How is the normal breakup process

How to best deal with a breakup

We shouldn't endure a separation with equanimity, says the psychiatrist Josef Aldenhoff. Feelings such as pain, anger and indignation are necessary to process the breakup: dealing well with them makes it easier to overcome the loss of the partner

GEO WISSEN: Professor Aldenhoff, is there a typical separation between two partners?

PROF. DR. JOSEF ALDENHOFF: Most often it goes like this: Two people fall in love, move in together, have children. They make money, maybe buy a house too. The obligations increase, the time for one's own needs decreases - soon a partner is drawn internally out of the relationship. The problem goes unnoticed at first, after a while there is often an outside relationship - and at the latest when it is discovered, it is difficult to keep the relationship. The couple split up, one person moves out. And how it goes from there depends very much on how much the two of them can refrain from their personal wounds.

How is it that many relationships end this way?

Having a happy partnership for years or even decades is a very demanding undertaking. It is by no means a matter of course to maintain mutual curiosity, interest, lust for one another and mutual respect over such a long period of time - we certainly did not have it in the cradle. And there are countless ways in which coexistence can fail due to the challenges of reality. There is nothing unusual about that.

Why do we still hurt so much breakups?

When something is stolen from me that is important to me, I feel pain: it's a natural reaction. In addition, a separation can always cause an offense, especially for the abandoned partner: Maybe I'm not lovable at all? Therefore strong feelings arise - injuries that the partners inflict on each other in conversations, outrage about the behavior of the other, less often self-criticism of one's own behavior.

Sometimes both partners are in favor of the breakup. Does that hurt less?

Even then, one person usually takes the initiative and the other has to deal with the decision.

I looked after a woman as a patient who had felt badly treated by her husband for years and finally decided: I will go, there is hardly anything that connects me with this person. The man happened to get ahead of her: he told her that he had a new girlfriend - and that he wanted to split up. Seen soberly, the circumstances seemed ideal for a painless breakup: Both partners wanted to end the relationship, neither was economically dependent on the other. But it didn't happen that way: the woman felt deeply offended and plunged into a long crisis, including suicidal thoughts.

Why did the woman feel that way?

Most of the time we are ambivalent when it comes to separations: a lot speaks against the partner, but mostly there are similarities that were at least nice in the memory. With such a conflict of ambivalence, which can be compared to a seesaw in which one side or the other predominates, the opposite position appears more attractive the moment the other takes the last position I held. For those affected, this is hardly transparent.

Do breakups hurt more when a third party is involved?

Infidelity certainly adds to the hurt. When my partner has an outside relationship, I feel reset towards the third person. Even if I am dissatisfied myself and perhaps already harboring thoughts of separation, I usually still attach great importance to the partner. And if he is looking for someone else, that devalues ​​me. Although if I looked at it honestly, I could also say: Two months later, this could have happened to me in reverse roles.

Do people make more demands on their partners today?

Many think that they are entitled to something in couple relationships: Because my partner is my husband or wife, he owes me a fulfilled emotional and physical relationship; if I am entitled to sex, the other must behave in accordance with my expectations of a happy coexistence. But this attitude destroys the relationship.

Love works differently: It has nothing to do with demands, but with curiosity and interest in the partner. Of course, they take a back seat when a couple lives together for a longer period of time. In small apartments there is often an additional factor: The couple is forced into a form of intimacy that is not necessarily beneficial for a fulfilling relationship. Offspring often exacerbates the problem.

Are there any signs of separation crises?

Often times, partners sense early on when their needs are starting to pull them out of a relationship. Anyone who understands this as a hint and talks about it with the partner can look for a solution. But many people avoid such conversations - until it's too late.

Some of my patients then caught the breakup out of the blue. A woman then says something like: We have been together for 30 years, have two almost grown-up children, my husband thought everything was great, we complemented each other well and had nice holidays. And then from one day to the next he says: I'm going.

And is that believable? Or is the abandoned woman just fooling herself, should have seen signs?

Unfortunately, it can actually go like this - for example, if the partner is not aware of his own feelings. This is not uncommon. Such a person hides his problems in a relationship, always saying “Everything is fine” - until he gets to know someone else and suddenly realizes: There is a new togetherness that is more attractive.

Something similar often happens to couples who got together very young: They develop symbiotic relationships in which they only talk about what they have in common, never about differences or opposites. If one partner is dissatisfied then, he cannot even talk to the other about it. And when he finally wants to separate, it actually comes out of nowhere for the other.

How do partners react then?

Such a breakup is very painful, insulting and triggers strong emotions. I remember a woman who felt fused with her partner in a long relationship. When the relationship broke up, she cut his suits in the closet with the kitchen knife. I can't imagine what would have happened if the man had come into the room in this situation.

After a breakup, is it helpful to part with items of memory in this way, perhaps even to destroy them?

In any case, it is important to allow negative feelings after a breakup. When I am outraged and angry, I have to give space to this emotion - in a form that suits me. Of course, I mustn't get violent, but I should make it clear to my partner what feelings I have, what hurts and hurts me. If you succeed in doing this after a breakup, it will be easier to find a way to say later: Now I have dealt with the emotional, now we can talk about how things will continue.

Can't a breakup be endured with a little more equanimity?

No. It is absolutely right for someone to feel pain and indignation in such a situation, and neither should one ignore or try to suppress these feelings: they will only occupy us longer. It is important to classify the pain correctly: it has something to do with what the partner has done - but it is not that this person reaches into me and implanted this feeling in me. The less I perceive my pain as being imposed from outside, the more I recognize it as a natural reaction of my own, the sooner I will be able to process the feeling and break away from it - and then no longer see the ex-partner only as the bad culprit .

But many abandoned people feel the same way.

When they are honest with themselves, they usually find that almost everything that goes on in normal separation processes is deeply human. There are exceptions, of course, but in most cases it is not that the partner is acting for the lowest of motives, is malicious, and intentionally wants to hurt the other.

If this is the only way I can understand and portray my breakup, in most cases I am just making a fool of myself. Or I get caught up in emotional battles that don't take me one step further.

Do discussions with the partner help? Or are the explanations always the same?

Both are possible. Anyone who wants to move forward in discussions about the breakup must openly discuss their feelings with their partner and address exactly which injuries and other emotions they are feeling. This is painful, but experience has shown that these feelings gradually subside. Conversations with friends that only repeatedly complain about the partner and the separation are of little use.

How much separation pain do you think is normal?

As a rule of thumb, I would say: If I had a good relationship, in which I felt validated and which meant a lot to me, and it ends after ten years, then it will certainly take me a year or two to get over it completely . However, if two years after the breakup I am still deeply desperate or aggressive when I see the other person, then I should seek help from a therapist.

Can a new relationship ease the pain?

Something like that means a new challenge that I am not up to if I have not emotionally processed the previous separation. Otherwise the new relationship will be burdened by problems that actually have to do with the ex-partner. Then the next separation soon follows, and the problem arises again.

Curious? You can read the whole interview in GEO WISSEN No. 62 "Overcoming life crises". You can use the magazine very easily order here in the GEO shop.