This is my first in-depth breakup guide that will cover the breakup experience from a realist’s perspective, from its alpha to its omega. From its beginning to its end…
…And back again.
Warning: This is a long guide, and it does start off slowly. A necessary evil I’m afraid, because the latter “practical” part of the guide hinges upon some theoretical foundations that I need to address briefly. So bear with me.
Part 1 – Frame Of Mind
Stop, drop and roll
Today — right now — marks the beginning of a new phase in the healing cycle.
I’m not saying this just to start the guide on a flowery note. Drawing a line in the sand in this way may initially seem arbitrary and meaningless, but there’s method to this particular madness. Hitting the breaks will serve as a pattern break.
On the inside, to the subconscious mind, saying “stop” means becoming self-aware. It means objectively considering the value of the negative influences and baggage we are dragging along with us that we had no idea we were carrying.
Breaking subconscious patterns of behavior can help tear us away from subjective pain. While it won’t cure the heartbreak, or make our exs run back in remorse, it will allow us to observe what is negatively influencing us more objectively so that we can then take action without being under the spell of insecurity.
Yes, yes… but how do we do that?
Simply by observing our insecurity without judging it. By observing it without touching it.
If you’re unclear about what “subjective patterns of behavior” are, here are a few practical examples:
- Seeking validation from an ex – Having a routine abruptly torn apart makes it subconsciously difficult to come to terms with the fact that we’re now on our own, even if we consciously know it. It is a subconscious routine that is ingrained in us. Seeking validation becomes redundant when the curtains fall, even if reconciliation is in the works. This particular pattern needs to be re-prioritized with our needs at the forefront rather than in the backseat.
- Allowing guilt or resentment to make the calls– Insecurity means that we often allow raw emotion to make the decisions. The problem with this tit-for-tat pattern is that it muddies the waters and serves no real purpose other than to confuse and delay. For some manipulative exs, delaying is the purpose, because bad press is better than no press. So, no matter what, we’re better off forgoing this game of emotional ping-pong.
We need to be highly skeptical of any behavior that stems primarily from our personal feelings or opinions, particularly now that we are at emotional ground zero.
Here’s an example why:
Imagine that our ex, with whom we want to reconcile, decides to contact us out of the blue. Instead of being open, or to the point, they instead decide to send crumbs our way, hinting at all kinds of things without actually saying anything of substance.
It’s natural for us — as humans — to seek patterns that will reinforce our desired outcome. In this case, we take any indirect “hint” that they want to reconcile and languish over it. Imagine now that after a sleepless night we reach out to make sense of their communication, only to find that they were just “making sure we’re doin’ ok”.
- Do we blame them for leading us on? Or…
- Do we blame ourselves for having fallen for it once more?
The answer, to me, is neither.
Resentment towards our ex, or self-loathing towards ourselves serve only to weigh us down further. These impulses or behaviors serve NO purpose other than to destroy what little we have left! Who benefits from these feelings? Why poison ourselves in the hopes that someone else dies from it?
Instead of allowing this series of events to define us, we instead draw a line in the sand and take action to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
Erecting strong boundaries.
The great dilemma about erecting boundaries I often hear from readers is that there is a fear that erecting more walls will alienate an ex, or send the wrong message (and make them give up).
Okay. Sure. It might.
The thing is though, if reconciliation is to take place, new boundaries need to be drawn anyway or nothing will fundamentally have changed in the long run.
A breakup is nothing other than a sign that something drastic needs to change. Erecting new boundaries is a crucial part of all this. Unless there is a willingness to compromise — on both sides — to allow a better set of relationship and personal conditions to take hold, then they would have given up or moved off in the end anyway. At least this way you’re spared a new downwards spiral.
Personal relationship boundaries are not walls for the sake of keeping people out. They are built to protect personal needs. Do not guilt trip yourself into not employing them!
The first thing we need to do is separate needs from wants. Needs are absolutely vital for our personal fulfillment. We simply cannot operate romantically without them. Wants are everything else we look for and value in a relationship.
Often relationships end prematurely because the two are not separated clearly enough.
For instance; one partner may breakup because they’ve come to the conclusion that their partner’s smoking habit is an absolute deal-breaker. Two months post breakup though, the realization that the turbulence that led to the breakup had very little to do with smoking takes hold and remorse kicks in.
In an effort to both protect ourselves, and our partners, we need to be as sure as possible about what our needs are. Once we are certain that we have it right (make a list), we need to enforce them.
But if we’re insisting that our needs be respected, it is only fair that our wants — in the interest of long term stability — be subject to compromise.
Creating boundaries is not counter-productive with regards to bonding. If anything, the reverse is true! It allows our partners to have a better understanding of who we are, what we need and how to reduce the chance of a big misunderstanding. A big sorry that risks jeopardizing an otherwise functional relationship.
You may be wondering why I’m pontificating about relationship stuff now that you’re out of one, but hold your horses. The point is that the same mechanism that promotes transparency and fosters bonding INSIDE of relationships — yes, boundaries — also help promote them after a breakup.
Not only will strong boundaries protect you from mixed messages and mind games, they also help promote transparent communication and conditions that will make your life easier.
- Don’t want your ex to send you pictures of their dog because it confuses you? That’s your first boundary. Tell them what your condition for communication is.
- Don’t want a running play-by-play of their exciting new life without you? Block them from Facebook.
Erecting boundaries in this way is about protecting your needs. Do what it takes to ensure that the post-breakup framework respects and serves your healing. Unlike seeking validation, taking action in this way is something you are directly in control of.
Remember the counter-productiveness of guilt (as mentioned earlier), it serves no useful purpose. Don’t allow self-defeating feelings to stop you from putting your needs first.
In the end, whether you like it or not, whether it was by choice or you were dragged here kicking and screaming, the cords have been cut; prioritizing your life ahead of theirs is not just a good mindset to be in, it is the only sane path forwards.
Part 2 – Taking Action
The value of being pro-active
The most important part about taking action is that we remind ourselves that we are the masters and commanders of our fate.
Being active might not necessarily lead to the best scenarios (nobody can guarantee that), nor is it really any less painful. What it is, is a way of teaching our subconscious mind that the routine of old is no more, and to begin accepting the creation of a new one with a minimum of fuss.
In time, this quickens the transition from a mentality that is rooted in the past, to one which is aiming at the future.
All we really have to do is actively take steps to build a framework that words for us (this doesn’t mean being physically active, the revolution can start from your bedroom). Being the architect, regardless of what it is you are building, means that you are once again in control, and not waiting for the threads of fate to weave in your favor.
Taking communication by the horns
Once we’ve become aware, in an objective way, of what the various strands of insecurity and pain are doing to our thinking process, and have begun the painful process of regaining control (being active participants) we’re in a far better position to begin communicating with our exs and seeking resolutions.
We might not be over it, we might still have a lot to lose, but on the outside at least, we are able to craft messages that strike at the heart of what we need to know without projecting undue judgement and other distractors.
We now have a better understanding of what our needs are, and what is negotiable (wants). Knowing these things helps balance our side of the communication equation.
Much like the above section on establishing boundaries, we need to structure communication in a way that is comfortable for us, or we risk being blind sided by our emotions and sending insecurity-laced messages that will bury meaning in a blanket of insecurity.
- Pick a comfortable means of communication – Is a phone call too painful because hearing their voice resets any progress you’ve made? De-escalate the means of communication to something less personal. This is another great way in which you can exercise control and give your ailing subconscious mind a little what-ho.
- Remove painful emotional triggers – This could be anything that risks ruining your hard fought objectivity. Don’t chat on Facebook if it means staring at a painful new profile picture and wondering who they were with and what they are smiling about. The insecurity will find a way to leak into the conversation. Keep it comfortable.
- State the conditions under which you will communicate (if at all) – If you don’t want to receive mixed messages, don’t put yourself in the situation to receive them. Let your ex know what the terms of communication are. If they fail to respect this, and continue to throw out the bait, enforce your boundary by ignoring the grey-area and depriving them of their quick fix. If they want answers, they’ll have to up the ante or throw in the towel. Both of which clarify a great deal for you. Don’t take the bait!
- Don’t use communication as a weapon – Communication channels are the lifelines upon which connections are repaired. Any kind of manipulation will mean not only muddying the waters, but it may also lead to those precious channels collapsing entirely (more in the next section).
It’s not that I view insecurity as the “great evil”. It’s natural to be in tatters after such a tumultuous event. My only real qualm with it is that it interferes with communication and — left unchecked — makes mountains out of molehills and vice versa.
No contact / limited contact
No contact is probably the most useful and/or over-rated tool at our disposal, depending on what your intentions are.
What is your intention?
Are you looking to starve your ex of attention so they realize what life is like without you?
Well, I have some mixed news. The best outcome here is that they really do realize they took you for granted. Not in a broken way, but in a genuine, objective and sober way. A veil has been lifted and the outlook is rosy (assuming they don’t become complacent again once they get their fix).
Here’s the thing though; given enough time, they would have figured that one out anyway, no contact will have just acted as the catalyst. The cure here wasn’t no contact, it was time apart.
But this kind of resolution is by no means the most likely (statistically).
To put it frankly: What if, despite an underlying desire to reconcile, they misinterpret no contact as a way to kick them out of your life. We all know that it is indifference, not anger, that means someone is well and truly done with a relationship. That’s what we’re gambling on, that desperation forces their hand, and in turn, forces clarity for us.
No contact can, and usually does, give off an indifferent vibe. In addition to this, what if they simply get used to the enduring silence? It happens all the time, and like it or not, they move on because they feel they have no other avenue.
Ouch. A tragedy made all the worse because it was needless. Injecting a huge “what if” into our healing equation that will make healing exponentially harder.
No contact, in my opinion, is only really truly viable if our intention is that of moving on. No ifs and no buts. You’ve had it. No matter how much it hurts, the desire to move forward with life supersedes that of remaining in a quagmire of pain.
But how many of us can honestly say that they are 100% certain that they want the curtains to fall — permanently? Most people, even those that are relatively content with their decision to part ways, want to entertain the thought that if things turn dire, they may still have some leeway.
I don’t want to sound crass or demeaning, but the kind of person that couldn’t care less about keeping their options open certainly wouldn’t be reading this article right now.
The good news it that there is a compromise here that serves as a kind of go-between. Limited contact!
Not only is it a happy middle-ground, it is also something that we have already covered in this article. It is a powerful cocktail that allows us to heal while keeping the door to reconciliation open.
Limited contact is another way of saying conditional contact. You discuss only what you have agreed to talk about. Nothing else. Meaning that if the phone goes off, and it’s your ex’s number on the screen, you have a fair idea of what the conversation will be about.
Usually this means either reconciliation or dealing with an otherwise important aspect of life that unites you (perhaps you have something of theirs that they really do need back).
As always, it is up to you both to convey what these conditions are, and, should your ex fail to respect these terms, enforce whatever boundaries you have erected. Allowing an ex to trample over your needs only teaches them that it is acceptable to do so.
Limited contact is hard work initially, and does require something of an iron will, but it really does pay off in terms of clarity and healing. No alarms and no surprises.
Rediscovering our individuality
When I trumpet the virtue of being proactive, I’m not limiting my praise to its effect on the breakup itself, but to all aspects of life.
Chances are that a part of who we are, along with what makes us tick, was surrendered in an effort to keep the relationship going. A casualty in the war for fulfillment.
- We may have lost touch with friends and family.
- We may have been drained of our energy (stress and sacrifice).
- We may have dug so deeply that we no longer truly know who we are (the line between us as individuals, and the us as a couple, may have become blurred).
- We may have come to judge ourselves through the eyes our partner, rather through the lens of our objectivity.
Even if we do want to reconcile, rediscovering who we are as individuals is a key step towards leveling the playing field (which reconciling requires).
The great thing about this process is that it does not depend on any external validation at all. One wrong word, gesture or action from our partner will not send us careering towards the cliff-edge of insecurity. This time it’s up to us.
So, how do we do all this?
- We start thinking like an individual – Observe your thought process and try to pin-point traces of co-dependence. While you can’t consciously override certain behavioral patterns that are the product of a long term relationship (not yet anyway), sometimes merely being aware that they are redundant can lead to self-empowerment.
- We start indulging our wants – No more blame games and guilt tricks. Separation isn’t only physical, it also implies that you are fundamentally no longer responsible for juggling your ex’s needs or expectations. Being single has it’s own set of benefits, it would be senseless not to tap into them.
- We resurrect our support networks – This primarily means de-dusting ailing social networks and rekindling family ties. This is important because a fulfilling connection, even if it is not romantic, can help us heal by filling the void of affection and intimacy that relationships leave in their wake.
No matter what our intentions are, no matter what the future holds, a breakup is the perfect time to restructure life in a way that suits us. Since change is inevitable we may as well embrace it!
Part 3 – The Aftermath
Dealing with false expectations
Now that we’ve set our breakup timeline up in a way that protects and guards us (but doesn’t alienate our ex if we intend to reconcile), it’s time to start working through the nuts and bolts of the breakup itself; the bargaining stage.
But first, a word on the dangers of fueling false hope…
Aside from grief stemming from physical separation, the death of hope is the single most traumatizing aspect of moving on.
Imagine holding fast to the idea that happiness means being validated by your ex in some way (tying loose ends for example). What does that make every single day your ex refuses to talk to you from then on? That’s right, a miserable failure.
A great deal of pain can be avoided if we take great care in not setting ourselves up for failure by guarding ourselves from expectation.
Here’s how we set ourselves up for success rather than failure:
We allow ourselves to process pain. Some might call me a masochist for this, though I do prefer the term realist (and this is the realist’s guide after all!). Simply put: Attempting to get over it by taking it on the chest is not a bad idea. Particularly with regards to reconciliation!
The chance of successful reconciliation is improved if both parties are able to make long-term objective decisions rather than impulsive ones that stem from insecurity. Have you ever reconciled and felt both relieved and somehow dirty for having done so? There you go.
With this in mind, rather than scapegoating responsibility, we accept — on the surface — that things are the way they are for a reason, and we may well have had a hand in it.
Here are some typical ways in which we might attempt to scapegoat responsibility and delay the processing of pain (creating another minefield of listing expectations):
- “It’s just a phase, it’ll pass” (e.g the grass is greener syndrome) – Change is inevitable, and relationships catalyze change even more swiftly than normal. We can’t always expect the pillars of romantic fulfillment to remain immutable through time. Just because they have changed, doesn’t mean it isn’t real, and an ex who is evolving away from the relationship isn’t afflicted from a temporary disease. Growth is natural, sometimes we grow away from the relationship rather than into it.
- “They didn’t deserve me anyway” – There’s a reason why anger is such an integral part of the grieving process, and that is because it protects us by drowning out sadness (temporarily). However, even if they do truly deserve our resentment, we’re better off accepting that it is a defensive mechanism, and that if we (or they) are angry, it is only really because we care deeply.
- “I’ll just go No Contact” – Mind games are an attempt to sway emotional control back in our favor. But if you really think about it, what does it mean exactly? It means we are betraying the fact that we are currently on the losing end of the breakup battle. While manipulation may seem like a great idea at the time, I guarantee that it is pitifully transparent (months from now you will cringe, take my word for it, I certainly did). At the tail end of a relationship we are hard-wired to detect this type of shenanigans. Forget the games, be direct and lead by example. And yes, that’s easier said than done. My apologies.
- “I read this play-by-play guide… it’s working!” – Apart from the manipulative aspect (refer to the above point), the thing that irks me the most about this is that if this script doesn’t work, it allows us to shift responsibility for failure from ourselves to the script itself. Just no. And again, the same warning applies, don’t assume your ex isn’t savvy enough to figure out they are being “played”, because if they do it’s usually a flat adios to reconciliation, because trust has been jeopardized.
Right, so what’s the antidote to this mountain of insecurity we’re forced to internally juggle?
Taking things at face value
Taking things at face value is a great way to discipline and protect ourselves. Although, admittedly, it does require short-term sacrifice in order to open the doors to long term well-being.
Here’s the deal.
If our ex sends us the usual fortnightly picture of their dog (which they just know we adore), it’s naturally going to prompt us to ask ourselves why they are reaching out. There’s no escaping that pang of uncertainty, and I’m not pretending there is.
What we are in control of however, as previously mentioned, is how we react externally. How we appear to our exs and set the tone. In this case we could choose to either:
- Play along – It might lead to the crowning of anxiety and over-analysis but any contact is better than no contact. Also, what if they take our silence as a sign we want nothing to do with them?
- Refuse to engage – We know that engaging in this kind of superficial fluff means tacitly encouraging more of it. If this was bait, and not just an honest well-wishing message, by remaining silent we’re forcing our ex to find another way of getting their self-confidence boost (and not at our expense).
At this point in the guide all of the strands that I’ve previously talked about start coming together in a knot, because we’re now dealing with real-world scenarios. Yippee!
I believe that the “play along mentality” only leads to more pain in the long run, and that any objection can be discounted quite easily with a sprinkling of objectivity:
- What if they just move on or give up if I don’t reply – First thing’s first, please remember that their insecurity is not your responsibility. As for how refusing to play the game influences your chances, please consider this; if they can’t override feelings such as pride or fear in order to work things out directly, just how committed are they?
- Maybe if I play along nicely they’ll feel confident enough to open up – What if they don’t? What if continuing to keep a foot in the door allows them to keep their options open? What if we are merely inflating false hope, what happens once that particular bubble bursts? The realist’s approach (this specific guide) requires taking things at face value because effective healing is aided by surrounding ourselves with things we can count on.
- They’re just being nice, I should reply out of respect of what we had – How does their continued contact affect you? If you’re cool with being friends, and you’re free from over-analysis and the resulting anxiety, then fine — there’s no harm in some chit-chat. The vast majority of us though will risk our long-term stability by fueling the fires of hope. Secondly, if mixed messages do pain you, bear in mind that your ex will know you well enough to know that this kind of contact will adversely impact your peace of mind. While the message may be nice, the underlying intention isn’t — it’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing. The intention is egotistical, though the colorful packaging may seem altruistic.
Personally, I wouldn’t play along, which is why I would fall back to strengthening my boundaries and erecting limited (conditional) contact.
Up till now, I’ve only looked at contact through a passive lens. Which is to say that you’re only sorting through communication you’ve received.
But you needn’t settle for scraps when looking for answers, you have the power to force clarity on your own terms, no matter what they do. Sometimes just realizing that we have that power is empowering and marks a turning point with regards to healing.
The no contact culture, widespread online and consequently now offline too, has had the unfortunate effect of demonizing most forms of breakup contact. It’s unfortunate because if you can’t talk, you can’t reconcile. It’s that simple.
So at some point, we have to resolve to communicate to get the answers we need, and the entire premise — up till now — of the guide, is that of making communication as crystalline as possible. Because due to the trust and insecurity issues that breakups spark, you’re doing to need communication to be as direct as possible.
So yes, be prepared to state your case, it’s better than languishing over scraps, even though there is the potential for hurt.
- What if I sound desperate? – Desperation is just the way in which a message is crafted, there’s nothing desperate about wanting to reconcile. Anger smacks of desperation, emotional blackmail smacks of desperation and most mind games do too, but stating that you’re not over it and want to talk about “us” is anything but desperation. There’s literally nothing more natural or relatable than being in love, trust me, I’ve built an entire website out of my relationship hiccups! If you’re desperate then so am I, along with the rest of the world.
- What if the answer is no? – Then it was no anyway, it certainly wasn’t the act of communicating that led to this dead end. At least in this case there is the some comfort in knowing you missed out on weeks and months of being on the back burner.
- What if the situation is delicate (and being direct scares them off) – Life isn’t a one-way street. Should they change their mind, and should their future emotions be strong enough to override pride or rejection (they should), then they will move mountains to re-establish contact. The only true limiting factor is preemptively burning your bridges (which no contact excels at). Limited contact will ensure this doesn’t happen.
Convinced? If you are, this is where we take our limited contact model, and make it work for us.
I have gone into detail on how to write messages to an ex in another post, so I’ll make a concise list instead:
- Keep it short and simple – You don’t need to justify a difficult question with layers of fluff in order to camouflage the blow. If anything, bloat detracts from the overall message and importance. Wouldn’t you prefer a direct message over a long-winded one? Lead by example!
- Strip insecurity from the message – No blame games (e.g you owe me this much, ex!), no begging and no resentment. Leave no room for misinterpretation. Much like the above point, insecurity detracts from the message itself and provokes more questions than it offers answers. Should the message be all over the place, the answer will be too (if you actually get one).
- State how you feel – By stating succinctly how you feel you are cutting the flesh from the bone. While questions can be ducked or distorted, letting them know exactly how you feel will allow the facts to sink in without leading to an awkward defensive answer. At least now, no matter what they say, the cat is out of the bag and they know how you feel.
- Don’t put words in their mouth – Insecurity has a tendency to inflate messages with defensive language. E.g, “I know you don’t want to talk but…”. This kind of language will lead to your ex becoming defensive, which we absolutely want to avoid. What you are really saying here is, “Don’t you want to talk to me?”. Simply put: While it isn’t a question, let’s be honest here, it really is, and a now defensive ex may feel compelled to deal with the issue indirectly and — you guessed it — it detracts from the overall message and purpose.
The sound of silence
There’s a risk inherent to communicating that I haven’t yet addressed, which is that no matter how well you craft a message, no matter what was said and done, there’s always a chance that your efforts fall on deaf ears.
There’s also a truth here most of us are unwilling to accept, but I will argue that it is nevertheless empowering.
That silence is an answer.
It might not be the answer we wanted, but it is an answer nonetheless, and we should treat it as such.
- No, it doesn’t mean they have no feelings for us.
- No, it doesn’t mean they definitely hate us.
- No, it doesn’t mean they’ve happily moved on to greener romantic pastures.
We simply don’t know. So why envision the worst case scenario and deliberately make it difficult for ourselves?
The only conclusion we can draw is that they have decided to not communicate. That’s pretty much the long and short of it. It really doesn’t matter what is bubbling under the surface, we have been given the reins to fully live our own lives, free of negotiation and mutual responsibility. It’s up to us now.
Part 4 – Turning Defeat Into Victory
The nature of acceptance
The idea that acceptance,the end stage of grief, is tantamount to “happiness” is a common delusion. And given what I’ve already mentioned regarding false expectations, you can go ahead an consider this one as well. It really is the ultimate of false hopes. The Grand Vizier of false expectations.
Acceptance is not happiness. Nor is it characterized by persistent numbness. Not only is this a good thing (retaining the ability to feel is a victory in of itself), but waiting incessantly for the long curve of joy means that every day that we wake up and think of our ex is fundamentally a failure; a sign we’re still locked up and broken.
Nonsense. Forget it.
Acceptance resembles unconditional surrender more than it does emerging bloody and victorious from battle. It means realizing that closure is an empty word, devoid of meaning in the real world. That the act of moving on doesn’t mean being “over it”, but is just the act of getting on with our lives.
There are no real dividing line with regards to feelings. The both of you may very well think of each other for the rest of your lives, despite having moved on to something fulfilling.
Frankly, I wouldn’t want it any other way, to beg for numbness is to amputate a part of ourselves that we will need later on in life and that is usually necessary to love as freely and fully as we previously have. No, they weren’t the one that got away, but if we cauterize our ability to heal, they may very well be, because we are amputating the part of us that allows us to feel that way.
The double edged sword that is grief
Let’s take the entire experience as a whole, from top to bottom. Here’s what we’ve learned how to do:
- Overcome insecurity (not internally, but externally) and become a beacon of stoicism and transparency that will inspire.
- Taken our lives by the horns – We’re now active participants when it comes to building our tomorrow, and do not depend on the foibles of fate and validation from our ex (or anyone else’s for that matter). Self-discipline is habit forming, and we’re now well on the way to cementing a stronger foundation for our tomorrow, come what may — victory or defeat.
- Allowed our pain to help us grow – Rather than retreating inwards. There is the fundamental understanding that change is inevitable, no matter what happens, so why not grow into something that works?
- Made the most of our chances – Which is really the point of all this. Freedom from insecurity and impulsiveness means that we gave it the best possible shot, and should it all come to naught, at least we have the satisfaction of having tried (we won’t be plagued by what-ifs in the long run).
Beyond all this, there is the realization that come what may in life, no matter how dark the day is, no matter the stakes involved, that the more vicious our fight with grief is, the greater the chance that we will grow into something harder, stronger and more efficient than we ever were before.
The merest chance to grow is worth every millisecond of the pain and discomfort it causes.
Let’s not deny ourselves this opportunity.