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NPR Article: Breakin Up Is Hard To Do, But Science Can Help

I follow NPR on Facebook, and this article showed up on my newsfeed today. It provoked a lot of thoughts that I feel like sharing.

A lot of what captured my interest with this article was the fact that I could relate to a lot of what was being said about how to get over a tough breakup and move on, and how tough breakups affect us in many ways. These were things that I went through when I went through my first difficult breakup over 3 years ago. A lot of what the article says is helpful in getting over a breakup were things that indeed, I found helpful in the months following that breakup I went through. There are a couple things I disagree with in the article as well.

First of all, I think the article is correct in the fact that a really important part of getting over a breakup is to acknowledge that it’s going to be something that affects you in many ways and to develop strategies to handle all of those things that will impact your life. These things include the physiological impacts of a breakup as well as the emotional and psychological aspects.

Some background: this tough breakup I went through was from a 4 year relationship with my first serious parter, who was also my best friend for 8 years. The breakup was mutual – since knowing each other for so long, since we were 13 and 14 years old, we had grown apart as we moved in to young adulthood. It just didn’t make sense to keep the relationship going, especially when it was causing both of us so much turmoil. We had broken up once before, five years earlier during our brief first go at a relationship when we were in our teens, and it wasn’t a big deal. But this one was a big deal. We lived together for 3 years. We had known each other so long. We had plans for the distant future together. It was tough, but we knew it had to happen. Even with that knowledge, it was tough.

After that breakup, practically my LAST concern was starting a new relationship. In fact, in the days following the breakup, as my ex and I talked things over multiple times, we talked about the fact that we had planned on remaining close friends and how we would deal with this once we had new partners down the road – what if they didn’t approve of our friendship, given our history? Anyway, in these converations my ex mentioned that he was going to give himself 2 years before getting involved with anyone else. I said that sounded smart, and I figured I would probably need one year.

I ended up dating someone five months later, officially starting a relationship with him 7 months after the breakup, and have been with him for over 3 years now, happily. I wasn’t looking for a relationship, like I said. In fact, I was pretty apprehensive about getting involved with my current boyfriend seriously. During our courting phase I was constantly asking myself if I was making smart decisions considering I just ended such a serious relationship. Was I fooling myself, fooling him? I constantly was guaging my progress in moving past things with my ex and I and getting over that relationship.

And in all honesty, I don’t regret the way things progressed in my life in the year after my ex and I broke up. And to continue the honesty, I have to admit that to this day there are times that I miss the friendship I shared with my ex. Like I said, we were best friends since I was very young, and grew into young adults together, all while being very close. And I feel comfortable admitting this because I know that my feelings go no further than that. I put a lot of energy into moving on from that relationship and I think all my hard work paid off by the fact that I moved through it swiftly.

Admittedly, even though I started seeing my current boyfriend 5 months after that breakup, there was still a lot of healing going on behind the scenes in the 3 months of courting before I agreed to us becoming a couple, so in total I guess the healing took about 8 months. The NPR article mentions that people tend to overestmate how long it will take them to move on from a breakup – remember, I had estimated a year for myself. So I overestimated by only about 3 months, which I think sounds pretty reasonable.

To make another cofession: the experience of this breakup is something I still think about from time to time. I don’t mean that I think about the relationship, but the months folloing the end of the relationship. That time was one of great personal growth for me. In fact, at times I miss that time. Of course it was an extremely painful period of my life – I once in all honestly feared I was going to suffocate to death because I was crying so hard I could hardly breath. But it was those gut wrenching sobbing cries, and many other releases of powerful emotions that I allowed myself to go through and experience, that I have alway felt helped me greatly in moving through everything I was going through.

There were days that I felt on top of the world – I felt motivated, confident, competent, powerful, and so much more. But I was out of balance at that time – something else the article talks about. I would have these highs, even as soon as the first week after the breakup, and then I would have these terrible lows, even as late as 7 months after the breakup, where I wouldn’t want to so much as get out of bed. But slowly the good things were outweighing the bad things. And now when I reflect back on that painful time, I actually mostly remember the positive things.

I began to write a lot during that period. Every day, sometimes for hours, I would write about my thoughts and feeling around my ex and what we went through over the years, and what I was experiencing, and my questions, and my regrets, and my resentments, and my hopes and aspirations. I wrote a LOT. And most of this writing took place on an online blogging website where a lot of wonderful people came to my blog regularly to read what I had written each day (and I sometimes made 3 or five long posts a day!) and they replied with supportive and healthy comments of encouragement and inspiration. In this way, I developed a healthy sounding board for my thoughts and feelings at that diffiicult time, something else that the NPR article says is important to do if you want to successfully move through a breakup.

In addition to journaling, I also sought help in other ways. I had come to realize that my relationship with my ex was very codependent, and so I started going to Codpendents Annonymous meetings at least once, sometimes twice a week, just a month after the breakup. At those meetings and via other resources I sought out, I learned more about how to have healthy relationships.

Since my journalling was just for me (and other people who knew nothing about my ex), I had nothing to hide and in my writings during that time I was extremely honest with myself about things. I have read back on my journal entries during that time a couple of times since then, and I had some harsh things to say about myself, him, and the relationship. But I am struck at how honest I was about even my own flaws. I think having a safe place to be honest with yourself like that is important. In a relationship like that, it’s never just one person that is to blame. Relationships are dynamic and you always have to look at what your contributions are and where your influence is having an affect on things.

So motly, yeah, I agree with the article.

But there is one big thing I disagree on.

One of the things I learned during the months following my first big breakup, is that you can’t make your relationship with one other adult the center of your life like that.

In the time I spent reflecting on things in that relationship, I realized that part of what I contributed to the relationship’s problems was the fact that much of my actions were motivated by the fact that I somehow wanted to make the relationship the center of everything. And that was’t always easy. In fact, as the years went by and my ex and I got more comfortable with each other and settled into our routines after living together for so long, it took A LOT OF WORK to try to make the realtionship the center of everything! And when my ex didn’t seem willing to put in the “work” that I was to make this relationship-centric life happen, I thought something was wrong with him, and wrong with the relationship. But it was my perspective that was wrong. In reality, I needed to get a life. And after we broke up, that’s exactly what I did, and I’m so glad I did.

I learned a lot from my first big breakup, and one of those lessons was that relationships should enhance your life – but they take effort at times. I don’t like to use the word “work” when referring to relationships. That’s because stopping yourself from giving a knee-jerk emtional reaction to something your partner has said or done that upsets or bothers you, and instead giving yourselves some space to cool off before coming back to the issue, takes “effort” a lot of the time. And remaining calm and using constructive language so things don’t get too heated again or diverge from the issue at hand during a discussion about that issue later can take “effort”. And not letting a partner’s annoying habit be an excuse to act ugly towards them take “effort” at times. But I have promised myself that once a relationship starts to feel like “work”, that I need to question the promise of the relationship itself. Because when I was with my ex it was “work” to try and get him to think the way I thought (which is the way I wanted him to think), and we both put in “work” to try and “give it time” so this could happen. But really I should have been making more of an “effort” to understand where he was coming from and understanding what that said about who he is as an individual. If I had done that sooner, a lot of other heartache could have been avoided because we would have realized earlier that we weren’t suited for one another as life partners. And it was “work” to have the same discussions and arguments about the same issues that were rooted in us just being who we were as people. Both respectable, lovable, good people – both failing miserably at making the right efforts.

To keep a relationship going requires a lot of efforts, especially as you move out of that lovey-dovey stage and into the areas where you see each other’s flaws, become less willing to sweep aside each other’s misteps/bad habits because as you get more serious that thought flashes across your mind “how much of this thing can I reasonably deal with?”, and you both have to re-focus the lense through which you approach the relationship as time passes and life takes its twists and turns and you grow as individuals. But I don’t think it should really be work, like trying to change yourselves or each other from who you are as individual people. Plus, doesn’t it sound a lot more reasonable when you tell yourself you’re going to “make the effort to something” than that you’re going to “work on something”? The former just seems so much more loving and gentle and natural, whereas th latter sound grueling and torcherous and nagging.

I think efforts put the focus on YOU. (And when you feel that you need your partner to make an effort at something, request it – but be willing to accept no as an answer, or know what you feel would be the response on your end in the event that “no” is the answer and you feel that answer is unacceptable for you.) Efforts can be communicated, and are more forgiving, I think. To me, they put the focus on the emotional and psychological aspects of a relationship, which are things that are often at the heart of the surfacey problems and issues we tend to “work” on.

“Work” is a word that I think our culture tends to associate with things outside of ourselves. Yard work, career work, homework, house work… These are things that have to get done, and we often look upon the fact that we have to do them with dread, and sometimes when we finally do get down to doing the work, we do it mindlessly, especially if it’s something we’ve done a lot before and have a routine down for getting through the task with ease (sound like any of your relationships?) We “work” on things outside of ourselves. But “effort” is something that comes from within us as intentional, conscious individuals. Lifting a car would take a lot of effort – not anyone can do it, and even those who can have to concentrate a lot on what they’re doing and put a lot of mental energy and focus into it, I imagine (I have never actually lifted a car myself (believe it or not)). That’s effort.

I do have to admit that there is one instance that I can imagine that might require work, but not without being paired with effort! I imagine if trust is broken in a relationship, rebuilding trust takes some work, but also some effort. You give each other extra patience, extra leeway, and extra understanding, for example, all of this being part of the work on building trust. Hopefully communication is open enough to have established reasonable boudaries during such a time. Anyway…. I’ve never gone through rebuilding trust in any healthy way in a relationship so I can’t talk on that too much.

Anyway, I wish I could leave off with some final thoughtful words, but it is late and I am tired. Having said most of what I think I wanted to say in the best way I think I can say it, now I’ll just say: goodnight.

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