DAMONA HOFFMAN, HOST:
This is NPR's LIFE KIT. I'm Damona Hoffman, the host of the "Dates & Mates" podcast. And for over 15 years as a dating coach, I've helped singles write dating profiles, create strategies for finding love and move into successful relationships. But what happens when your relationship isn't going so well?
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HOFFMAN: When you get that sinking feeling that you might have chosen wrong, or you may have grown apart, or you just can't take the arguments and frustrations anymore - what do you do? What are the signs that it's time to break up?
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: The person that I was in that relationship was not necessarily who I felt like I was or who I could be.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: During the pandemic time, then we were always home. It was just like, after some time, we would just sometimes argue about something that was meaningless.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: When he refused to pick me up from the airport, I knew that something was off.
HOFFMAN: When you know it's time to end the relationship, how do you find the right words? How do you untangle the life you've lived together? Financial or family pressure often makes it impossible to move out. And sometimes you talk yourself out of it because you don't want to hurt the other person or you think that things could get better - one day. But as I tell my "Dates & Mates" podcast listeners and clients, this is your life, and you only get to live it once, so how you spend it and who you spend it with really matters.
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HOFFMAN: On today's episode of NPR's LIFE KIT, we'll talk to experts and people who've had to end relationships - a few for some pretty surprising reasons - and we'll tell you the steps to take if you're considering a breakup, how to consciously uncouple and how to move on.
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HOFFMAN: You're thinking about breaking up. And I know - you have your reasons. But everyone's line in the sand is different.
SUSAN WINTER: If you find that you're at the point that you have such deep resentments - there have been betrayals, dishonesty. Maybe your partner has a secret life - ongoing bickering. There's a lack of conflict resolution. It's just that no matter what you do, it cannot be fixed. It's at that point that you will begin to consider separating.
HOFFMAN: That's Susan Winter. She's a New York-based relationship expert and author of the book "Breakup Triage: The Cure For Heartbreak." Susan helps people navigate the complex decision to break up, but sometimes the decision isn't so straightforward.
You could be in what I define as a boomerang breakup situation. You keep trying to end it, but then you get drawn back in, break up again, get back together. You know the drill. Some people even threaten a breakup as a tactic to get the relationship back on track. But this only makes things messier.
WINTER: Don't cry wolf. It's very confusing.
HOFFMAN: How many times before it's really over do you have a fight or a feeling of doubt that you just can't shake, and you think, this could be the end? The process of sorting through the pros and cons can be murky, says John Paul Brammer, the writer behind the popular advice column Hola
JOHN PAUL BRAMMER: Most of us have a sort of council room in our heads where we sort of adjourn the voices. We bring them all together. And it's the ones that we listen to that sort of make all the difference. And I think that part of the problem is sometimes people really amplify the voices of their insecurities over everything else.
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HOFFMAN: This is Takeaway No. 1 - clarify your feelings about your relationship.
BRAMMER: I think it all comes down to which voices in your head you're privileging.
HOFFMAN: If you're struggling to sort through all of those competing voices in your mind, Susan Winter says try couples counseling. That way you can talk those voices out. Yet even before you get to the point of going to counseling, it helps to have clarity on your own thoughts and feelings. One great tool for doing this is journaling. It helps you figure out what you need and want and identify clear language to communicate those things to your partner. Remember - your partner is not a mind reader.
Also, as you move into these tough conversations, take a page out of Kenny Rogers' book. You got to know when to hold them and know when to fold them.
WINTER: There are some battles you just have to let go. They're not that important. You don't have to win all the time. But you need to know your bottom line on the battles that you must have, the things - your bottom line of what you need to have to feel safe and secure.
HOFFMAN: Sometimes the bottom line is established by the other person, and you have a chance to meet their need or move on. My friend Jack A. Daniels is a psychotherapist who helps people navigate these tough boundaries. He's also learned how to help people through heartbreak because he's been through it himself.
JACK A DANIELS: You know, you can't have a breakthrough without something breaking in your life. I married my college sweetheart, and it was a relationship that was sort of like one of those sent-from-heaven things. We were the it couple. We were together for nine years. But we were failing to have children, and it took its toll on the marriage. And eventually, she came home one day and she said, you know, I'd rather be alone than to be married and to have something that I can have than to come home and to look at you every single day.
HOFFMAN: Jack was powerless to change his wife's perspective at that point. But so many microdecisions and situations take place before someone finally ends it. If your relationship feels suspended in limbo, here's how you'll know it's time to call it quits.
DANIELS: When the pain of staying outweighs the pain of leaving, it's time to go.
HOFFMAN: When you've done the work, tried counseling, asked yourself and your partner the tough questions and done what you can to improve the situation, you might be at the breaking point. Once the decision is made, the deed needs to be done. Let's be real - this conversation is always weird and uncomfortable, but you can mentally prepare yourself for how you'd like to deliver the news.
Takeaway No. 2 - decide how and when to have the talk.
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WINTER: You need to sit your partner down, tell them what the issues are. And I'm sure at this point they know as well. They are really aware that things have not been right. And you explain to them what you want and need and that you have found that it's impossible in this relationship, despite all your efforts, and that you think that it's time to separate. And allow them to speak, too.
HOFFMAN: I know what you're thinking - awkward, right? Wouldn't it be easier to just send a text? Jack says, no way.
DANIELS: Don't do it or take the cheap way out. Like, make sure that you are courageous enough to give the person the just due that they deserve.
HOFFMAN: There are so many ways to convey the news, and not all of them are emotionally equal. Think about how your partner might take the news and whether this will come out of left field or if they could be expecting it and thinking it, too. Either way, it'll probably go more smoothly if you give them a heads-up. As cliche as it is to say we need to talk, it can actually set the stage for a better breakup.
BRAMMER: No one likes hearing that. It means something bad is about to happen. But it exists as a sort of shock absorption because you don't want to just, like, drop it all at someone's feet all at once. So I would say find time that suits you both in your schedule to set the intention to talk about something that's difficult to talk about so that they can enter that space prepared.
HOFFMAN: Susan Winter believes you should do it in a private space. She's never been a fan of the big, dramatic restaurant breakup scenes in movies. But Jack actually witnessed one in real life. I'm talking full-on crying, begging, pleading-him-to-stay kind of breakup. After that, he came to the conclusion that it was better to do it in public. Why?
DANIELS: Because that way she ain't going to kill you.
HOFFMAN: OK, OK. The stakes might not be that high. But you should consider how your partner will react before you decide when and where to do it. Then you need to find the right words.
BRAMMER: I would suggest not writing a script for it, but writing down your thoughts, what you want to get across, some, you know, positive things sprinkled in there. You know, mention how much you do care about them and mention that, you know, you don't want to hurt them and that this is a decision that you reached because of X, Y and Z. I have always found that writing my thoughts down can help me sort of preempt a lot of the mistakes that I would otherwise make if I wasn't prepared.
WINTER: The more that you highlight the good that has happened and thank them for their participation in your life, I think the easier it is to move on.
HOFFMAN: Though, as a dating coach, I know that the words don't always come out exactly as you envisioned it, and the person might not really hear or accept what you've said the first time. This could be a series of smaller conversations. But if you're steadfast in your decision, they'll eventually get the message.
WINTER: Be focused. Be present. Be kind. Be clear. Be direct,
HOFFMAN: And it should go without saying, but while commonly practiced, ghosting is not a strategy that I nor any of the experts on this episode recommend.
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HOFFMAN: So you've broken the silence and spoken your truth. Now it's time to move on. Takeaway No. 3 - plan out how to separate. When you've been with someone for months or years, your lives become more deeply intertwined, and the process of moving on might mean splitting up friendships, property, pets and even families.
WINTER: There is no other way to say it - the life that you've created up to this point is going to dramatically change. So the best thing you can try to do is get your partner to be an ally in the big picture, which is - let's be as civil and kind and thoughtful as possible to create a transition that's healthy for everybody concerned.
HOFFMAN: One thing people ask me as a dating coach is how can I do this amicably? And, of course, can you be friends with an ex?
WINTER: You cannot be friends if you are still romantically or sexually attracted to them or if they are to you because then you are simply a lover in waiting.
HOFFMAN: Then there's the question of social media friendship. You might be tempted to unfriend and erase their digital presence in your life immediately.
BRAMMER: If you block someone, that can be part of a really healing process, or it can be something that you did out of spite in a moment of weakness. And I think it's important to, you know, really consider why you're doing it. I think we've been conditioned to think that if you're blocking someone or muting someone, it must mean you really dislike them or you don't value them, when there's something actively hostile about it. I think sometimes it's a matter of making sure you're taking care of yourself by tailoring your social media experience a little bit around this heartache you're experiencing.
HOFFMAN: Even after a social media snooze, it can take some time for your feelings towards your ex to change, for that irritation, anger or sadness to dissipate.
Takeaway No. 4 - take time to heal and gain perspective on yourself and the relationship ending. At the beginning, the emotions are very raw.
WINTER: The first 24 hours, the first week of a breakup, it's like you're emotionally bleeding out. I feel like a field medic going out and wrapping up the wound. It's so crucial to get the person stabilized.
HOFFMAN: They say time heals all wounds. Assuming this is true, you'll eventually move into the next phase - getting perspective on the relationship.
WINTER: Review your part in it. So many times when there's a breakup, we have been accumulating resentment against our former partner, and so all we see is ourselves as the victim. Try to look at yourself from your partner's viewpoint and say, where could I have been better in this?
HOFFMAN: This means doing a little self-inquiry, maybe asking yourself things like, how could I have been more patient? How could I have communicated better? Could I have addressed the issue sooner?
WINTER: Now is a time to clean up everything - clean it up, move it forward, fix what can be fixed and be a better version of yourself for the next relationship.
HOFFMAN: Regret commonly comes up in this phase. As we are in the uncomfortable place of rebuilding our life, we start to wonder if we made the right choice, and we romanticize the past. Snap out of it.
DANIELS: Realize that your ex became your ex for a reason. And you need to focus on the issue and not the individual. And I think that oftentimes people get that so misconstrued. It wasn't the individual that made this relationship so toxic, that made this relationship so dysfunctional.
HOFFMAN: What did you accept in the relationship that wasn't in alignment with your goals or values? How did you co-create the outcome of this relationship? If you don't get clear on this now, you'll drag your emotional wounds right into the next relationship and find yourself reliving the same dynamic. You might not be able to find closure with the other person.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: He turned it into this nightmare thing, refused to speak to me after, ran out the bathroom into the night. And that was the last time I saw him.
HOFFMAN: You might need to dive into a new hobby or practice to get clear.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: I ran every single day. I would be sad very often, and I knew that jumping into another relationship would just be terrible. But I didn't know what to do, so I just kept running. And then after 2 1/2 months, I ran a marathon.
HOFFMAN: You could need a phase of healing and reflecting that you officially name.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: I started an official dating hiatus. And it kind of became a joke with my friends - like, oh, well, don't ask Christie (ph) to do this with us because she's on dating hiatus.
HOFFMAN: Other listeners mentioned writing cathartic letters, going back to school and talking to a therapist as effective ways to heal after a challenging breakup. The timeline for healing differs from person to person.
DANIELS: I have a timeline to not date and - actually, 30 days at least to not date anyone but to just date yourself in terms of getting to know who you are and who you want to become. And once you do that, I think that you start to see things a little more differently. Things will start to align in your life, and other people will start to come around.
And if you start to get those other examples versus just your single friends, opportunities will start to present themselves, and you'll start to attract the thing that you desire the most. But you've got to get clear about who you are, where you're going and, most importantly, what it is that you actually want from life and from love.
HOFFMAN: If you want another relationship - a healthier, happier one, of course - you'll have to take some action to make it happen. Unless your dream date is delivering packages or your dinner order, they're not going to just come up and knock on your door.
Takeaway No. 5 - get back out there and open yourself up to love again.
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HOFFMAN: While I'm a big fan of online dating - it's how I met my husband and how so many of my clients have found love after a breakup - I didn't find a lot of love for the dating apps among our experts.
WINTER: Most people use online dating simply to broaden the scope of prospective partners. But it is a beast unto itself.
HOFFMAN: Even John Paul, whose advice column Hola Papi began on the blog for the dating app Grindr, isn't the biggest fan.
BRAMMER: I recognize it as this sort of hellscape that if something good happens to come out of it, that's fine, but my expectations are, like, below the earth (laughter).
HOFFMAN: There are other ways to make a connection.
BRAMMER: My go-to for that was always, like, to join a hobby group or some sort of, like, workout group because, you know, I've experienced a lot of success that my readers have with, like, of all things, hiking groups. You know, you can have a lot of time for conversation and the mutual shared interest of being outdoors.
HOFFMAN: I say dating apps must be at least some part of your dating plan, especially in the age of a global pandemic. And with over 25 million people using dating apps in the U.S. alone, it certainly will provide you with the greatest number of options. No matter how you get there, you can find love again. And though there's always risk of another heartbreak, there's also a chance of a happy ending for you.
Hot tip from a dating coach - when you do write that dating profile, make sure you keep it positive. And don't dwell on all the things that didn't work with your last partner - you know, those grand statements that begin with, don't even match me if - go ahead and delete them now. Yes, I'm serious. Speaking of staying positive, remember Jack's story? Well, it has a happy ending, too. After his first marriage ended, he found the courage to love again.
DANIELS: I met my dream girl, who is absolutely amazing. And every respect we - you know, we fell in love, and now she gave me three little baby girls that we have. This has been a wonderful ride, and it keeps getting better every single day.
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HOFFMAN: Maybe your happy ending looks like Jack's, with marriage and kids. Or maybe you have a different idea of the right relationship for you. Either way, I'll remind you of the advice I give my "Dates & Mates" podcast listeners - we only get to live this wonderful ride of life once, as far as we know, and it's up to you to choose the people you're riding with. If you're not in the relationship of your dreams and you've done everything you can to try to salvage it, you owe it to yourself and your partner to move on. You never know what happy ending could be awaiting you on the other side.
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HOFFMAN: Let's review what we learned about how to break up today. No. 1 - clarify your feelings about the relationship. No. 2 - determine how and when to have the talk. No. 3 - plan out the separation process. No. 4 - give yourself time and space to heal. And No. 5 - get back out there and live your best love life.
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HOFFMAN: Special thanks to all the listeners that contributed to this episode - Mauricio Alarcon (ph), Jackie Calleaea (ph), Alexander Rodriguez (ph), Liz Mann (ph), Christie Spencer (ph).
For more LIFE KIT, check out our other episodes. We have episodes on friendship, a great episode on forgiveness, another on long-distance relationships and lots more. You can find those at npr.org/lifekit. And if you love LIFE KIT and want more, subscribe to our newsletter at npr.org/lifekitnewsletter.
And as always, here's a completely random tip, this time from listener Hannah Toops (ph).
HANNAH TOOPS: If you get hair dye on any surface, you can take it off with a one-to-one mixture of baking soda and dish soap. I usually use Dawn. And this can get any hair dye, from black to red and everything in between, out of skin, granite, ceramic - everything.
HOFFMAN: Do you have a random tip? Leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823, or email us a voicemail at email@example.com.
This episode was produced by Andee Tagle. Meghan Keane is the managing producer. Beth Donovan is our senior editor. Our digital editor is Claire Lombardo. And our editorial assistant is Clare Marie Schneider. Leo Schell Villanueva, my "Dates & Mates" podcast producer, also contributed. I'm Damona Hoffman. Thanks for listening.
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