NYC Psychotherapist Blog

power by WikipediaMindmap

Monday, May 16, 2016

Being Honest in Your Relationship: Are You Taking Time Apart or Breaking Up?

The expression "Taking time apart" is often used by one or both people in a relationship when what they really mean is "Let's breakup."  In my prior articles, I've addressed the issue of being honest in relationships (see my articles: Relationships and Lies of Omission).

Are You Taking Time Apart or Breaking Up?

In this article, I'm addressing an important issue that often leaves people feeling betrayed because of the lack of honesty involved.

I hope to encourage people in a relationship that really know it's over to be honest rather than giving your spouse or partner false hope in order to avoid the unpleasantness of a breakup.

Of course, there are times when one or both people aren't sure if they want to stay together or not and "taking time apart" is a way for each of them to discover how they really feel about the relationship.  As long as both people are as honest as they can be with themselves and with each other, I don't see a problem with this (see my article: Your Relationship: Should You Stay or Should You Go?)

What I'm referring to is a situation where, usually, one person really wants to leave the relationship and the other wants to try to salvage it.  The one who wants to leave knows it's over, but s/he wants to avoid the messiness of a breakup by calling it "time apart" rather than being honest that s/he knows they're not getting back together once they've parted.

This leads to false hope for the one who wants to stay and overall misunderstandings.

I've seen this dynamic many times in couples therapy where a couple comes to talk about relationship issues and, sometimes in the first session, the one who originally said they wanted to take a break reveals that s/he wants it to be over and then says that the other individual in the relationship should use the therapy session for him or herself.

In those instances, the one who wants "out" knew all along that, even though s/he agreed to couples sessions, s/he planned to leave the partner off in my office so that I could be the one to deal with the partner's heartbreak over the breakup.

In those circumstances, the person who wanted to salvage the relationship is not only heartbroken but also feels betrayed because it quickly becomes apparent that this was the intention all along of coming to the therapy session--to avoid taking responsibility for ending the relationship and the emotional aftermath that goes with that.

Not only is this unfair to the partner who wants to remain, it's also unfair the person who wanted to end it.  Even when someone knows that it's over, s/he usually has feelings about it.  There might be feelings of relief, but there is usually sadness too because most relationships, even ones that are ending, had good aspects to them at some point.  There was love at one point and other positive emotions.  It's not like throwing away yesterday's newspaper.

There is a responsibility, in most circumstances, to a spouse or partner to be your "best self" when  you're breaking up and this involves honesty, kindness and a willingness to help him or her to understand what's happening in the relationship.  (I say "in most circumstances" because there are times when it's too dangerous to stay in a relationship.  If a spouse or partner is being abusive, the person who is leaving may have to seek safety for him or herself and the children.  Then, once everyone is safe, s/he can use the social service system to negotiate the problems.)

Let's take a look at a fictionalized vignette, which is based on many different cases, to understand this phenomenon.

Mary and Dan
Mary and Dan had been living together for 10 years.  During the last year, they had been arguing a lot about money, whether or not to have children, and whether to stay in NYC or to move.

Are You Taking Time Apart or Breaking Up?

They were both in their 20s when they originally got together and these issues weren't on their minds.  But during the last two years, Mary told Dan that she wanted to get pregnant because she feared that if she waited any longer, she might not be able to have children.

Dan told her that, even though he liked children, he wasn't sure if he wanted to have children at this point.  He also wanted to leave NYC and move out West.  But Mary said she couldn't leave her job now because her career in her company was just starting to take off in a big way.

Mary wanted to save more money, but Dan liked to spend freely.

After months of bickering, Dan told Mary that he thought it was best that they "take time apart." He proposed that he move out for a couple of months so they could each have time and "space" from each other.

Mary wasn't in favor of Dan moving out, but he assured her that this would only be temporary and he wasn't breaking up with her.

Reluctantly, Mary agreed to this, but it still made her feel anxious.  She had childhood memories of her parents "trial separation" when her father told her mother that he needed his "space," but shortly afterwards, he filed for divorce.  This made Mary suspicious about Dan's intentions, but she had only known Dan to be honest and she decided to take him at his word.

Are You Taking Time Apart or Breaking Up?

They set the terms of their temporary separation--they would have occasional phone contact, but not see each other for the next two months.  At that point, according to Dan, he wanted to them to talk again about their issues without arguing.

Mary was lonely and worried during their separation.  She really wanted to work things out.

Are You Taking Time Apart or Breaking Up?

Six weeks into their separation, Dan told Mary that he would like to attend couples counseling because he felt it would help them.  Mary took this as a hopeful sign that Dan was serious about resolving their problems so she agreed.

During their consultation with a couples therapist, Mary spoke first.  She talked about how much she loved Dan and wanted to work things out.  She said she was happy that he was open to seeing a couples therapist so they could get help.

When it was Dan's turn to speak, he spoke directly to the couples therapist, he told her that he no longer wanted to be in the relationship and he wanted to come to the session so that Mary would have a place to talk about the breakup.

Both Mary and the couples therapist were surprised because this isn't how Dan originally presented what he wanted.  But based on his confident tone and demeanor, it was obvious that he had already made up his mind.

Stunned, Mary asked him how long he knew that he wanted to end the relationship, and Dan admitted that he knew it before they separated, but he thought that "time apart" would make it easier for both of them rather than telling Mary before he moved out.

Mary was angry and sad.  She told Dan how betrayed she felt that he wasn't honest with her from the beginning.

Dan reluctantly agreed to come to three more sessions for closure.  He would have preferred to not return and to leave Mary to work things out with the therapist.  However, he also felt guilty for hurting Mary, which wasn't his intention.

As he talked about his family background, it became clear that he came from a family that avoided talking about sensitive issues, which was why his arguments with Mary were so difficult for him.  He was able to recognize in therapy that he was being avoidant and he approached the breakup in a dishonest and hurtful way.

Mary remained in therapy to deal with the heartbreak of the current breakup as well as the early unresolved childhood trauma of her parents' divorce.  With time, she was able to work through her feelings (see my article:  Learning From Past Romantic Relationships).

Are You Taking Time Apart or Breaking Up?

Eventually, she was able safe enough to allow herself to be vulnerable enough to date again, looking for the qualities in a romantic partner that she now recognized were very important to her.

Breakups aren't easy.  No one wants to go through the pain of a breakup, but being honest about your feelings to yourself as well as to your partner is best for both of you.

Breaking up is hard enough without adding dishonest and feelings of betrayal to your problems.

You might have a history of being avoidant in terms of dealing with difficult feelings and, if so, you could benefit from getting help in therapy to be able to cope with and express difficult feelings.

Even if you feel you're avoiding the unpleasantness with the current breakup, you'll probably face the same issues in the future in other relationships where emotional honesty is so important.

Getting Help in Therapy
Whether you're seeking help for yourself or as a couple, a licensed mental health professional who has experience working with relationship issues can help to either salvage the relationship or make the transition to breaking up.

If you're seeking couples therapy, it's important that both of you feel comfortable with the therapist (see my article: How to Choose a Psychotherapist).

Rather than waiting for the situation to get worse, you owe it to yourself and to your partner to get help.

About Me
I am a licensed New York City psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist who works with individuals and couples.

I have worked successfully with many individuals and couples on relationship issues.

To find out more about me, visit my website:  Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.