February 10, 2010

Sure, It Was Mutual

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We’ve all been on the receiving end of a post-breakup phone call from a friend. They always repeat the same phrase over and over: “I just don’t know what happened.” You obviously don’t know either. Instead, you tell them over and over that their ex “made a huge mistake” and that he “must be crazy.” Even as you’re saying it, you recognize that it’s a ridiculously generic response.

Most people who have been dumped can relate to the “I don’t know what happened” feeling. But breakups don’t have to be such a mystery, and understanding how they happen can help you see them coming and even rescue a relationship before it’s too late.

Relationship scientists (including Cornell’s very own human mating expert Prof. Cindy Hazan, human development) have identified an eight-step process called “uncoupling” which people go through in order to “break up.” Most breakups are unilateral, meaning one person is doing the dumping and the other person is getting dumped (and let’s be serious — your breakup wasn’t really mutual). The biggest problem is that the dumpee almost never sees the breakup coming until the relationship is past a point where it can be saved. However, relationship scientists agree that if you understand the process and a few tell-tale signs, you won’t be left wondering what happened.

The first stage of the uncoupling process is having private doubts. Plenty of people in healthy relationships have doubts from time to time, and actively questioning a relationship can even be beneficial. However, recurring private doubts can initiate the uncoupling process.

Stage two is characterized by indirect expressions. If, after a year of dating, your girlfriend suddenly can’t stop complaining about you sleeping with your socks on or your annoying laugh (which never seemed to bother her before), it might signal a partner’s developing doubts.

Indirect expressions are not limited to comments; they can also include efforts to exclude the partner and reduce “couple similarity” through increasing exposure to meeting others. Don’t have a panic attack because your girlfriend wants to take up tennis or your boyfriend suddenly joined Island Fitness, just recognize that many of these behaviors in concert might mean something is up.

Looking back at the beginning of your relationship with your boyfriend, it seems obvious that you would end up together. You romanticize the past, remembering the time he bumped into you in Libe Café and spilled your coffee as the clear beginning of love. (Never mind your usual clumsiness and how many coffee-stained shirts your Tide-To-Go pen sees every week).

Step three, rewriting the relationship history, is the opposite of romantic idealization — during this stage, you go back and literally alter the way that you remember experiences by dulling the importance of positive memories and giving more weight to negative memories.

The fourth stage, public expression, is when the dumper first starts to vocalize their doubts about the relationship — but not to their partner. When the dumper makes comments to close friends, their doubts are no longer only in their head. Relationship scientists refer to this stage as the “point of no return” because once concerns are vocalized, they are more likely to lead to action.

You used to be happy spending Tuesday nights watching movies with your boyfriend, but now you routinely spend your Tuesdays dancing on tables at Johnny O’s with your boyfriend-less friends. Welcome to stage five: exploring single life. As the dumper, you want to know that you will be okay without your significant other. Another characteristic of this stage is avoiding commitments to future plans together. If your boyfriend is putting off booking flights for the trip you have been planning together for months, it might be worth asking if there is a reason that he hasn’t made the Expedia reservation yet other than his “slow internet.”

In stage six, taking action, the dumper sort of wants their partner to get a clue that they aren’t satisfied. While they’re not ready to tell their partner yet, they start to give hints. If while your girlfriend is dancing on the tables of J.O.’s, she is also ignoring your text messages and screening your calls, you will probably get a clue that something is wrong — and you will want to fix it. This leads to step seven: trying. This stage should really be called “trying” because the truth is that the dumper is probably past the point where they want to fix the relationship; they have already been going through the breakup process for a long time. If your relationship is at this stage, it doesn’t mean that you should roll over and accept that it is doomed. Just be prepared to override some of the steps your partner has already gone through.

After seven steps, the dumper finally reaches the separation stage: the actual breakup. But the dumper frequently gives the dumpee false hopes. You are just taking a “break” because the summer is coming up or because one of you is going abroad … in eight months. The dumper wants a safety net so that they can come back to the relationship if they aren’t happy.

Don’t start re-reading your BBM history or overanalyzing every conversation just yet. The reality is that many of the “symptoms” of the uncoupling process can also just be normal occurrences in healthy relationships. Understanding the process should just give you a structured way to be smarter about what’s going on inside your boyfriend or girlfriend’s head. And at the very least, the next time your best friend calls in shock, you can give them a little clarity.

Original Author: Emily Weinstein