Start the Relationship by Ending it: Breakup Tips that Inform All Phases of Conscious Relating.
I’m the one who ended my first marriage.
While I had shared my misgivings and my concerns throughout our nine years together, that didn’t make the ending any easier when it actually arrived. The codependence on both our parts was strong, and although we were striving for conscious and intentional relating, we didn’t yet know enough about mature relating to prevent the inevitable anguish.
Being the one who had ongoing ambivalence during our marriage as well as the one who ultimately ended the relationship, I was squarely and significantly in the seat of power. I knew this, and therefore, fiercely wanted to handle the breakup responsibly and with great care for my partner.
To that end, I offered my partner the following:
>> I understand the pain of broken attachment and I agree to be as present as possible in your process. (This turned out to be more limited than I had hoped, given not only my need to tend to my own process, but also how his desperation triggered the already aggravated and ingrained patterns between us, which I had little capacity for.)
>> I agree to not change anything else in our lives till you are ready (we owned a farm, a home, and several businesses together).
>> I will do everything I can to help you in this process of grief and loss, including taking over some home, farm, and business responsibilities so that you can be freed up for more self-care.
>> I am eager to allocate our joint funding for you to do therapy and support groups, and any other paid help that you need to get you on your emotional feet.
>> I encourage you to date people outside of our circle of friends so that you jumpstart your next chapter and enhance your recovery.
>> I agree to not date anyone else for the coming nine months in order to let your activated parts settle and heal before you need to face my new life.
My love and care for my partner and my intention to see him survive and thrive helped me to — more or less — pull off this list of intentions. What I didn’t know at the time was that once he got stable and started a new relationship, my codependence would kick in and I would need similar considerations from him as I started the slow process of disentangling my attachment. Unfortunately, and for many reasons, he wasn’t able or willing to offer the same considerations when the tables turned.
Since that divorce, I’ve had more endings—relationship endings of all kinds—because this is the way of life, and of love, and of passionate, authentic living. We explore and discern and often part ways with jobs, friends, lovers, and beliefs. In almost every case, I have continued to show the kind of consideration and respect that I showed in ending my first marriage.
For example, I recently ended my job of over six years as the director of an organization. As my role was central to the daily functioning and overall success of the organization, I gave a full year’s notice. About four months into that year, things got confusing and weird, as they often do when leadership is in transition, which led me to realize I needed to leave sooner. At that point, I still gave two months’ notice, which still allowed for plenty of transition, turnover, and a graceful process that helped the team figure out a new leadership structure. Full integrity and lots of care allowed for everyone to win.
Another successful ending occurred when an acquaintance and I decided to be physically and emotionally intimate. From the start, there wasn’t a huge spark of chemistry for either of us, but because we were honest about it and both had mature relating skills, our communication was as clean as a whistle. We renegotiated the parameters, shifted to a friendship, and agreed to pay attention to reciprocity and mutual good will. In these kinds of circumstances, there is healing instead of hurt and a building of the muscle of success and integrity.
Yet most times, when others have initiated endings with me, I haven’t felt very cared for. In fact, in my second marriage, I was so blindsided by the ending and the heaviness of the process that it took me a full five years to recover.
Suffice it to say that nowadays, even before things get started, I am communicating to others about how I want things to end. I’m developing a language that requests consideration at every stage. Otherwise, it feels like too much of a risk. If I’m protecting the heart of the other but they aren’t protecting my heart, it’s like not wearing my seatbelt when someone else is driving recklessly, or allowing myself to be exposed to second hand smoke, or having unprotected sex with someone who has an STI. It is no longer self-caring, self-preserving, or self-respecting.
So here’s my recipe for ending the relationship before starting it.
I’ll begin by explaining:
How I bond
The places that scare me
Help me be successful
Sovereignty is central
The ending is a very delicate time
Here’s how they each play out:
How I bond
Dear future lover, (and in some contexts future friend, project partner, or job relationship). When you do and say these things, I begin to connect with you, trust you, and build a bond with you. What that means is that I am starting to rely on your presence, availability, and engagement. Please be mindful that your words and actions have an impact on me. Specifically when you:
>> Say that you care about me.
>> Enjoy our time together and request more.
>> Make plans with me for future togetherness.
>> Make collective decisions together.
>> Envision us doing things together that include travel or holidays.
>> Desire to stay in touch regularly.
>> Suggest that you are also becoming bonded to me.
>> Experience sensuality and sexuality together.
In many relationships, but specifically in the dating process, all these things imply (at least to me) foot-on-the-gas, let’s-keep-moving, visible and verbal signals that you are interested.
The places that scare me
I often think that people should wear warning labels because, otherwise, it takes a long time to understand their strengths and weaknesses. If they had a warning label, I could be both attentive to their sensitive places and mindful of how their immature and protective mechanisms might impact me.
Since I’ve been told, both professionally and personally, that I can appear strong and impenetrable, it makes sense for me to give my own warning label, a sort of clarity right up front. It goes like this: I am human. Flesh and blood, fear and worry, joy and sorrow—all the feels, human. What I’ve learned about this human from inhabiting her for a good long time is that certain things are more triggering than others. These are my top three:
- First and foremost, when I don’t feel included or don’t have a say in actions that impact my life, I can feel quite powerless.
- Second, when someone makes big changes in how they are relating to me without much warning, I can feel shocked and scared.
- Third, when I get mixed messages in significant areas of my relating that aren’t acknowledged, I can feel unmoored, even crazy.
When all three of these things come together in one incident, my wires get so crossed that I actually become regressed and not able to function well. For the record, I would love it if we could avoid this particular track.
Help me be successful
Giving me all the information I need to be successful means that you share with me how you feel about me every step along the way. Knowing the full spectrum and range of your honest experience allows me to adjust, modify, and match you. It’s imperative that you tell me the truth about your feelings because it gives me a barometer on your inner experience and allows me to stay connected with reality. It sets me up for fluidly changing my own intentions, setting expectations based on ongoing input, and adapting my own inner process to the best possible balance of safety and openness. It’s kind, respectful, and considerate.
While it’s certainly possible that you may not know the complexity of your own feelings, I am a fierce advocate of encouraging us all to welcome and express seemingly opposing experiences. Unfortunately, in our culture, we have learned neither the ins and outs of heartful honesty nor the ability to hold dichotomies. Here are some examples of how to be fully transparent about our own multiplicity of feelings:
>> I’m enjoying our time and I’m still feeling cautious about some aspects of us.
>> Being with you is wonderful and I’m holding this all really lightly.
>> I desire to connect more and I’m still in a gathering information stage.
>> I’m enjoying us in the moment and I’m not sure what the future holds.
>> While I’m with you I’m really available and present, but I’m also available to these other things that are pulling my attention.
It might be helpful if we could develop a rating scale so we can assess and report out about how we’re doing in different areas. For example, on a scale of one to 10, I’m about a five in our emotional connection, a seven in our sexual relating, and a two in our compatibility around wanting children.
This level of honesty runs counter to some of our dating rituals that include flirting and charming the other to fall in love with us while we take our time falling in love with them. Patrick Carnes, author of the book Betrayal Bonds, calls this “High heat with low intention,” and describes it as a dangerous approach-avoidance strategy. Turning on the romantic heat with no intention to back it up is manipulative. I believe it is a coping strategy to withhold our open heartedness because it feels safest to our tender selves. It’s understandable on some level because loving can be precarious. But this is not a mature approach. It values our own safety more than another’s. In mature relating, we stay in our own seat (the ability to stay present to our own experience, feelings, and process) and equally value the other person’s ability to do the same.
I’ve had multiple experiences in life where a meaningful connection (for weeks, or months, or years) changed for someone else and they were not capable of holding the complexity. Because they felt guilty for their change of heart, they negated the previously positive connection by saying “it was nothing,” or by suggesting they “hadn’t ever been in love” and didn’t really mean the things they had said in the past. I suppose that kind of negation can make the leaving person feel more validated and justified, but it’s genuinely hurtful, cruel, and often inaccurate. Rewriting history may very well be the most crazy-making human tendency.
It’s also completely unnecessary.
A diversity of feelings and perspectives is inherent in the human experience. As we mature in our relating, we realize, understand, and welcome seemingly contradictory experiences. Here’s how I see the tier of consciousness regarding this phenomenon:
>> At the highest level of consciousness, we are able to hold the paradox of seemingly dichotomous experiences. We can name them as opposites, and hold them both with equal awareness and respect. We are honest, transparent, and accountable to these “both/and” forces in us. For example, I feel so much love for you and also, for my own important reasons, I need to step back from our relationship.
>> At a medium level of consciousness, we don’t know ourselves very well and can fall into the pattern of sending mixed messages. This has the benefit of giving us lots of options. There’s a common joke about Californians, that they are reluctant to use turn signals because they don’t want to commit. This slippery way of being lacks integrity and is often remarkably challenging for others. It almost always has painful outcomes for everyone involved. The solution here is to get to know the self well enough to stand behind your yes and your no.
>> At the lowest level of consciousness, we know we are sending mixed messages and might actually enjoy the game of keeping the other confused so that it benefits us. For example, if you are encouraging my love for you while at the same time secretly pulling away so that you can get all the best from me without risk to yourself, this is manipulation and emotional abuse. Such an approach takes advantage of others in a vampiric way and can be considered the worst kind of narcissism. When this approach contains intentionality, it is called gaslighting.
When we resist the urge to devolve into this kind of brutal self-protection at the expense of another, we must learn to be vulnerable and honest. When we do, all parts of us are welcome and all parts of the other are welcome as well. This is where real relating can happen. This path has a deep commitment to integrity — the spiritual warrior way — of refusing to annihilate the other person’s reality to save your own. The outcome is authenticity and realness.
Sovereignty is central
I’m super committed to the concept of sovereignty. In its simplest terms, sovereignty translates to “you are your own cruise director and I am my own cruise director.” At a deeper level, it means that I am as equally supportive of the fullest and most alive expression of you as I am of me. It means that I celebrate you, no matter what. Even if “no matter what” means that you are no longer interested in being with me.
The value of sovereignty is really and truly that central to my core values.
In order to practice this value, I have worked on lessening my codependency and heightening my attachment to myself; I’ve come to embrace the real experience of how easily life, and hearts, and minds change; and I’ve enhanced my ability to hold multiple truths at the same time.
So right from the get-go in intimate relationships, I want to make it clear that I am okay with any outcome. Ultimately and always, I respect and honor your truth. At my best, I will champion you to discover your highest and best outcome. Even, and especially, if it changes the ways we are relating.
And, as all complex concepts go, there is a paradox here. This is the one big caveat: While I’m open to any outcome, I may not be neutral about the process.
In fact, as we get deeper into bonding with each other, all of your decisions will impact my life. So if your inner truth is taking you in a direction that will cause me to adjust my sails, then I also need to be considered. And while the outcome is up for grabs, I am incredibly attached to the process of being kind, connected, caring, and ideally inclusive.
Hence, the next part of the recipe.
The ending is a very delicate time.
“A beginning is a very delicate time,” writes Frank Herber, in the great opening line from the novel Dune. It conveys an abiding truth — transitions can be tough. And endings, as much or more than beginnings.
Here are some things I’d like to say to all people about how to end a relationship with consciousness, respect, and consideration. This is by no means an exhaustive list.
>> You are sovereign. Remember the previous part of the recipe? Please live your best life by going in the direction that is most alive for you. Ideally, you’ve been expressing your direction all along and giving your partner everything they need to succeed in their own sovereign life. So now, with great freedom comes great responsibility. Because you have built bonds with someone else who has built their life and heart and plans and visions around that bonding, it’s now the time to offer attention to that person while you navigate out of the relationship.
>> You are in the seat of power. Being the one who is ending things puts you squarely into the driver’s seat, where you have more access to the inner resources of emotional clarity, stability and security, and a calmer nervous system (you likely aren’t panicked, or shocked, or grieving in the same way). It’s an opportunity for you to be generous, because your partner is potentially feeling vulnerable, fearful, and fragile. Please understand and have empathy for this. The act of making a big relationship change can trigger your partner into feelings of abandonment, which is one of the hardest human experiences.
>> Honor the life cycle of your relating. Every being, relationship, project, or organization has a life cycle. They are roughly as follows: Start-up, Growth, Peak, Decline, Death. If the relationship was months in the start-up and growth phases, then it might take weeks in the decline and death phases. I’ve heard it said that when a tree dies, only half its useful life is over. In the remaining years of its “life,” the decaying process takes over, and the tree now provides food and homes and shelter for microbes, fungus, animals, and insects. Honoring the life cycle honors nature’s way and allows us to do the latter half of the process with dignity and good will.
>> Hold space for the shock. If you have information that the other person is just getting, hold some space for the understandable bewilderment. While most people can and will recover and move on, it’s important to let the other person get their sea legs. Offer time, attention, and reassurance. During the experience of shock, people often cannot make good decisions or take right action, so put those things on hold until the person gets grounded.
>> You’re in this together. Just as you wove the building of your relationship together, ideally you will design and create the ending together. Conscious ending allows for as much healing and trust-building as conscious relating. Maybe even more. Being vigilant about someone else’s heart can be one of the greatest acts of care we can offer. And that is never, ever wasted time or energy.
>> Ask the other person what they need in order to catch up to where you are. In designing the ending process together, prioritize the pace, style, process, and suggestions of the person who is being left. Their nervous system is the one that needs the most regulation at this point. Engaging a guide, like a counsellor or trusted friend, might be helpful in this situation. One great resource is Katherine Woodward Thomas’s Conscious Uncoupling work.
>> Own that you are ending it. I’ve had this experience twice in my life — someone is ending it with me but has either danced around the wording pretending they are not ending it, tried to get me to end it, or outright denied that an ending is happening. Do not do this! This may shelter the one who is ending things from feeling the pain of the other, but it actually accentuates and multiplies the pain of the other. Essentially the one who is negating the truth is relieving their own pain by giving the other person more of it. Nothing will throw someone into more of a tailspin than incongruence between words and actions. Please take full responsibility for what you are wanting and don’t force the hurting person to work through feeling crazy on top of heartbreak.
All relationships end.
Whether through breakup, divorce, or death, there will come a time when we’re not together in the same way. Planning for the ending at the beginning is a healthy way to avoid assumptions, unrealistic expectations, and codependence. It’s a recipe for adult relating.
Fortunately for all involved, what we desire in an ending has all the same components for a good beginning and a good middle. In addition, it’s a good litmus test for the willingness, capacity, and intention of both partners.
Change is a constant. This recipe for more consciousness in relating allows us to ride the waves of change with more empowerment, generosity, presence, and success. And success, as we’ve all come to learn, is not about staying together forever. It’s about loving all the way through. As we care for ourselves and others in mature ways—everyone succeeds.
Many years after my first divorce, my ex and I are becoming friends again. We both needed a long break from each other to focus on our own inner work and to forge new lives for ourselves. His trust for me is significant while my trust for him is tenuous. His trust for me, I believe, is in large part due to the consideration that I showed during our relationship’s decline and death. Yet on the flip side, because that same consideration was not forthcoming when I went through the impact of the decline, I don’t have the lived experience of the same care. As a result, I’m much more cautious. I believe my nervous system is waiting to see if he is now more capable and skillful at the empathy and intention required to be a good friend.
I’m still finding my way in the world of relating. Because we are not taught this stuff in school there’s a ginormous learning curve. In fact, we tend to garner relationship wisdom through the arduous journey of many mistakes. Part of my learning is to care for my heart as much as I care for other people’s hearts. I can’t control what others do and say, but I can start to have the conversations that allow me to discern if they can navigate changes, both large and small, with integrity, intention, and gentleness. Hopefully, if they are willing to have the conversation, they can, at the very least, begin to build the capacity and willingness for mature relating. And that’s a great place to start.