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It Takes Two to Tango in a Breakup


When someone leaves an intimate relationship because of a choice they make, we’re naturally filled with feelings of hurt when we are not the decision maker.

Abandonment, grief, fear, anxiety, hopelessness; these are just some of the inner experiences we’re forced to confront as we say goodbye to our former life and welcome a new and unexpected reality.

For many, the tendency is to become fixated on the other person; we raise them to heroic status which amplifies the feeling of loss. Some people spiral on this and become trapped in the wish for what was, their minds idealizing the relationship and the person – “I’ll never meet anyone like that.”

Why does our mind go to this hopeless place and spiral around this type of thinking?

Loss of control

When someone leaves us, we naturally feel a sense of powerlessness. There’s nothing we can do to affect the outcome or change what has happened. Rumination is one strategy your mind will lean on to try to reassert control. The mind is trying to convince you that if you spend enough time playing back the past or thinking about the person repeatedly, eventually you’ll reconcile the idea in your mind and reassert control. This kind of endless pining has the reverse affect. You can’t change the situation, so by staying hung up on it, you only increase your feelings of powerlessness. This is a maladaptive approach to making sense of something beyond your control. It’s a common response to what we see as an injustice – our mind becomes the court of appeal, only we’re deliberating with ourselves – we become even more self enclosed in this me, myself, and I dialogue.  

Reasserting control

Even when a partner provides us clear insight into why they need to leave, there still may be unresolved ideas in your mind about why that is. You still see this as a problem to be solved, but often we’re focused on the wrong problem.

The two main areas of problem solving that you can control and reconcile are:

1. What in the relationship between myself and this person did not work?

Relationships exists in relation. That means two people contributing to one common reality. Not every reality you create with someone is going to be beautiful. Sometimes, the combination of two people simply does not jive. Neither is bad or good on their own, but together they simply cannot make it work. This may also be true over time. What worked on Day 1 may not work on day 700. People change, needs change, contexts change. All that change means the equation of any relationship is never perfectly stable. We like to think of relationships as 1+1=2 but rarely do they abide by such rigid rules.

2. What is it about myself that was working and not working in this relationship?

The tendency to externalize the experience of breaking up an trying to resolve what is “out there” deprives us of the journey to move through our own internal experience. Some default to the feeling of not being good enough. That’s a great example of an internal thought construct that may have contributed to an unhealthy relationship at the outset. Healthy relationships cannot make us whole; they can only support the self discovery process. And that’s just one mental construct. There may be many more influencing your ideas and feelings in ways that need your attention to grow into healthy relationships. Break ups are a great time to look more closely at the pieces of you scattered in your consciousness. You’ve got to be willing to pick up the sharp and not so pleasant edges and ask yourself why I am here right now, and why is this separation so deeply hurtful and paralyzing. That begins the process of healing.

You are also a decision maker even when you have not made the choice to end the relationship

Finally, and this is a paradoxical one to get our minds around, just because someone else said I need to leave this relationship, does not mean that you were not involved in the decision. Very few people I know who are honest when they look back on a relationship ever say: “Geez, I was perfect in every way. Still can’t understand why they did what they did.” It’s not that you’re to blame. It’s that you were co-authoring the relationship. Its end is also of your making and you participated in that choice whether you spoke it out loud or you spoke it through your unexpressed feelings, or thoughts, or subtle or overt actions. Everything you did with this person, contributed to the outcome – it takes two to tango and takes two to arrive at a conclusion to that dance. Just because one person was leading doesn’t mean you weren’t partnered until the very last note. Accepting that means also accepting that none of this is happening to you, but all of it is happening with you. That is a great place from which to stand up and start anew.

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Written by
Mark Stolow