY NUMBER FIVE
“I’ve gone to therapists. I’ve done everything I can think of and we are still unhappy. I’ve lost hope in us as a couple and feel breaking up is our only option left.”
Unsuccessful therapy experiences can be very discouraging. Usually people put a lot of energy, time, effort, and money into those sessions and they expect them to work.
But the fact remains that something has to change in your understanding of how you work, and your partner works, and all people work, for you to see improvement in your experience of life. Therapy can be a road directing you to this deeper understanding, but nothing will change until you can see this understanding for yourself.
I sometimes ask struggling couples if they want to have hope in the relationship. They are often taken aback by this question. For many of them this is the first time they have considered if they want to want the relationship to succeed. I’ve found that if the couple says they want to have hope they are more likely to have a shift in understanding. If they say they don’t want to have hope, then I am less optimistic that they will be able to have this shift. Of course, it is still possible for them to find success, it can just be more challenging.
Love and goodness are at the core of every relationship. They are a constant and they can be realized at any moment. Sometimes when couples say that they don’t want to have hope for the relationship, they are really saying that they don’t want to have hope for themselves to have insights and realizations. It can be hard to genuinely desire to change our thinking. We always feel as if our understanding is perfect and complete— that is, until the next change in our thinking occurs.
THE HEALTHY BREAKUP