Updated: Dec 13, 2021
Before going through my first ever breakup (and therefore first ever relationship - the monogamous, long-term kind), I’d heard all kinds of stories about what to expect… As the cliché goes, I may have lost a lot, but I learnt a lot, too.
The breakup happened only a month ago. Yep, it’s super fresh. However, nothing helps me heal more than writing. Four years ago, before I’d been in a relationship of this kind (but serially dated and ran away from any sign of intimacy and commitment), I casually wrote a blog about relationships called The New Etiquette. In keeping with the teen I was who brought books to house parties instead of a six pack of Cruisers, I spent my early 20s reading scientific journals about dating, attraction, match-making technology, polyamory and more. I went on Tinder dates and shared my experiences online.
So, here I am. Back again, writing instead about an actual relationship. Not just any: I was deeply in love with this woman like nothing I could ever have anticipated. I’ve done an immense amount of thinking the last few weeks, I feel like my head is going to explode, so now it’s time to put the mess on the page. Today’s theme: unhelpful assumptions we make around breakups.
Assumption #1: In a relationship, you will lose yourself.
People offer this as a warning more than a guarantee that it will happen. It’s the idea that if you invest a lot of energy and time into a relationship which eventually ends, well, what a waste of time that was! You could have spent that time on yourself, building a career, getting better grades, travelling the world! It’s the idea that we forget who we are when we commit ‘too much’ to someone. Is that really true, though? I think relationships, particularly romantic ones, actually show us more of who we are.
We may lose time, money, work opportunities and other tangible things, but it’s impossible to lose our ‘self’ in a relationship. Even if it’s minuscule, relationships will always bring us to understand our ‘selves’ more.
(A side note on the concept of ‘wasted time’: the bigger loss is dwelling on wasted time than the wasted time itself).
There is no single ‘self’. As a narrative therapist, this is an idea I bring to my practice. We have multiple selves that evolve over time. The self that we present to our partner is not the same self we bring to work or family gatherings. Narrative therapy also sees identity as ‘relational’ (among other things), which means that ‘self’ is informed by our relationships with others.
Romantic relationships are confronting because no one sees us so up close than our partner. Their feedback can be hard to stomach because we’ve never seen ourselves from any other perspectives than the ones we feel good about, so we tend to reject feedback that rattles us.
No one owes us constructive criticism, especially when it’s met with hostility and anger. Our partners don’t owe us this either. Feedback isn’t just verbal and intellectual - it’s communicated through body language, actions and choices. However, we can never assume the meaning or intention behind our partner’s response to us. This is why, surprise surprise, communication is key.
While I understand the premise of ‘losing ourself’ in relationships, there is certainly always opportunity at the end to take an experience and transform it into material that informs our next steps.
Assumption #2: When a long-term relationship comes to an end, you won’t know how to hold yourself together during hard times because you relied on someone for so long.
As with all four of these points, the relevance of this idea differs from case to case. My ex and I were on completely different pages when it came to our ideas around ‘vulnerability’ and emotional support. I’ve always been very comfortable sharing what’s on my mind and communicating my feelings. Whether or not I’m good at the delivery is another question, but I’ve certainly always been willing and open to improve.
When we set ourselves up to expect a future with someone, of course it’s going to feel like there’s a giant void in our life when they’re gone. With such gut-wrenching grief, I’ve thought about everything from the daily rituals to the big plans I’d made with my ex that I won’t be doing any longer.
It’s not helpful to see ourselves as a ‘mess’ post-breakup. It’s important to honour the emotions that arise. Instead, we may bury them down for the sake of convincing ourselves and others that we’re so ‘together’. That’s okay, that’s a perfectly human response. However, if we don’t accept our feelings of grief, anger, regret and hurt in real-time, they’ll eventually present themselves in unpredictable, indirect ways many months, if not years, later.
Being okay with sadness, sitting with it rather than trying to ‘fix’ it or run away from it, does two things. First, we glean all the wisdom we can. Second, we move on quicker. I’m not saying that our processing of emotions should be graded by how productive we are at moving from one stage to the next. No! I just mean that if the feeling is going to be there regardless, why not confront it now? I know the answer is, “it’s too painful”, but it’s just a consideration I’d like to leave with you.
Having said this, I’m certainly no expert, and I stuffed up in my relationship a lot. There were times when I was so intent on processing my emotions the very second they arose that I failed to step back and make a logical, mature decision. After the breakup, I was so clouded with grief it tainted my judgement on a few occasions. When I realised this, my grief was replaced by regret. Breakups are super fun.
Assumption #3: When you become single again, you’ll realise your friendships have gone to the wayside.
Friendships may fall a rung or two down the ladder of priorities when we go from single to in-a-relationship. Some friendships may therefore crumble or fade, but let’s look at it from another angle. What else happens? Potentially, we may discover who our true friends are.
As much as I could see why the relationship wasn’t working for me, I knew that walking away from it feeling like a victim or a saint (like I was not at all responsible for the relationship’s downfall) would not be a helpful attitude to carry forward in life and future relationships. After a breakup, we may feel angry and focus on all the ways our ex went wrong.
However, we’re not taking our ex into our next relationship; we’re taking ourself. After we’ve acknowledged what we do and don’t want in a relationship, there is no value in ruminating on our ex’s shortcomings. The best thing we can do is acknowledge where we went ‘wrong’ and strive to work on changing those unhelpful habits, patterns or perspectives.
When we tell friends about our relationship woes they only hear one side of the story. Although, I certainly didn’t always paint myself in a good light. In fact, some days I blamed myself entirely for what happened that my friends had to insist I stop being so hard on myself.
Good friends, at least I believe, are those that do two things in these situations. First, they support you through the hard times, offering you their time, words and signs of comradeship (hugs are my favourite). Second, they sensitively yet firmly encourage you to see the story from other perspectives, primarily your ex’s. They ask things like, “can you at least see where she was coming from?” “Can you recognise that what you did actually hurt her?” “Did you stop and think before responding, or can you admit that you were unnecessarily reactive?”
Of course, the key here is timing. Sometimes I was challenged by my friends too soon and it sent me into a spiral of regret and self-blame. However, as I moved through the feelings of guilt (rather than avoided them) I took absolutely all the value I possibly could from these hard lessons.
It is soothing to receive reassurance from our friends that our ex was the villain, that what they did was wrong and a breakup was a great decision. Hearing these things is validating and comforting. It’s important to honour our sadness. However, once we’ve accepted those feelings, we need to move on with compassion and forgiveness - resentment only hurts us, not the partner we’re leaving behind.
True friends inspire us to be better and they never indulge us by agreeing with our self-pity or self-blame. They seek to understand all sides of a story and call you out on your shit.
It’s important to note here that ‘assumption #3’ is only relevant to contexts where all parties are safe. It cannot be applied to scenarios of gaslighting, abuse, infidelity and so on. My own context of assumption #3 is that I was an absolute rookie in relationships - completely clueless and therefore aware that I wouldn’t have been doing everything 100% right in the relationship (but do we ever? We never stop learning). Therefore I turned to my friends who had been in long-term relationships for years for consolation and advice.
On a final note, while it’s true that we mightn’t see our friends for months maybe even years when we’re deep in a relationship, if they’re good friends, they’ll always be there, just as we will be for them. My oldest and best friend of 11 years lives on the other side of the country, but we’ve only ever been a phone call away.
Assumption #4: When your relationship ends, people will see you as a failure.
I was so proud of my relationship, I’ll admit that I felt some shame when it ended. However, refusing to let it consume me, I quickly negotiated a deal with Shame. I’d give it a stage to speak, but in a different light, and then I’d invite it to swiftly exit out the back.
Yep, I literally used performance to help process my breakup. I had written a piece a couple of months prior about our relationship and I was going to read it aloud at the Midsumma queer Spoken Word event at Hares & Hyenas. We broke up one week before I was due to confirm my place in the event.
I’d written about my ex’s coming out and my journey to meet her family abroad. It was a touching and positive story, so when we broke up I felt humiliated by the prospect of sharing what felt to be a lie with a live audience. All I felt like doing at that stage was hiding under my bed covers for weeks.
I withdrew from the event and then realised something: I could perform the same piece but add a final segment. So, I did. To an audience of 60–70 people, I concluded my piece with…
“Our relationship came to an end recently. We were living our lives according to different stories, and the timing of where we were in those narratives just didn’t line up. But that does not negate the experiences we had together. That’s the strange thing I noticed about how we sometimes view life. When it comes to endings, bad through to bittersweet ones, in order to move on we tend to focus on the fact that the chapter has ended to the point where it’s like the chapter never existed at all. It’s not an easy task, but through balancing cherishing the beauty of what has been while trusting that a new kind of beauty will come, that is, I guess (in my naive experience) one of the purest forms of love there is.”
The audience had laughed numerous times throughout the beginning of my piece, and when it came to revealing the breakup, they let out a huge sigh of disappointment. There was something deeply satisfying about hearing an audience of kind, attentive people empathising with my heart break. After the performance, so many people approached me to express how appreciative they were for me sharing such a raw and honest story that was true to life (breakups do happen, and the show goes on, but let’s not pretend it’s easy).
Endings in life have a propensity to be equated with failure: the end (or change) of career, end of a marriage, end of a home as we know it… It’s often met with: “oh how terrible, you couldn’t sustain it, therefore you mustn’t have been very good at it”, which is an archaic, narrow way of thinking about life. We may hear it in the undertone of subtle judgments people make about us. But it’s not our task to decrypt another’s passing judgments. It’s not our task to take their unhelpful ideas on board. Their thoughts are their responsibility. The only thing worth questioning is, am I judging myself? We need to be kind to ourselves during these times.
One final note:
Fact (not assumption): breakups are never black and white.
Whether the split is mutual, a person gets geographic distance moving to another city, you’re filled with certainty that parting ways was the right choice, there’s always going to be a history. Before ever experiencing love, I could never understand how people could separate and get back together time and time again. Even if the breakup is super clear, we have to accept that our head might be in the clouds for a little while. I honestly don’t know what’s going to happen between my ex and I. I can’t deny it’s hard.
Some things I’ve learnt. I’ve learnt a lot about asserting my boundaries and respecting someone else’s. I’ve learnt that I cannot assume that my preferences around communication and expressing love are the same as my partner’s. I’ve learnt that, in any relationship, we’re going to be hurt to some level, and we cannot escape that, we must accept conflict as an opportunity for growth. Finally, assumptions are dangerous. Asking questions is so important, especially the ones we ask of ourselves.