How to break up amicably

A recent study showed it takes an average of 11 weeks to feel ‘normal’ again post-split, but can break-up sex, rebound sex or revenge make it any easier?

Each of these dynamics isn't much fun to be in, for very different reasons.
Each of these dynamics isn't much fun to be in, for very different reasons.

Recent research showed that 58% of separated parents don’t believe in the idea of a ‘good separation’.

As a relationship counsellor, I witness the pain and stress that breaking up with a partner can cause on a daily basis, so I can’t say these statistics surprise me. In fact, this pain can be so bad that it can quite literally hurt - in a 2010 study published in the Journal of Neurophysiology, when couples were shown pictures of their exes it showed activity in the same part of the brain that registers physical pain.

But, depending on your situation, it might not take as long as you expect to get over a break-up. I often remind clients that there’s no timeline showing how long it should take someone to learn to cope with the end of a relationship - everyone’s different and will make the journey at their own pace. Some researchers have looked into this, with a study by Monmouth University of 155 people who’d been through a break-up in the last six months finding that it takes an average of 11 weeks to feel ‘normal’ again post-split. However, for those couples in the same study who were married, the average recovery time was much longer at 18 months.

In my experience, couples who are married or have children together tend to find it takes longer to get over the relationship and, logistically at least, there’s more to sort out. When couples are married and have made a promise to one another in the presence of friends and family, there’s also sometimes a sense of guilt and embarrassment that the marriage has ‘failed’.

Very often couples split up due to issues that they couldn’t resolve whilst together and these can continue to play out in the way they separate, too. The thing is, I’ve also worked with many clients who’ve managed to break up relatively amicably, and even go on to have good relationships as friends and/or co-parents. The main things these couples get right are being honest and respectful with each other and honouring the relationship they once had (for a bad example of this, see below).

So how can separating couples get this right? The basics are important here – handling it the right way from the start is crucial. For example, people understandably get very upset when they’ve been dumped by text, phone, email or even via Facebook or Twitter. Hiding behind technology might seem like the easy option, but it can be viewed as cowardly. It’s best to do the breaking up in person, ideally in a neutral place which is semi-private. Your soon-to-be ex may naturally want to ask questions, so giving them the space to do that allows them to process and find closure more smoothly than if you just drop it on them and run away.

When you want to end a relationship, be clear and direct and make it a clean break. Breaking up amicably doesn’t mean being confusingly nice about it, to the point that the other person doesn’t even realise you’ve just ended things. When you sugar-coat the message too much it can make the other person believe there’s still hope and try to hold on, which in the long run only causes more pain and anger.

Once you’ve officially ‘ended it’, fear of the unknown can sometimes make it tempting for couples to jump back into bed and have familiar sex. This might be comforting at the time but it can also stop you both from properly moving on and lead to confusing emotions. There are also risks associated with having rebound sex, although many people go down this route. A recent study of 170 college students who’d been through a break-up in the last eight months found that 35 percent of participants said they'd had sex to get over their ex. The truth is you could have sex with a different person every night for five weeks and the feelings you have for your ex may still not go away.

As both partners move through the break-up and work out how they’re feeling about it, it can be tempting to criticise your ex to anyone who’ll listen. Try to avoid this, particularly in front of mutual friends and especially to your kids. It’s confusing for children, who’ll have torn loyalties and are still trying to cope with the effects of the separation; and it can be awkward for mutual friends, ultimately it'll just make you look bad.

When it comes to dividing up assets, people can become very emotional about personal possessions. Often it isn’t the thing itself they really care about, but what it represents to them. In some cases it can be that they aren’t ready to let go; in others it’s a way of expressing anger or retaining power. When it comes to shared items, consider whether that pasta maker you never use is really worth fighting over.

Finally, when people separate, there can be one person who feels unfairly treated and wants revenge. It might end up in them doing things like cutting up clothes, sleeping with a friend of their ex in retaliation or even posting illicit images on a ‘revenge porn’ site. There have been some high profile cases of celebrities naming and shaming one another on Twitter and in the press but this can be a recipe for disaster and lead to a prolonged ‘tit-for–tat’ situation.

Revenge may taste sweet in the beginning, but the consequences usually outweigh the immediate gratification and could even result in legal action. If you’re tempted to seek revenge in whatever way, try to think beyond the pain and imagine the long term consequences for yourself and any others involved. So take a few deep breaths before you smash in that car window and walk away knowing you’ve retained your dignity and taken the high road. The best revenge you can have is to be happy in your own life and move on from the pain.

As the song goes, breaking up is hard to do, but I do believe rejection can be protection, offering an opportunity for you to be free to find someone who’s better for you. Use that new-found free time and energy to go out and experience new things and meet new people. So rather than seeing your relationship as “failed” or “over”, how about describing it as “complete”?

Priscilla Sim is Relate Counsellor. Relate offers a range of services to help you if you're going through separation or divorce such as family counselling, mediation and online information and support.

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