I remember going through my first major breakup. I sat in a therapist's office, clutching a box of scented tissues. I declared that I no longer believed in love: if love really existed, my relationship should have lasted. But it didn't. Love had failed me and I had failed at love.
Looking back, I know I didn't leave the relationship gracefully. I could have been so much more kind and compassionate to myself in the process. I could have found a way to honor my time with this man. But I didn't know how.
Our culture is addicted to the romance narrative. We're sold on some variation of "meeting the one," that's for sure. But have you ever noticed that there are no models for how to end a relationship well and with integrity? The same way we assume every person ought to meet "the one," we tend to assume that all breakups will be messy and stressful.
When a couple decides to commit for the long-term or to marry, there's usually an implicit assumption made by both parties that you will be partners for life. Once you've tied the knot (either officially or unofficially), the typical assumption is that the relationship will last till death.
But these days, humans live a very long time. During the upper Paleolithic period of human history (roughly 50,000 BC to 10,000 BC) the average human life expectancy at birth was about 33. Today, it averages 76 and 81, for men and women.
If we continue to make the "till death to us part" assumption in our relationships, we're now expecting to live 40 years longer with the same person. Plus, our context is different. Women are no longer expected to rely on their husbands for food and shelter. Opportunities for personal growth are skyrocketing — for both genders.
Sure, some couples manage to keep love and passion alive throughout a long-term partnership or one marriage, but I'd argue that we need to shift our assumptions about relationships. The same way we can begin to rethink the idea of "meeting the one," we can rethink the language of breaking up.
Here's how …
1. Ditch the idea of failure.
Breaking up does not have to mean you failed or the relationship failed. It does not mean you are inadequate or unworthy of a healthy, supportive partnership. Your relationship may be ending, but the pain doesn't have to be exacerbated by attaching it to the idea of failure — and it doesn't have to be filled with drama, anger and resentment!
There's already a movement beginning around these ideas following Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin's "conscious uncoupling" — a far less dramatic (and more subtle) term than "divorce" or "separation."
2. Think of your ex as a teacher.
Ask yourself, "What if I'm not breaking up with my partner to end something, but to open up space and time to create something new?" If you look at your partner as a teacher and your relationship as a place for personal and spiritual evolution, then you can stop viewing the conclusion of a relationship as a failure and shift the focus to the key lessons.
If you start looking at your ex-partner as one of your greatest teachers, it's easier to see their role as pointing you toward the places you have to heal and take responsibility for so that you show up differently in the future. And this is a blessing!
3. Remember that everything is a two-way street.
In a relationship — and especially in a breakup — there are no bad guys, just two people, teaching each other. If you understand that this ex-lover was playing an important role in your evolution then you'll be more likely to receive the gift from your time together. Then "uncoupling" won't have to include years of complaining to your friends over multiple whiskeys, or regretfully "Facebook stalking" your ex. Instead, you can — and will be likely to feel — whole and complete.
So if your relationship is coming to an end, you don't have to see it as a failure. If you're willing to give up being right, you may actually be able to honor each other and the time you've had together. It may take some time and some processing.
Ending a relationship does not have to devastate your sense of self. It will make you stronger, and could even be beautiful.