Dr. Suzanne B. Phillips

Licensed Psychologist, Psychoanalyst, Diplomate in Group Psychology, Certified Group Therapist, Author, Radio Host and Media Consultant Covering a Wide Range of Psychological Topics

Post: What Makes Breaking Up So Hard to Do?

While some love the excitement of dating, others complain that online dating is overwhelming and many dread family introductions, most agree, “ Breaking up is hard to do.” Bad girl arguing with her couple breakup concept

The Broken Heart

Across time and cultures, there is no end to the literature, films, poems and songs devoted to the broken heart of losing the love you thought would last forever.

Even research finds that social rejection from an unwanted break-up is registered in the same regions of the brain activated when people experience painful sensations in their body. An unwanted breakup is emotionally and physically painful.

The Trapped Heart

That said, very little focus has been paid to the partner in an exclusive dating situation for 6 months or 6 years who is feeling unhappy, disinterested, even trapped–but unable to break up.

  • Ideally one would hope that a partner on this side of the relationship would self-reflect as to whether any of the feelings being attributed to the partner or the relationship are actually a function of personal issues (self-esteem, sexual, family, work).
  • One would also hope that he/she would raise it with the other partner as it is impossible for two people who are really attuned to be in a relationship with one partner unhappy, bored or disinterested without the other’s knowing something is wrong.

Sadly it is often the case that despite irritability, silence, threatened break-ups, romantic make-ups and unexpressed discontent, the relationships goes on—often right up to the altar.

Why? What Makes Breaking Up So Hard to Do?

Breaking up is hard to do because it is complex. It is underscored by attachment needs, empathy for the other, dependency issues self-blame, familial wishes and cultural expectations.

Holding On to Familiar

Relationships that have become familiar to us are often tolerated despite disappointment and pain because of the fear of losing the familiar connection.

  • The greatest resistance to actualization and positive growth is risking the move from the familiar in any dimension in life to the unknown.
  • In terms of relationships, fear of the unknown often equates with the fear of being alone.
  • The capacity to be alone allows for the choice of a relationship instead of the need for a relationship. It opens the space to risk unknown possibilities.

Holding on to the Myth of Intoxication

Sometimes breaking up is difficult because it confronts the illusion that the other, who acted so wonderfully at the beginning, did not stay wonderful. This is often underscored by the fear that if there is a break up, the partner will turn back into his/her wonderful self with someone else.

  • Actually the partner will turn back to their wonderful self with a new partner—but only for a time. No one sustains the neurochemical high and intoxication of the first days and months of a relationship. Dr. Marianne Legato, gender expert, claims that if we did– we would all die of exhaustion.
  • Perhaps it is worth considering that we really come to know how well we match someone when we really know ourselves and we allow enough time to know the other.
  • Life will stir enough stress, family issues, personal idiosyncrasies and partner needs for us to experience many aspects of a dating partner, if we are willing to give it some time.

Holding on To a Co-Dependency

Sometimes despite pain and anguish or adversity, there is a co-dependence with another such that breakup feels like loss of self. The difficulty in breaking up has little to do with breaking up a relationship; but rather an unconscious fear of losing the desperate emotional needs the other partner provides.

  • According to Ross Rosenberg author of the Human Magnet Syndrome, you can’t have a co-dependency without a co-dependent partner who also fears a break-up.
  • It often takes the emotional shift to seek help, to make life changes in school, work, family and friends that allows for a stronger self that will no longer settle for painful co-dependence.
  • From a position of personal strength, break-up of a co-dependent relationship is self-care.

Holding On to Empathy

  • Research tells us that early attachments greatly shape our sense of self and our capacity to connect with others. A secure attachment with an empathic caregiver fosters self-esteem as well as the capacity to put oneself in another’s shoes, to be empathic.
  • Life is never perfect and in some cases a parent’s needs reverse this pattern necessitating the child’s empathic attunement to the parent. The legacy is often a very caring person well trained to put others needs before their own.
  • In dating and long-term relationships their over-empathy for the other’s needs is often at the cost of their own. Being overly attuned to the other makes being the one to break-up very difficult.
  • It has made people walk up the aisle knowing that they were not happy to be marrying the person waiting at the altar but unable “to hurt, disappoint, or ruin that person’s life.”

Reflective of over-empathy is the misguided assumption that another person could ever really be happy or truly loving if you are unhappy. How attuned could they be?  The problem is that over-empathy for the other obscures empathy and decision making for self.

Fear of Judgment

While there are those who engage in a lifetime of serial relationships, most people feel upset disrupting an exclusive ongoing relationship–hurting another person. For many, breaking up is hard to do because it involves the fear of being “the bad one.”

  • While there are those cases where both partners are having doubts about a relationship and an amicable break-up is possible, it is more likely that in the eyes of the other who is hurt and angry, the one breaking up will be seen as the bad one.
  • It is also likely that family and friends whose expectations have not been met will echo this judgment.

The challenge here is one of self-definition, integrity and individuation. Adults are allowed to change their minds. Adults are allowed to hold off from going ahead with a relationship they cannot commit to even if it has taken some time to clarify those feelings or come to that decision.

Sometimes refusing to accept other people’s definition of you and the person you should love is hard to do–but it may be an important step in finding out who you are.