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How Bitter Breakups Scar Future Relationships

The more that people love deeply, the more they hurt when that love dies.

RANDI GUNTHER Clinical Psychologist & Marriage Counselor

Creating a successful long-term relationship is not easy. There are so many unexpected and unpredictable variables that even the best of relationships cannot surmount.

The irony is that the more time, energy, and effort well-intentioned partners have put into making their relationships work, the harder it is for them to give up. They’ve given so much over so long a period of time, that they just can’t accept that their relationship is ending.

There is a small majority of relationship partners who seem to be able to let go with dignity and courage. Even when they know they are no longer going to be in a romantic relationship anymore, they still care too much for each other to give up their friendship. Though they’ve accepted their love relationship is over, they are not willing to give up the closeness they’ve created.

This is, sadly, not the norm. Most stay too long even when they know that their relationship is clearly over. They are just unable to give up the positives that may still linger, or fearful of being alone. As a result, they hold on until those positives pale under the weight of the cumulative negatives.

As those heartache times become predominant, the relationship falls prey to disaster, an open season for invalidations, blame, accusations, hurt, and increasing anger. Once devoted lovers, the same partners become virtual enemies, tearing one another down to justify their own failure to make the relationship work.

The results of these extended periods of attacks and alienations predictably make things worse, leaving one or both partners devoid of confidence and ill-prepared to risk trusting love again. When they finally do part, many are deeply scarred. They are broken and vulnerable, easily seduced into fantasy rebounds that fall apart. Many may even unconsciously sabotage the next relationship because of the insecurities and unresolved disillusionment from the past.

It would obviously be better for people to avoid these bitter endings if they could. Had they the right tools to identify and recognize the signals that portend a bad outcome, they might have developed the courage to leave the relationship before it became a mutually devastating disaster.

If you are someone who has lived through these painful experiences, ask yourself how you would answer the following questions. Your responses may give you the perspective you need to create more successful relationships in the future.

  • What in your past keeps you blind to recognizing destructive patterns?

  • If your relationships consistently end in painful ways, why do you think that you are attracted to similar partners?

  • What are your attitudes towards relationships in general?

  • What are the attachments that have kept you in a relationship once you recognize that it is over?

  • What finally gives you the courage to leave when you do?

Here are five of the most common answers many have shared with me over the years. Hopefully, they will help you.

Repeating Childhood Experiences

Sadly, too many children are exposed to their parent’s fights but never see resolution. Many children, exposed to continual disagreements, can often describe them in detail to me, and often copy them in their sibling relationships. If they’ve additionally seen many beginnings and bitter endings, they are likely to believe that all relationships are similar. Once expecting that a successful long-term relationship is not likely to happen, they either don’t risk getting too deeply involved or plunge too quickly ahead in each new relationship to get whatever love they can before the inevitable ending.

Choosing the Right Partner

Interacting traumas are the silent saboteurs of many relationships. People tend to unconsciously seek familiarity and may not be on the lookout for intertwining triggers that set off past, unresolved experiences. It’s crucial for new relationship partners to know as much as they can about each other’s prior relationships early on. What were the broken dreams that didn’t work out and why? How does that person feel about his or her own contribution? How have they healed? What do they expect now?

Watch carefully for whether a prospective partner tells you that his or her ex was solely to blame for the relationship breaking up, presenting themselves as the innocent victims of those encounters. Was there a pattern of sequential failings, all blamed in the same way?

Don’t ever fall for the trap of being seen as the “one person” who will finally understand. When people do not take their fair share of responsibility for a relationship ending bitterly, they want you to be the exception to prove it was the other person’s fault. You can’t heal the past for another. And, the same applies to you. Anyone who proposes to heal your broken heart with perfect behavior is lying.

What Is Your Current Attitude Towards Relationships?

It is natural to base your feelings about new relationships on your experiences from the past. But it is dangerous to let your past define your future. When people describe a series of failed relationships and don’t understand why or how they may have contributed or didn’t see the endings coming, they are bound to repeat those same behaviors. And every repeated error makes it harder to believe that the next one will not end in the same way.

What is most important is that you are not defeated, cynical, pessimistic, or creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. Biases and prejudices limit people to only seeing what they expect to see and keep new possibilities dead in the water.

Self-Destructive Attachments

You meet a new person and carefully discern whether the relationship feels different from those in the past. You’ve vetted yourself and this new person carefully to make certain that you’re not dragging in the past, not biased in what you are experiencing, not triggered by unconscious unresolved issues, and are in for the adventure. You’re going to watch yourself carefully to make sure you’ve remained authentic and tackle potential issues that might become a problem. And that your partner is on board the same way.

Initially, everything seems to be going great. Then some warning signs begin to emerge. Small irritations seem to last longer before they go away. You’re a little too irritated, too quickly, by things that didn’t bother you from the past. You’re finding yourself spending more time doing things that are more exciting or fun without your partner. Sometimes, you even feel a little bored, seeming to be talking about things in a more superficial way. You’re more fun, more interesting, and more interested in other parts of your life than you are when you’re with your partner. Perhaps you’ve discovered some betrayal, and, even then, you still remain in the relationship even though you cannot trust your partner anymore. The fighting is escalating and the healing going in the opposite direction.

Yet, you cannot leave the relationship. You are not alone. Many people find themselves in the same dilemma. But the biggest assurance that you will have a bitter ending to your relationship is if you stay in that place when things are falling apart, but unable to muster up the courage to leave. You may be held captive by your attachments, those material, emotional, physical, sexual, or spiritual benefits that you cannot yet leave behind.

What Does It Take to Leave a Relationship When You Know It's Over?

Trust your inner voice. Pay attention to the frequency, intensity, and duration of the things that hurt or disappoint and the direction they are going. Don’t believe that love will survive when you no longer like your partner or who you have become on the other end of him or her. Don’t be seduced into erasing pain when moments of sweetness restart the fantasy. Stop talking yourself into something that you know isn’t true. Choose self-respect over self-blackmail out of fear of loss.

* * * * * *

The more that people love deeply, the more they hurt when that love dies. When disappointments, disillusionments, and broken dreams begin to pervade the relationship, trust and safety are replaced by angry retaliations. Those negative transformations weaken the spirit and portend a more unlikely possibility that love can ever happen again.

Everyone makes errors in the ways they learn to love. Self-forgiveness and the liberation that true humility can leave negative failures in the past, and give way to new possibilities in the future. No matter how much you’ve been hurt, no matter whose fault it is, don’t allow those memories to rob you of a more hopeful future.

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