In the 1994 movie Chungking Express, a man breaks up with his girlfriend and suddenly everything in his home reminds him of her, but also seems to be just as depressed as him. “Ever since she left, everything in the apartment is sad,” he says, noticing his sad little bar of soap has gotten slimmer, that his towels refuse to dry, that his underwear has been hiding, that his food tastes sour. “I have to comfort them all before I go to sleep.”
Now imagine if there is no escaping that apartment. And most things inside it are a memory not only of the relationship but the moment you broke up—over Zoom, probably, on that couch in that corner by that window under that itchy blanket. Or worse still: You’re quarantined together.
Break-ups suck. Always have, always will. But if you’re breaking up during a pandemic—which, as China’s rising divorce rates suggest, may be a common experience—it’s especially painful. So, we spoke to an expert to figure out how to navigate this messy territory as best you can.
Step 1: Get clear on your feelings
Yes, this is a difficult, unprecedented and straight-up bonkers time. But, consider it a moment in time where you might also be experiencing more clarity than ever.
“In times like the ones we’re living in, where it feels somewhat catastrophic, significant things are called into question, like foundational beliefs, world views, who we are as people, the meaning of life,” says Benita Joy, a Toronto-based therapist and founder of the Toronto Relationship Clinic. “Priorities get sharper and you achieve a level of clarity around what’s truly important right now. That can mean asking if this is the person you want to be doing this with. It’s the answer to that not-so-unfathomable-anymore question: If you were stuck on a deserted island, who would you want to take with you?”
If you’re not sure, now’s a good time to do some serious thinking. Particularly, you need to tease out whether questions about your relationship are due to bigger issues of compatibility or whether you’re simply arguing more due to the increased stresses this pandemic has loaded on all of us. It’s definitely not unusual right now to want to literally throttle your partner over a sink full of dishes. That doesn’t mean you actually hate them, though.
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“Connect to your intuition,” advises Joy. “Ask yourself: Am I having this argument because this moment is crappy or because this relationship isn’t working and hasn’t been for a while?” As different as times are and as much of an emotional impact as it’s having, if you feel your relationship no longer works, a break-up probably occurred to you and/or your partner well before this hit. It might just be that the slowed pace of life is giving you a chance to pay attention to those signs.
Those signs could be big—like you find you have different philosophies on how to handle this period, or you’re not emotionally available for each other in the way you need right now—or small—like you find yourself aggravated by your partner’s habits, you’re constantly in each other’s way, or you’re communicating less. Listen to that voice in your head or that unsettled feeling in your gut. She’s on to something.
Step 2: Banish guilt
With so much to juggle right now, including a world-wide health crisis, potential job loss, maybe a lack of child-care, it wouldn’t be unusual if you also feel a sense of guilt at the thought of breaking up with your partner in such a troubled time.
“When there’s guilt, I would pause and think about where it’s coming from,” says Joy. “If there’s an extreme amount of guilt in terms of letting the other person go, that might mean that wasn’t a healthy relationship to start with.” For example, it’s worth considering if you and/or your partner have set too high expectations for what your role is in the relationship, and whether that’s a practical standard, or even worth fulfilling. Sometimes that can look like feeling responsible for your partner’s pain and future, which is an unhealthy marker of your dynamic. Guilt can often function to make you, the person who wants to leave, feel like the bad guy. But you have to prioritize your future.
If those feelings of guilt persist, remember that prolonging a split will only cause more pain for both of you. “In the long run, the folks that are honest with themselves and each other are going to be able to bounce back so much better,” says Joy.
Step 3: Get face to face
Even a pandemic doesn’t make a text-message split OK. So whether you’re quarantining under the same roof or set up a video call, it’s crucial to speak to your partner face to face.
In either instance, take some notes before you begin to collect your thoughts and plan what you want to say. Then, put your phone away and focus on your partner. While starting off with some pleasantries is good, don’t get too caught up in chatter. Address the awkwardness of the situation (“Don’t be afraid to say, honestly, ‘Yeah, this sucks,’” says Joy) and then be direct, explaining why this is something that is important to you right now, and can’t wait until the pandemic is over.
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Be careful not to get too caught up in discussing “what could have been” if COVID never happened—this leaves room for hope that you might be able to get back together later and is unfair. Also avoid “attacking, blaming or throwing old incidents in each other’s faces,” adds Joy. “Be understanding and patient. It’s just: ‘This is where I’m at and this is how I feel.’”
If you’re doing this over video, schedule the call with your partner without disclosing that this is going to be a “serious talk” about the state of your relationship—there’s no need to set their mind race until then. Choose a time that offers space to unwind for you both, likely after work hours or during the weekend.
If you’re living together, have the conversation in a space where you typically might get together to talk about your day, whether that’s at the dinner table or on the couch. Note that it will be crucial to discuss how you will be navigating your living space as single people cohabiting, and suggest a time for another discussion a few days later to hash it out. After your conversation, build some distance, whether that’s by taking a walk on your own, or calling up a friend to debrief in a separate room.
Step 4: Start moving on
Post-break-up, as bored or lonely as you might feel while self-isolating, it’s important you fight the urge to reach out to your former partner as much as possible, because at that point it becomes exclusively about comfort and convenience, and that’s not fair to either of you.
If you’re living together, and can’t safely relocate to a friend or family member’s home, create physical boundaries. For example, avoid sleeping in the same bed. Decide which space in your home belongs to who for the time being, and which spaces are communal. Make a list of chores or errands, and decide who will be taking those on for the week and how you’ll be paying for them. Have your meals separately and at separate times. More than anything, try your best to avoid discussing the break-up. And maybe don’t go on a virtual date with someone new right in front of or in earshot of your partner. All the while remembering that, while this certainly won’t be a fun period, it will be temporary.
Whether you break up in person or over video, it’s important afterward to find support in friends and family, and talk to them about what you’re experiencing. “Tell your friends, ‘I’m going through something, and this is a way that I would love for you to support me,’” says Joy.
In many ways, the healing process might not look all that different from what you’ve been doing since the pandemic began—watching Netflix, snacking, napping, just overall Bridget Jones-ing—but that doesn’t make it any less important to indulge in that “me time.” Where you can step it up is by reaching out to a virtual therapist, starting a journal to help process your feelings, going for walks, and reading books about moving on. Get a healthy amount of sleep, have a routine, and find some control by creating daily to-do lists.
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Reframe your breakup and treat it like a restart button. This can be a time to get to know yourself, your attachment style, who you are in a relationship and what has changed for you since it began. “Feel all the feelings,” advises Joy. “Because there’s going to be grief, there’s going to be sadness, there’s going to be loneliness. There’s going to be a part of you that says, ‘Maybe this was the wrong decision.’ Be patient with yourself as each of those thoughts comes up. Do your own personal work with all this time you have, and realize that the moment to start preparing for any and all future relationships is today.”