How to end a bad relationship for good
This week’s edition of Psych Wednesdays was written by Juliana Breines. It was originally published on Psych Your Mind on March 20, 2013.
Sometimes we find ourselves in relationships that make us miserable more than they make us happy, relationships that we know in our hearts are not right, yet still have a hold on us. If this sounds like you, or someone you care about, here are some research-based strategies you may not have considered before for ending it for good and getting on with your life.
1. Don’t mistake addiction for love. This is tricky because, neurochemically speaking, the two are very similar–studies have shown that when romantic partners who are intensely in love are exposed to photographs of their beloved, the brain regions that become activated are the same regions that are activated in cocaine addicts when they are craving cocaine. But even if love has some addiction-like qualities, healthy love is likely to involve other qualities as well, such as respect, trust, and commitment, qualities that keep a relationship strong even on those days when excitement and passion are not at the forefront. Addictive love, by contrast, tends to be more singularly focused on attaining those “highs,” whatever the cost. Partners whose behavior is unpredictable (e.g., they don’t call when they say they will), are, unfortunately, especially likely to keep you hooked, since their inconsistent affection keeps you on your toes and wanting more. If you are trying to break free from a relationship that feels more like an addiction than a loving bond, one strategy is to reframe your thoughts and emotions about that person as if they are cold, clinical biological processes in order to gain a healthy distance from them. For example, after a week of not calling Mr. or Ms. Wrong, you feel a wave of longing in your chest and think, “But I really do love him/her… I should call him/her right now…” Instead, you could notice that sensation and tell yourself, “Interesting, there goes my caudate nucleus releasing dopamine and producing a sensation of longing. Okay, back to work.”
2. Give yourself a break. Your friends and family may fall into two general categories–those who make you feel good about yourself, always reassuring you that your partner really does love you and that everything will work out in the end, and those you make you feel bad about yourself, with their subtle or not-so-subtle implications that you must be crazy, weak, and pathetic to stay with such a loser. You may find yourself drawn to both of these types of supports–on the one hand, you want to feel comforted, but on the other hand, you need motivation to make a change. One way to give yourself both comfort and encouragement without either deluding yourself or berating yourself is to be more self-compassionate. Self-compassion involves reassuring yourself that you’re not a horrible person, that it’s understandable to be attached to someone against your better judgment, and that a lot of other people go through this kind of thing too. Self-compassion also involves caring for yourself and wanting to do what’s best for yourself, as a parent would a child. Which means not staying in a relationship that’s hurting you.
3. Lock yourself into a plan. Research suggests that people are best at making lasting changes when they come up with specific implementation intentions, or “if-then” plans. These plans have been shown to help people avoid temptations, meet health goals, and even avoid stereotyping outgroup members. You may currently have a lot of default “if-then” connections that are not working in your favor, such as “if I feel lonely and miss [name of partner], then call him/her and ask him/her to come over.” Instead, you could replace this default “then” with a behavior that is likely to make you feel better in the long run, such as calling a good friend or listening to a fun, empowering song. The more you practice making a different decision whenever the “if” stimulus arises, the more automatic the link will become, and the easier it will be to resist the old pattern.
4. Defy cognitive dissonance. Our minds have a sneaky way of justifying our actions so that we never have to feel like we did something stupid or made a mistake, a phenomenon known as cognitive dissonance. This is the reason why we tend to be more loyal to groups that we suffered to get into (e.g., a fraternity with intense hazing) and the reason why we find ourselves derogating the job we turned down once we make the final decision to go with another (post-decision dissonance). It’s also one of the reasons it’s so hard to break free of bad relationships, especially when we’ve been in them for a long time. Unless a relationship suddenly takes a turn for the worst when it was smooth sailing before, ending it often means coming to terms with the fact that for a long time we didn’t end it, and that was a mistake. If we can’t come to terms with this, we might find ourselves continuing to justify our present commitment to the relationship, which in turn justifies our past decision to stay in the relationship. Being aware of the way your mind can play tricks on you can help you avoid this trap.
5. Own your decision. Ending a relationship can be a long and painful struggle, and it’s not easy to do it alone. You will need a good support team to keep you on track and help you fill your life with healthy, positive activities. But ultimately the decision to end a relationship is yours, and succumbing to pressure from those around you is unlikely to last very long. When all else fails, sometimes it helps to step back and ask yourself, point blank, what do you really want? Only you know the answer.
This post previously appeared on my Psychology Today blog, In Love and War.
Aron, A. (2005). Reward, Motivation, and Emotion Systems Associated With Early-Stage Intense Romantic Love Journal of Neurophysiology, 94(1), 327-337 DOI: 10.1152/jn.00838.2004
Schweiger Gallo I, & Gollwitzer PM (2007). Implementation intentions: a look back at fifteen years of progress. Psicothema, 19 (1), 37-42 PMID:17295981