How to Break Up
The intensity and suffering exacted by a heartbreak depends not only on the core fact that we’ve been left; it also decisively depends on how we’ve been left. Our hurt can be hugely intensified when we’ve been left badly – just as it may be rendered a great deal more bearable when we are fortunate enough to have landed on a lover who has learnt the psychologically-rich art of mature break-ups.
There are certain things guaranteed to make a break up worse than it ever needs to be:
All decisions around relationships should be taken with the awareness that life is desperately short for both parties. It therefore really shouldn’t matter if the holiday has already been booked or if preparations for our birthday are – awkwardly – well under way. As soon as the decision is taken, a courageous lover will not dither out of a misplaced desire not to upset pre-existing plans. They know they must leave. They are ruining things, of course, but they can see that the holiday or restaurant meal would in any case be doomed – and they are kind enough to know not to waste any more of our precious time.
(ii) Collateral Accusations
A wise departing lover knows not to accuse the other of more sins than they are guilty of. It is not, they know, our fault that their career is going wrong and we truly aren’t responsible for their insomnia or the conflicts with their brother. The wise lover keeps the list of accusations down to the specific problems that necessitated a break-up; they don’t use the parting as an occasion to rehearse all that happens to be a bit wrong with us – an inevitably far longer but irrelevant charge sheet.
(iii) Deceptive Niceness
The most harmful lovers are those who labour under a misplaced impression that they need to be nice – even when they are firing us. But there is, in fact, no need for honeyed words, we simply require the basic information and then some privacy to put ourselves back together again. Indeed, ongoing niceness simply confuses us all the more. The tenderness makes us ache to restart the relationship, for there seems no reason why not, given how they are behaving.
Clumsy lovers are so scared of the news they have to share with us, they cannot bear to come out with – and let it seep out in odd symptomatic ways. They start drinking too much, or come home very late, or advance odd-sounding theories about relationships. They hope – through their strange and harmful behaviour – to be fired rather than have to resign. In sly and unfair ways, they seek to push us to take the agonising next step.
On the other hand, there is so much that can spare us excessive pain at the end:
Kind departing lovers make a sharp break. Once they’ve decided, they move swiftly to letting us know; they clear off quickly; they don’t hold out hints of reconciliation; they don’t suggest that if we changed in certain ways, they’d reconsider. It’s awful, of course, but there’s a vein of mature kindness in their brusque manner: in an obviously difficult situation, they are sparing us the extended torture of false hope.
Good departing lovers try to explain in convincing ways why the relationship didn’t work out. They might point out, for instance, that you are both really quite anxious by nature – and therefore struggle to soothe and calm each other. This isn’t so much a complaint about you as on observation about why the fit between you as a couple wasn’t very helpful. Or they may explore the ways in which the two of you have powerfully divergent attitudes to money – and hence are set on a serious collision course. They’re not saying you are horrendous or a fool – just that the two of you turn out not to be very adept partners for each other.
(iii) Honesty about who they are
Nice departing lovers let us see and actively remind us of what’s not so nice or good about them. They admit that they brought a lot of difficult things into the relationship. They admit, perhaps, that they’re obsessed by work; they may acknowledge they are bossy or very controlling; they might be open about their unfaithful nature. They are doing us the kindness of showing us that life with them would be seriously difficult in major ways. We’re losing them, but we’re not losing the prospect of a blissful or problem-free future.
(iv) Honesty about who we are
Without being aggressive or mean, good departing lovers give us a fair picture of why, in fact, they found it hard to be around us in the end. They’re not being bitter or exaggerating: they just fairly and honestly say that, as a matter of fact, they found (for instance) our domestic disorganisation, or our intense neatness, oppressive; they were perhaps unable to come to terms with our very relaxed attitude towards time or with our manic punctuality; they found they couldn’t live with our sexual complexity or with our austere seriousness. This is hard news, but it’s also very constructive and useful. There are few times in life when another person is genuinely frank with us about what we’re like to live with. They’re not saying that we are bad people: they are showing us that we have a very distinctive personality (which is something it’s hard for us to see about ourselves). We’re going to have to take this into account in the future if other relationships are to go better. It’s not that we have to radically change – and perhaps we can’t. But we need, in the future, to factor more of who we are into any relationship with another person: we will have to be frank early on, to ask in good time for forbearance and to realise that we might be challenging in areas.
(v) Being hated
Good departing lovers know that the news they are breaking will, inevitably, lead to them being hated for a time. They are sanguine and brave in the face of this. They don’t suffer from the fateful and sentimental desire to be loved by people they no longer love.
We’re gradually disentangling two distinct sources of pain – which mean very different things. There’s the sorrow of losing someone we liked. But there may well also be the suffering caused by the unfortunate ways a lover acted at the end – which tells us about them, but not really about us. We may not be able to escape the agony of broken hearts but we can always strive to keep it to a very basic minimum.