Relationship therapists often spend a lot of energy trying to salvage a dying relationship. But what if more couples tried “breakup” therapy instead?
“Just leave him,” he blurts out to a client.
Love requires honesty and bravery — so, too, does falling out of love. And sometimes couples need as much help ending a relationship as they do saving it.
A new approach to couples counseling
In the therapy community, helping couples navigate the demise of a relationship is not a typical approach. A friend recently separated from his wife. When the couple told their therapist, she seemed to take it personally.
“I don’t help couples who aren’t working on staying together,” she said.
And when patients choose to exit their relationship, it usually means the end of therapy, as well.
“We reached a decision,” they tell me.
What I find, though, is that often the couple is just as confused as before. Was there something we could have done differently? Was it something in me that caused this?
The traumatic parts of the relationship, especially perceived injustices, keep playing on a continuous loop. It is at these moments that I dig in.
“I suggest that we don’t stop quite yet,” I advise. And then I introduce them to breakup therapy.
What is breakup therapy?
Every relationship needs a shared narrative. It’s the glue that holds it together.
- We are together because we make each other feel safe.
- We work because we are opposites.
- We love each other because we have the same values.
When the relationship ends, so does that story. Instantly, it seems, what we believed with such conviction turns out to have been an illusion, a cruel joke. But it wasn’t. Stories have to evolve and change as much as we do or they may need to end.
The goal of breakup therapy is to create a consistent, shared narrative of the relationship — a story both partners believe in and one with a beginning, middle and end. In doing so, they both accept some measure of responsibility for their split. And when the sessions finish, I write up the story they both wrote and have them sign their names.
Breakup therapy is about moving past the relationship. Over a half-dozen sessions with specific, targeted exercises and homework, this therapy aims to ease the couple’s transition to their new lives.
Here are some of the steps of breakup therapy:
1. Create a relationship inventory
Start by listing the positive qualities of your partner and the relationship, and how those might have turned negative over time. Next, mention hurtful incidents, reasons that family and friends might have disliked your partner and red flags you may have ignored. Finally, think about the degree to which you and your partner problem-solved, confided in each other and shared interests.
2. Be brutally honest about the ways you didn’t feel seen and heard
Ask yourself: “Do I feel seen in the way I want to be seen?” Breakups can be a catalyst to know yourself better and heal your unexamined wounds, which may have contributed to either why you haven’t allowed yourself to be seen, or chosen a partner who isn’t capable of seeing you.
3. Accept your part in the split and state your grievance
In most relationships, except where there is abuse, no party is blameless, even when only one has cheated or desires the breakup. Few relationships end because of a single act. Breakups are almost always a casualty of a slow unraveling.
When each person in the relationship accepts their part in the breakup and also states their own grievances, it allows the partners to rid themselves of feelings of victimization or guilt.
Here are some examples.
- “I’ll agree that I violated our marriage contract. Can you agree that you had emotional affairs with your students for years that left me feeling isolated and alone?”
- “Yes, I controlled you with our finances. I can see that. And do you see that you were never fully emotionally present?”
4. Assess how the relationship shifted over time
Think back to the early days of your relationship. What brought you together? Now think about how you and your partner might have changed, and how your needs changed over time. Here are some scenarios from couples I’ve counseled.
One couple immigrated together from India after college. In the beginning, they were each other’s home, both metaphorically and concretely, as they settled into life in America. Eight years later and no longer so isolated, those needs had changed.
Another couple had both suffered complex trauma in their childhoods; the emotional safety they built with one another was what made their relationship work. But two decades later, they no longer needed that emotional succor from each other. In fact, they needed not to be reminded of their histories or confined by their codependence.
5. Reflect on how past traumas or insecurities affected the relationship
One couple was puzzled why their current relationship had turned into a conflict even after the dust had settled in their legal battles with their exes over child custody issues. In therapy, they were able to see how their recriminations were a way of substituting new crises for old ones.
They had become so used to living with chaos that they didn’t know how to be with each other when the storm had subsided. Knowing that things that connect people during war don’t always work during peacetime paved the way for a new story free of judgment and recrimination.
6. Show vulnerability
Having a therapist in the room probing their story helps the couple acknowledge to each other that they are not alone in their worries about the future. Asking “Who am I now?” “Will I be able to find love again?” and “How can I recover from this and be happy?” to one another and answering injects a necessary vulnerability into the breakup.
It’s often the sharp feeling of being alone that rankles the most after a breakup — admitting that they are both worried allows an entry point for more softness between them.
We are the stories we tell ourselves. If you tell yourself your relationship ending is a tragedy, it will be. But it doesn’t have to be. When all the threads that have tethered you to a story are snapped, what you’re left with is the potential to reimagine your life.
Sarah Gundle, PsyD, is a clinical psychologist practicing in New York. She is an assistant professor in psychiatry at the Icahn School of Medicine, Mount Sinai Medical Center.
We welcome your comments on this column at OnYourMind@washpost.com.
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