A breakup is never easy. A breakup shouldn’t be easy. If it is, then it wasn’t a good relationship to begin with. At its core, a breakup is a death. In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari talks about the two realities – Objective Reality (Trees, Lions, Rivers) and Imagined Reality (Corporations, Countries, Religions). A relationship is part of the second reality. It is imagined in the mind of two people and then those two individuals share their reality with other people through stories. Stories about how these two individuals met, how they realized their feelings for each other and how they are conceiving a future together. When this myth breaks down, the relationship ends.
Thus, a relationship involves three individuals – two objectively real people and one imagined relation. It is the death of the third individual – the imagined one – that is called a breakup. The two real people exist. No physical harm has happened to them and yet, the pain is often immeasurable.
If you are unable to grasp why the death of a myth causes so much trouble, remember that most recent wars have been for myths like countries or religions. The 2008 economic crisis was based on the meltdown of a myth. Heck! The whole concept of society in any form is based on shared myths. In a nutshell, just because it’s imagined doesn’t mean it’s not real, even if the definitions collide on the matter. And like everyone deals with death in different ways, all of us handle a breakup differently. Mainly, people can be put in three buckets –
Some of us become workaholic and put every ounce of our energy in our goals. There are two advantages of this technique. One, continuously doing something doesn’t give the mind to dwell over the matter. Second, one is productive and is able to achieve something even in a bad situation. It may be a silver lining, but something is always better than nothing. The disadvantage is that the feelings that were pushed during this period may come back like the sleep that hits you after a alcohol and caffeine fueled night-out. Worse, it may emotionally char you forever with no healing ever taking place.
Other people just let out the pain by crying and drinking. They would talk to their friends and share the pain. They would seek support and break down at every other turn. However, this has its advantages. A person like this is able to heal faster as sharing of pain helps in reducing it. This person is also inadvertently connecting to their other relationships and strengthening them. The disadvantage is that the productivity is zero and if the person doesn’t heal quickly, this person might become a burden in the other relationships.
Finally, there are people who just become stunned, and eventually, they shut down. They end up being completely useless. Binge-watching television is one of the most prominent features in such a situation. Listening to songs while overthinking every moment of that relationship to identify the situations where things could have been improved. Looking at ways in which things can be put back together or torn apart further. Frankly, I don’t know any advantage of this situation. You aren’t productive, you aren’t healing, and you aren’t going forward. You are just stuck in a moment in time, frozen and looping. Unfortunately, this is also the place where most of us find ourselves. My advice – either pick a project to do or cry your heart out. Get out of this place ASAP!
But I’m not interested in giving an advice on a breakup. My interest is in the mechanism of the breakdown of the myth. How does a breakup happen? I believe that often, the seeds of a breakup can be found in the beginning of the relationship. It all starts with the construction of the combined myth. This combined lore consists of two stories – my story and your story.
– I saw you when you were talking to your friend.
– I fell in love with you when it was raining, and you were wearing that black dress.
– I realized it won’t work out when we fought that day.
– I told you about it when I couldn’t take it anymore.
– I saw you when you were being a buffoon.
– I fell in love when we went out for the show under the clear sky.
– I realized that it wasn’t working when you didn’t talk to me that day.
– I believed we can work out our troubles.
When two people come together, there are many forces that are against the relationship. For some, it’s the society; for others, distance. Some must fight the financial barriers while others have to fight their own past issues. The higher the strength and the number of these forces, the higher efforts the relationship requires. The relationship is more draining and the chances of success of the relationship are also reduced. These challenges are thwarted by the strength of the relationship which comes from the shared narrative, the combined myth – the love story.
The shared lore is bound to have two different narratives – my story and your story. In an ideal world, these two stories would be identical. This would make it strong and able to handle any external force. In the real world, the two stories deviate from each other and the farther they are, the weaker the relationships become.
The worst case is when one person thinks they are in a relationship while the other thinks they are not (friend-zone anyone?). However, even in a relationship which is clear on its status, there can be small deviations which would lead to butterfly effect in the future. If the two stories start deviating and are not reconciled, eventually, the relationship will become weak and external forces will overpower the relationship. It is also important to acknowledge that the small deviations in the story would come. For one, memory is not set in stone. Second, we are not hive mind and can’t know everything about the other individual’s life and thus would take assumptions which will add those deviations.
That is why, communication is considered one of the most important pillars in a relationship. It helps in identifying the small deviations before they become too big to be handled. Constant communication helps in keeping the deviations small and manageable. No wonder that most researches on relationships conclude that almost all healthy relationships (not just romantic ones) have good communication at its core. In fact, a good relationship can falter even after years if the communication breaks down due to some reason.
Another important component in maintaining the combined narrative is conflict resolution. If the two stories are different, which one is the correct version? What is the TRUTH? Well, the truth is what both participants can agree on. Trust is the key here. It helps in conflict resolution. That is why a breakdown of trust often is the quickest path to a breakup, even faster than lack of communication. Because identifying the conflicts is of no use if they can’t be resolved.
However, it’s possible that some deviations are missed even after regular communication and deep trust. These deviations become larger and might come out in the open too late for a quick resolution. Resolving them requires both communication and trust with a lot of patience. Patience, unfortunately, is a commodity in dearth. Often, the modern life doesn’t stop, and allow people to take a breath, to contemplate, consider and resolve conflicts. This is where the relationship is at its weakest and this is where it often breaks down. The deviations continue to increase until one day, one person says – I’m done.
The shared narrative breaks and the combined myth ends. The suspension of disbelief is over and the third entity in a relationship, the imagined one, dies. It doesn’t matter if the two people were good or bad, it doesn’t matter if the two people were near or far, it doesn’t matter if the two people were rich or poor. The relationship continues as long as the two stories in the combined myth reconcile and it breaks when they deviate from each other.
To conclude, talk. Share your stories and ensure that both people have the same narrative. They are on the same page.
And for those who have already crossed the breakup bridge – mourn. It was a death.