118: The Intimacy of a Breakup

Dec 06, 2022

Breaking up with someone can be a very intimate process. Not every breakup fosters intimacy, but it definitely happens, and it’s incredibly important to be aware of. Sometimes, a person thinks they’re certain they want to end their relationship. They make a clear decision to end it, and they’ll feel great about committing to this path. Then, they’ll prepare to have the conversation that initiates the breakup process.

However, when they actually get to having the conversation, strange things start to happen. You can find yourself feeling more connected to the person you thought you were breaking up with, often for the first time in a long time. This might feel weird, but it also might feel like a potent moment of reconnection, and now you’re unsure what you want to do about it.

Tune in this week to discover why the honesty and intensity of a breakup often reignites a sense of intimacy that seemed otherwise lost. Dr. Marie Murphy is sharing how to recognize whether you’ve been thrown off by the intimacy of your breakup, whether you’ve actually reconnected and want to stay together, and what you need to consider to consciously decide how you want to move forward.

If you’re ready to take this topic deeper in a confidential and compassionate environment, you can schedule an introductory coaching session with Dr. Marie Murphy by clicking here!

What You’ll Learn from this Episode:

  • Why the process of breaking up sometimes fosters long-lost intimacy in a relationship.

  • How so many people interpret this increase in intimacy as a sign that they shouldn’t end their relationship.

  • Why it’s 100% normal to want to end a relationship, while also feeling sad and nostalgic about it ending.

  • The big difference between not wanting to let someone go, versus actually wanting to be with them going forward.

  • Why intimacy and romance are not the same thing.

  • How to see where you’re defaulting to believing that breaking up is objectively bad, second-guessing all of your reasons for wanting to leave.

  • Why the sense of intimacy you may feel when breaking up is not necessarily an indication that you want to stay in the relationship.

  • 3 things to consider when consciously deciding whether you actually want to stay in a relationship with your partner.

Listen to the Full Episode:


Featured on the Show:

Hi everyone, I’m Dr. Marie Murphy.  I’m a relationship coach and I help people who are engaging in anything they think counts as infidelity to deal with their feelings, clarify what they want, and make decisions about what they’re going to do.  No shame, no blame, no judgments.  A lot of the advice out there for people who are cheating on their partners is little more than thinly veiled judgment, but that is not what I provide.  I firmly believe that you deserve guidance and support that respects the fullness of your humanity, and the complexity of your situation, no matter what you’re doing.  If you would like my help resolving your infidelity situation in a way that’s truly right for you, you can schedule an introductory coaching session with me through my website, mariemurphyphd.com.  And you can learn more about the coaching packages I offer and my current pricing through the services page of my website.

All right!  Today I’m going to let you in on a little-known secret.  Well, maybe it’s not a secret, exactly, but it’s something we don’t talk about nearly enough.  Here it is: breaking up with someone can be a really intimate process.  Not always!  I am NOT saying that every breakup fosters intimacy, but it is definitely a thing that happens, and it’s really important to be aware of this.

Sometimes, we’ll get to the point where we think we’re as sure as we can be that we want to end a relationship.  We’ll make a clear decision to end a relationship, we’ll feel good about that decision, and we’ll believe we’re committed to sticking with that decision.

And then we’ll prepare to have The Conversation, or the conversation that initiates a series of conversations, and kicks off the process of breaking up.  And then we’ll actually HAVE that conversation, and then… strange things start to happen.  We find ourselves feeling more connected to the person we thought we were breaking up with than we have felt in a really long time.  And on the one hand, we find this kind of weird, but on the other hand, we kind of like it, and we don’t know what to make of this or what to do about it.

Here is a really important thing to be aware of.  If we have not been communicating with our partner in a particularly deep or meaningful way for quite a while, the breaking up conversations can initiate the sort of communication that may have been missing from your relationship.  Sometimes people get into the habit of just getting through the days with their partner, and not talking about their inner worlds, their interests, their curiosities, their desires, their fears, etcetera.  And if this has been going on for a long time, it can seem like your partner is a totally boring person who is not mysterious or interesting in any way.  If we’re used to just getting through the business of life with our partner, it may really seem like that’s all there is to the relationship, and all there is to THEM. 

And I get it.  It’s easy to become disinterested in someone when all you talk about it getting the grocery shopping done, or how was work, or how are the kids doing, or whatever.  Just getting the everyday business of life taken care of can be quite a grind, and it can be so easy to get into a routine of just getting by.  Fair enough.

But what happens a lot is, we get into this kind of mode with our partner, and we take this as a sign that all of the life has gone out of the relationship, so we get ready for a breakup.  And then when we actually have the breakup conversation, we jolt ourselves and our partner back into talking honestly and openly with each other.  Telling your partner that you don’t want to be romantically involved with them anymore may end up being the most honest, personal, and intimate conversation you’ve had with them in a long time.  

And this can lead to the two of you seeing each other in a fresh way for the first time in a long time.  Having an open and vulnerable conversation with them may feel like a very potent moment of reconnection.  You may suddenly realize that your partner may have become unknown to you, and you to them, but there’s still all of this really fascinating stuff going on within them – even if you haven’t had access to any of that for what seems like eternity.  

Another thing that may happen is your partner may tell you that they’ve been feeling extremely disconnected from you, but they haven’t known how to talk to you about it.  You may have thought that they were totally content with the way things were, but now all of a sudden, they’re saying the very same kinds of things that you’ve been thinking for a long time.  And you may find this rather surprising.  Or maybe strangely reassuring.

And you may start to think to yourself, wait a minute… do I know what I want here?  Do I really want to end this?  Or is this some kind of new beginning for us?  Maybe, given how this breakup conversation is going, there’s the potential for us to start over in a whole new way.

Sometimes this kind of thing starts to happen as soon as the words, “I don’t want to be married to you anymore,” or “I don’t want to be in this relationship in the same way anymore,” or whatever it is you say tumble out of your mouth.  But sometimes, this fresh view of your partner, or this new sense of possibility for the relationship emerges a little more gradually.  

Here’s another thing that happens rather frequently.  Someone will break up with their partner, or try to break up with their partner, and then the person who was on the receiving end of the breakup starts to make some big changes in their life.  Maybe they get a job, or maybe they start exercising, or maybe they make a bunch of new friends, or maybe they start exercising a little more independence, or something along those lines.  We see them making big changes that surprise and impress us, and we think, huh, maybe I’m making a big mistake by letting them go.  Or maybe they start communicating with us in all the ways we wish they had during our relationship, before we initiated a breakup.  And we may find ourselves feeling very drawn to our ex, or to our partner that we’ve been trying to break up with, in ways we haven’t for a long time.  We may start to see them in a totally different light.  And we may even sort of start to pursue them again.

And of course, another thing that sometimes happens after we try to break up with someone is we start having sex with our partner again, perhaps after a very long hiatus.  

These are just EXAMPLES of the kinds of things that can happen after we break up with someone, or try to break up with someone, that may create a long-lost degree of intimacy in the relationship.

First and foremost, it is important to know that this stuff HAPPENS.  Quite often, people are really taken by surprise when the process of breaking up feels really intimate, or ignites intimacy with someone you thought you didn’t want to be in a relationship with anymore.  And sometimes, people interpret this intimacy as a sign that they shouldn’t end the relationship.  And then they start thinking about all of the good times they had with the person they thought they were breaking up with, and they get really nostalgic, and they second-guess their decision to end the relationship, and they start thinking that maybe things could be really good in the relationship again in the future.

Here's the deal, people: it is totally normal to have mixed thoughts and feelings about ending a long-term relationship!!!  It is totally normal to both want to end a relationship, and also feel sad about the relationship ending.  It is totally normal to feel nostalgic about the good times you’ve shared with someone, even if you are also as sure as you can be that you don’t want to be romantically partnered with them anymore.  

It's important to be aware of this, and to recognize that the intimacy of a breakup, or the sadness and nostalgia you may feel when you’re breaking up with someone, are not necessarily indications that you want to get back together with that person, or don’t want to go through with breaking up with them.

Is it POSSIBLE that the newfound connection, or reconnection, you’re experiencing with your Person is an indication you don’t actually want to break up with them?  Yes, possibly.  To expand on what I said earlier, sometimes we’ve gotten totally out of the habit of connecting with our Person, and our sense of being disconnected from them is a big part of the reason why we don’t want to be in the relationship anymore.  But sometimes the breakup process ends up functioning as an opportunity to reconnect with our person, and re-engage in the relationship and forge a new path forward.  That can and does happen, and it can be a beautiful thing.

But how do we know if we actually want to be with our partner going forward, and not break up with them – or if we’re just thrown off by the intimacy of the breakup, and intoxicated with nostalgia?

Well, in a sense, it’s really simple.  The big question is, do you want to be in a relationship with your person going FORWARD?  Do you want to create a shared future with them?

This is not a question of did you enjoy aspects of your relationship with them in the past.  This is not a question of, does it feel good to be reconnecting with them now.  This is a question about whether or not you want to be with them going forward.

Sometimes when I ask people that they say yes, but they have all of these conditions.  They’ll say yeah, I would want to be with them if only they would stop doing this, this, and this, and start doing that, that, and that.  And to that I say, you are probably setting yourself up for a whole lot of nothing great if that’s what your stance is.

There’s a big difference between not wanting to let someone go and wanting to be with them going forward.  There’s a big difference between really appreciating what you’ve shared with someone and actively wanting to continue sharing your life with them.

Just because something was wonderful in the past doesn’t mean you have to want it going forward.  We have this bias towards staying in a relationship, we have this widely shared belief that if a relationship isn’t terrible, it is by definition better to continue the relationship than end it.  And that can intersect with the intimacy of a breakup in some really potent ways.  We try to break up with our partner, and this leads us to talk more openly and honestly with them than we have in a long time, we start talking about all of the good times we’ve shared, we see each other in a new light for the first time in a long time, and all of this starts to seem like a reason why we CAN and SHOULD try to make it work.

But is it?  You get to make this decision consciously.  You don’t have to default into believing that it by definition better for a relationship to last, rather than end.  You don’t have to interpret the intimacy you’re experiencing with your partner or ex-ish partner as a sign that you want to stay in a relationship with them.  You don’t have to make your nostalgia mean that you shouldn’t end the relationship.

Hopefully, if you’ve gotten to the point of attempting to break up with someone, you’ve already done some deliberate thinking about why you don’t want to be romantically involved with this person anymore.  If your attempt at a breakup has jolted you into thinking about your partner and your relationship in an entirely different way, by all means, take your new perspectives seriously.  But taking your new perspectives seriously is different from deciding to ignore or second-guess all the reasons why you wanted to leave the relationship in the first place.  You probably will not like what happens if you let a little nostalgia get in the way of taking your desire to leave a relationship seriously.

We can all be forgiven for thinking that the intimacy of a breakup is an indication that we should abort the breakup and continue the relationship because we tend to think that the presence of intimacy is an indication that a relationship should exist.  I’ll say that again.  We tend to think that the presence of intimacy, or the experience of intimacy, is an indication that a relationship should exist, or should be a relationship.  We may think that intimacy is a defining feature of romantic relationships, and therefore, that if we’re experiencing it with someone, the two of us ought to be together in a romantic capacity.

I have two things to say about this.  One is that experiencing romantic intimacy with someone does not mean we necessarily want to be in a relationship with them, or ought to want to be in a relationship with them.  There are plenty of instances in life where we have a great connection with someone, but we do not want to hitch our wagon to theirs – or they to ours.  Experiencing special moments with someone does not obligate us to want to engage in an ongoing relationship with them, or obligate us to want to have a particular kind of relationship with them.  

The second point is that although we tend to think that intimacy and romance go together, they don’t have to.  We can have intimacy without romance.  Family relationships may be very intimate, without being romantic.  Friend relationships can be intimate, without being romantic.  Relationships with colleagues can be intimate without being romantic.    

And, we can experience intimacy in different ways with the same person.  We may go from experiencing intimacy within the context of a romantic and sexual relationship to experiencing intimacy with them in the context of a co-parenting relationship, without the romantic and sexual stuff.  And the transition may be a little weird.  It may feel strange to remove a component of intimacy from our relationship with someone.  It may feel strange to maintain a relationship with someone without retaining what used to be the defining elements of that relationship.    

And we may not like this strangeness!  And if we aren’t prepared for the strangeness that can accompany this transition, we may try to deal with the strangeness by reversing course – that is, by putting the romantic intimacy back into the relationship.  If separating from a partner feels totally existentially strange, we may THINK the solution is to get back together with them.  Or at least, retain elements of closeness with them.  

And when we do this, we may inadvertently make our breakup a lot harder, or more confusing than it needs to be.  If we experience intimacy with our partner when we’re extricating ourselves from our relationship with them and we take that as a “sign” that we shouldn’t break up, we may end up second-guessing all of the reasons why we wanted to leave the relationship in the first place, or we may tell ourselves that we “don’t know” what we want, and the whole thing can become very convoluted.

If, on the other hand, we recognize that intimacy may be a normal, natural part of the process of breaking up, we can keep on moving in the direction we want to go, which may be to end the relationship.  Just like the presence of some conflict or annoyance or dissatisfaction within a relationship does not necessarily mean that you want to end it, a bit of intimacy and nostalgia within a breakup does not necessarily mean that you want to preserve the relationship.  We can allow the intimacy to be there, and ALSO want to end our romantic relationship with someone.

How do you know if the intimacy of a breakup IS a reflection of a reconnection that you want to take seriously?  Here are three things you can do if you’re experiencing intimacy in your breakup, and you think that you might not want to end the relationship after all.

First, ask yourself how clear you were on your reasons for wanting to end the relationship in the first place.  If your decision to leave the relationship wasn’t based on clear reasons that you liked, it’s possible that you didn’t make all that much of a decision.  If that’s true for you, now’s the time to get clear on what you want.  Do you want to leave the relationship or not, and why?  Maybe you don’t actually want to end it!  And it’s fine if you don’t!

Second, if you DID have really clear reasons for wanting to end the relationship, but now you’re changing your mind, ask yourself what has changed.  It is totally legitimate to change your mind and decide that you actually do want to stay with your person after all.  That happens, and that’s fair.  But there’s a difference between seeing your partner or your relationship in a whole new light, and wanting to crawl back to the familiarity of the relationship because the reality of not being with them anymore is suddenly hitting you and you’re scared of what that feels like.

Third, ask yourself what you want your future to look like, and if a relationship with this person fits into that vision of your future.  There is a big difference between having great fondness for what you and your partner shared in the past, and wanting to continue your relationship with them in the future.

We may all benefit from recognizing that the ending of a romantic relationship can be strange and beautiful in its own ways.  We usually valorize and celebrate the beginning of romantic relationships, but the endings are worthy of our respect, and even celebration, too.  We can choose to interpret the intimacy of a breakup as a marker of the significance of what we’ve shared with an important person in our life.  And even if that season is coming to an end, as all seasons do, we can honor how important it was, without making its importance mean it should last forever.

All right everyone!  That’s it for today.  If you would like my help sorting out your infidelity situation in a way that’s truly right for you, let’s work together.  When you’re ready to talk, you can schedule an introductory coaching session with me through my website, mariemurphyphd.com.  I offer confidential, compassionate coaching via Zoom, which means we can work together no matter where you’re located.

Thank you all so much for listening.  Have a great week.  Bye for now.


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