After Christmas and New Year, many people think about breaking up with their partner. Holidays are in some ways unnatural, because we are spending lots more time together than usual – even more than in previous lockdowns. It’s often in a confined space with the heating on too high. We can have unrealistic expectations about wanting the perfect Christmas which are inevitably dashed. We don’t have any goals except relaxing, eating and drinking, or trying to tolerate family Zooms, which can feel a bit meaningless.
It’s important, therefore, to recognise that your perception of your relationship has been distorted. There hasn’t been a balance of the good and the bad, and you may not be thinking objectively. So how can you assess the situation clearly, to avoid making a big mistake? One way is to plan to keep records over the next couple of months, of the following:
- Your emotions towards your partner each day. What do you feel – respect, gratitude, fondness, love, disgust, scorn, anger, frustration, irritability, repulsion, fear? Or are you completely numb? What about more general emotions – contentment, excitement, depression, sadness, loneliness, tearfulness, anti-sociableness, fear about the future? Are there contributing factors such as work, your living environment, or caring responsibilities that are responsible for these?
- What are your goals and values and do you share these with your partner? This is a big area that you might need to explore during coaching.
- Are you being the best version of yourself each day, and if not, what is stopping you – is it your partner, or other issues? Are you able to make a positive contribution to society and treat your family and friends well, or is the relationship so dysfunctional that you are having a negative effect on others? Sometimes we are so worried about hurting our partner by breaking up we don’t consider the effects a bad relationship is having on everyone else.
- Record practical issues such as how much time you spend together, whether the chores are shared, what time you go to bed, whether you go to bed at the same time.
- What is the quality of your communication? Include interesting topics of conversation and arguments. Were the arguments about trivial things, or do they reveal insurmountable differences in values? Are you able to talk about your feelings and be honest? Can you debate without getting angry or irritated with each other? Can you respect each other’s point of view, even if you disagree? Do you really listen to what each other is saying? Do you ever change your mind and concede they are right? (Read here for practical suggestions for communicating in a more positive way.)
- How do you treat each other? Gottman, in his book The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, backed up by many years of research on married couples over time, finds that there are four warning signs that predict marriages are likely to break down. Ask yourself if you could improve in any of these. Otherwise, getting out of the relationship might not be the solution – you will be the same next time. Don’t worry about the other person yet, just focus on what you can do to improve things first:
(a) Do you treat your partner with contempt, rolling your eyes or laughing at their contributions to discussions?
(b) Do you criticise them for who they are rather than their behaviour?
(c) Do you become defensive when they criticise you, rather than being humble enough to want to improve?
(d) Do you stonewall, walking away from arguments or sulking, rather than addressing the issues?
Of course, when a relationship is breaking down, these things are more likely to happen. But when it’s a case of you being unsure about whether the relationship is right for you, you need to make sure it’s not just you that’s wrong for relationships!
Once you’ve fully dissected your own argument style, you can think about your partner’s argument style. If you think either of you are displaying any of the four behaviours above, you could try counselling (e.g. with Relate). Sometimes coaching is better if you don’t want to go into too much depth about your relationship but just need some training on how to talk to each other better.
- Record any physical symptoms you are having, such as stress, anxiety or depression related ones. These can include stomach pain or upset, headaches, nausea, chest pains or palpitations (visit a doctor soon for these to rule out more serious causes), sleeplessness, lack of concentration, tension, fast breathing. By keeping a record, you can see if some weeks are worse than others and whether that is more due to hormones, workload or caring responsibilities rather than your partner. If you think you may be suffering from stress, anxiety, panic attacks, depression, etc, get information and help here and visit your doctor, who can refer you for different types of therapy on the NHS, depending on the severity of your symptoms. You can explore through counselling what might be causing your symptoms, whether it’s your relationship or other issues, and by trying to reduce your symptoms you might find your relationship improves. Relate offer telephone counselling as well as face-to-face counselling. You can also have a short session of online chat, which can be a good way to get started.
- Record how often you have any kind of sexual intimacy and whether you felt closer to your partner during and after. Don’t just count full sex here. Include kissing and cuddling too.
- Do you feel safe with your partner? If you are experiencing any form of abuse, whether emotional or physical, or feel afraid for yourself or your children, you must get help.
- Give an overall score each day for the general quality of your relationship, based on all of the above.
Keep records for a couple of months at least. It’s possible that hormonal changes can affect some women’s perception of their relationships, so be aware of fluctuations, and don’t make big decisions on the spur of the moment.
If your records seem to be pointing towards the need to break up, you then need to think about managing the break-up and about practical considerations, including financial and legal. To find out more about these, you could visit the Divorce Club website, where there is a wealth of information, advice, personal stories and videos about how its members coped with the divorce process. Most of the advice and principles apply to couples that are not married too.
You will also experience a myriad of emotions and agonising thought processes while trying to make the decision. You may be afraid of being alone, concerned about the impact on other family members, reluctant to hurt your partner, sad that the relationship is ending. There are different ways to end a relationship, some better than others. A good book to read to help with this is Breaking up without breaking down, published by Relate.
Breaking up is hard. So is staying together and working at your relationship. There are no easy answers. But you are not alone. Get help, from Relate or another counsellor who specialises in relationships, or for practical strategies and tips you can consult with a relationship coach. Meet people online who’ve been through or are going through divorce or break-ups at the London Divorce Club meetup group. (Join or find out more here). Whichever course of action you decide on, remember no relationship is perfect, present or future. Relationship skills should be worked on by all of us before we get to the crisis stage. Regular “health checks” with a coach or counsellor should be the norm for all relationships. We can all aim for better relating in 2021!
Contact Rachel here to arrange a coaching session if you would like help with your relationship skills or to talk about the possibility of breaking up. Rachel has been through a divorce herself and is a member of the Divorce Club.
This post was written in 2017 but updated for 2021.