“I don’t know what to do,” Jennifer said. “I like Greg a lot and we have our fun moments, but something doesn’t feel right.” Sound familiar? We hear this kind of statement on a regular basis from persons entering the foggy bog of uneasiness about their relationship. Jennifer and Greg had been dating for nearly eight months when she confessed, “I can’t tell if it’s worth it or not.” If you’ve ever wondered the same thing, we want to help you cut through the nebulous emotions and see your condition more clearly.
There are probably countless reasons why couples split, but in a study asking more than 150 dating couples who had just broken up to write an anonymous essay on “why we broke up,” three reasons appeared again and again. Desire for autonomy topped the list. Some men (27%) and many women (44%) complained of feeling trapped by their dating partner. “He was upset whenever I went out with friends,” one woman wrote, “even if I couldn’t have been with him at that time because of his obligations.” One man said, “I felt like a possession.” Most people want intimacy and connection in a dating relationship, but not at the price of reasonable freedom.
Lack of similarity was next on the list of reasons for breaking up. Both men and women discovered that as the relationship progressed, their attitudes, beliefs, values, or interests simply did not jive. Whether it involved deeply held religious convictions or something as seemingly frivolous as an unmatched sense of humor, lack of similarity was a commonly cited reason for breaking up. If a relationship is “worth it,” we need to feel connected and in sync on things that matter to us.
Lack of supportiveness was the third most common reason for a breakup. Many men and women complained that their dates were not encouraging, sympathetic, or understanding. “He’s become a jerk,” is the way one person put it. “He never listens to what I have to say . . . he’s inconsiderate and thoughtless about my feelings . . . he cares more about sports than he does about me.” If we don’t feel supported by the person we are dating, we want out.
Discovering legitimate reasons for ending a dating relationship, unfortunately, is only the first painful step toward breaking up. The hard part is still to come. And because it is so difficult and because it hurts, it’s easy to put it off—like delaying a root canal while the decay continues to fester. Even in a bad relationship, it’s easy to tell yourself you can work it out. It’s easy to limp along, hoping it might get better. The truth is that breaking up can be the kindest cruelty. Sure it’s going to be painful for both of you, but the best thing you can do for an unhealthy relationship is call it off. A breakup stops a relationship before either of you gets hurt too badly. It allows you to take what was good about what you shared together and leave the bad behind. It frees you both to start over with someone else.
Drs. Les and Leslie Parrott are co-directors of the Center for Relationship Development at Seattle Pacific University and the authors of Relationships: Making Bad Relationships Better and Good Relationships Great. Les is also the author of High-Maintenance Relationships. Visit their Web site at www.RealRelationships.com to find their seminar schedule.