A Conversation with The Breakup Therapist
Y’all, I am so excited about the blog this week. As a proponent of healthy relationships, I am also a proponent of healthy breakups—because breakups are part of the relationship continuum. Sometimes after digging into the personal and relationship work, we might realize that we have come to the end of a partnership (note: this comes back to the idea that the work in relationships may not have the outcome we were hoping for). This realization can be painful or liberating or unimaginable (or any combination of those emotions) and to me, it’s really important that we navigate this part of the relationship in a way that allows for dignity for ourselves and our partner.
I reached out to Lindsey Brock, LCSW aka The Breakup Therapist. Lindsey is skilled in navigating all the different aspects of breakups and as you will learn through this interview, attachment theory plays a huge role in how we approach, endure, and rebuild our lives after the end of a relationship.
I’m so grateful to Lindsey for her thoughtful (and often humorous) responses to my many questions.
Lindsey, hi! Can you tell us about yourself and what you do in the world?
Hi! I'm Lindsey. I'm a therapist in Asheville, North Carolina and I see folks in my private practice who need some extra support in their relationships. I absolutely love working with people who feel like they don't know who they are outside of a relationship. Often, folks come to me on the verge of a breakup, or shortly after it, searching to find out who they are without this person. Spoiler alert: I like doing this work because I've been there. It's so fun to help people nurture their identity totally unrelated to who they're dating.
I've put myself out into the world as 'the breakup therapist,' but of course, not everybody I work with is going through a breakup! But there is a common thread woven through the work of most of my clients: folks are wanting more out of their life and more out of their partnerships. A bit more about me and the work I do: I also have a coaching practice that is online-based, where I operate as a relationship and breakup coach to support people in making healthier and more grounded decisions in that realm of their lives.
Can you share some of your observations about breakups in general?
Something I've noticed is that even though I call myself "the breakup therapist”, folks come to me stating other reasons for seeking out therapy. This often sounds like “I'm here to work on my anxiety or to better manage stress”. But usually, two or three sessions in, I hear about a devastating relationship, unresolved relationship trauma, or the uncertainty that is plaguing them day and night about the current state of their relationship (usually, “do I stay or go?” or “why do I keep dating assholes?!?!”). I think it's so hard to name the pain that often comes with hard relationships or the end of really important relationships. I mean, we as humans are wired for this stuff. So understandably, people don't want to face the pain and sometimes try to avoid it. But it's so important to face the hard stuff.
When I started my practice, I assumed I would be helping a lot of people get over the grief of a breakup, but a lot of the work that I do is to help folks understand whether or not they want to remain in the relationship. Our attachment wounds, our relationship trauma, and our anxieties can really complicate a decision around whether or not to stay in a relationship. My job is to help people clear away all the muck that is muddying the waters and making it harder for them to make a decision. Let's heal those wounds so you can make an autonomous decision—not one filtered through trauma or unattended attachment wounds.
What are the reasons people stay in long-term relationships when they aren’t working?
I really try to challenge folks to consider the reasons that they're staying or reasons they want to leave. A lot of this is about attachment. I want to help people make decisions that are not rooted in fear, hurt, or trauma. I often hear these reasons for staying:
“No one else could ever love me” (often, an ex or current partner has told them this bullshit), or some other version of “I don't want to be alone.”
“We've been together so long/there's so much invested in our relationship already.” I call this the gas station theory. Let’s pretend a hurricane is coming. You've waited in line for gas for 2 hours at a gas station. They keep swearing the gas is on its way, but it hasn’t showed up yet. Someone drives by and says, “Hey! They have gas one mile down the road at another station! And plenty of it!” But you stay in line because you've already waited 2 hours. This makes no sense. Go get you some gas!
“I don't know what it would be like without this person in my life; that's too scary to consider.”
“I always date assholes and this is the best I'm going to get, so I may as well stick around.”
These reasons are not great reasons to stay in a relationship. They're rooted in fear of the unknown or lies people have told us (or we have told ourselves) over the years. I challenge these types of beliefs on the reg.
Alternatively, people choose to leave for not-so-healthy reasons (usually because of attachment or trauma wounds). This often occurs when people have a really hard time having the difficult conversations or feeling the uncomfortable feelings. So when things get hard, people bail (or often these days, they ghost). Recognizing our patterns, taking the time to heal our trauma and the things that have helped shape our attachment styles will put us back in control of our choices.
Can you give us some tips about how to end a relationship with as much respect as possible?
This is a tough question. My first thought was, 'respect for whom?’ The individual, or their soon to be ex-partner? Rarely are breakups easy, but some are a little more straightforward than others. For the more cordial breakups, consider the following:
Be direct. Rip off the band-aid. Your partner may or may not have any idea this conversation is about to happen, but will likely at some point experience some intense anxiety or pain. Although tough to say and to hear, being direct is the best way forward.
If it's emotionally safe to have a conversation, provide space for your partner. But remember, you're saying "you aren't my person anymore." Try not to take on the role you've previously played. I've heard lots of folks say that it's confusing to have someone end the relationship, then immediately apologize profusely/provide physical comfort/act like you would if you're still partnered.
Do not say anything that is untrue. This may include "maybe later in life we can be together" or "I want to still be friends." If you know you don't feel that way, don't say it. Being honest shows you and your partner the most respect.
A lot of breakups that lead people to seek therapy are not as straightforward. They're complicated and layered. When ending a relationship where you've been continuously disrespected, have experienced gaslighting, and/or your boundaries have been ignored, consider this: you get to make this decision for you. You do not have to explain yourself. You do not have to prove to a partner that you need to be out of this relationship.
What else? We are so curious!
Something I say all the time is 'if you want to ghost, fine. But decide to ghost. Don't just do it because that's what you do. Don't do it on auto-pilot. Don't do it because you're avoiding the hard stuff. Make a choice." Usually, if we're challenged to make a choice with autonomy versus an automatic response, we can choose more wisely and securely.
There's a lot about boundaries and making choices from integrity (or from places of our real truth or true self). It's so important to have boundaries during a relationship, but also during a breakup. When you're breaking up with someone because you know you can't continue to grow in this relationship because your boundaries have been continuously violated, you aren't asking a question. Sometimes, you're not even having a conversation. We don't need permission to get out of a relationship that's not serving us. For those of us that have been talked out of a breakup in the moment, consider the following:
Do not have this conversation in a shared space or your home if there are complicated boundary issues. Do it somewhere public where you can leave (and don't drive together!). If a public place is not an option, do it at your (soon to be 'ex') partner's house. This isn't totally ideal, because often times partners end up hooking up. It's harder to hook up at the park or midday at the grocery store parking lot.
Use the words "this isn't up for debate" or "it's not really a discussion.” You've made a decision. You get to stick to it.
Say your piece and get going. If you feel that it's appropriate to have more of a conversation, do it at a later time when both partners aren't in a heightened emotional state.
A potentially controversial or unpopular thought: boundaries in relationships (and life) are so important. AND, some boundaries tell us where we have work to do and show us where we can continue to grow. I'm not talking about boundaries around safety. Some of us live really boundaried lives. Maybe we can't tolerate partners who raise their voices, drink too much, or *insert anything that churns up our trauma*. If these are your deal-breakers, that's fine—they get to be. But also, what healing do you need to do so that you get to be okay, even if your partner yells, decides to have one more drink, etc.
Can you give us some insight about what folks can expect before/during/after a breakup with a partner through the lens of attachment theory?
There's no right or wrong way to feel through a breakup. There are, however, helpful and not-so-helpful ways to go about it. And a lot of that depends on your attachment style.
Many of the 'how to get over your breakup' lists, blogs, and books, are more helpful for folks with an anxious attachment style and less helpful (or seemingly less urgent) for people who have avoidant or secure styles. This is because people with the anxious style often experience the pain and grief of breakups more intensely. The common 'don't hook up with you ex, don't call them, block them from Instagram' advice is great (on both neurobiological and social levels), but this advice is mostly geared towards surviving a breakup through the lens of anxious attachment.
Folks with the anxious attachment style often have a super hard time letting go and moving on. This can slow down the healing process. Self-doubt, certainty that they’re inherently flawed, and/or that they’re destined to be alone can cause people with this style to hold on longer in relationships than is helpful. Because of this discomfort and anxiety, a lot of my clients with these patterns are rarely single, and/or often hook up with their exes.
What to do: Give some space between you and your ex. Don't text them. Don't hook up with them. Maybe unfollow them from social media platforms. Allow yourself to heal and recognize when you're making decisions through an activated attachment lens. Then, after some self-soothing, decide from that place if you want to reach out/text/hook up, etc.
It is often easier for securely attached folks to find healing and move forward. People who experience breakups through this lens still may feel incredible pain but are able to see the forest through the trees, so to speak. I often hear folks with a secure lens say "I love them so much, but I know it wasn't the right relationship for me," or are able to recognize there's likely someone else out there for them. Securely attached folks can more easily hold the duality of the pain of the heartbreak, and knowing they're okay.
What to do: Basic self-care, including putting good foods into your body, exercising, surrounding yourself with friends or supportive family, and feeling your feelings (note: this is generally good guidance for anyone, at any time, regardless of attachment style!)
People with avoidant characteristics or tendencies may initiate a breakup if they feel intimacy is too much or if they perceive they are getting too close. Please note that this is a huge generalization that is meant to be helpful but not meant to be all-encompassing. Often my clients with this attachment type have been given feedback from their partner that they seem standoffish or have a hard time letting their partner into their relationship. It's important for avoidantly attached folks to remember that the end of relationship isn't inevitable and that we can learn to let our guard down and in turn, let our partners in. Sometimes folks with this pattern have already established distance throughout the relationship and may seem like they don't care or are already over it when the breakup happens.
What to do: Remind yourself that you are deserving of connection and relationships. Be around folks who help you feel connected and alive. Do something vulnerable (spoiler alert: you'll survive it. It can serve as a great reminder that closeness/vulnerability isn't always awful).
So what do we do about all this? It's so important to know our patterns. We can't adapt our patterns if we don't know they exist. It's important to stay curious about our relationships and understand the ways we process breakups. Our narratives (for example "something's wrong with me," or "intimacy=doom") dictate our understanding of our experiences, and it can be so helpful to recognize when that narrative is being influenced by some of our attachment tendencies/patterns.
Finally, remember that breakups can be traumatic and trauma throws us into our most familiar and old patterns, despite how unhelpful those patterns may be. Prepare for this. Survey your history and make note of how you handled your last breakup or the last time you felt deep sadness or were out of control. Was how you handled it helpful? If not, choose, decide—to step outside of that trauma response or maladaptive coping mechanism. Maybe you had a lot of casual sex that left you feeling good in the moment, but empty afterwards. Know that this is a thing you may do! Decide if that's the decision you want to make. Maybe you holed up in your room, totally isolated for 3 weeks and ran up a massive fee on food delivery services. Ask yourself—how was that for me? Does that help me? If the answer is a genuine 'yes,' I say go for it. But remember, some of the greatest coping skills can only take us so far. It's then we have to learn how to heal in a way that is helpful and healthy.
Where can folks find you to get some more support?
Info about my relationship coaching and therapy practice can be found at www.thebreakuptherapist.com or www.thebreakupcoach.org!
Thank you so much, Lindsey!
I can’t wait to hear your thoughts on the blog this week. Let me know in the comments, or send me an email!