“Just leave it,” he blurts out to a customer.
Love requires honesty and bravery – so does letting go of love. And sometimes couples need help just as much to end a relationship as they do to save it.
A new approach to couples counseling
In the therapeutic community, helping couples cope with the end of a relationship is not a typical approach. A friend recently separated from his wife. When the couple told the therapist, she seemed to take it personally.
“I don’t help couples who aren’t working to stay together,” she said.
And when patients choose to leave their relationship, it often means the end of therapy as well.
“We have come to a decision,” they tell me.
What I’ve found, though, is that many times the couple is just as confused as before. Was there anything we could have done differently? Was it something in me that caused this?
The traumatic parts of the relationship, especially the perceived injustices, continue to play out in a continuous loop. It is in these moments that I dig.
“I suggest we don’t stop yet,” I advise. And then I introduce them to separation therapy.
Every relationship needs a shared narrative. It’s the glue that holds it together.
- We are together because we make each other feel safe.
- We work because we are opposites.
- We love each other because we have the same values.
When the relationship ends, the story also ends. Instantly, it seems, what we believed so strongly turns out to be an illusion, a cruel joke. But it was not. Stories need to evolve and change as much as we do or they may need to end.
The goal of separation therapy is to create a consistent, shared narrative of the relationship – a story both partners believe in and one with a beginning, middle and end. In doing so, both accept some measure of responsibility for their separation. And when the sessions are over, I write the story they both wrote and ask them to sign their names.
Separation therapy is about getting over the relationship. Over half a dozen sessions with exercises and specific and targeted homework, this therapy aims to facilitate the couple’s transition to their new lives.
Here are some of the steps in separation therapy:
1. Create a relationship inventory
Start by listing the positive qualities of your partner and the relationship and how they can become negative over time. Then bring up painful incidents, reasons why family and friends might not like your partner, and red flags you might have overlooked. Finally, think about the degree to which you and your partner worked things out, trusted each other, and shared interests.
2. Be brutally honest about the ways you didn’t feel seen and heard.
Ask yourself, “Do I feel seen the way I want to be seen?” Breakups can be a catalyst for getting to know yourself better and healing your unexamined wounds, which may have contributed to why you didn’t allow yourself to be seen or chose a partner who isn’t able to see you.
3. Accept your part in the separation and expose your complaint
In most relationships, except where there is abuse, neither party is innocent, even when only one has cheated or wants separation. Few relationships end because of a single act. Breakups are almost always a victim of a slow unwind.
When each person in the relationship accepts their part in the breakup and also states their own grievances, it allows partners to let go of feelings of victimization or guilt.
- “I agree that I violated our marriage contract. Do you agree that you had emotional affairs with your students for years that left me isolated and alone?”
- “Yes, I controlled you with our finances. I can see it. And you see that you were never fully present emotionally?
4. Evaluate how the relationship has changed over time
Think back to the early days of your relationship. What brought them together? Now think about how you and your partner may have changed and how your needs have changed over time. Here are some couples situations I’ve counseled.
A couple emigrated from India after college. In the beginning, they were each other’s home, both metaphorically and concretely, as they settled in America. Eight years later and no longer so isolated, those needs have changed.
Another couple suffered complex childhood traumas; the emotional security they built with each other is what made the relationship work. But two decades later, they no longer needed each other’s emotional support. In fact, they didn’t need to be reminded of their stories or confined by their codependency.
5. Reflect on how past traumas or insecurities affected the relationship
One couple were puzzled why their current relationship turned into a conflict even after the dust settled on their legal battles with their ex-boyfriends over child custody issues. In therapy they could see how their recriminations were a way of replacing old ones with new crises.
They were so used to living in chaos that they didn’t know how to be with each other when the storm subsided. Knowing that the things that connect people during war don’t always work in peacetime paved the way for a new history free of judgment and recrimination.
Having a therapist in the room delving into their history helps the couple recognize each other that they are not alone in their worries about the future. Asking “Who am I now?” “Will I be able to find love again?” and “How can I recover from this and be happy?” each other and responding injects a necessary vulnerability into the separation.
It’s often the acute feeling of being alone that bothers the most after a breakup – admitting you’re both worried allows an entry point for more softness between them.
We are the stories we tell ourselves. If you tell yourself that the end of your relationship is a tragedy, it will be. But it doesn’t have to be. When all the threads that bound you to a story are severed, what’s left is the potential to reimagine your life.
Sarah Gundle, PsyD, is a clinical psychologist practicing in New York. She is an assistant professor of psychiatry at the Icahn School of Medicine, Mount Sinai Medical Center.
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