A while back I was talking to a friend of mine, and we were talking about those final sputtering gasps of relationships and how they often look the same.
Usually it looks something like this…
A couple stops doing things together, they stop having fun together, they stop having sex, and often even stop sleeping in the same bed.
The sense of “we” breaks down, and they increasingly become two people living separate lives; simply occupying the same space instead of being “a couple”.
Maybe they start fighting a lot, or maybe they just stop talking and interacting AT ALL.
Even still, when one person finally decides to initiate the breakup – the other person is often caught completely off guard.
The way the scenario was presented to me, it was the woman who was the one initiating the breakup; and the question was asked of me:
“why in the world are guys surprised when this happens? You’re not getting along. You’re not having sex. Why is this a surprise?”
Yet for the person on the receiving end of the breakup, it often is. Sometimes the other person is completely blindsided by the loss of the relationship.
As I thought about it, I realized it was a great question.
Why is it a surprise?
Why in the world doesn’t someone see it coming? Especially when there are usually a significant number of signs that something is clearly wrong.
Is the person on the receiving end of the breakup stupid?
I suppose it’s possible that stupidity, ignorance or naivety plays a role here. But often I think the issue goes a little bit deeper than that.
And I think it’s a sign of a relationship where there is very poor communication.
One of the biggest issues plaguing couples is an (often unspoken) belief that if your partner “knows you” then they will know what you are thinking, or be able to read your body language.
News flash – it’s not true! People *aren’t* mind readers. Well, I suppose some might be – and if you actually can then great, I’m not trying to downplay that ability.
But by and large? Ummmmm… no, things don’t work that way.
When you’ve spent enough time with someone you often can make some guesses as to how they will react to events. And you probably get pretty good at reading their body language (when you’re actually paying attention) over time. But no, you can’t read their mind. You don’t actually know what they are thinking – it’s just guesses.
In fact, believing people should be able to read your mind (or thinking you can read theirs) is one of the leading thinking patterns (or cognitive distortions) associated with things like anxiety and depression. Or on a lesser scale, unhappy relationships.
So if we can accept that the person who is caught off guard on the receiving end of a breakup can’t actually read minds, and we can accept that they aren’t necessarily stupid, then maybe something else is happening here.
Maybe, just maybe…
They are caught off guard because although they knew *something* was wrong, they had no idea what it was, or they had no idea how severe the issue was.
Going back to the common signs of a relationship in distress, I mentioned things like a couple no longer doing things together, not really having fun anymore, not really having sex, and even not sleeping in the same bed.
Basically, a couple ceasing to be a couple.
When this happens, usually one person has pulled away or started to check out of the relationship.
Depending on what is going on in their lives, maybe the other person doesn’t notice at first. But eventually they clue in that *something* isn’t quite right.
And I think what happens next is what will likely determine the outcome of the relationship.
There’s a pretty good chance shitty communication and a dislike of conflict on the part of one or both parties has gotten the couple to this point.
So chances are, the person who notices things aren’t quite right will wait it out for a bit. After all, people and couples have good days and bad days; maybe this is just something that will pass.
Maybe they try engaging their partner a bit more. Or maybe they actually ask them something like “hey, is everything alright?”
No one *likes* to discuss difficult things. No one likes conflict.
But the worst thing people can do is say “yeah, things are fine” when they really aren’t.
Issues and concerns need to be out in the open, and they need to stay out in the open as long as is required to either get things resolved, come to terms with the fact that this is an issue that will always be there (and you can accept that), or realize that the nature of the issue is one which means a couple may be better apart.
People may not like to admit that last one. But really, sometimes couples are simply not good together. Sometimes there differences are things that they will never resolve, and if they can’t accept each other for who they are then ending a relationship is actually an act of kindness and compassion. Time is the one thing we can never get back, so if you don’t actually WANT to be there, get out. Don’t waste someone else’s time.
If someone notices that their partner is withdrawing from the relationship, yet their partner claims things are “fine” or won’t talk about it; it becomes very easy to mentally fill in the blanks and find other reasons as to why they may be withdrawing.
Perhaps they are stressed with work. Perhaps they are unhappy with something else in their life.
There can be any number of reasons why someone can check out for a while, and often those reasons can have nothing to do with the relationship.
And if they are telling you it’s not the relationship, not being clear about the issues in a relationship, or being passive aggressive in addressing these issues? Well, it’s easy to tell yourself it’s something else.
Maybe it’s a form of denial or wish fulfillment, but when there are signs of trouble yet your partner won’t tell you what is wrong, it’s really easy to find other reasons to explain away their behavior.
And when you start to tell yourself that the issues are due to something else, then it’s easy to feel blindsided when things completely fall apart, even when there’s ample evidence that something is wrong.
So to me, it really comes down to communication.
Let’s look at this another way.
When you are the person on the receiving end of a person who’s checking out of a relationship, yet they aren’t articulating to you (in a way that you understand) that there are problems, what’s really happening?
Maybe they are scared to communicate and avoiding dealing with things.
Maybe they they’ve tried communicating, but they feel they haven’t been heard.
Or maybe they’ve communicated in a way that made sense to them, but really wasn’t understood by you.
Personally, I think it’s often the latter of these.
I’m operating from the premise that people aren’t actually stupid (alright, some are). I also believe most people are in the relationship because they actually “want” to be there, and DO want things to work out.
People communicate in different ways, but communication is a two way street. It’s not just about one person describing what they are thinking or feeling. It’s also about the other person actually understanding those things, and not just hearing the words. Without understanding, you have a monologue – not communication. And without actual two way communication, a couple is in a world of trouble.
In the above communication model feedback is the key piece, and if you note the arrows, it’s a two way street. It involves two people going back and forth, as much as they need to in order to ensure the message is understood.
It’s this feedback that is often missing piece with couples.
It can be frustrating and exhausting to go back and forth ensuring you are understood. It may result in arguments, and your partner may never fully agree with what you are saying.
But that effort to ensure there is two way communication is incredibly important. Because think of the alternative…
- One person speaking but not feeling heard.
- Resentment and apathy setting in.
- The relationship slowly breaking down as one or both people emotionally detach, until you are two people occupying the same space instead of two people sharing and building something together.
No one should ever be blindsided by the ending of a relationship. If they are, then somewhere along the way the communication has broken down; or it was never really there in the first place.
Communication isn’t always easy, but some things are worth fighting for. And if you want your relationship to last, communication needs to be built so that both people know they are being heard.