Ending a relationship is always painful, but there are ways to ease the hurt.
When relationships come to an end, there is so much emotional pain that it may seem impossible to find a way to ease the suffering. If you’re the one ending the relationship, you may be plagued by guiltand remorse; if you’re the one being left, you’re faced with the misery of rejection. To make matters worse, you may feel that nothing you can do could make the situation any less difficult and that you will be stuck forever with these feelings of despair and demoralization. You may also punishyourself endlessly for not doing a better job of either leaving or being left. There should be some way that you and your partner could part ways as friends, right?
Because a relationship’s ending is so stressful, you may not imagine a happy ending as an option. Instead, you may think the best way to get through it is by ripping the bandage off as quickly as possible. But while that might limit the amount of time you feel the pain, it may leave behind scar tissue that affects both you and your partner for years to come. Alternatively, perhaps you think the best way to end things is just to fade off into the distance, particularly if you and your partner didn’t share a residence or family commitments. Again, although this may feel okay in the moment, in the long run it could create problems with your future relationships.
Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D., is currently a professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. The author of over 160 refereed articles and book chapters and 16 books (many in multiple editions and translations), her most recent popular work is The Search for Fulfillment (January 2010, Ballantine Books). She also writes for the Huffington Post's "Post 50" blog.
Editor: Saad Shaheed
True intimacy involves the ability to communicate at a deep level with your partner. Not only is intimacy a quality of the relationship, but it’s also a quality of the individuals involved. Being able to communicate closely with another person requires that you share your feelings relevant to the relationship. Those may be good or, as a relationship is in its final stages, not very pleasant. You may run the risk of being self-indulgent by unloading all of your negative feelings, so it’s wise to contain your expression of unhappiness in a way that doesn’t denigrate your partner. By talking about the fact that the relationship has run its course, you may not only be doing your partner a favor, but also your own intimacy potential. The next time you’re in a close relationship, you may be able to steer clear of some of the problems you inadvertently created in this one.
We return, then, to the question of how best to embark on the process of ending relationships in a “good” way. The University of New Brunswick’s Charlene Belu and colleagues were interested in the phenomenon of “post-relationship contact and tracking,” or PRCT. Using a sample of 271 college students (two-thirds of whom were female), Belu and her team asked participants to report on their most recent breakup, rating its intensity compared to earlier splits. The researchers also asked participants to report on their own, and their ex-partner’s, PRCT behaviors, and to rate the impact of these on themselves and their exes.
The Canadian team found that PRCT behaviors were relatively frequent in this sample of emerging adults, with 60 percent reporting being both a user and a target. PRCT behaviors were, in turn, related to distress following the breakup. The stronger the impact of the breakup and the more surprised the individual was, the more likely the participant was to engage in PRCT. Somewhat surprisingly, this was true even if the participant initiated the breakup. As the authors concluded, “individuals who are experiencing more distress after the breakup may put more effort into reconnecting, monitoring, or trying to stay in touch with their partner, and/or remain a part of their lives.” In fact, the stronger the intensity of the pain of the breakup, the greater variety of tracking behaviors the participants used.
Ultimately, the longer these attempts at contact continue, the longer it takes to recover emotionally from the breakup. Given that surprise was a factor in predicting PRCT behaviors, the findings suggest that it’s best not to pull that bandage off too fast, but instead to take some time to prepare both partners for the ending.
The Belu et al. study adds to the literature on romantic relationship breakups and, although based on a student sample, provides perspective on the process of letting go of a partner. Using this study along with others previously published, we can now enumerate the worst—and best—ways to handle a relationships’ ending.
5 Bad Ways
1. Not providing any warning at all, nor any opportunity for contact, can leave you and your partner in limbo. Just disappearing is not the answer.Ghosting:
2. Self-blaming: Relationships involve two people and when they don’t work, each contributes to the dysfunction. Moving out of a relationship by focusing only on your role will not help you see the warning signs in potential partners of what might be the next ill-fated relationship.
3. Bad-mouthing: Focusing only on your partner’s contributions, in turn, will not allow you to refine further your own intimacy strengths and weaknesses. Talking to others about how everything was your partner’s fault can also create awkwardness for the people who know both of you.
4. Fantasizing: Presumably, the people in the Belu et al. study who engaged in PRCT also spent considerable time wondering what their partners were doing. As a result, they became less able to move on to new relationships.
5. Stalking: Again, as we saw in the Canadian study, an inability to pull out of a relationship only makes the emotional pain much worse. You may spend some time wondering if your ex is okay after the breakup, but extensively tracking your partner will impede your own recovery.
5 Good Ways
1. Preparing for the end: As we saw in the study by Belu and her collaborators, the surprise element only made a breakup worse. In general, as you head into important life transitions, it’s best to give yourself time, and to give your partner time as well.
2. Accepting a share of the blame, but not all: Growing your own intimacy means that you develop a more informed understanding of your strengths and weaknesses in a relationship.
3. Protecting your, and your partner’s, dignity: Previous research on divorceadjustment has shown the importance of “saving face.” It’s important to maintain your self-respect, and that of your partner, so that you can avoid the shame of relationship defeat.
4. Establishing boundaries: Extensive post-relationship contact is, as we saw, a very poor way to end things. Instead, make it clear over the course of the relationship’s ending just how much contact you wish to have with your ex-partner.
5. Taking the long view: Our relationship histories become key factors in the life stories we create as we get older. As painful as it might be, the effects of the breakup you’re going through now will not endure forever, and may even set the stage for future relationships that you can’t predict from your current vantage point.