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What is a 'Clean' Breakup? (and How to Achieve One)

05/12/2015 04:27 pm ET | Updated May 12, 2016
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The demise of a romantic relationship is a difficult experience for everyone, regardless of the reasons it is coming to an end. Even under the best-case scenarios where the decision to split up is mutual or merely logistical, there are very real physical and emotional consequences to separating. These can include sleep loss, chest pain, muscle spasms, digestive issues, weight gain, anxiety, depression, crying spells and stress-induced hormonal changes due to a surge of cortisol and adrenaline into the body. The grief involved in calling it quits can trigger deep traumatic memories as well, especially if we experienced abandonment, betrayal or rejection by our caregivers or guardians. If children are involved in the mix, the dissolution of a partnership can take on even more complex and potentially damaging dimensions. All told, it's easy to understand why a person would fight against the end, even if it means entering into the murky waters of lies, manipulation, passive aggression or clinginess. Letting go can be so painful that it's easier to create drama and/or necessitate a fight rather than part ways on amicable terms. With this in mind, here are some basic steps to facilitate an emotionally 'clean' breakup:

  1. Have a 'breakup plan' in place before you enter a relationship, a road map for how you will handle yourself if things go south. Most people don't want to think about the possibility of breaking up, especially while in the passionate phase of a new romance. But failing to consider various outcomes is a recipe for drama. This is especially true in cases where money, property, pets or children are involved. A breakup plan can include where and when you will have the breakup conversation and what you will say, how you will communicate (in person vs. by email or text,) what kinds of steps you are willing and unwilling to take to rescue the relationship (getting into couples therapy or trying agreed upon alternative relationship practices), how you will divide shared resources or how you will handle mutual friends and shared spaces.

  • Make a decision to communicate only when in a calm, open state of mind. If you feel your anger or jealousy flaring up, inciting you to say or do things you will regret, press the pause button and take a break from discussing things until you feel more emotionally stable. Remember to keep breathing, and trust that you will have time to say everything you need to, even if it doesn't happen all at once. Remember that breaking up is a process. It took time to enter the relationship, and it will take time to exit it.
  • Get outside help. Don't try to manage the situation all alone. Seeing a therapist or counselor can be invaluable, especially when trying to separate the past from the present. It can also keep you from sharing all your emotional ups and downs with a soon-to-be-ex, which can cause a lot of confusion during a time when you are trying to be decisive.
  • Be kind. To yourself and to your partner. Holding compassion as a higher value than revenge, spite or fear may take some getting used to, but it is ultimately the one emotion that can see you safely through troubled waters. Dig down deep and find a way to forgive yourself and others, acknowledging that everyone is human and doing their best, however misguided their actions may be.