Clean Break: Breaking Up Gracefully.

Via Wendy Strgar
on Jan 27, 2012
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Mark Ingle/Flickr

When we end our relationships badly, we get stuck in a continuous rebound relationship cycle.

Tragically, the most common and destructive bad endings that plague millions of relationships is when we use infidelity as an exit strategy. Some sex therapists would argue that most affairs, especially when they occur in succession are nothing more than the continuous cycle of ineffective rebounding that takes over one’s relationship history. Certainly repeat marriage statistics bear this out. As dismal as our 50% fail rate is on first marriage, success rates for second marriage drops to 25% and the third relationships only have a success rate of 10%.  Failure rates in successive relationships out of marriage are no better. When we don’t authentically and definitively end our relationships, we carry what remains unresolved into everything that follows.

Ending relationships is a hard and painful business for both partners. Things happen and sometimes, as life and feelings change, our ability and willingness to maintain our commitments also changes.  However, these painful transitions can become lasting injuries on our long-term capacity for relationships when we are unwilling to take responsibility for these endings. When we don’t have the courage to communicate fully with our partner about what is not working for us, or when we refuse to show up authentically when we want out, infidelity opportunities arise.   “It just happened” is what many people say about their affairs, yet clearly the opportunity of attraction grew in the fertile ground of leaving the intimacy of your previous relationship without really leaving it.

Another extremely popular and highly damaging bad ending is the digital dumping of relationships, which turns a painful conclusion into a bitter and unfinished burden. Ending real intimacy that you shared with someone with a brief email or worse still, a two line text message, is the perfect breeding ground for growing distrust of others and a continuous rumination over what is wrong with you. This kind of ending leaves people unable to connect deeply with others for years, caught in trying to piece together what happened without sufficient information. It isn’t just the person who is dumped who suffers from this kind of break up either. Not having the guts to look someone you cared for in the eye when you walk away creates an open wound in your life. It does not improve your chances for intimacy with another partner when you can’t honor who you are leaving.

Many relationship endings remain incomplete and become increasingly toxic because people refuse to make a clean break. Instead of moving on, the shifting of what was an exclusive intimate relationship into friends-with-benefits arrangement generally only serves to cheapen the original connection and leaves people feeling used. Many people go on for months or even years of being caught in a relationship that makes them feel bad about themselves and hateful about their partner.

The most tragic residue of all of these dishonorable endings is that it leaves both partners broken and unable to celebrate the growth and intimacy that they shared. When relationship history is plagued with only bitter memories, there are no grounds for moving forward. Truly our present moment grows from the integrity of our past, and nowhere more so than within our hearts. End the rebound cycle by living fully through the endings; this is where a new beginning takes shape.


Image: Mark Ingle/Flickr


About Wendy Strgar

Wendy Strgar, founder and CEO of Good Clean Love, is a loveologist who writes and lectures on Making Love Sustainable, a green philosophy of relationships which teaches the importance of valuing the renewable resources of love, intimacy and family. In her new book, Love that Works: A Guide to Enduring Intimacy, she tackles the challenging issues of sustaining relationships and healthy intimacy with an authentic and disarming style and simple yet innovative advice. It has been called "the essential guide for relationships." The book is available on ebook, as well as in paperback online. Wendy has been married for 27 years to her husband, a psychiatrist, and lives in the beautiful Pacific Northwest.


8 Responses to “Clean Break: Breaking Up Gracefully.”

  1. Kym says:

    Great article Wendy. We come together in love so why not leave the relationship with love as well by showing respect and compassion to someone who has been a significant person in your life.

  2. […] after the delicate and annoying separation process, there will always be some pigment from each heart left on the other, but we can still get most of […]

  3. Liv says:

    I broke up with my boyfriend of two years, he wasn't the one but he wanted to be very serious. I broke up with him in person and moved out two days later. I told him I couldn't lie anymore and pretend I was happy when I wasn't. There was no cheating I just knew in my gut I didn't want to be with him, something was not quite right. He wrote me a big long letter and sent it to me via email a week after the break up. I hadn't spoken to him. I replied with a similar letter. I no longer had his phone number and it seemed easier. I was a bit harsh, telling him I didn't love him and I didn't want to work it out. This is what I said in the original break up, but I felt I had to stand behind my decision and I couldn't be overly nice. He needed to know that there was no way we would work out. I didn't want to call him because we usually fight so I just responded in a letter form as well.

  4. hodge says:

    A clarification on "clean break":

    When I was nineteen, an online friend of several years and I started a relationship which was both of our first. She planned to move nearby. About eight months later, it turned out that her plans for college in the area weren't practical. She immediately stopped contacting me, although we still talked on the phone. I had to call her, worried that she might have been seriously hurt, after she mysteriously stopped contacting me in our normal fashion. And three brutally painful months, I had to be the one to state the obvious fact that our relationship was over. She plainly resented the length of the call.

    A few years later, she fielded one phone call. I kept my distance, occasionally sending an email. Nothing was returned. Now, twelve years later, I'm trying to get in touch with her. It's too early to say, but the response is leaning the same way: nothing. I'm still not over her, probably because I never got to tell her either how much she hurt me or how much she meant to me (and still does).

    After the original relationship, I did not have another for six years. She was extremely important to my ability to see myself as a viable romantic partner. Even when an extremely attractive co-worker literally gave me her number about six months after the breakup, I just couldn't see myself as someone who someone else would want. If someone who was essentially perfect for me- I've never met anyone who came close to (otherwise) being as good a match for me- could just toss me aside and not even want to talk to me, how could someone who wasn't as compatible ever come to care about me? On top of that, she had been acting as a bulwark against other influences in my life, especially my father, which overemphasized how much I "needed" to become more confident, assertive, and generally an asshole in order to attract women. (This was bullshit, but it took me years to realize that there was barely even a hint of actual relevance to it, even after breaking all contact with my father).

    I knew that people often cut contact at the end of a relationship. It's a common piece of advice. However, it is usually stated…poorly. You do need space and boundaries to end a relationship. But that entails communication and creating a basis for mutual respect for your decision. Cutting all contact in the manner that she did is only appropriate if your partner is abusive or in some other way extremely unhealthy. In the context of a loving relationship, it is narcissism that borders on abuse, and it can damage someone you nominally love and respect for years. I didn't know this, so I just accepted that it was my job to move on. I only recently realized that my feelings for her were continuing to poison my ability to enjoy life for it's own sake, and I had simply learned to take the pain for granted and forgotten its source.

    Meanwhile, another ex, with who I have a child, cheated on me nearly daily for a year before we broke up. I chat with her, her boyfriend works with me, and I have no desire to restart our relationship. We broke up a few months ago. Our casual friendship has clear boundaries, and we can talk if we need to.

    Set boundaries so that both parties can move on. Do not cut all contact abruptly, unless you are a sadist.

  5. Kris says:

    Thank you. Well said. This was helpful for me to read as my very special intimate partner just dropped out of my life 2 weeks ago. I didn’t even get a break up text. One sec all was well and normal and then I never heard from him again. After 3 frantic days if being sick with worry, texting and calling to ask if he was okay with no response I was able to find a family member of his who told me he was fine. I wish he could read this article and know that he is also hurting himself with his cowardly actions. I would send this to him but I am sure he does not care. He certainly doesn’t care that he left me devastated.

  6. Grace says:

    For about two years I knew in my heart my marriage of 20 years was coming to a slow painful end. We chose to live in denial, hurt and be hurt and quietly place blame on the other. We shut down. When the end finally came I was the one to say the words and the response I got struck me at my core… “Finally we’re on the same page” . I’ve learned more about fear and love and letting go from those 6 words then all the other lessons thrown my way. 20 years, 2 kids, vacations, holidays, family reunions…. A literal life time of memories I cannot celebrate. That’s the cost of holding on too long. Your article is much appreciated, good advice well said. Thank you.

  7. Cami says:

    Wow Wendy! I am speechless. This has article opened something in my heart screaming YES!!! You’ve put words to the experience I’ve been battling for several years, and it comes down to my own integrity, on my own courage to end relationships that need to end, so I can build healthy openings for new ones. So beautifully written. I’ve a lot to consider and some courage to discover. Thank you for this!