20 Nov 2012
How to Tell People You’ve Broken Up (Without Dying of Embarrassment)
Just as the forever-bound-together drama masks, Comedy and Tragedy, speak of the inevitable duality of human experience, intimate love also has two distinct faces.
One is the very private relationship between ourselves and our partner, and the
other . . . is the public one — what the union means to the other people in our lives.
Privately, getting to the point of one or both of you making the choice to part ways has most likely been a long and painful journey. Either that, or it’s been a sad and hurtful shock.
Either way, what happened between the two of you is really just that — between the two of you.
No matter how much you recount to your friends the “he said, then I said, then he said, then I said” story . . . the truth is that no one else can really know what goes on between two people in the privacy of their intimate relationship.
Yet, relationships don’t just exist for the two people in them. They also have their very public face, and telling others that you are no longer together can sometimes be a painful and agonizing experience.
When my husband Mark and I began the process of uncoupling, I wasn’t sure how to tell people. I had no idea what to say, or how to say it.
How could I possibly explain our decision to people, particularly given the horrible assumptions we as a society have about the “D” word — that it represents a failure of love, that the marriage must not have been “right” from the start, that it was all a mistake, that our daughter would be scarred for life by coming from a broken home. All of those assumptions!
Even if people don’t come out and say anything like this, you can tell they are thinking it from the look in their eyes or the somber tone of their voice. And it’s hard not to feel embarrassed or ashamed when that happens.
I was really torn. I didn’t want people to think the love we shared wasn’t real or valuable just because we were only married for 10 years and not an entire lifetime.
I didn’t want them to feel sorry for us or our daughter, who still was just as deeply connected to both of us as ever, and would continue to be after our marriage dissolved and we reinvented it to be what we now call our “expanded family.”
I didn’t want them to assume Mark and I were now at odds with each other, fighting tooth and nail, clawing our way through our divorce proceedings with animosity and rage, because nothing could have been further from the truth.
I also didn’t want people to feel as though they had to choose between us, particularly family members who’d lovingly embraced Mark as one of their own during our time together.
I couldn’t bear the thought of my family and friends withdrawing their love and acting as though Mark were now an outcast and a pariah, in a well-meaning but somewhat misguided attempt to demonstrate love and loyalty to me.
Yet Mark and I both knew there were those who would assume they had to take sides. Not only did this not reflect how we wanted things to go, but as a psychotherapist who is well aware of the effects this kind of divisiveness can have on children, I was nervous about the impact this could have on our daughter.
Most of us point to statistics on how negatively divorce is shown to impact children, but only a handful of those studies actually challenge our conclusions about why that is so.
Is it simply because the parents change the form of their relationship from husband and wife to a more brother-sister type of partnership and friendship? Or that they now live in separate homes and the child has two homes to feel safe and loved in?
Or might it actually be that when the out-of-control negative emotions of the angry and hurt adults around them are processed through their fragile and developing little psyches, it puts them in impossible double binds they are simply ill-equipped to manage? (Which is obviously the explanation I and many other experts tend towards.)
Like many uncoupling couples who care about those in their communities, we also knew that our marriage meant something to others. We were very aware that people counted on our union to feel safe in the world, and hopeful about life and the possibilities it held for true love. In many ways, relationships do not simply exist for the couple but as a blessing upon the entire community.
Yet we also recognized that people would ultimately take their cues from us about what to think and how to respond. And so, at a time when we most needed support, encouragement, guidance and love, it was also important to remember that we needed to give support, encouragement, guidance, and love, as well.
So, as we found our way through our somewhat novel and unique uncoupling process, we learned some important lessons that I’d like to share with you about how to tell people you’ve broken up (or are about to) — without the shame and stigma that often confuse such necessary communications.
1. Hold your dignity.
Collectively, inside of the Happily-Ever-After myth that was created about 300 years ago, we all kind of assume that relationships are really supposed to last “till death do us part.” And when a relationship ends for any other reason, we automatically relate to it as a “failure of love.”
This standard of longevity has really become the ultimate measure of success of any union, and that means that when a relationship ends, even if the reasons are viable, healthy and good for that ending, we just assume that the relationship has failed.
The truth is, however, that just because a relationship ends, it doesn’t mean we’ve failed or that there’s something wrong with us.
So, remember, when you bump up against the unspoken wall of this automatic bias, both in others and in yourself, don’t take it personally! Recognize it as an unconscious collective ideal that made sense in its time, but one that is not necessarily appropriate to our lives in this day and age.
Hold your head high, recognizing that breakups are hard enough without holding ourselves and others accountable to an ideal that may no longer be in alignment with our true values and life calling.
2. Do your best to minimize speaking from a victimized place. Make the choice to take personal responsibility and to show restraint in how you relay your story.
In the aftermath of all traumatic experiences, we have a very real need to tell our stories to anyone who’ll listen, in order to help integrate the experience and come to terms with what just happened, and breakups are no exception.
But in telling your story to others, you may find yourself tempted to point the finger at everything your former partner did wrong, going on and on about all the things they did or didn’t do. It’s easy to fall into this trap, because most likely he or she did do hurtful, immature and destructive things. It’s not like you’re making it up!
But this way of sharing ultimately won’t serve you. For until you can take full ownership of all the ways you unconsciously conspired with your partner and co-created what happened, you won’t be able to access the power you need to create a different experience in the future, or break your past patterns in love.
And, when you speak critically and disrespectfully of your former partner, blaming and shaming them for the all the ways they hurt you, you not only diminish them, but you actually diminish yourself, as well.
For whenever you share from a victimized and reactive place, you risk losing the respect of others, for they will begin feeling sorry for you rather than admire you for the wise, generous and deeply good human being that you are.
In a subtle way, you may actually cause them to be less invested in supporting you because you are simply using them as a dumping ground, and they feel that. They may be sympathetic at first, but eventually they almost won’t be able to help but watch the clock, wondering how much supportive “girlfriend time” they are on the hook for.
On the other hand, if you can speak from a non-reactive and self-responsible place, you will gain their profound respect and inspire them to want to support you all the more.
And, as an added bonus, when you speak about your breakup in a way that allows for the truth of your own responsibility to be visible, you make it safe for those who love you to support your healing process all the more by offering a mirror that will help you see how you can grow and evolve beyond ever letting the same painful dynamic happen again!
And finally . . .
3. Offer clear guidance to others on how they should behave in response to your breakup.
My parents divorced when I was only two years old, and like most divorcing couples of their day, they hated each other bitterly. Their war didn’t end until 40 years later when I forced them to stand on either side of me one day and smile for the camera, producing the one and only photograph I have of us all together.
It was no surprise then, that when Mark and I chose to end our marriage, some members of my family assumed he was now moving into enemy territory. It took a bit of time for me to demonstrate otherwise, and make it clear this was not the case.
In the beginning, my family was confused by the holidays that Mark and I continued to spend together. And when I invited him to join the family for a trip to the Hamptons to visit Grandma and Grandpa, so that our daughter could enjoy a day where all of her family was together, they were downright dismayed.
But they soon became deeply interested in why I was making the choices I was making in regard to him, and they were finally grateful as they began to see how kind and loving this new way of separating really was. Not to mention the wonderful benefits it had for the daughter we were still raising together.
As a result, they all opened up and allowed Mark back into their hearts. And once we began calling new partners into our lives, instead of creating tension, our loving and expanded family just simply got bigger!
In this same way, you will need to train others in how you want them to behave toward your former partner. And barring acts of cruelty or violence against you, I suggest you make every effort to create this kind of cohesion in the wake of a breakup whenever possible, for the sake of your entire community, creating as supportive a container as you can while you navigate the delicate terrain of transitioning the relationship from being lovers to being friends.
While it might be somewhat uncomfortable for you to do this at first, it establishes you as a pioneer of conscious relationship and it will empower you to move forward more quickly toward healing and set you up to eventually find happy, healthy love with someone new.
And just as those masks of Comedy and Tragedy are forever bound together as the two sides of human experience, so are the public and private sides of our loving relationships bound together. And so it behooves us to begin considering the communities we live in when ending a relationship. Your example will not only serve to improve your own life, it will also further the evolution of love in the world.
Here’s to evolving love,
Katherine Woodward Thomas