Introducing "The Breakups Project"
Everything I Knew About Breakups Was Wrong
I've sat here at my computer for multiple days wondering what I wanted the opening line of this blog to be, and I kept coming back to this.
Breakups are complicated. They can be messy, chaotic, and crazy-making, literally blowing up our lives. Other times, they can be disturbingly clean and precise. Too clean, almost like a surgical knife cutting through something that maybe ought to be a whole lot messier.
I've had a lot of time to sit and think about breakups. What they feel like. Why we do them. How they impact us. What they mean. So much thinking, in fact, that it led me to the creation of this blog and eventual book.
Because, you see, I think breakups can be more powerful than relationships.
I think relationships that end have a greater impact on our lives than the relationships that don't. And, perhaps, that stories of relational loss can empower a person in a way stories of love and happily ever afters can't.
And while I imagine that I'm learning and unlearning something new about breakups with every passing day, I've come to a few conclusions so far.
Weak If You Leave, Weak If You Stay
First off, deciding whether or not to break up in the first place is screwed up enough.
One half of the world tells you that you're weak if you leave when you could stay and fight for your relationship. They pridefully speak of words like commitment, responsibility, and loyalty. The other half tells you that you're weak if you stay when you can leave and move on. They rip-roaringly cheer of concepts such as freedom, self-respect, and your right to be happy. It's almost like a warped competition of values with no middle ground. It's one or the other with no nuance in between. Unsurprisingly, the commitment junkies rarely stop to consider how they sometimes desperately cling onto fucked up relationships that are ultimately hurting them and hindering their growth. And just as tragically, the personal happiness junkies rarely create room to consider how they sometimes flippantly abandon and discard relationships that are challenging them and making them healthily uncomfortable.
Build, Build, Build — And Then Tear It Down
Then, if we do break up, the way society tells us to break up is all sorts of psychologically fucked up.
I don't know about you, but the message was loud and clear when I was growing up. Fight for your relationship and work on it. Go to therapy. Don't "give up." Don't "throw in the towel."
But if you do decide to break up, cut all ties. Don't drag it out. Don't string someone along. Don't be friends. Don't have sex with your ex. If you know there's no saving a relationship and you don't want to be with someone anymore, tell them and leave. Period. Take a pair of scissors and cut all the ties.
The more I've thought about this, the more it sounds like trauma to me. Think about it: you spend years, maybe decades carefully entangling and weaving your lives together. You meet their friends, and they meet yours. Families intertwine. You move in together. Perhaps legal paperwork is involved. You narrow down the "me" possessions in the creation of the "we" stuff. Maybe you change cities, or states, or countries. Maybe you change jobs, positions, or companies. You still have your own stuff, your own friends, your own passions, and your own identity. But you also have new stuff. New friends, new passions, and a new identity. You're a partner and a part of a relationship. And you have a person — perhaps multiple persons if you're polyamorous. A person that you consider to be among the most important persons in your life.
I want you to imagine taking a delicate silk thread and weaving it, layer by layer, strand by strand, into a thick spider web. That's what committed long-term relationships are. They're spider webs. Thick, sturdy, and perhaps overly entangled spider webs.
And the cultural norm for breaking up and ending year-long relationships is to take a pair of scissors and cut right through them. No untangling, no unraveling. We just sever the whole thing in half. If it must end, end the pain as quickly as possible. Rip off the Band-Aid. Years to build something. Minutes to tear it apart.
There's this weirdly tragic but hopeful way in which we do extend the pain near the end our relationships, the ways we agonize over what to do for days, for weeks, for months, sometimes even years on end. The love that we don't want to lose, the realities that we don't want to accept, the differences that we want to overcome. And certainly, many couples come back from the edge of the cliff and make it together. Through courage, compassion, and vulnerability, and perhaps a willingness to change the changeable and accept the unchangeable, they do fight for their relationships and the lives that neither of them wish to lose. I've seen these couples up close and sometimes even had the pleasure of being part of their stories, myself.
But, most couples don't show up to my office if they decide to end things. They've endured enough pain. So they take the scissors and cut.
I'm willing to entertain the idea that maybe, just maybe, this cultural process is harmful. That maybe breaking up can be just as delicate and deliberate of a process as creating a relationship is. In fact, maybe it always has been. Perhaps many of us who have broken up with someone have been slowly untangling and unraveling our part of the spider web all along. We got our accounts in order. We talked to friends and family. We consulted a therapist. We read books and attended groups. We journaled in our diaries beside our sleeping partners. We just didn't tell our partners about it. So for us, it's not traumatic: we've been painstakingly untangling the web piece by piece for months. But for them, it's a giant pair of scissors snapping right through every thread at once. Only one of us got to detach with the same care that we took when we attached. No wonder dumpers feel guilty.
What Is "The Breakups Project"?
It probably comes as no surprise that I, myself, recently went through a breakup. A divorce, in fact. One that I painstakingly considered and agonized over for longer than I'd like to admit. One that challenged my identity as a couples therapist and as a man. That forced me to reflect on and take immense responsibility for my life and for a decision that, while ultimately my own, I did not want to make. It has been the most painful teaching experience of my life, as breakups have been for so many others.
Our relationship was the single most meaningful and significant intimate relationship I've ever had. But, sitting here today, I wonder if the end of our relationship actually holds more power in my life than the healthy relationship it could have been. And, more importantly, if breakups, as a whole, define our lives and who we become far more meaningfully than relationships ever could.
So, what's the point of this blog? What is "The Breakups Project"?
Simply put, I'm writing a book: a collection of personal stories about love and loss that will shine an intimate light on the transformative power of breakups in peoples' lives. Each chapter will tell the unique story of a person's most significant and meaningful close romantic relationship, exploring what happened to them after it ended, how it impacted and forever changed them, and who they became as a result of having loved and having shared in such a connection that ultimately ended. To collect these stories, I'll be traveling to dozens of cities in the United States, many to which I have never traveled, and sitting down with a stranger whom I've never met to interview them, hear their story, and write a chapter devoted to recounting their connection.
And this blog will intimately follow the creation of that book. The travel, the interviews, the people, the reflections: all of it.
First stop? Nashville, TN on July 28th, 2018.
Until next time.
Question of the Blog:
If you could correct one assumption people made about your breakup, what would it be?