Many people break up at least once with a partner, and then get back together. Read more to gain perspective on why this happens, and how to deal more effectively with cycles like these.
As a dating and relationship coach, I often get the question of, “Why can’t I let this person go?” Distressed clients will torment about their belief that they are lacking the rationality and the strength to simply let a break up be, and move on with their life. To their dismay, and that of their whole community, an individual will either keep breaking up and getting back together with someone, or they feel they are unable to move on and heal from a breakup. It is generally believed that a break up and reunion cycle that repeats, is clearly a sign of pathology, lack of self-control, lack of discipline, an abusive dynamic, an addiction, and/or a sign of the inability to tolerate grief and transition. Anyone in this position is automatically assumed to be disempowered and practicing self-deception.
Of course, everyone and their grandmother, wants to save someone from the pain of this experience, and has advice for how to deal with these experiences. Because it is a commonly accepted reality that breaking up and getting back together is “wrong”, people often do not shy away from offering their words of “wisdom”, even if it further adds to the shame, disempowerment, and confusion the individuals in these dynamics experience.
In fact, many of these words of “wisdom”, are often thinly veiled judgments and shaming, basically informing the afflicted partner they are needing to experience and do something different than what and where they are at. They get the continued reflection that somehow they and their experience is not enough somehow, and is clearly “wrong”, and they are not “where” they should be, and lack something important within, otherwise they wouldn’t be “stuck”.
This advice comes in some main phrases of advice:
“Block them and go no contact for at least thirty days.”
“Date around and you will remember there are more fish in the sea, and then lose the desire to be with them again.”
“Read this book/website, and it will help you remember to stay away from them.”
“Keep yourself busy. Make new friends. Do new things. Discover a better life, with things you love doing, and this will help you move on.”
“Text or call your friends if you are considering contacting them, during a weak moment.”
“Don’t let toxic people into your life anymore. Learn to love yourself instead.”
“This is your time to be alone, and to learn to embrace being single and enjoying time with yourself.”
And the list goes on. Many of these phrases can be helpful for those who already have a firm grasp on a break up, but not for those who seem to repeat a cycle.
Even coaches, therapists, doctors, and other care providers continue to reaffirm to the afflicted party, that somehow they cannot trust themselves, are not enough, and their process is somehow wrong. There are books and methods based on the assumption that these authorities in our communities know better about how one should be living their life, in regard to cycles like this, and will thus capitalize on providing advice about how to end the cycle.
As of the past 10 years, there has been a rise in communities and care practitioners using Attachment Theory as a basis for justifying their pathologizing of break up and reunion cycles, and also to reaffirm their methods.
I would like to share a short background here with you about Attachment Theory. In the current understanding and research of adult attachment, Attachment Theory generally proclaims that about 50% of the adult population has what might be referred to as Secure Attachment, while the other half has Insecure Attachment. Those with Secure Attachment are said to experience comfort and a lack of anxiety with closeness, intimacy, and separation (time apart from those they are intimate with). These individuals generally have good self-worth, are aware of their own wants, needs, boundaries, and identities, have relative ease in taking responsibility for their actions in life and relationship, feel confident about their self and their lovability, and they understand their responsibility to engage in mutually respectful, gratifying, loving, and supportive interactions with loved ones. Thus, when paired with others who have Secure Attachment, these people tend to experience perhaps one breakup, which stays final. They also tend to gravitate towards marriage, may marry younger, and experience more ease in dealing with daily married life. They also may successfully be able to navigate all sorts of alternative relationship configurations, where all parties involved feel honored, loved, and supported. Conflict and challenges/stressors in life and in the relationship, whether they are married or not, are said to be dealt with efficiently, patiently, and effectively, leading to very little escalation or damage.These individuals are said to be rather mature, stable and even-keeled, and are what you might refer to as those who don’t generate “drama” in their lives.
The other 50% of us adults with Insecure Attachment are said to experience relationships that are marked by greater escalation, conflict, hurt feelings, instability, discomfort, and “drama”, so to speak. Those with the more extreme elements of Insecure Attachment are said to have remarkably low self-worth, though they may be entirely unconscious of it, and instead project their low self-worth outward as the devaluation of others, or through choosing partners who will victimize them. These individuals are said to have challenges with identifying and expressing needs and boundaries, and are uncomfortable either with getting close, or with time apart, or both, and employ multiple harmful and ineffective strategies to guard against the anticipated or felt pain, fear, and anxiety of partnership. Some of these strategies involve engaging in addictive behaviors or activities, using advanced defense mechanisms that allow them to unconsciously avoid accountability for their own pain and fear (whether single or in partnership), or choosing to isolate oneself, or conversely overly rely on others for support. These types of people could be referred to as codependent or commitment-phobic, and either are single for long periods of time, or might practice serial monogamy or unsuccessful polygamous or open relationships that are based in dishonesty and exploitation. Insecure romantic relationships may be punctuated with multiple breakups or threats for breaking up, may include cheating of some sort (or close calls), and both parties spending a great amount of time blaming and shaming one another within the relationship. These are the relationships that people label as “dysfunctional”.
Though it is potentially helpful to understand this basic categorization of adult attachment and relationships, how people (communities and care practitioners) tend to use this information, ends up perpetuating shame for those caught in break-up and reunion cycles.
Essentially, all of us Insecurely Attached folk, are viewed as all needing to strive for what it is to behave and experience relationship and the self as a Securely Attached person might. And, if our internal experience of relationship doesn’t fit with Secure Attachment patterns, we are supposed to somehow fake it till we make it, and coach ourselves out of being Insecurely Attached. The main question we are supposed to be asking ourselves is, “What would a Securely Attached person do right now?” This might help behaviorally, but I believe the underlying consequence of this question are also further self-alienation, confusion, and mistrust of one’s own natural experience. It continues to perpetuate the experience of being fundamentally wrong and not enough, which is the core of the issue with Insecure Attachment, to begin with.
So, what if as a culture and society, we scrapped this method? What might we do instead? How might we create a method for addressing break up and reunion cycles that truly supports the individuals experiencing them, rather than heaping greater shame and self-doubt and confusion upon them?
I am here suggesting we try the method of honoring the perfection and rightness in the processes of these individuals. I know- you may be questioning whether I am suggesting to enable people to continue these destructive and harmful cycles. I am suggesting we loosen our definition of what it is to support, and let go of fearing we are enabling another, in this context. I am suggesting we acknowledge that relationships are far more complex than, say, a drug addiction, and that we don’t need to be so focused on helping the afflicted parties with “quitting” each other, but rather should back off and allow for a process.
So, what is the “process” I speak of? I am suggesting we shift the focus from them reaching a decision or outcome, to actually encouraging people in these cycles to investigate the important information and wisdom they have access to, right now, in the situation as it is occurring. To shift into the perspective, that everything is actually occurring just as it should, and is right for the individuals involved, because this is their life, and their path of learning, healing, and growing. The result of doing this, will lead individuals involved to feel more empowered, and will teach them to trust their own process, while learning to release shame. Additionally, it will allow them to address what it is they are learning through this process that will either help them become more Securely Attached in their life, or will at least contribute to their larger healing and growth process, and the ways they can also help others from the unique wisdom they are acquiring. So, instead of being helpless victims in their own experience, needing to be saved by others, these individuals can learn to love and honor themselves, and experience themselves stepping into their power as beings who have a lot to offer the world, from having been through these experiences themselves.
Paradoxically, supporting those in breakup and reunion cycles to trust their own process, and deeply pay attention to this cycle bringing them their own growth and wisdom, though it may appear as a form of enabling, will actually help them evolve into a person and a partnership that either completely chooses the relationship, where breakups decrease or become non-existent, or they choose to finally end the relationship for good.
Remember my words when sitting with a friend who feels ashamed, stuck and overwhelmed with their own breakup and reunion cycle, and see if you might be able to support them in this new way.