(This article first appeared at jwa.org.)
Chatting with friends about bad breakup stories, I found myself struggling to explain my own philosophy for breakups. Breakups are complicated. The models we get from pop culture often involve lots of drama, betrayal, and revenge. In the other direction, the Jewish value of shalom bayit, “peace in the home,” can be taken to an extreme where women are pressured to stay and try to fix things no matter how bad things get. But shalom bayit is not the only Jewish value that can be applied to relationships. As I told my friends, I try to live by the ideal of tikkun olam, repairing the world, both in my work and in my personal life. Someone in the group pushed back, “Isn’t breaking up the opposite of repair? Isn’t it inevitable that when someone gets hurt, things get worse?”
Another person, though, brightened and said, “That’s like the Campsite Motto, isn’t it? Leave things better than you found them?”
She got it.
I don’t think a breakup (with a partner or a friend) has to be painful; it’s possible to leave without being cruel and without destroying the other person’s dignity.
Let me just take a second to point out what I hope should be obvious: if you’re breaking off a relationship with someone who is physically or emotionally abusive, the only repair you can do is to your own soul by leaving and regaining a sense of safety and strength.
If, however, you’re in a relationship that has been fine and is just not working anymore, with some thought and effort it usually is possible to leave someone without shattering your world or theirs.
Here are the questions I use when it’s time for me to make my exit.
1.How can you be kind and clear in leaving? Whether you’re fleeing someone you can’t stand or saying goodbye to someone you can’t keep, it’s possible to say “this isn’t working” without detailing what you think their worst qualities are or giving them false hope that you might be able to work it out.
Before you talk to the other person, think about what you actually want. Would you stay in the relationship if they just changed a particular behavior, or have you already checked out? Either choice is valid, but there’s a difference between the two conversations. Ask for space if you need to sort through your feelings, but not as a tactic for extricating yourself—don’t let them assume you’ll come back if you have no intention of doing so. If you are hoping to stay, think about how long you are willing to work with your friend or partner to change things before throwing in the towel.
But if you are completely done, it’s better to say you’re unhappy, or this isn’t working, rather than make the other person think that if they just changed, you would stay. I’ve found it’s less painful for everyone involved to talk about basic incompatibilities (“You are not going to stop wanting to raise a family in a Jewish home, and you deserve to be with someone who will do that with you,” or “You are a really talented singer, but I just can’t deal with being the breadwinner indefinitely while you focus on your music,”) rather than listing all the things that drive you crazy. And of course, it costs nothing to say, “I’m sorry for hurting you.”
2. What have you learned from the other person? What have you taught them? This can be anything from an insight into how the world works to the right way to make an omelet. For relationships that were once lovely, this can be a way of holding on to, and honoring, what was special, but even in abusive relationships, it can be a way of acknowledging the positive traits that made you stay (so you don’t blame yourself for not leaving sooner).
One ex was responsible for my love of Dar Williams and Tori Amos. Another introduced me to Doctor Who and Indian food. One taught me (the hard way) not to trust people blindly. The next taught me how to let people in again and helped me trust my instincts more now that they’d been honed by experience. And one invaluable friend taught me that it’s unfair to expect other people to read my mind, that I have to ask for what I want. And in turn, when I think of the people I’ve loved, I can point to ways I influenced them: teaching one to bake challah, showing another Firefly for the first time, convincing one friend to leave a dead-end job for something more meaningful, teaching another how to listen without trying to fix things. Considering the impact you’ve had on each other (good and bad) has three benefits: it can help you find closure, it can remind you to treat the other person more compassionately during a breakup, and it can help you fine-tune what you’re looking for next.
3. Has the relationship changed how you want to behave in your next relationship? To avoid repeating old mistakes, we have to look at what went wrong and keep an eye out for the same dynamics in other relationships. For several years, I had a pattern of becoming close friends with intense people who needed me desperately. They would pour their hearts out to me and make me feel important. And then, after a while, I would realize that we were spending hours every day on their dramas, but that they barely knew or cared about my life at all. Recognizing that pattern helped me realize that friendships and romantic relationships could and should be more than one person in crisis and the other playing counselor. Reflecting on this pattern helped me see warning signs of such relationships before I got entangled again.
Relationships, like campsites, can be expansive, fun, and a space for growth and coming together with other people. As we exit a campsite we are reminded to leave things better than we found them, as a kindness to the space and to the people who come after us. I do it because it’s the right thing to do. But I also do it because more than once, I’ve been grateful for the things someone learned from a previous relationship that have made them a wiser and more loving partner to me. I don’t want to trash the places or people I leave behind. It’s so much better to appreciate the space, clean up the mess, and say thank you.