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Seeking healthier perspectives during a rough time
August 23, 2012 11:13 AM   Subscribe

I will soon be breaking up with my very dear partner. Typically, this is the point at which my life goes off-track for the next few years and I lose all perspective and any mental health I've achieved. I want to approach this period in a very different way this time. My question is how to avoid both zoning out/creating a protective fog/rewriting the past to be less dramatic than it is, and avoiding the other extreme of drowning in guilt for my partner's pain and their wasted energy and my destruction of our planned future.

My usual ways are 1) tuning out and dissociating and thereby losing big chunks of my life to the resulting haze and a false-sense of having simply written someone out of my past, or 2) painfully/obsessively marinating in the agonizing knowledge that I am ruining someone's life after promising them many things and then abandoning them.

I often gravitate towards partners who are quite socially isolated and idiosyncratic (and kind and generous and intelligent), so this perspective of ruining someone's life feels very true and very cruel. And various added circumstances make this perspective feel objectively accurate in this case. So this creates a huge danger for me. Often, when I know I can't make a situation better for someone, I assume that the least I can do is suffer in sympathy to the best of my ability and meticulously think through the ways in which I have crushed aspects of their lives and failed to live up to my long-term commitments. I've read enough Metafilter to know that this is a deeply flawed perspective, but it feels so real in the moment.

I'd really like to find a better way right now, as I don't want to slip into a bad/self-destructive period, just as I am making a decision that is definitely healthy and correct. What are some ideas that I can keep in mind to remain conscious of/open to what is going on and the pain I am creating for someone and the challenges they will face in dealing with this and explaining it to others, while simultaneously keeping a healthy perspective and healthy mental boundaries/remembering that there are options beyond debilitating guilt and self-flagellation.

Basically, I don't want to cut myself off from emotions and experiences that will help this feel real, but I don't want to drown in horrific guilt. I am in therapy and doing all kinds of helpful work in general, but Mefites provide different perspectives, and there may be some kernel or concept or book or meditation method or -something- that I hadn't considered before. Not as a quick fix, but helpful ideas or principles that healthy people use as guiding posts. I know it is a large convoluted subject, but sometimes small ideas help me. Many, many thanks.
posted by teslateslatesla to Human Relations (19 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
 
For me, it's always been running that has helped me through periods like this. I've been a runner for a very long time, even before my dating career, but honestly, going for a long run WITHOUT music will give you time to think/work though all of this stuff, and is a healthy activity. I found that when I remove the "fight" from my system, I'm far less destructive and more level-headed.

Treat yourself with kindness and respect. Treat yourself the way that you would want your ideal partner to treat you. Remember that you cannot control how your soon-to-be-ex is feeling and you are not responsible for their actions, etc. The challenges that he/she will face after this breakup are their own, not yours. Once you break up, you are not obligated to do anything, including feeling guilty for your choices.

Good luck.
posted by floweredfish at 11:20 AM on August 23, 2012 [3 favorites]


Yes, keep yourself as physically healthy as possible and for me, finding a regular group to work through stuff with has been invaluable. Al-anon has worked for me, but I would guess any group that allows you to work through relationship stuff would work. It's a different experience than solo therapy, with different rewards.
posted by small_ruminant at 11:23 AM on August 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


Would it be helpful to remember that you are giving your partner an opportunity to find someone who is a better match, and/or an opportunity to grow and refine the vision of the life he/she wants to lead and the partner with whom to share it?
posted by carmicha at 11:32 AM on August 23, 2012 [3 favorites]


Maybe I'm off here but I'm getting the sense you might have some sort of commitment phobia or trouble with intimacy if you're always the one ending relationships? Perhaps it would be easier for you to move past these breakups if you did some self reflection on what your unhealthy patterns might be and how to improve your future relationships?
posted by timsneezed at 12:21 PM on August 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


...drowning in guilt for my partner's pain and their wasted energy...

...the agonizing knowledge that I am ruining someone's life after promising them many things and then abandoning them.

...the ways in which I have crushed aspects of their lives..


I mean this in the nicest way possible, but I will be blunt: these kind of statements are arrogance dressed up as compassion. Saying that you are 'ruining someone's life' or have 'crushed aspects of their lives' assumes that you are such a special snowflake that losing you will render someone else's life completely empty and meaningless.

I have news for you: no one is that awesome. They will get over you. They will move on. They will find things in their life that are beautiful and rewarding, and they will likely find someone else to fall in love with too. Sure, they will hurt for a time, but that hurt will fade - probably sooner than you think.

I used to think this way too, until I realized how self-serving it is. Ultimately, all that guilt I felt for depriving someone else of the awesomeness that is me was a self-protective measure to shield me from my own feelings of loss, and my own difficulty with commitment. Guilt is an easy way to feel like you are taking responsibility for a behavior without really identifying its root cause and taking steps to stop yourself from doing it again.

Good luck.
posted by googly at 12:31 PM on August 23, 2012 [34 favorites]


Let's take a step back, why is it that you are "breaking up with your very dear partner?"
posted by Good Brain at 12:37 PM on August 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


What's up with abandoning promises?

I doubt you're ruining the lives of "socially isolated," you may just be giving them yet another reason why other people are a waste of time by treating them piteously.
posted by rhizome at 12:46 PM on August 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


Are you leaving your "very dear partner" homeless and living under a bridge?

I'm assuming your partner is a mentally capable adult. You are not abandoning a child. It's going to be rough on your partner assuming they love you, but still, most adults are going to be able to pull up their socks and deal.

Speaking as someone who is something of a quirky-alone-introvert type, I'd be mighty PO'd if I found out my partner was thinking, "Oh poor pitiful Rosie! If I were to break up with her I'd be ruining her life! I am her life!" That's both infantilizing and co-dependent. Being the recipient of pity is humiliating. Is this what you would want for yourself?

It's good to be concerned about your partner's well-being and not want to be cruel to them or leave them destitute. Treating your partner like a child or puffing up your own ego by thinking that you will "ruin their life forever" by breaking up with them is not.

I suggest a group like Co-Dependents Anonymous to help you deal with the feelings that you are so responsible for another adult's reactions and emotions that you feel you have to treat them like a dependent child. Also, what are you getting out of the idea that you are another adult's whole world? Do you need someone to be dependent on you in order to feel competent, in command, and superior? Your partner is an adult and you need to start thinking of them as one.

Now if this is a situation where you are worrying about your partner being homeless or not having needed health insurance, that's another issue and one you would do right to address. But you are not responsible for another adult's social life and emotional well-being.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 12:58 PM on August 23, 2012 [3 favorites]


and avoiding the other extreme of drowning in guilt for my partner's pain and their wasted energy and my destruction of our planned future.

Yeah, I've been in that situation, friend, but in the end you are responsible for your happiness. Guilt is ephemeral. You cannot sacrifice your happiness to make someone else happy. Only with your children.

If you are with someone and all you can think is "I have to break up with this person" but you feel guilty for breaking up with them, there is no easy way out, but there is no other way out. Like shooting an intruder in your home who threatens your life, you are entitled to act in self-defence. The Macbeth principle "T'were well it were done quickly" applies in break-ups as it does in murder.
posted by three blind mice at 1:01 PM on August 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


My question is how to avoid both zoning out/creating a protective fog/rewriting the past to be less dramatic than it is, and avoiding the other extreme of drowning in guilt for my partner's pain and their wasted energy and my destruction of our planned future.

I found that one really helpful exercise for putting to rest my intense need to have a perfect and just record of what happened in one of my relationships was to write it down. All of it. I signed and dated it, with the intent of using it as the official reference for my recollections. It put me at ease, because I knew that if my memory flagged, I could always refer back to the document. It allowed me to move forward in a healthy way, because I didn't feel like I needed to keep revisiting and maintaining the memories.

Here's something I've learned over the years: Everyone who wants to move on moves on. Everyone. My socially isolated ex whose heart I was sure I had broken irreparably? He's fine. He has a strong circle of friends, a good career, and recently got into a happy new relationship. I also fit your description of your partner two years ago. My other ex boyfriend was my whole life, my source of social contact and arbiter of our future plans. When he left I was devastated. However, I didn't want to be like that forever, so I worked on myself. I now have an active social life, a job I enjoy, and I'm in a relationship that makes me feel happier and safer than I ever could have imagined being. If your partner chooses to make you their sole source of intimacy and happiness, that's on them, not you. You are not responsible for their happiness; they are. You are only responsible for treating them well.

Did you treat them well and make them feel loved? Were you honest about your feelings with them? Did you listen to them and respect their opinions? Did you make an effort to support them and include them in your decision making? Then you were a good partner.

No relationship is wasted energy. No one goes into a relationship knowing for certain how long it will last. Feelings and priorities change over time; there's little you can do to prevent that from happening. You are not a bad person because your feelings changed and you no longer want to be in the relationship.

Also, I have to give a nod to googly's assessment: I mean this in the nicest way possible, but I will be blunt: these kind of statements are arrogance dressed up as compassion.

I would probably change the word arrogance to depression induced self-obsession, but it's close enough. The irony is that these statements you're making about guilt refocus the breakup on you; instead of being someone who can be compassionate toward your partner during the breakup, you have made yourself the object of pity and the person in need of comfort. Please don't say these things to your partner when you break up with them. Tell them you're sorry, of course, but don't make them feel like they have to make you feel better about what you're doing to them.
posted by rhythm and booze at 1:01 PM on August 23, 2012 [5 favorites]


You're asking this question about ways to help yourself deal, but the text of your description is all about the other person and what a rough time they're going to have. You're asking about ways to help yourself, so here it is: focus on your own feelings, and don't try to project any emotions onto other people. When you break up, this person's problems are not your problems any more. How that person chooses to live his/her life is not going to be any of your business.

Instead, think about how you feel: you chose to end this relationship for a reason - several reasons, most likely - I've found that reminding myself of all the times I said "really, this can't go on the way it is!" was a great balance to sitting there feeling awful because things were over.

As googly says, own your feelings. If you're sad, it's because you're sad, not becuase you think they must be really really sad. If you're disappointed in your behavior, it's because you want to do better next time, not because they are really angry with you. etc.
posted by aimedwander at 1:03 PM on August 23, 2012


Folks, to clarify, I said in my initial post that I "know that this is a deeply flawed perspective, but it feels so real in the moment." So no need to take me down a peg here (I mean, you can if you want to, but it's not necessary to call me puffed-up, self-serving, and depressively self-obsessed. I was just describing some general tendencies of thought, not defending them.) I know I am not responsible for anyone, and the guilt is something I acknowledge as unhealthy and counter-productive. I appreciate each perspective, but I'd love methods to break through those tendencies in the moment. And there are some good suggestions (like running, etc.) I'll gratefully read all the answers and think about them, but I don't want anyone wasting their own time re-stating things. Thanks for taking the time all.
posted by teslateslatesla at 1:44 PM on August 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


Another very helpful suggestion was 'to write it down. All of it. I signed and dated it, with the intent of using it as the official reference for my recollections. It put me at ease, because I knew that if my memory flagged, I could always refer back to the document. It allowed me to move forward in a healthy way, because I didn't feel like I needed to keep revisiting and maintaining the memories.' That really rings true for me. This relationship is decades long, with many unusual complexities that I chose to keep out of the question, so solid, discrete acts seem extra helpful--in case any more of these occur to others. (I don't expect you guys to solve the deeper patterns...that's why I have a therapist :) Thanks again.
posted by teslateslatesla at 1:59 PM on August 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


I don't get the vitriol directed at the OP here. Rest assured, most people do not initiate break ups with perfectly stoic feelings about the dignity of the other person. The OP makes a point of saying that his or her partner is socially isolated. I read this as an observation that it's somewhat more fraught to break up with a partner who is perhaps introverted, and therefore has centered their social lives and time entirely around their partner.

I have certainly felt more guilt breaking up with introverted girlfriends than I have with girlfriends with a million friends. When you break up with someone, and you're essentially their only friend, or at least one of a few, the situation becomes somewhat impossible because you feel you should cut things off but at the same time you feel like you should put your "friend hat" on and comfort them. Not being able to do so is hard.

I think what you might want to do is to contact your partner's next closest people: friends, family, best friend at their job or whatever, and ask them if they can make some time to hang out with your partner.
posted by Philemon at 2:08 PM on August 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


If this relationship has been decades long, then consider that your past coping mechanisms might not be your current ones. You have changed in the intervening years.

Exercise, Meditation & Volunteerism are the basic components of living a happy, engaged life. Take care of your physical self with regular exercise. Take care of your feelings by engaging in mindfulness activities rather than stewing and wallowing in unfocused pain. Do things with and for others to stay connected to the world.
posted by Heart_on_Sleeve at 2:22 PM on August 23, 2012 [3 favorites]


I will soon be breaking up with my very dear partner.

Why, exactly? This is kind of key to any answer, I think.
posted by Doohickie at 3:35 PM on August 23, 2012


I think what you might want to do is to contact your partner's next closest people: friends, family, best friend at their job or whatever, and ask them if they can make some time to hang out with your partner.

Yikes, I totally disagree with this. Being broken up with is hard, but the dumpee should be entitled to reach out to their close friends in their own way and time. This seems like overreaching boundaries, especially since you will be no longer dating.

And I don't neccessarily think that feeling guilt is arrogant, but telling your soon-to-be-ex's close friends about your presumably upsetting breakup and to take care of the poor dear, while well-intentioned, is deciding that you know better than them how to take care post-breakup, and that IS arrogant.

Just be kind but firm and clear in your breakup, go no contact, and try to reflect on your life and choices in a loving and non-judgmental way. The meditation suggestions are great, and may help you get some peace and clarity.
posted by Paper rabies at 5:39 PM on August 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


I also have issues with guilt (due to being in a very unhealthy and emotionally abusive relationship during my formative years and into adulthood not due to some delusions of grandeur). That said, I find that putting myself in the other person's shoes helps when these thoughts come about due to the fact that I realize the absurdity and the "self-obsession" of my original pattern of thinking.

Running helps, I started in my late twenties and love it. Writing it down helps but only for short periods of time (in my opinion). Planning for my future helps. Whether it be running or writing, a goal should be made for you to focus your attention on. Right now, I actually have set cooking goals for myself. I cook at least 6 different meals a week and then go out to eat for dinner once. This is major for me and you might find you enjoy time in the kitchen (and grocery store) as well. I've made reading goals in the past (1 book a week) as well as social goals (say hi to everyone I see for a day). These things all help me keep my mind off of an obsessive situation where I can beat myself up in my own mind.
posted by MyMind at 6:46 PM on August 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


It's a long time since I last broke up with someone but I can still remember lots of the feelings you're talking about. No one likes being the bad guy and after all the time you put into making people feel good and supporting them while you're in the relationship it's very hard to know you'll suddenly be the cause of their great unhapiness.

I know you said you were already in individual therapy but have you thought about doing some relationship counselling with this person? I do couples counselling work and it's not at all unusual for people to use the process as a kind way out of a relationship. Often it allows everyone to leave the relationship knowing exactly why it is ending and with a feeling that each partner showed the relationship the respect it was due and gave it their 'best shot'. It also gives people some productive insights into their relationship issues which can be helpful moving forward.

If you don't want to do that with a therapist you can still be as clear and compassionate about why you are going when talking to the person about the relationship's end. If you do this you'll have nothing to beat yourself up over.
posted by Dorothia at 6:20 AM on August 24, 2012


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