Every relationship starts the same way. Full of hope.
Early on, everyone is on their very best behavior and the relationship seems perfect. It seems like nothing can go wrong. But not every relationship lasts forever.
We don’t like endings, and we don’t like to lose things. Especially important things like our relationship. As I explain in my TED talk:
“…make no mistake, relationships are the single most important thing to you in your life. It’s the source of all of your best memories, it’s the source of all of your worst memories. When you think back on your life when you’re 95 or 100 years old and you look back over the course of your lifetime, you’re not going to think: “‘I wish I owned a better phone,’ ‘I wish I spent more time on the Internet,’ I wish I spent more time at work or sleeping’” It’s going to be any of those kinds of things. It’s going to be: ‘I wish I spent more time with the people I loved,’ because our relationships they build us, they define us, they sustain us and they can break us too…”
Despite breakups being one of life’s most difficult experiences, we expect the fallout to be a lot worse than it really is (Eastwick et al., 2008). Even when people felt their partner was the “wind beneath their wings” and a big part of their success, people still made progress toward their goals (Gomillion et al., 2015).
Breakups are bad, they’re just not as awful and devastating as we think.
The Good and Bad of Breakups
Like many life experiences, breakups involve a mixture of negative and positive elements. Finding the heartache and pain is easy. To move forward, we need to focus more on the positives.
Nearly everyone experiences a breakup at some point. It hurts, but we found our way through. Not only that, we learn things along the way: who not to date, how to handle conflict, and how to identify warning signs of toxicity. We also learn how to move on. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Our greatest glory is not in never failing but in rising up every time we fail.”
Sometimes though, breakups aren't as much about what you're losing, but rather what you gain. When some relationships end, it feels like being off parole. You no longer have someone asking where you’re going, who you’re talking to, caring about how you look or act, or otherwise dragging you down with nagging and negativity. Without your former partner, you feel more free. Even then, you will have some negative feelings (e.g., regret) because that relationship meant something to you, but in the big picture, many breakups are a relief.
Obviously, it’s not always this easy. But recognizing that positive breakups exist suggests a path forward. Here’s some data to help. When I asked participants who had their long-term relationship end in the past three months about their breakup experience, 33% (basically one in three) said it was negative overall (Lewandowski & Bizzoco, 2007). However, even though participants hadn’t found a new relationship, 41% (roughly four in 10) said the breakup was positive overall.
Why? For the 41% who were more positive, what was their secret?
Addition by Subtraction
Relationships should help you grow. Your partner should help you be a better person. Often when relationships falter, that nurturing improvement isn’t happening. In other words, the relationship is impoverished and lacking sufficient self-expansion. (To learn more about self-expansion and to see how your relationship is doing, see here.) When your partner doesn’t help build you up, they’re essentially holding you back from being the person you can be.
By ending the relationship, you now have the opportunity to thrive. The research backs this up (Lewandowski & Bizzoco, 2007). When people get out of relationships with insufficient self-expansion they report a range of positive emotions, they’re relieved, they’re calmed, and they’re energized, confident, strong, and happy. They also report less loss of self, more positive growth, and more rediscovery of the self. In other words, they are recapturing the person they were before the relationship, rekindling their interests, and refocusing on themselves. (for more about how to use rediscovery to cope with a breakup, see the TED talk below.)
When your relationship doesn’t help you become a better person, ending it does. It’s counterintuitive, and not how we typically think about breakups. It may take a while to see this, and it may be difficult, but many breakups are for the better.
But I Didn't Want to Break Up
What about those who lost a really great relationship that helped them grow, are they doomed? Not at all. It will likely be a tougher experience, but there are still positives. Remember, “Great relationships seldom fail, but bad ones do. As they should.” In other words, the relationship may not have been everything you thought it was. At least not to both of you. Relationships are better when both partners are committed and satisfied. That previous relationship may have been good enough, but ending it allows you to find an even better relationship.
Relationships are important. Time is short. Mistakes are costly.
Your relationships should be the best part of your life. Hopefully you have found a partner who builds you up and sustains you. If you haven’t found that, ask yourself: What is one hour, one day, one week, one month, one lifetime of your happiness worth? Time to get moving.
Relationships end because they are broken. That process is painful. But it doesn’t mean you have to be broken forever. The Japanese have an art form Kintsugi that takes broken pottery and puts it back together with platinum, silver, and gold. The result is even more beautiful than the original piece. But it’s much more than an art form, it’s a philosophy that views negative experiences as an opportunity to emerge even better off.
This applies to our relationships as well. Sure they can leave us with a broken heart. But those cracks are themselves a source of strength and beauty. Breakups don’t have to leave you broken, because you’re stronger than you think.
Eastwick, P. W., Finkel, E. J., Krishnamurti, T., & Loewenstein, G. (2008). Mispredicting distress following romantic breakup: Revealing the time course of the affective forecasting error. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 44(3), 800-807.
Gomillion, S., Murray, S. L., & Lamarche, V. M. (2015). Losing the wind beneath your wings: The prospective influence of romantic breakup on goal progress. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 6(5), 513-520.
Lewandowski, G. W., Jr., & Bizzoco, N. (2007). Addition through subtraction: Growth following the dissolution of a low quality relationship. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 2(1), 40-54.