Jack and Mary split up. Surviving a break up is rarely easy, but there are ways to make it so much harder.
Mary moved her belongings out into a small place and Jack moved too, into a period of stagnant and painful denial. An emotional place where things don’t happen the way they are happening, where everything is not really as it is, where the catastrophic slide down an endless muddy slope cannot at any point be halted by grasping at a thin root sticking out of the ground.
For the first years Jack invested everything into getting Mary back succeeding only in pushing her further away. Hurt does many things to us but one of them is to blur the vision and render us incapable of understanding the world through anyone else’s eyes. The pain of a break up can be like an addiction, we just want the pain soothed and sticking with the same destructive behaviours is easier than walking through the pain of change.
In the background a ferocious legal war was waged. Neither of them wanting to give an inch through his unwillingness or inability to move past the anger, or her increasing irritation and frustration at what she saw as his denial and unreasonableness.
As the years passed I would wonder what the children made of it all. I frequently work with people who grew up in warring households, broken homes, battlefields. Too often it seems that they are subconsciously considered as collateral damage in the fog of war.
There is no defined and foolproof strategy for surviving a break up but here are nine ways to survive.
Keep the children separate.
The children didn’t create the mess and they can’t fix it. In the end what they most want is for happy parents to be together. If they can’t have that they’ll settle for happy parents living apart. Dragging them into the bitterness makes a terrible situation intolerable. Furthermore, to use children in a power struggle speaks volumes about our ability to self regulate and be conscious of our own worth, our own needs and our ability to self determine. In this light it’s not hard to see why the relationship might have gone wrong in the first place.
Keep the children primary.
Separation and divorce fracture the valued illusions of safety and certainty in brutal fashion, and so maintaining a relationship in as normal a way as possible with one another and with the children is a core pillar of successful separation. Not only is it good for them but it is a wonderfully uplifting tonic for you too when you are trailing through the most barren landscapes of a break up.
Don’t use anger destructively.
No matter how aggrieved you feel at the break up any anger needs to be used productively, i.e. towards making your life better for you. Used as ammunition in a gun pointed at your ex partner you make your life worse. It is like drinking poison yourself in the hope that it will kill the other person.
Keep yourself in the lead role of your own life.
In breakups it’s easy to lose some of ourself along with our partner. The proportion of our own identity which seems to have shifted is an important factor in the length of time we are suspended with flailing arms and legs waiting to be lowered back onto the ground. The chemical and neurological response to loss might be impossible to block but the behaviour is within our control. Life doesn’t end at the end of a relationship. Maintaining a focus on yourself and bolstering all that you had in your life anyway will ensure that you are able to return to it all again, one day.
Be generous and loving.
Withdrawing our own love when we are feeling hurt or vulnerable is done in an attempt to make us feel better (“I’m not giving you my love, you don’t deserve it!”) but it makes us feel terrible. If you can maintain your ability to love and be generous even when you feel as if you are ready to be scraped from the floor, you feel astonishingly stronger. Tim Lott once put it beautifully in his Guardian column. “To be loved is desirable. To be able to love, it turns out, is indispensable.” Amen to that.
Don’t subjugate yourself.
On the other hand, don’t set aside all of your needs or priorities in the hope that you might win back lost love because you’ll feel weak and pathetic and it probably won’t work. Showing love from the heart builds incredible strength, but offering it conditionally in an attempt to retrieve the past is sapping to the point of destruction.
Remember you’re not together anymore.
It is hard for us to make the transition from being inside a relationship to being outside one. Being in love affects the irrational reptilian brain which controls a desire which doesn’t stop just because the status of a relationship has changed. A love rejection can make us crave the person we love even more than we did when we had them so it is a genuinely tough ride. If you continue to act in the way that you did when you were together you give yourself no chance of recovery. Establish new boundaries, don’t chat and text, don’t try and transition into “friends” overnight and give yourself sufficient time for your own feelings to settle and shift.
Find a way of exploring your own emotion.
You’ll feel a real mixture of emotions in the wake of a break up and there might be a temptation to ignore what you feel, to put it in a box and leave it for another day. You can do that but nothing much will change until you open the box and sort through the contents. You can do it through talking, writing, thinking but you need to do it. The hardest work of loss is in the willingness to recognise it.
Whatever the circumstances of the break up I can tell you something with certainty, it wasn’t all your fault and it wasn’t all the fault of your partner either. You played a part in this mess and you need to accept it because it’s the only way to real self acceptance, an emergence from victim status and the chance for positive change to take place in one direction or another.
One of the most difficult aspects of a break up is that the future is unwritten. Jack still struggles, five years on, in a heavy bitterness and resentment which falls across him like a gloomy blanket. One of the most uplifting and hopeful aspects of a break up is that the future is unwritten.