For as many people as there are who dream of being with the right person, there are as many who dread breaking up with the wrong person.
Recently, there was a good deal of press about a study by social psychologists Ethan Kross and Marc Berman reporting that social rejection from an unwanted break-up was registered in the same regions of the brain activated when people experience painful sensations in their body. Clearly having someone break-up with you is not only emotionally but physically painful.
Is it equally painful to be the person who sets in motion the break-up?
While we may not yet have the MRI scans, most have personally experienced or witnessed through family and friends that breaking up is, in fact, “hard to do.” What I have found to be a commonly voiced deterrent for both men and women is the fear of being the bad one.
What Does this Reflect?
Whether the fear of “ being the bad one” is self-reflection or the expected judgment by the other partner, the fear of breaking up is complex and is underscored by human drive, attachment needs, sense of self, dependency issues, historical and cultural expectations.
The Need for Connection
While early Freudian thinking considered that man was motivated by sexual and aggressive drives that needed to be defended and sublimated, later ego psychologists defined man’s main drive as object seeking. We need and want connection. Yes we have sexual and aggressive feelings but these are intimately related to connections with others.
The Pain of Disconnection
While there are those unable to make a connection who have a lifetime pattern of serial relationships, most people feel upset disrupting connection – particularly if the other wants to stay connected.
The Importance of Attachment
Our physical and psychological survival is based on early maternal-infant attachment and secure attachment is based on attunement.
When we meet someone with whom we may want a romantic relationship, early interest and chemistry both propels and invites attunement. To break that attachment be it 6 months or 6 years later means disrupting an empathic bond- something that usually offers stability.
The Trap of Over-Empathy
Over-empathy for the other’s needs – at the cost of your own is a powerful trap that can keep you feeling bad and deprived. It has made people walk up the aisle knowing that they were not happy to be marrying the person waiting at the altar but unable “to hurt, disappoint, or ruin that person’s life.”
Reflective of over-empathy is the misguided assumption that another person could ever really be happy or truly loving if you are unhappy. How attuned could they be? The problem is that over-empathy for the other has obscured empathy for self.
Failed Attunement- “Why Did You Let It Go So Far?”
Dependent on the Audience Approval
If a person is waiting for the other to happily approve or agree to a break-up – they will wait. Often the fear of “being the bad one” equates to a fear of lack of approval from the audience – the partner, the parents, friends, family etc. The trap here is the often unconscious dependence on a partner who may not be a match but is still being used as a barometer for self-worth. This is a true Catch-22. The panic, blame or rage by the other at the thought of the break-up, causes the person wanting to break–up to feel worthless, undesirable and doubtful that anyone else would even consider them. This, of course, touches on relationships as addictions.
No Template for Choice
Sometimes the fear of being the “bad one” has its roots in a childhood in which making one’s needs known or daring to have separate needs from parental expectations was unacceptable. Attraction to partners who are seemingly good versions of past parental figures is common. Also common is the difficulty believing in the right to happiness, love and self-esteem – even if the other doesn’t think so.
The Cultural Expectations
Too often a relationship becomes the answer to many other peoples’ needs beyond the people in it. The desire to break–up can make a person feel like they are not only breaking up with someone – they are breaking the hearts of their family and someone else’s.
The challenge here is one of self-definition and individuation. Sometimes refusing to accept other people’s definition of you and the person you should be with, is the most important step in finding out who you are. It is a crucial step in knowing who your partner will be.
Photo by Ed Yourdon, available under a Creative Commons attribution license.
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Last reviewed: 7 Apr 2011