They’re Breaking Up? Oh, No!


A sudden rift leads to an unexpected divorce.


A few years back, a good friend of mine called me with some shocking news. As he explained it, out of the blue his wife decided to end their long-term relationship. Naturally, my wife and I were stunned. Of all the couples we knew their relationship seemed the most rock solid of the bunch. I had great sympathy for my friend—I knew something of what he was going through. Yet what surprised me most wasn’t his pain, or even the shock of a sudden split, but why their breakup mattered so much to me. In a sense, I took it personally.


Recognizing Pain


When close friends break up and we’re trying to come to grips from the outside looking in, there are several stages we go through as we find ourselves adjusting to the new, unexpected, and often unwelcome reality.


Break ups leave a lot of unanswered questions.

Even a perfect looking couple can have problems.

The first is the shock we feel over the news, which is often followed by more shock or even distress over the circumstances which led to the break up. We immediately begin to wonder how something like this can happen. This brings on a whole host of unanswerable questions and endless speculation about what might have gone wrong. Didn’t we just see them a few weeks ago? Weren’t they always happy together? Why in the world didn’t they trust us enough to share they were having difficulties? Couldn’t they have gone to counseling, or tried something else to head this off?


The next phase often brings on blame. We feel a loss. We enjoyed spending time with the couple. We’ve experienced them together and now that’s no longer a part of the equation. They’ll be no more dinner parties together or nights out at plays or concerts. They’ll be no more day trips to wineries or weeklong excursions over the summer. As our sense of loss continues to build, other questions come up as a result: How could she do this to him? What was she thinking? Why didn’t he know? They split on that day of all days? Wasn’t that their anniversary? A younger woman? Another man? Are we sure there’s no one else involved? Is she crazy? Is he? Do you suppose this is some kind of mid-life crisis?


One minute they're fine and the next they break up.

When friends break up you inevitably start to wonder if it could happen to you.

As the questions go round and round our minds start clinging to clues we might have missed along the way. That’s when phase three hits. This is when the loss really starts settling in and we feel a great sadness—though one often masked by bouts of anger or frustration. And while it may seem as if one of the parties in the relationship is more at fault than the other, the bottom line is we end up facing a kind of death—one that we wish had been avoided.


Sometimes, the people breaking up play only a peripheral role in our lives. In cases like these, the loss may feel painful, but becomes relatively easy to process. Yet other times, the people involved are close and can be intimately tied to a group we belong to. In this situation, the loss we feel begins to take on a greater significance for we start to recognize the dynamics of “our” group have now been irrevocably altered. Some group members will  take sides—for good cause or not. This can lead to additional feelings of sadness or bitterness as group members try to reestablish order and make sense of a seemingly crazy situation.


The next phase is the most difficult. After all the speculation, blame, feelings of loss, anger, sadness, and so on, we ultimately come to a place where we have to start looking at ourselves. Inevitably, we begin to wonder if a breakup like this one is in our future. And as we do that we start thinking up questions such as: Will my partner leave me for someone else some day? Should I be worried about something they might or might not be doing? Are there things I’m doing that put distance between us? How is my relationship dysfunctional? Am I happy in the relationship? Is my partner happy? What issues have we swept under the rug to keep the peace? Should we revisit those or let sleeping dogs lie? Do some of our friends know things about my partner’s life I don’t? Do I share intimate feelings and problems with people I wouldn’t share with my partner? Should I be getting individual counseling? Should we get joint counseling?


Questions like these can bring on a host of discussion, arguments, or even out-in-out fights. Initially, this can feel disconcerting if not extremely uncomfortable. Yet dialogue like this can also be healthy in the long run for each person needs to come to terms with the loss they feel—not to mention any fear they have over the long-term viability of their relationship.


Over the years, my wife and I have stood by as several close friends announced break ups. It’s always an unexpected blow for us—one that leaves us feeling empty, confused, and sad. Sometimes, the parties haven’t shared their ongoing misery so the break up comes as a complete shock. In other instances, we’ve been privy to at least some of the problems and issues involved. In these cases, we’ve usually worried that an end is in sight, yet as we can’t see what really goes between the individuals involved there’s no way to predict how, whether, or if it all works out.


Sooner or later, everyone’s bound to come up against issues of loss or grief over the dissolution of a close friend’s long-term relationship. If it happens to you, here are some things you may want to consider:


(1) Take time out to feel the pain of your loss. No matter which party is ultimately responsible for the situation, a split can represent a great loss. You have every right to be upset by it. Go ahead and feel it.


Try to avoid projecting your feelings on a partner. Talk to a friend instead.

Talking to a neutral 3rd party can really help.

(2) Air feelings. When we’re most upset, it’s best to seek out neutral listeners who can help process our feelings over a given situation. This could be a trusted friend, a counselor, a pastor or even a parent or sibling. After a friend’s break up, take the opportunity to figure out what is most upsetting to you about it and then ask why you feel so impacted. Often, the things that bother us most are those we fear may be true for ourselves, or those we worry might happen in our own relationships. It’s important to consciously recognize these fears as our own so as not to project them onto others and create unnecessary strife. Why is this important? A partner may not be in the same place we are emotionally. Thus, wrongly assuming they have the same fears or concerns has the potential to put added stress on the relationship.


(3) Talk It Out. After working with neutral parties and you are clear about your own feelings on the subject, it’s time to sit down with your partner for one or more long talks. Here’s the thing: It’s important to stay away from the blame game during this process. In other words, we don’t want our partners to immediately start feeling defensive if we have something important to tell them. For that reason, it’s best to use the word “I” instead of “you” whenever making a point. In fact, avoiding the word “you” altogether is often the best strategy for moving forward.


For example, try, “I’m worried I’m unlovable. I don’t want you to leave me.” This is a much easier statement for a partner to hear and sympathize with than a statement like, “You don’t love me. I know you’ll eventually leave me just like Dale left Betty.” Do you hear the difference? The “I” strategy takes ownership of the way you feel. It doesn’t require your partner to feel the same way. This is the complete opposite of the “you” strategy which tries to put all the responsibility of feeling a potential problem on your partner’s shoulders. When dealing with difficult subjects it’s always best to say how something impacts you and not to guess or state how it impacts others. Let them make up their own mind.


The hurt and pain go away, but it can take time.

Healing takes time, both for those who break up and those who need to adjust to the new reality. The thing to remember is everyone goes at their own pace.

(4) Consider counseling.  When a friend’s break up throws fuel on the fire in regards to your relationship, then it’s time to consider couples counseling. There’s no shame in getting help. By working on the issues you’ve been avoiding with a professional you can end up much closer to your partner in the long run. Another way to think about counseling is to ask yourself whether you’re currently happy. If you aren’t yet choose to do things the same way you always have then how can you possibly expect things to change for the better? It’s worth consideration.


(5) Practice forgiveness. After we’ve spent time processing our feelings over a break up, the next step is to try and practice forgiveness—the goal being to forgive those involved. There’s no schedule here—feelings will last as long as they need to. The thing is we’ll need to sort through them before we can let go of any remaining negativity we harbor. At the same time, it helps to remember that both parties in a broken relationship ultimately suffer. Thus, even when it seems one is more at fault than the other for creating a given situation, both may deserve our sympathy.


Forgiveness is an important step in the healing process. We all want others to see us from the standpoint of compassion and understanding. None of us want to judged or shamed for our transgressions—we want to be forgiven. Thus, it’s important to turn the situation around and let go of the things we’re still holding against the parties involved. It’s only in this release that we open ourselves up to the true healing power of love and that, in turn, allows us to leave our unwanted baggage behind.


Opting Out


Though we may wish it otherwise, relationships can fail for many different reasons. We may feel stuck in a rut. We may suffer from depression. We may be generally unhappy with our job, sex-life, finances and or partner’s tendency to do or not do the things we want them to. Sometimes, our fears get the best of us. Sometimes, we’re weak or tempted by certain people or situations. We may allow ourselves to be seduced by wishful thinking. We may fall out of love with our current partner or fall in love with someone new. Sometimes we lack the ability to trust or to let others in. Sometimes we go through significant emotional or physical changes beyond our ability to control (like the death of a close friend or family member or a chronic illness). Sometimes our low-self esteem gets in the way of most everything we do. The bottom line: What we see on the surface of a break up is often just the tip of the iceberg. It’s something to think about, especially if you’re having a hard time forgiving the person you feel is responsible.



There’s yet another issue regarding a break up that’s easy to miss, and that’s how the partners in any relationship change over time. It goes something like this: We meet, we fall in love, we move in together or get married, we share significant time together, and in spite of all the togetherness there’s lots of individual time, too. We each have our own job, our own interests, our own habits, our own genetic pool, we eat different foods, we relate to certain people better than others, we develop a unique sense of humor, and so on. In other words, as the relationship chugs along over the years, the people involved change—and not always in the same ways or at the same pace.


Here’s the problem with that: Both partners may develop and move in similar directions or gradually drift apart. We may sense this drift, or we may end up missing it until our partner announces they’re ready to leave us. In still other cases, some significant event such as an affair or serious illness occurs, which may force change on us whether we’re prepared or not. The point is relationships require ongoing work, because the change happening around and within them is both constant and inevitable.


Have you had a hug today? It might help.

There is life after a break up, but it can take time.

Relationships come and go like the seasons or last through thick and thin. Some splits are messy and others unbelievably cordial and polite. The truth is it’s hard to say whether staying together or breaking up is really better in the long run. It simply depends on the people involved. In the end, the only real certainty comes when both parties in a given relationship are committed to make it last.


Life Goes On


My friend called me the other day to announce he’s engaged! After a several long and difficult months he met someone new and over the course of the next couple years learned to put aside his hurt from the past and fall in love all over again. He may be happier than ever.


It didn’t seem possible at the time, but my wife and I ultimately benefited from my friend’s unexpected and unwelcome announcement. Of course, we were initially distressed by his news, but we soon ended up in a number of lengthy discussions over dysfunctional patterns in our relationship. Thankfully, we worked things out and feel stronger than ever, which I guess should leave at least some hope that no matter how hard it seems in the moment, life can and will go on.

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