You are listening to Your Secret Is Safe With Me, non-judgmental talk about infidelity with Dr. Marie Murphy. If you’re looking for new perspectives on complicated relationship issues, you’ve come to the right place.
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. When you are ready to resolve your infidelity situation in a way that’s truly right for you, I can help you do it. I offer compassionate, confidential coaching via Zoom, which means we can work together no matter where you’re located. To schedule an introductory coaching session with me, go to my website, mariemurphyphd.com. I can’t wait to meet you.
All right, today we are going to talk about different ways to approach a breakup. Today’s episode isn’t going to be about infidelity per se, but a lot folks do choose to end a relationship – or sometimes more than one relationship – as part of resolving their infidelity situation, so this is totally relevant to infidelity even if it isn’t exactly about infidelity.
As I’ve talked about on other episodes, breaking up with someone is something a lot of folks don’t have much experience with. Some of us have never had the experience of initiating a breakup. And even if we have broken up with someone in the past, or maybe several people in the past, that might have been a long time ago. Furthermore, in addition to the fact that many of us haven’t had much experience executing breakups, there is not – to my knowledge, anyway – a lot of great guidance out there for how to prepare yourself to break up with someone, and then actually break up with them, and then deal with the aftermath of a breakup.
Which is really too bad, because people DO choose to end relationships from time to time. And when we don’t have much experience with breakups and we don’t have much guidance to compensate for our lack of practice, we may execute breakups pretty poorly, and that can be an unpleasant experience for everyone involved. Also, if the way we go about ending a relationship with someone, or ending a component of our relationship with someone is rough, it may be harder for us to have a positive, or least an okay relationship with them in the future. And that might be something we really want to have.
My perspective is that breakups can be tough, but they don’t have to be TERRIBLE. The end of a relationship, or the end of a certain aspect of a relationship may be a sad thing, but it doesn’t have to be a BAD thing. And for these reasons, one of the things I take very seriously within my work with my clients is helping them do breakups better. I believe we can all learn how to do breakups better, and we can all be better off for it. So if you are at the point where you think you’re ready to break up with someone, I can help you with that process from start to finish. Schedule an introductory coaching session with me through my website if you’d like to get started.
I also have a few podcast episodes related to breakups in addition to this one, so you may want to give those a listen, if you haven’t yet. Those are episodes numbers 72, 73, and 131. Today, I’m going to talk about something I didn’t cover in those episodes, which is the question of whether it’s better to take a breadcrumbs vs. a bombshell approach to breaking up with someone, or telling them that you want to make a serious change in your relationship.
Before I go any further, I just want to note that the term “breakup” doesn’t apply equally well to all breakups. There may be times when we end a romantic relationship with someone, and not only are we ending the romantic or sexual or romantic and sexual part of our relationship with them, we’re ending our entire relationship with them. There are times when what we’re saying is, “This whole thing is over. You and I are aren’t going to have any kind of relationship after this, or if we do have some kind of relationship, it is going to be VERY limited.”
But, there are also times when we want to end part of our relationship with someone, but we don’t want to kick them out of our lives entirely. Or perhaps we couldn’t even kick them out of our lives entirely if we wanted to. For instance, if you have small children, you and your ex-partner may have to have some sort of a co-parenting relationship until your kids turn eighteen. And, there are lots of times when we want to have a really rich and robust relationship with someone, even if we don’t want to be romantically involved with anymore. We may want to be their friend forever, or we may want to retain our familial relationship with them forever. But we may also really want to put a definite end to the romantic aspect of our relationship, and all of the commitments that are or were associated with that.
So with that in mind, for the sake of simplicity, I’m going to use the term “breakup” today as shorthand to cover all of these kinds of scenarios. Even if the term breakup has limitations, today I’m going to use it to refer to any situation in which you’re telling someone you want to end your whole relationship with them, or end the romantic part of your relationship with them, or, end the part of your relationship that was supposed to be romantic but in actuality isn’t all that romantic, or hasn’t been for quite some time.
Here's what sometimes happens when I’m working with someone who has decided that they want to end a relationship, and break up with their person. We’ll be working on getting them ready to execute the breakup, and doing things like clarifying exactly what they want to say to their person when they break up with them, we’ll be working on figuring out when they want to have “The Conversation,” or the conversation in which they initially announce that they’ve decided it’s time for a big change.
And this will all be going pretty well, and we’ll be getting to the point where the person preparing to break up with someone is pretty close to being just about as prepared as they could possibly be. We’ll have talked through all sorts of things, and come up with various plans, and devised strategies for dealing with difficult stuff.
And then they’ll say something like, “Well, I don’t know about all of this. Wouldn’t it be kind of terrible for me to drop this news on my partner out of nowhere? Wouldn’t it be more considerate of me to ease them into the idea that I might not be happy in the relationship? Maybe it would be better for me to drop a few hints before I lay this bombshell on them. Surely that would be the kinder, gentler way to go about ending the relationship.” And often people do use the language of dropping a bomb on their partner by breaking up with them, or blowing up their life, or something equally dramatic.
I will tell you that on the one hand, I think that in some contexts, at least to some extent, there COULD be value in breaking up with someone indirectly or gradually, rather than efficiently and directly. I’ll say more about that later. But usually, I do NOT think that it’s a great idea to attempt to drop hints that you might be thinking of breaking up with someone, rather than simply telling them what you’ve decided as efficiently as you can, for the following five reasons:
Attempting to GRADUALLY let your partner know that you’re unhappy in your relationship so that you eventually breaking up with them seems less bad may only make a process that is probably going to be somewhat sad and difficult no matter what even more sad and difficult, and for a longer period of time. If you know you want to do something difficult, why make it more difficult, and difficult for longer, by drawing it out for longer than it needs to take?
Even if you carefully craft a plan for gradually letting your partner know that bad news might be coming, you have no way of knowing how your selective release of information is going to be interpreted. It may seem like dropping hints here and there about what you ultimately plan to do will make your partner more ready to be broken up with, but that may not happen! You won’t know how well your breadcrumbs strategy will work until you execute it. Carefully crafting a slow release of information will definitely make it take longer for you to accomplish the goal of breaking up with someone. But beyond that, not much else is guaranteed.
In relation to the previous point, if you start to drop hints that a breakup may be coming, your partner may get the sense that you’re unhappy in the relationship, and wonder what that means. And, number one, you might not want to leave them wondering like that, and number two, they might respond to your hints by trying to make the relationship better. They might start asking you why you seem unhappy. They might try to get you to go to couples’ counseling. And if you know you want to end the relationship, do you really want to engage with their efforts to try and figure out what’s wrong, or make the relationship better? Sometimes we think that slowly giving someone the message that our relationship with them is over is a kind thing to do. But is it? When someone is unhappy in a relationship, and makes noises about that for months before finally breaking up with their partner, upon the actual breakup, their partner often says to them, “I just wish you would have done this sooner. I held out hope because I thought you were still open to making things work. But now it sounds like you wanted to leave a long time ago, and you’ve just been stringing me along.”
Slow-pedaling the process of breaking up with someone because we’re afraid of hurting their feelings is a very human thing to do. But being on the receiving end of that experience can be pretty un-fun, and this might not be the kind of breakup you want to give your partner.
It is entirely possible that you have ALREADY effectively left a breadcrumb trail! It is entirely possible that your partner already KNOWS you are unhappy, or already has the sense that you may be considering ending the relationship. You may have explicitly told them as much! Or you may have been doing things like refusing to make vacation plans with them, which could indicate that you’re not too interested in committing to a shared future. You may have been less than enthusiastic about the relationship for a while now, and they may have picked up on that already! Even if we were to consider the possibility that dropping hints that a breakup is coming could be a good thing, the fact is that you may have already been doing this, and thus, you may not want to spend any more time doing this than you already have.
No matter how many hints you drop, you will still have to say the definitive thing eventually, and the moment in which you say the definitive thing may still be really hard. The moment of saying, “I don’t want to be married to you anymore,” or “I’ve decided I can’t continue being your partner,” or “I’ve chosen to exit this relationship” may be hard for you NO MATTER WHAT, no matter how many hints you attempt to give your partner that this is coming. And, it may be hard for the person you’re breaking up with no matter what.
These are the main reasons why I don’t recommend attempting to employ a breadcrumbs approach to breaking up with someone. If, after hearing these reasons, you’re still concerned that NOT dropping hints to your partner before you definitively break up with them would be the equivalent of dropping a nuclear bomb on them, I have a few things for you to consider.
The first is that your partner may not be as surprised by you breaking up with them as you think they will be. Is it POSSIBLE that they could be very surprised, or completely shocked? Yes, it is possible. But to echo what I said a few moments ago, it’s also possible that you have effectively been dropping hints, or sending off signals, for some time. It’s possible that you have even had very explicit conversations with your partner about the state of your relationship in which you have been at least partially honest about your thoughts about the future of your relationship. Sometimes clients will tell me that they don’t want to break up with their partner completely out of blue, but in the next breath they’ll tell me that they and their partner had a conversation just the other day about the less-than-great state of things in their relationship. On top of that, sometimes people will say something like, “And actually, we’ve been having conversations about the not-so-great state of things in our relationship for like six months now.” And in response I’ll say, “Well, given that, isn’t it possible that you telling your spouse that you’ve decided you want to leave the marriage won’t come as a TOTAL surprise?” and they’ll say “Well, I guess not, but even so, there is a difference between saying I’m unhappy and saying I want a divorce.”
And I agree with that! I think there is a difference between saying “I’m unhappy,” and saying, “I don’t want to be married to you anymore.” And that’s one of the reasons why I think that in general, it is better to break up with someone as directly and efficiently as possible than to attempt to drop hints that a breakup might be coming. It might not be POSSIBLE to effectively hint that you want to end a relationship. It may only be possible to tell someone that you want to end a relationship, or not. That’s semantically debatable, of course – but it is worth considering.
To get back to the question of whether breaking up with someone by suddenly dropping a bomb on them is a bad thing to do or not, I want you to consider that you don’t need to overestimate the significance of what you’re doing. Yes, ending a relationship can be a significant thing. For SURE. But you are not actually dropping a literal bomb on someone when you tell someone you don’t want to be romantically partnered with them anymore. A lot of people say they’re going to be dropping a bomb on their partner by breaking up with them, or ruining their life by breaking up with them, or completely devastating them by breaking up with them, and I want to point out that this is pretty strong language.
And the words you use with yourself – and with others – really matter. If you’re afraid that someone is going to be really upset when you break up with them, it’s one thing to say to yourself, “I’m afraid they’re going to be really upset.” Fair enough! But telling yourself you’re going to be dropping a bomb on them by breaking up with them simply isn’t true, AND it makes what you’re doing seem like a violent, war-like, lethal thing to do. And I would suggest that you don’t stand to gain anything by thinking this way. You can think of your breakup as a significant thing without making it into an unthinkably terrible thing.
To that effect, it may be helpful to think of the breakup you are planning on initiating as an ordinary tragedy. That’s not a concept I made up, but I cannot remember where I first heard of it, and when I tried to look it up I found all of this internet garbage nonsense. But the way I understand ordinary tragedies is this. If we are alive and capable of loving anything, we are going to lose things that we love over and over again. People we care about immensely are going to die. People we care about immensely may decide they want to distance themselves from us. We may lose our job, or our home, or our entire life savings. We may become sick, or otherwise lose our bodily capacities. Our lives may be devastated by war or famine or extreme weather events. And all of this stuff, when it’s happening to us, is fucking TRAGIC. No doubt about that. And, all of this stuff happens every single day. No doubt about that, either. Tragedies may be tragic, but they are an ordinary part of human existence. And there’s no getting around the fact that at times, other people will be the occasion of our tragedies, and at times, we will be the occasion of other people’s experience of tragedy. It’s all part of the contract we signed when we agreed to be born into the world as humans.
Now I’m joking a little bit of course. I know that a lot of us do not think that we agreed to be born into the world as humans, or signed any contract upon doing so. But I’m offering this idea to you because I really want to suggest that there are some things that we’re pretty much going to have to inevitably deal with as part of the human experience. There are some things that are just part of the human deal, whether we agreed to it at birth or not. And one of those things is that at times, we’re going to feel hurt, and people that we care about will be the occasion of our pain. And the other thing is that at times, we are going to occasion pain for people we care about.
I want you to consider that that might be non-negotiable. AND I want you to consider that accepting that other people are going to be the occasion of our pain sometimes, and accepting that we’re going to be the occasion of other’s pain sometimes will actually enable you to more consciously take responsibility for your actions. And when you more consciously take responsibility for your actions, you may end up occasioning a lot less pain for other people.
When we’re consumed with our fear of hurting someone, we’re likely to do things that end up hurting them more. When we can accept that hurting is part of the human experience, we’re able to more consciously take responsibility for being considerate of someone we care about when we’re delivering significant news to them.
And of course, it’s often our fear of hurting someone that leads us to think that the breadcrumbs approach might be a good approach. So our opportunity lies in taking radical responsibility for our own discomfort when we are going through the process of breaking up with someone, INSTEAD of attempting to devise elaborate strategies that we hope will minimize our partner’s discomfort.
Now, all of this said, is it ever the case that taking a breadcrumbs approach to breaking up with someone is a good idea? Yes. At least possibly. In some contexts, directness is valued, and being indirect about important matters can be viewed as a sign of disrespect or evasiveness or dishonesty. And generally speaking, that applies, to varying degrees, in Western societies. So, to state the somewhat obvious, in contexts where directness is valued, there is often tremendous value in being direct about important matters, even when it’s really uncomfortable to do so. When the doctor has important news for us, we usually want to hear exactly what it is, rather than having to guess at what they’re trying to say. If the news is bad, we want to know how bad. We don’t want hints. We don’t want them to tell us that it might be bad, but they’ll call us next week and give us more information. We tend to want to know as much as they can tell us, right away.
And in general, I think all of that applies to breakups, in the Western context.
But directness is not universally considered a good thing. In some contexts, being indirect about important matters that have the potential to be upsetting is considered benevolent and appropriate and respectful. So if you and your partner are operating within a context in which it is considered normal and appropriate AND EFFECTIVE to introduce important decisions in a gradual way, then by all means, take an indirect approach to your breakup. An indirect approach to breaking up can be executed very intentionally and deliberately. Indirect doesn’t have to mean haphazard, or ultimately inconclusive.
Here's a little story about how indirect communication CAN work out really well.
If you’ve been listening to this podcast for a while you may have heard me mention that I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Zambia. And I will tell you that the kind of directness that is often valued in the United States - and other places - was NOT the way to do things in Zambia. Speaking very directly about sensitive or uncomfortable matters was not the thing to do.
And there was this one situation where a woman in another volunteer’s village had gotten the idea that the two of them were getting married. I don’t know all of the details, I don’t know if she had good reason to think that she was going to marry this volunteer or if she kind of pulled this idea out of nowhere. It’s possible that the two of them had had some sort of relationship that didn’t go in the direction she was hoping, but it’s also possible that she just came up with the idea and ran with it. But whatever the reasons why she thought she and this volunteer were going to get married, she started building this house for the two of them to live in, and she started telling people that she and this guy were going to get married.
And eventually, the volunteer became aware that this woman thought that he was going to marry her, because other people in the village told him this! He learned about what was happening indirectly, and he dealt with it indirectly. He didn’t go find her and tell her very directly that their relationship, real or imagined, wasn’t going to lead to marriage. Instead, when he talked to other people in the village, he would say to them, “You know, I think so-and-so is building this house because she thinks the two of us were going to get married. But I don’t know where she got this idea. That’s not what’s going to happen.” And then, gradually, the message got back to the woman that the volunteer was not going to marry her, and she stopped building the house that she had been building for the two of them to live in.
In other words, the strategy worked. In that context, it was appropriate and benevolent and EFFECTIVE for the volunteer to let this woman know that they weren’t actually getting married by dispersing this information through the village and trusting that it would eventually find its way back to her. Without a direct confrontation, she didn’t have to suffer embarrassment and humiliation, but she did get the message.
So by all means, consider the norms of your context. Consider what is going to be both appropriate and effective in your context. Because remember, if you want to break up with someone, you’ve got to EFFECTIVELY break up with someone. If you are confident that an indirect approach is going to help you accomplish the goal of executing your breakup, then by all means, employ that kind of strategy. But what I have seen, over and over again, is that for folks operating within the Western context, there is no substitute for being explicit about what you have decided in regards to the future of your relationship, and there is rarely any value in delaying being explicit about what you have decided about the future of your relationship.
Being explicit doesn’t have to be equivalent with being unkind. Being direct, and delivering your news swiftly can be accomplished with tremendous kindness and care. And if you don’t know how you can accomplish a breakup both efficiently and compassionately, that’s okay because I can teach you. I can help you break up with someone you care about in a way that you feel really good about. Together we can craft a strategy for executing your breakup that makes the most sense for your unique situation.
Yes, breaking up with someone may be tough. But it doesn’t have to be a terrible experience. And especially if you plan to have a relationship with the person you’re breaking up with for years to come, investing time and energy into preparing yourself to deliver a “good breakup” or a “better breakup” may yield tremendous returns.
As we wrap up today’s episode, I want to remind you all that the period of time that many of us tend to think of as “THE HOLIDAYS” is coming, and this tends to be an especially challenging time of year for folks who are in the midst of infidelity situations. If you would like my help preparing for dealing with your infidelity situation during the holidays, or with resolving your infidelity situation before the holidays, now’s the time to schedule an introductory coaching session with me. You can do that through my website, mariemurphyphd.com. As of this recording, I have availability between now and the end of the year, but that availability is not unlimited, so if you want my help dealing with your infidelity situation, schedule your appointment with me today. Together we will find effective ways of navigating this potentially very challenging time of year that are tailored to your unique situation, and your specific desires.
All right everyone, thank you all so much for listening. Have a great week. Bye for now.