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Sep 17 2014

Anger, Betrayal and Giving Up: How Break-ups Work and Don’t Work

Published by at 3:15 pm under Knowing Relationships BLOG

Film director John Cassavettes said, “Life is a series of attempts to avoid being exposed as a fool. But in the effort to do this we make even bigger fools of ourselves.  Most of the arguments between men and women are based on someone’s inability to express what they really mean. “

Ending a romance that isn’t working anymore is like killing a pet to put it out of its misery. Almost everyone I know has had to do this. How do you cope with it?
There is a range of responses.
Dorothy Parker, at midlife, once said that every new relationship is a shade paler than the previous one. She always had a way of making her bitterness funny.
I have a good friend who owns a small business with eight employees. Over five years he’s had to fire several people. “And yet,” he said, “every time I been able to find someone better, and as result my business improved.”

Takes Two to Not Tango

Unlike putting a pet to “sleep,” a break-up is almost always a joint decision.
There’s some superficial maneuvering between the partners about who pulls the plug and takes the blame. But when you look carefully, you can see how they did it together, how his refusal met her refusal and her refusal met his.
If they can see only this much, then they have a good chance of remaining friends afterwards; otherwise, not so much.
Painful break ups are often good for both partners and less painful than continuing. Like repairing a broken mirror, it’s better to abandon it than cut yourself up trying to fix it.
People who have once loved each other dearly don’t break up lightly; but they do break up. The test of how wise the people are is not whether or not they’ve stayed together but whether, after the break up, they see why it was a good idea for both of them.
A break up means one of two things was true about the relationship.

It was either not nurturing enough or it was too damaging; not positive enough or too negative; either making your life too complicated, or making your life too constricted.
If it’s a strain for one, it’s a strain for the other. A relationship has two participants shaping the dance.

Relationships Deteriorate in Predictable Stages

You can measure a relationship crisis is by the intensity of the negative feelings. The bad feelings mount up in layers and the emotional tension becomes chronic and complex.
1. Annoyed.
2. Angry about whatever was annoying.
3. Resentful about having to be angry
4. Disgusted about all of the above.

Being Annoyed and distracted

This is little stuff, like crumbs in the bed.  You would rather just ignore it or brush it aside.
If this happens chronically over something, if partners find too many uncomfortable moments in their times together, they tend to get annoyed with each other.  Often the way people handle annoyance is by the “shoo-fly” technique. By reflex they make a quick gesture, or say a sharp word, and then forget about it.
They don’t want to “make it an issue.” People always have their reasons. Usually there are two kinds of reasons.  Either they don’t want to make themselves vulnerable, or they fear what their partner will do if they put pressure.
There’s no such thing as a perfect fit and every once in a while partners have to go beyond their comfort zone to make the relationship work.  But sometimes it becomes apparent that denial and minimizing are no longer a workable strategy.

Getting Angry

When you start moving into anger with your partner, your relationship shifts into crisis mode. A crisis is a situation from which there is no going back to normal.  You either break-through or break up.
You get angry because you care.  Getting angry about something in the relationship is often a form of love.  Usually one of you gets upset first and the other gets angry, or frightened, or both, in response.
Anger is a strong and contagious emotion. It demands an emotional response from the other. Getting angry is what it takes to make something an issue.  Everything has to stop and wait until the “issue” is dealt with.
Getting angry is easy and common. The trick is to handle the anger constructively. If you can be angry in a constructive way, you end up having a very difficult, but finally, extremely interesting conversation.
These conversations are difficult and cognitively demanding because in order to think about what your  partner has to say, you have to set aside your own position, temporarily, so you can think about your partner’s perspective.  Holding two conflicting points of view in mind at the same time is hard and stressful.
Sometimes one partner will start talking like a roto-rooter. Often there is a powerful non-verbal component.  Sometime partners start making threats.  In one couple, fifteen years into their marriage, the husband isolated himself and refused to speak.  The wife threatened to move out. The husband met her threat by giving her, on her birthday, a very large line of credit at the local u-haul.  This forced an interesting conversation.
Couples who have these conversations successfully often report that the sex afterwards is great. That’s because the anger is actually a form of passion and caring.
However, sometimes people fear these conversations.  And yet they still can’t deny how much they care. Then the passion turns toxic and punitive. That takes the relationship into the negative realm. They start trying to inflict pain. It means the relationship is in crisis.

When a Relationship Destroys Itself

What we have to understand is that everything people do in an intimate relationship is usually the best that they can do.  In other words, the struggles in an intimate relationship are a test of character.  Until you’ve had some serious disagreements with someone, you don’t know something important about the person you are really dealing with.
This insight goes at least back to the Book of Job. Job was a good man who had an easy life. The story was about what Job would do if all that easy were taken from him and he suffered terrible losses.  Then, so the argument went, we would see his real character.
However, up to this point, irritation and anger, nothing bad has happened. Human relationships, maybe all mammalian relationships include a mixture of cooperation and conflict. Conflict is inevitable, maybe even necessary.
At some point in any intimate relationship, there is a profound temptation to get mean. It comes when simply being angry at your partner without being mean, it’s a test of character.  There is an old Jewish saying that you can judge a person’s character by the way he or she handles alcohol, money and anger.  Not a bad summary.

Getting Resentful, Distrustful and Even Punitive

This is an extreme position and I’m not sure that “resentful” is an adequate word.  It might be too mild. People feel hurt, abused, and misused. The good parts of the relationship feel tarnished and unattractive.  The bad feelings spread into the good areas like some kind of poison.
One of the surest signs of a serious relationship crisis is that partners start keeping score. They start thinking about what they give in return for what they get and they feel that the relationship is unfair. When people start to feel they are getting taken advantage of, good will and generosity and forgiveness are in short supply.
Betrayal is a large part of this phase.  I think that’s why people feel entitled to punish someone they’ve loved.  People do mean things to each other and somehow feel justified.
Actions in this phase of the game are shocking. People say things like “I felt stabbed in the back,” “I no longer knew what to think,”  “I felt I was dealing with someone I didn’t know.”
The left hemisphere of your brain, which governs speech and logic, shuts down, because that part of your brain works too slowly for you to handle danger and danger is what you accurately sense.  The animal part, the right hemisphere, body language, takes over.  You freeze, run or attack.
When you are in an intimate relationship and when you are around your partner you find yourself over and over in reactive, non-thinking state of mind.  That’s a strong motivation for you to leave the relationship.

Primal Avoidance

Avoidance is a primitive emotion. You have it when you want to rid yourself of something that feels poisonous.  You feel disgust, which means, literally, “rejecting the taste of something.”  When a person feels disgust, the expression on their face looks like they are about to spit.
Metaphorically you run around the house and you close and lock all the windows and bar the door.  You refuse to feel anything. “Out! Out! Out of my life,” you cry and you repeat it through clenched teeth until every trace is gone.  You erase phone numbers. You trash email.  You return gifts.  You ask for gifts to be returned.  “Out of my life, please, out.” You refuse to care anymore. “No I don’t want to hear about it or talk about it. It’s over.”
This is the emotional core of the death of the relationship.

“Can’t We Still Be Friends?”

Oh yes, and then there is the matter of the return.
You have three possible answers to that question of whether we can still be friends – “Yes,” “Maybe,” and “No.” But only two of them are valid.
There is always, “No, we can’t.”  One of the most popular cartoons in The New Yorker has the caption: “How about never?  Would ‘never’ work for you?”  So “no” is a valid answer, unlike “Yes.”
“Yes” is one of those things that people say, even when they don’t mean it. I think “yes,” along with “maybe,” means “maybe.”
These are relationships which exist in the dead zone, a powerful emotional bond enclosed by avoidance. There are probably two people in my life I never want to see or talk to as a friend ever again. I just don’t trust them.  Maybe I’m lucky to have such a small number. I hate what these folks did to people I care about and I can’t trust them.  My feeling is that there is no way to have a conversation with them beyond the polite hello that would not involve some discussion of what happened and I have decided that they are not capable of that conversation.  They would only justify what they did. And so river cannot be crossed. The best I can do is become “friendly,” but that is not the same as being friends.
Almost everyone I have ever spoken to has one or two of these although there are folks who seem to collect them. To my lights, that’s a suspicious hobby and I do believe such people can be dangerous to get too close to. I knew one man who had quite a list of people he hated but it was never his fault. He could’t see himself or his own contributions to a bad relationship.
There is an ancient Greek myth of Hades, the underworld.  Instead of being a hot, fiery hell, it is a land of shadows and shade, cool and dimly lit and dry.  The dead wander around in it, shadows of what they were.  The land is separated from the land of the living by a river called Styx.  The word “styx” in Greek means “hatred.”  This is where unhealed broken relationships live.
The most fascinating part of this myth, to me, is that in order to return to the world of the living, it is necessary to cross the river of Hate. That’s why I think there are only two true answers to the question, “Can we still be friends?” — No and maybe.
I suspect the most common answer is “maybe.”  Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t so much depends on how the break up is handled and how the re-kindling of the friendship works.

Many people need time.

There is such a thing as an emotional rinse cycle, a time to shake off the residue of bad feelings. Often there needs to be a time of quiet and healing. People turn their mind to other things. The breakup needs to be stabilized.
Then there is a period of reconciliation and forgiveness. There is healing to be done
People who have once been intimate remain forever open to each other in certain particular ways. The challenge of the post-break up process involves figuring out how to live with that special intimate connection after the break up is stabilized.
Despite the fact that often their emotional discomfort is somewhat equal on both sides, there is a difference between the one who leaves and the one who is left.  Strangely enough the one who is left often recovers first. The one who left is slower to forgive and often carries the resentments longer.
In either case, the restoration of the friendship must be achieved in reverse order from the break up.
First, resentments get forgiven. Sometimes apologies are in order.
A brief note here on apologies.  There are two kinds and only one of them words.  The kind that doesn’t work is an explanation and a justification for the wrong-doing.  It’s as if the person said, “Yes I know I did that to you but you made me do it. If you had not been so xyz, I would not have been so abc.” This is, in effect, a promise that the right circumstances, the person will abuse you again and in a similar way.”  The good apology is one that says, “I deeply regret what I did and the harm it caused you and there is no justification for it and I beg your forgiveness.”
Only then does the anger become irrelevant.  Sometimes it is possible to restore trust to a certain extent. However, trust once violated is only built up slowly and with many tests.
With trust and compassion toward the partner, the differences which caused the break up will come to be seen in a more generous light. It’s simply the fact that the personalities didn’t merge comfortably. This issue is no longer personal. It’s about fit and flexibility.
Again, if you have stories that illustrate any of this I would deeply appreciate hearing from you. Some are probably tragic and the others darkly funny. I’d love to include some of the in a small ebook.  If I use one of your stories, you get a free copy of the book.

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2 responses so far

2 Responses to “Anger, Betrayal and Giving Up: How Break-ups Work and Don’t Work”

  1. sueon 25 Oct 2012 at 1:49 pm

    My story is somewhat different because my spouse told someone close who was having marriage problems that his marriage was all about communicating even though there are arguments we work things out and we are partners. One week later he announced he was missing something in his life. I kind of brushed it off and couldn’t help but think it was because of me and he also said he was unhappy. Mind you, this is after we had just moved into a gorgeous home and he was retired and had our lives set financially. I was so happy with my life and having someone to go through the hurdles with. Then, soon after he announced he was missing something, he left with a couple of pairs of underwear and I haven’t seen him since. He soon filed for divorce, has a live in girlfriend and has abandoned me, rarely sees or talks to his grandkids or kids and has totally left the scene. He’s working and I’m left with nobody to talk to about this because he refuses counseling. It’s been a year and I’m still in shock about all this. After he left he continued to blame me for just about everything he could think of including some things that were understood to be unspoken to anyone and he made me look like a shrew of the worst kind and a poor downtrodden husband that never was happy throughout the marriage. I want to know if there’s anything I can do or should I just try to get everything I can from the settlement and move forward. This divorce is all his idea, I didn’t want it, he’s the one who has ruined the relationship and whatever was left of it.

  2. Devastedon 29 Nov 2012 at 7:40 am

    Hi Doc, and thanks for reading.
    So here I am 53, just got dumped after the most wonderful relationship of 2 years with the woman I originally dated 30 years ago. I hate when people call her my rebound girl. I remember the night I first laid eyes on her and from that time on, she would never leave my mind. I always told myself I’d find her again one day. She made the most amazing impression on me back then and it was honestly like a surreal dream come true. We seemed like we meant for each other til eternity. She at that time was married, but had an affair with me. I was aware of it which eventually made me realize I wasn’t going anywhere with her at that time. She more or less ran away from him because of the abuse. Her ex, who she ended up having children with was abusive and hit her around a lot all thru their marriage. She put up with that for over 16 years until he tried choking her to death and she finally divorced. I on the other hand treated her like a goddess. We went our separate ways after a year + long relationship back then and each had separate marriages, kids, and now both divorced. So anyway, 30 years later, I find her, started dating and practically moved in with her the past year. We hit it off so beautifully, travelled together, vacationed, all kinds of wonderful things. So after about a year she started thinking I was doing things behind her back, like two timing, or online chatting with other women, etc., which is totally not me. She is the type that would accuse me of starring.g at A pretty girl longer than one second if we were out somewhere and tell me that my mind strays when I do those type of things. I would tell her that I was just appreciating beauty and that was it. She would accuse me of fantasizing about females that I would notice or accuse me of being a porn addict, blah, blah, blah. I’ve looked at porn before, but I wouldn’t say I’m an addict. Which brings me to the main reason why she dumped me 2 weeks ago. She always liked to go on the PC and search for anything tied to my name or email address to see if I was up to any of the things she accused me of. I was truthfully and totally not guilty of any of the things she conjured up in her mind, by the way. I’m faithful to the bone in any relationship. This woman was the girl of my dreams and I was always, constantly telling her how incredibly beautiful she is, and how she made me feel so wonderful all of the time. I kid you not, she is on my mind constantly day and night, and I want nothing else more for her to be happy. It saddened me that she would think I was up to things, but I never got enraged about it. Above anything in our relationship, I cared more about treating her as best as I could and cared about her feelings. When things were going along great it was incredible. So one time she looked in my phone and found out that I searched for pornography on my phone. it wasn’t tons, but none the less, I tried to deny it but eventually admitted to it. She was furious and broke up with me for a month. I felt so bad and promised I wouldn’t do it again. Well about 7 months later I did it again and also tried denying it and then admitted it. I was ashamed and embarrassed to say the least and knew that I broke her heart. She made the comment that she can’t compete with those type of woman and I told her that had nothing to do with it. Our intimacy was the most beautiful thing I ever had with any of the few women I’ve been with but for some reason she got extremely offended with that topic. Well, it took a few times for me to finally realize that what I had done, – lost her trust in me and make her think less of me- that she was going to leave me over this and not give me one final chance. You see, I’m not upset at her. I finally get it thru my thick head, and honestly can live without looking at that stuff. But as in her last comment to me, she told me she wanted to end it and said goodbye to me. I asked for forgiveness and 1 more chance but I feel its too late. She said that she wants a man who never looks at porn or whose mind strays because it affects the intimacy part of the relationship. It never affected that aspect with me. To be honest, she was more than enough in that category. She texted me a week later after not saying a word to me and asked how I was. I asked her if she was serious? I told her I’m devastated for my actions and losing the girl of my dreams. She stated ” well you hurt me too in your own way”. I asked her if there was a chance to get back but she said that if those issues didn’t exist and she could be sure that that wouldn’t happen again, we may, but she said she can’t trust me that that would happen. I wrote her a letter last week telling her how sorry I was and took responsibility for my actions. 2 days ago she told me she found the letter 4 days later and read it. It also said I never wanted to lose her and that I’d fight for her, us and me in order to keep our relationship intact. We really fit well with each other in every other way. I’ve never been so ashamed for something I’ve done than this. The Only true love of my entire life, and I broke her heart and feel so ashamed of myself. I feel totally worthless anymore and am the most miserable I’ve ever been. I’m too ashamed to contact her and I feel like she’s already forgot about me. I wish I knew what she’s been thinking about.