The No. 1 Thing Everyone Gets Wrong About Breaking Up

Jenna Birch
·Contributing Writer
The No. 1 thing everyone gets wrong about breaking up.
Illustration: Getty Images

I’ve talked through a lot of breakups. My friends’ breakups. My interviewees’ breakups. Sometimes it’s strangers I meet in coffee shops or acquaintances at a party. At this point, I can always tell when a person is contemplating whether or not to pull the plug.

There’s even a common script. If I know the person, I ask how their significant other is doing; if I don’t and discover they’re coupled, I say, “That’s great! Tell me about your girlfriend/boyfriend.” After just a touch of “Oh, fine, everything’s been pretty good,” the person starts confessing. There’s a lot of broken eye contact, pausing, audible sighing.

Doubts are often insidious. Happy, fun relationships take a turn somewhere, and suddenly the tenor of the relationship is off. Suddenly, you’re not as into it. Or he’s not. Or your connection has been stunted. Either way, it’s confusing, because you can’t identify that anything is technically wrong. This person is great … on paper. Kind, caring, smart, ambitious, good-looking. “Checks all the boxes” and “seemingly compatible” are terms that get thrown around a lot.

The only problem? Something doesn’t feel right. And from there, I usually discover the breakup-contemplator has spent loads of mental and emotional energy trying to investigate the root cause, only to come up empty. All that person’s got are theories.

In the past month alone, I’ve heard a slew of narratives saying:

They went like this: “I’m pretty excited to spend time with her, but I just can’t see a future there; I think she’s too free-spirited for me?” “He’s so into this relationship, but I feel like it’s too soon for that; it’s like he doesn’t know me well enough.” “We have this great emotional bond and it feels safe, but I feel often feel awkward silences. We run out of things to talk about too quickly.” “He’s so supportive, but I still feel lonely for some reason.” “I feel like there’s a lot she won’t tell me, like when she’s upset. But she denies it.”

All the men and women described above are in their mid-20s to mid-30s. They’ve dated around. They haven’t found the right match. They’ve been with their current partner long enough to know who that person is and how the relationship functions but not so long that it’s super serious — ranging from several months to a year and change. They are starting to question their ability to know the right thing when it comes along, so all these narratives were capped with some statement like “but maybe all relationships feel like this, and I’m just crazy/my standards are too high/this is the best there is/fill-in-the-blank.”

I’ve talked to hundreds of couples in-depth about their relationships. Maybe thousands at this point. I’ve never seen a relationship like this fully turn around. However, this “but what’s wrong?” tango can last for weeks, months, or years.

Is it noble to want to find the source of the problem, see if you can work on it together and fix it? Yes. And in some cases, like marriage, it’s necessary and important. But that’s generally not what breakup-contemplators, like the ones I just mentioned, are trying to do. They’re trying to find the root disruption for another reason.

They feel they need a specific, tangible, and valid reason to break up with a person.

We have been taught to rationalize absolutely everything in modernized culture. So if you learn nothing else today, let it be this:

Lots of people say, “Trust your gut” or “your gut is always right.” This silent processing can be a powerful tool. Your brain is trained to make instinctive decisions all day long with little to no conscious effort. It’s why you choose the red shirt over the blue one, or why you grab the banana instead of the orange. Your brain often picks up on and weighs information, even when you don’t actively realize it, helping you gravitate toward the right decisions.

More precisely, intuition is the collection of information — external cues, signals and their meanings — that you’ve learned and stored away over time. This information will be pushed from the subconscious to the conscious mind at relevant moments. It’s why you sometimes feel you know something without knowing why. Malcolm Gladwell famously said that intuition is “thinking without thinking.”

Researchers are still studying intuition, but one of my favorite scientific examples is an instance in which a Formula One driver braked sharply before flying around a bend during a race. His instinct to brake overpowered his urge to win the race he’d been preparing and training for. As it turned out, if he’d kept going, he would have ran into a multi-car crash he couldn’t yet see.

When forensic psychologists sat him down to analyze why he stopped so suddenly, they were able to piece together what he saw and what it meant: The driver subconsciously recognized that the crowd wasn’t cheering him on as he was speeding toward the turn; instead, the faces were “static, frozen” and focused on the crash up ahead.

This cue, counter to everything he’d subconsciously filed away about how crowds look during races, forced him to stop and ultimately saved his life.

How does this relate to relationships exactly? Just this, which is actually huge:

There’s a time to use your powers of logic and reason in relationships. If you’re married or with a longtime partner, you should work to discover why you feel something is wrong. The heavier and stronger the commitment, the more you should work to save what you have. This is especially true if you’ve been super-certain of your partner’s character, chemistry, and compatibility in the past. A strong, intuitive “this fits” feeling can propel you into a great relationship, and every relationship requires some deduction and problem-solving.

However, most people who hem and haw about maybe-breakups were never sure of their significant other on a gut level to begin with. They ended up in the relationship by way of logic:

This fits on paper, so, yes. He pursued me strongly, so, yes. I want it to work with this person, so, yes.

It’s OK to logic your way into a relationship early on, as you’re getting to know someone. But once your gut renders a firm judgment on a relationship — this feels right, this feels wrong — you should listen.

Your gut is first, and it’s the most vague; you’ll feel the almost-imperceptible positive or negative shift in your stomach, at some random trigger. The emotions that arise afterward drift in more slowly, like a fog — the canary in the coal mine, signaling either “Yes, this is great” or “Something feels wrong that needs to be addressed.” This is when your powers of logic and reason start to enter the picture.

In great relationships, you probably won’t even think about specific reasons a relationship feels right until someone asks. In poor relationships, you will try to deduce what’s wrong and why it’s wrong to confirm what your gut already knows:

It often doesn’t matter why. You may never know. Maybe you’ve subconsciously learned what you need in a partner — what the cues of compatibility look like for you, what will work long-term and what won’t. Or perhaps you’ve silently filed away qualities of good character in a person. Even though you’ve never intentionally thought about what comprises trustworthiness and honesty, your brain has processed it somewhere along the way. When enough red flags fly, your gut tugs and whispers, “Time to leave.”

Finding the root cause won’t change the end result: The relationship is not right, or not a fit. More than not, the feeling itself is a good enough reason to break up.

Jenna Birch is a journalist, dating coach, and author of The Love Gap (Grand Central Life & Style, January 2018). Her relationship column will appear on Yahoo every Friday. To ask her a question, which may appear in an upcoming post, send an email to jen.birch@sbcglobal.net with YAHOO QUESTION in the subject line.

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