The Talk They Really Need to Hear


There are two talks every parent dreads having with his or her young adult children. The first--the "where babies and STDs come from, and how to prevent those things from happening" talk--really only needs one good, awkward run through, and frequently that's just to confirm what you've always suspected, namely that your kid knows plenty about penises, vaginas, intercourse, procreation, sexually transmitted diseases, and the pros and cons of all the various prevention methods.

The second talk is the one that really matters. It's also the one you're going to have to repeat over and over again, possibly as long as you and your child are both taking up space on the planet. It's about breaking up.

I recently attained a milestone in my life as both a parent and step-parent: all my kids have been through breakups. They've managed it with varying degrees of success. Sometimes they've been the dumpers, sometimes the dumpees. They've manifested a spectrum of emotions from indifference to grief to fury to elation. I've had a few conversations about what breaking up felt like for them, much of which boils down to me patiently and empathetically listening, occasionally adding in an "I know" or "I'm so sorry." When I have been able to give advice, it's mostly been checking to be sure there's someone around they can turn to when I get off the phone with them. This morning, contemplating the possibility of another round of calls like that, it occurred to me I should put something in writing, a reference manual for me, my kids, and others facing this ordeal; a "Breaking Up for Dummies," if you will. So here goes.

First, my credentials: I'm in my third marriage. Before and between those marriages, I had a number of other relationships, including an engagement that went nowhere. I have occasionally been the dumper, much more often the dumpee. In one case, being dumped was a relief--if it hadn't happened when it did, I would have initiated it myself soon after--but mostly, it's been something I was dreading, and it hurt like Hades when it happened. So I know some things about this stuff. Now fasten your seatbelts, boys and girls; we're in for a bumpy ride.

1. Breaking up is a normal stage in relationships. I know you don't want to hear this, but it's true. Settling down with your first love and staying together until you're dead is a fairy tale. I know of one couple from my high school years who really have stayed together into middle age. All the others came apart, many of them within a few months of graduation. Relationships are like pets: they're adorable when they're puppies, fun when they're active adults, and if we're lucky, they stay sweet until they pass quietly away and we can say our goodbyes with sadness and acceptance. But we're not always lucky. Sometimes the relationship goes senile, and starts doing crazy things. Sometimes it gets rabies, and has to be put down. Whether its passing is gentle or turbulent, I can say with certainty that all relationships end, and the only way to avoid the pain of them coming apart is for both of you to die at the same time.

So "forever" is a myth (unless you're a Mormon, and you and your spouse are sealed for eternity; and no, I'm not going to go after that particular belief at this time, other than to say it's the best reason I know not to be a Mormon). Even if you stay together until death do you part, one of you is going to go first, leaving the other to go home to a suddenly empty house. But this blog is not about that kind of breakup, so we'll set it aside and return to the topic at hand.

2. Normal or not, breaking up sucks. You were a couple. You did everything together: eating, drinking, recreating, fornicating, procreating, parenting, sleeping, waking, everything. Then something happened. Maybe one of you started doing more things with friends than with you, and you were stuck doing stuff by yourself. Or maybe you're the one who realized you were missing being with those other folks who just didn't care for your partner, and knowing the feeling was mutual, you still missed them more than you were irked by the nasty things they said about him or her. Maybe someone at work caught your eye, and even though you didn't do anything about it, you found yourself having a fantasy relationship. Maybe your partner took a fantasy relationship to the next level.

At some point, you began to feel yourselves coming apart. When you were together, you were starting to say mean things to each other. Your love-making became infrequent, and was tinged with desperation. When you were apart, there was a growing sense of dread: is it going to be over? Food become either much less interesting or much too interesting. People began asking you if you were all right: you seemed brittle, nervous, depressed.

All these feelings are normal, and they will pass. They are what Jesus called "rumors of war" (Matthew 24:6, Mark 13:7), a foretaste of the much more difficult days ahead; and while Jesus was talking about the apocalypse, not a breakup, I think the analogy is entirely appropriate. Few things I've experienced feel as apocalyptic as the end of a relationship.

3. It's probably easier to be the one who ends it. As I said earlier, I've been down this road a lot of times, mostly as the one who got dumped, and I can say with but one exception that it always hurt to be on the receiving end of that decision. I expect this is because I don't like endings, and I will go to great lengths to keep a relationship on life support, bustling about the house, trying to make everything better, cleaner, neater, less stressful for my partner, so that she will want to be home with me rather than off with those friends who keep telling her bad things about me and encouraging her to step out on me (at least, that's what they're doing in my fevered fantasy brain). The little compromises that are a part of any relationship start to become big concessions, until I'm sacrificing things that really matter to me--vocation, parenting time, career, fitness, my family of origin--all in the name of keeping this relationship together. It's exhausting and, when the end comes anyway, despite my herculean efforts, shattering to know how much it cost me, and for what? It's like spending $10,000 on a veterinarian bill, only to have the pet die anyway a week after coming home.

Pouring that much into a relationship creates a codependent singularity, a black hole into which you've poured so much of yourself that it's grown massive, taken on a life of its own. When the relationship ends anyway, you're stuck on the event horizon of that singularity, unable to escape its gravity. All the light in your world is being sucked into it. You sleep poorly, waking up in the darkest hours to howl into your pillow. You stop eating altogether for awhile because nothing tastes good. You fill your playlist with mournful breakup songs, put them on a continuous loop. Nothing has meaning. People stop returning your phone calls because they're always about the same thing: why? Why why why why WHY?!?!?

Being the one to pull the trigger, on the other hand, is, in my experience (and my observation of those who dumped me), a far easier thing to take. Getting over being dumped can take months, even years. Letting go of a relationship I've ended, on the other hand, is more likely to take weeks, sometimes just days. Once the ugliness of the conversation is over and you're on your own, you may even feel like going out and celebrating; and you may find yourself dating so quickly that, should one of your ex's friends glimpse you intimately hobnobbing over drinks with a new prospect, you will quickly become the object of scorn.

It should be noted that there's a very different mindset involved in being a dumper. Usually you're the one who's been pulling away, rather than pouring in. You've steered clear of the singularity. Perhaps you've intuited what your partner has been doing, and have pulled away precisely because you don't want to be sucked into that death spiral. Most likely you've been putting off that hard conversation because you want to spare your partner the agony. Which brings me to some genuine heartfelt advice:

4. Just pull the damn trigger. Once you know it's over, end it. This goes for both the one pulling away and the one fixating on keeping things together. If all you feel about your relationship is dread--whether it's the dread of going home to that emotional maelstrom, or of wondering if when your wayward lover comes home it will only be to break up with you--then it's no longer providing either of you with what relationships are for: intimacy, support, pleasure, warmth, togetherness, love. Stop the insanity! Pull back from the event horizon before you're trapped there; or get your partner to arrest his or her descent into that black hole. Yes, it's going to be hard saying those words, and even if you were anticipating saying them first, it's going to be even harder hearing them; but the longer you take getting to "no," the worse it's going to be for both of you.

This runs counter to a lot of conventional wisdom. When I was in junior high, I would occasionally leaf through one of my mother's women's magazines, looking for the occasional movie review or sexy lingerie ad. One of them had a monthly column called "Can This Marriage Be Saved?" The marriage counselors who wrote for this column would issue prescriptions of ways the couples could heal from the anger and betrayal that had cast their relationship on the rocks. Some of those prescriptions were extreme, the relational equivalent of chemo. And then would come the prognosis as, looking closer at the personalities involved and the water under the bridge, the counselors speculated on how terminal the relationship was, even with therapy.

Healing a broken relationship is very hard work. Staying together has always been a priority for me, and I've instigated relationship counseling in four of mine. It may even have done us some good. But all four relationships ultimately came to an end, anyway.

I'm not saying that working on a relationship is pointless, but I am saying that the work has to be mutual, intentional, and ongoing. If you're not both on board, if one of you is just going through the motions for your sake, then you're wasting everyone's time, not to mention a good deal of money. If you don't feel hope after counseling; if the same thing keeps coming up, no matter how many times you talk it out with the counselor; if you're not both willing to be partners in the hard work of staying together; then let it go. Initiate that very difficult conversation, and move on to the next part of your life.

5. Healing will take time. It's not going to be easy. You'll lose a lot of sleep. You may lose a lot of weight--my first divorce was the most effective weight loss plan I've ever been on--or you may not--after my second divorce, I didn't even have a slimmer waistline to show for that three-year relationship. It will seem like this pain is forever, especially if you were the one pouring everything you had into keeping the relationship together.

That's the event horizon. And here's the good news about it: if you hang in there, if you force yourself to get up, go to work, eat good food, work out, then minute by minute, day by day, you will begin to feel better. One day you'll surprise yourself by not thinking about your ex for a whole hour. And then you'll find yourself thinking about going out--but not by yourself! Find someone you can hang out with, a friend, an acquaintance from work, someone, anyone; and when you're out, here's the most important thing: don't talk about the breakup. This will make it possible for your new acquaintance or old friend to be something more than a breakup sponge.

Don't get me wrong, you still need someone to be a sponge for you; but make sure those people (and by all means, spread it around! No one person can handle being your sole confidante at a time like this!) have a permanent connection with you that is thicker than the water of friendship. That's right, I'm talking family: parents, siblings, maybe cousins (if you're really close); not, I must add, your own children, and I must add it (though I shouldn't have to) because I've known many people in the midst of breakups to share inappropriately with their children. The best person to do this with, of course, is a trained therapist, but if your insurance won't cover it, or if you need more than an hour a week to perform this emotional dump, family is your next best choice.

Vent those feelings. Vomit them out. Read good books, go to good movies, listen to good music. Eat good food, drink good beer. 

Here's the best healing advice I can give: take that trip you always wanted to go on, but couldn't interest your ex in. This is an excellent way to remind yourself you have good reasons not to be together. For much of my first marriage, I tried to interest my wife in traveling to the national parks of Utah. A year after we separated, I finally took the trip by myself, and found it moving, healing, transcendent. It may even have meant more to me as a personal pilgrimage than it ever could have as a family vacation. Four years later, I commemorated my second divorce with another road trip to Utah. Two years later, I went back to run my last marathon there. Five years after that, I introduced my son to Utah. And finally, two years ago, I went there with Amy. That she was in as much awe as I, and still talks about the wonders of the red rock country, speaks volumes about compatibility.

Doing these things, you will still grieve. You will still have moments of intense yearning (see the next point about this). But over time, they will lessen in frequency and severity, until one day your look around yourself and realize it's going to be all right. Because it will.

6. Relationships are addictions. Sometime around the middle of my umpteenth breakup, I realized something: this felt really familiar. Too familiar. Like coming down with the flu and then getting over it. There were stages I had to go through, stages that felt the same every time. Once I was through each of them, I could predict what the next would feel like. The depth of feelings varied, the length of the stages varied, but the whole process was predictable. 

This is some important wisdom. By stepping back from myself and observing the process of breaking up and healing, I had isolated the breakup virus .Knowing what to expect, I was able to vaccinate myself, and found, to my pleasant surprise, that the whole thing became much more bearable.

Being in a relationship is a natural drug. Infatuation, the first stage of falling in love, causes your body to release endorphin. You find yourself having a lover's high: the sky is bluer, the grass greener, food tastes better but you don't need as much of it, petty annoyances don't get to you. As good as it feels, you can't build a lifelong partnership on such feelings, so after awhile they ease off and cognitive bonds develop. But the memory of that endorphin rush, and the longing for it, never completely goes away, and it continues to be a reward for the intimacy you share.

But then things start to come apart, and you find yourself not getting your RDA of endorphin. You crave that rush, and because your partner is your only means of getting it, you long to be close. You may become needy in your partner's eyes as you try to draw him or her in. Ironically, this can create even more distance. Now you can't get your fix at all, but like the most pitiful of addicts, you're willing to sacrifice anything to have it again: your dignity, your values, your family, your soul. The more you give up, the less good it does, until finally, you're forced to quit.

That's when the physical symptoms really kick in. It's been almost twenty years since I first experienced that pain, but the memory is still vivid: the longing sensation in my throat, the spasms in my gut, the vomiting of grief as I wailed and sobbed my way through night after night.

As I said at the beginning of this point, it took me years to understand the biological and psychological roots of these feelings; but understand them I finally did, to the extent that, when I finally had to accept that my engagement was over, I was able to call a friend and tell him, "____ and I just broke up for good. I'm going to be in a bad way for a few days, but then I'll be okay." I knew what to expect. Knowing it didn't take it away, but it did prepare me to live through it. It also helped me, as I entered into my next relationship, to take precautions against becoming so addicted to my partner that I could not live without her, which proved far healthier and more satisfying for everyone involved.

7. I'm here for you. Here's the final point for both parents and children: we love you. We want you to feel better. We know you're going to spend some time feeling awful. We know your friends will be impatient with your process. But we are not your friends; we're your parents. It's our job to sit with you through yet another breakup, yet another sob session, to watch as you pick up your pieces and start again, hoping you've learned something new from this one. When others shut you off, we're still here, for as long as it takes for you to finally be ready to move on.

With that said, we do have lives of our own, jobs of our own, marriages of our own that we need to nurture. Sometimes we only have a minute or two to listen to you crying into the phone, to tell you "I know," and then to say, "I have to go, but we'll talk again tomorrow." But talk we will, hoping that, by the time in our own lives that we are no longer able to talk with you, you will have matured to the point that you don't need us for that.

8. And one to grow on. I've been telling myself this since my second divorce: Love is worth the effort. And it really is. I've been both single and coupled, and I can honestly say that, for me, the latter is far preferable--but only if it's mutual. A one-sided relationship is worse than no relationship at all. It's an addiction to a bad drug, a possession by a cruel and selfish demon, and you're better off without it.

As you're healing from this breakup, you will be tempted by sensations. You'll want to feel the affirming warmth of attraction, the rush of infatuation, the release of consummation. It may even be good for you to have a fling or two, just so long as you understand that's what they are. I don't advise one-nighters; as good as they may feel, they'll ultimately leave you feeling empty, even dirty. Don't go to the opposite extreme, though; this is not the time to settle down with someone new. You really can't know if this is the right person for you until you've been through a few seasons together, long enough to see how he or she deals with disappointment, frustration, anxiety, fear. Take your time, and once you've found someone new, be intentional, careful, open with each other. With a relationship like that, you can build something lasting, something that's more than sex and affinity, something that may just last you until death do you part.

And if it doesn't? I'm still here. Give me a call.

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