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Ending a relationship is almost always painful, even if you’re the one who initiated it.  The relationship started with hopes and dreams; now it is drawing to a close.  Even a relationship that has grown lifeless has a familiarity and comfort about it:  the little daily routines that stitch life together will be missed.  Small wonder, then, that some couples try to end the relationship without…actually ending the relationship.

Maybe there’s a decision to end the commitment to one another, but the daily phone calls at work continue, or the text messages throughout the day.  Or a couple continues to share space, friends, even families together just as before the breakup.  Sometimes the time spent together is almost as much as it was before, and life’s little intimacies continue unabated.  Friends may even wonder….didn’t the two of you call it quits?  We can’t tell!

This is what I call the “breakupless breakup,” the desire to end a relationship without actually disrupting the connection between the two people involved.  It’s the fantasy that you can end the relationship without truly separating.  It often fails to recognize that sometimes pain in life is unavoidable.

Couples ending a relationship often say they want to stay friends.  That’s understandable.  Unless there was a great sense of hurt or infidelity, the desire to hang on to the connection between former partners makes a certain sense.  But often that desire to be friends is actually a form of denial or codependence.  Concern for the other’s feelings has taken precedence over doing the important work of separation that is necessary if both people are to move on.  The result is typically feeling stuck.  In fact, if one former partner actually does move on and start to date, the other person may feel a sense of betrayal.

When a relationship begins, it takes time for two people to truly grow connected.  Lives and emotions become entangled and interconnected.  The two grow closer together.  The work of separation is just the opposite:  withdrawing involvement and investment in the other.  This separation work is important if the former partners are to move on.  Put another way:  he or she must move out of that special place in your heart if there is to be space for someone else to move in.

Friendships – even close ones – are different from romantic relationships.  It is almost always necessary for significant amount of a time to pass before a friendship can be established post-relationship.  If that time is not permitted to occur, the situation is likely to be confusing and painful.  One chapter must close before another can begin.

If you find yourself stuck in the post-relationship limbo of a breakupless breakup, there are steps you can take to move on:

  • Talk with your ex about setting boundaries.  This is a courtesy conversation; if your ex doesn’t recognize the importance of establishing some distance, your task is to establish boundaries on your own.  In fact…
  • Recognizing that your responsibility is now to yourself and not to your ex’s happiness is an important piece of separation work.
  • Spend less time together.  If your goal is to maintain a friendship, then remember that your ex is one friend among many now.  Granting that person special access to your schedule is a problem.
  • Communicate less.  Talking or texting almost as much as you did when you were a couple keeps your emotions more intense than is helpful.  Dial it back.
  • Depend on yourself.  Maybe you always relied on the other person to help you with certain tasks or responsibilities.  That help now comes at a significant cost.  Take charge of your own life.
  • Let your emotions cool.  If you find yourself preoccupied with news about your ex, you are staying hooked together.  Learn to let it go.  Instead of worrying about how he/she is doing, give yourself a little mantra, something like “I wish Steve peace and happiness” or “I wish Jessica well.”  And let it go.  If  you are really worried that your ex needs support, suggest they get professional help rather than rely on you.

Breaking up is hard, but if you have decided to do it, do it well.  Doing so leaves you with less unfinished business and allows you to move forward toward greater happiness.