Breaking Up Without Breaking Your Lover Down

“Parting is such sweet sorrow,” Juliet says to Romeo shortly after they’ve declared their love (and shared a few hot kisses on the balcony). If only those were the only kinds of partings our hearts had to endure, the ones rife with the sweetness of what we’ve just known, and the ache of anticipation for when we’ll know it again.

I don’t get to hear too much about those kinds of partings in my role as a couples therapist. Sadly, the partings I’m most familiar with are the ones where I bear witness to a love story coming to an end – less dramatically than Romeo and Juliet’s to be sure, but too often with little sweetness and a soul-crushing amount of sorrow.

If you are the one who’s decided to end your relationship, you have every right to do so. A love relationship is not a prison sentence, you can exercise your free will and leave when it is no longer your desire to be in relationship, regardless of time served. The responsibility that comes along with that free will is to treat your partner ethically, to have the courage to be honest, and to communicate that honesty in a way that is also empathetic.

In years of working with couples, some of the most painful words I’ve heard uttered in the midst of a break-up are along the lines of “… I’m not sure I ever…” For example, “I’m not sure I ever loved you.” “I’m not attracted to you any more, I don’t know if I ever really was.” “I’m not happy in this marriage, I never have been.”

When the desire to break up is one-sided, telling your partner you don’t want to continue the relationship takes away their vision of the future. Adding some version of “and I’m not sure I ever” alters their experience of the past, leaving them questioning what they thought they didn’t have to question.

I don’t discount that “I’m not sure I ever” may be the truth, or that it at least feels like your truth right now; what I’m advocating for is making sure you’re sharing that truth with an audience that is able to withstand hearing it. Your therapist, your best friend, your journal, your local bartender (in a pinch) — all appropriate audiences. The partner who’s trying to cope with the sorrow of an undesired parting — not the right audience.

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