It Can Be Way Harder To Process a Breakup When No One Did Anything Wrong—Here’s Why
“Anger is an easier emotion to grasp rather than true sadness,” says Christie Kederian, EdD, a psychotherapist and dating coach. “Often, anger is described as the secondary emotion whose root is sadness. In breakups that aren’t someone’s fault, the primary emotion of sadness is easier to access than anger. When there is no one to blame, you are left confronting the true grief of the loss.”
"In breakups that aren’t someone’s fault, sadness is easier to access than anger. With no one to blame, you confront the true grief of the loss.” —Christie Kederian, EdD, psychotherapist
No-fault breakups sometimes may have a complete lack of any emotion at all, though. A mutual breakup can be easier to move on from, according to Lisa Lawless, PhD, an AASECT-certified psychotherapist specializing in clinical psychology, relationships, and sexual health. Whether due to a lack of chemistry, different life goals or values, or an unwillingness to commit, a truly joint decision can be easier to accept because “both partners see that it was not a good match,” she says.
What's more likely, however—even in the event of clear incompatibility—is that one person initiates the breakup, and an emotional disparity is what remains. “It is crucial to recognize that the person who decides to end the relationship often has had the opportunity to accept the decision and may be more at peace,” says Nazanin Moali, PhD, a licensed psychologist and certified sex therapist. “This discrepancy in emotional processing can create an imbalance in the healing process, making it more challenging for the person who did not initiate the breakup to move on.”
Dr. Moali also says this dynamic can create a sense of powerlessness—and the endless replaying of “what if?” scenarios. “This lack of control can lead to increased anxiety and distress, as the experience implies that such an event could happen to us again, and it’s harder for us to identify ways to prevent or mitigate the risk of similar situations in future relationships,” she says.
Another negative-leaning result of a nebulous ending to a relationship is self-blame. “People end up blaming themselves because when there is someone to blame, it’s easier to release difficult emotions,” says Dr. Kederian.
Dr. Kederian adds that self-blamers often take the negative thought-processing a step further: “The other person can often feel like there’s something wrong with them and not that they did something wrong, which ends up leading to shame rather than guilt.” Whereas guilt results from feeling as though you made a specific mistake, shame stems from feelings that you, in general, are the problem. “The shame that lingers after a no-fault breakup can be very detrimental.”
How to move on from a no-fault breakup
Acceptance is often the hardest step for those on the receiving end of a no-fault breakup. “Accepting the breakup is vital, and your willingness to accept the split will make the grieving process much shorter,” says Dr. Lawless. Still, she adds, these breakups “can cause people to feel lost and unclear about what they want in a partner” and suggests self-exploration as a first or early exercise following the event.
Dr. Kederian recommends revisiting what you’re looking for in a relationship. “Be clear about how that person fit and didn’t fit your criteria,” says Dr. Kederian. “Often we overlook certain things that are important to us about a person we are with, but when we are honest, the relationship may not have actually been what we hoped.”
If possible, Dr. Kederian also suggests not waiting too long to continue to date. For some, Dr. Moali notes, “one loss might trigger memories of previous losses and lead to a sense of despair.” A therapist who can help guide them with navigating this mental process.
No matter how quickly or slowly someone accepts the breakup and starts dating again, though, it’s important to be patient as they “feel the emotions associated with the breakup to process them effectively,” says Dr. Moali.
Nevertheless, the seemingly unending grieving process in these relationships can also be compounded by the fact that, because there was no “villain,” the exes may have a higher likelihood of remaining in each other’s orbit—either thanks to commingling social circles and social media, or, in some cases, an attempt to carry on as platonic friends. It can be difficult to know the best path forward—but the following four steps can help.
4 tips for processing and moving on from a no-fault breakup
1. Set boundaries with mutual friends
It’s possible to preserve shared friendships while avoiding potentially uncomfortable situations. “Reach out to mutual friends and let them know that you are still interested in maintaining contact but would prefer one-on-one interactions due to the circumstances,” says Dr. Moali.
She also suggests informing them up-front that you would prefer not to hear updates about your ex: “Sometimes friends may feel obligated to take sides or share information about the other person, which can reopen old wounds for everyone involved. By setting clear boundaries, you give both yourself and your friends the opportunity to respect your healing process.”
2. Unfollow your ex
At least in the short term, Dr. Moali calls it a “form of self-preservation” to make a clean digital break, which means unfriending and unfollowing them online and resisting the urge to call or text. “Staying in communication or checking their social media profiles can create an inaccurate perception of their lives and might lead to illusory closeness,” says Dr. Moali.
3. Be realistic about potential encounters
Dr. Lawless encourages making a conscious effort to “avoid hanging out in the same places or with the same people during the initial stages of a breakup.” In doing so, it can allow you to process emotions without constant reminders of your ex.
However, a chance meeting may happen. “People sometimes fantasize about how things might be different when they run into their ex, but in reality, most of the time, these encounters may serve as reminders of the heartbreak without offering any real benefits,” says Dr. Moali. “Acknowledge this possibility and prepare yourself emotionally for any unplanned meetings with your ex.”
4. Assess the real need to remain friends
“Unless there is a compelling reason to maintain communication, such as shared property or co-parenting, it is generally not advisable for people to remain friends immediately after a breakup,” Dr. Moali says. She suggests creating a pro-con list of the potential benefits and drawbacks of maintaining a friendship, while Dr. Kederian recommends waiting until you’ve fully healed to even begin determining if you’d like to be friends.
“Many individuals would like to maintain a long-term friendship, but it’s best to allow a minimum of six months before resuming the friendship," says Dr. Kederian. "You need to allow time to heal and for your brain to process the clear difference—much of a relationship is a friendship, after all.”
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