Ask Emma: “What’s your advice on getting over someone you dated for a period of months who didn’t feel as strongly as you did?” Aka how to deal with a breakup when you’re the one who felt more?
First of all, Ouf.
How to deal with a breakup when your partner didn’t feel as strongly as you
I feel uniquely qualified to answer this one. I spent a long time on part of my mental illness, believing that I was the sole reason that all of my relationships had ended. This was because I always fell in love sooner, and harder. I know now that relationships are far too complicated for this to have been the only reason mine didn’t work out, but I was often on the receiving end of the “I just don’t feel as much as you do” breakup.
I think that there’s a heavy emotional fall out to be had over the experience of breaking up with a romantic partner who didn’t feel as strongly. While mourning the relationship itself, I find myself also grappling with the reality that the other person didn’t have the same experience as me. I question the validity of my own feelings: did I make any of it up? Where were the clues that indicated they didn’t feel the same?
Finally, I’m inclined to beat myself up over the intensity of my feelings. I often wish that I’d kept them to myself for longer, or had been able to act more casually in the relationship. Personally, this combination of insecurities and self-doubt make the healing process more difficult.
So I ask myself now: How to deal with a breakup when you’re the one who felt more?
I start by making an effort to mitigate emotional responses.
When asked how to deal with a breakup, I’ve often said to friends who are harbouring negative emotion towards their ex, that it would help them to decide what they want out of that relationship in the future. Do they plan on staying friends with this ex, or would they be content to not have them in their life? If not content, would the absence of this person make it easier to heal, or would the pain of not having them in their life make it harder?
Obviously a breakup is a very personally felt, and consequently diverse experience. Some people are good at befriending their exes— myself included. I place a high value on the intimacy developed in a romantic interaction, which makes it worth muddling through the pain of a breakup to eventually establish a friendship. Others like a cold turkey approach; out of sight, out of mind.
I’ve had partners who felt less then me who disappeared from my life when we broke up, and I’d like to acknowledge that this may simply have been a more comfortable route for those people. Especially because breaking up with someone is hard and awkward (even more so when that somebody has strong, unrequited feelings for you).
Staying friends with your ex
Of course, staying friends with an ex whom you have strong feelings for is also awkward. I’ve also done this more than once. It is likely that the person who felt less to begin with will have an easier time establishing a platonic relationship, and may move on faster/ begin dating again. For the person who feels more, witnessing this may open up sores that are trying to heal.
Even without these more obvious triggers, the person who felt more may experience difficulty establishing a comfortable, platonic interaction. In the past, I have misperceived an amicable hang with an ex as an indication that they may still be interested in me romantically. This eventually led me to ask them out right if there were any chance for us, and consequently resulted in me reliving the breakup all over again.
How to deal with a breakup: Two avenues of thought
This is why I reiterate: when navigating how to deal with a breakup, especially one in which you felt more than your partner, it’s important to decide what you’re looking for from your ex (friends, strangers, or somewhere in between?). Then hold to your decision. Having this expectation will make navigating tricky emotions easier. Which is not to say that you can’t re-evaluate your feelings after some time, and change your expectations, but that your expectations will pave the route for your healing process.
The avenues that I would generally recommend for how to deal with a breakup when your partner didn’t feel as strongly is:
a) to try and frame your breakup as an opportunity for friendship. Maybe the foundation for friendship was always there, and will be more gratifying in the long run.
b) to acknowledge that you felt more and deserve to be with someone who feels just as much. Moving on may require that this person is no longer in your life.
Any kind of breakup is still a breakup
At the end of the day I try to remember that my emotional experience is valid. One of the main objectives of Dialectical Behavioural Therapy, which is commonly used to treat people with Borderline Personality Disorder or general overwhelming emotions, is to reach a state of wise mind. Here’s a graphic from BPDfamily.com that explains this mental state—
Feelings experienced in any of the above states are still valid, even if disproportionate in the moment of feeling them. When I’m responding directly to a breakup, alarm bells go off in my mind signalling rejection and abandonment and I subsequently experience a flight or fight response. Often this manifests in one of two ways: either I become angry at the person who is breaking up with me, or try to perform in a way that will make them change their mind.
As times passes these emotions become easier to manage, but I do have to actively remind myself that any pains I feel along my healing journey are valid. Especially to the theme of this specific prompt— I try to remember that even though the other person didn’t feel as much, the feelings that I experienced were real and important.
Be soft with yourself
When I contemplate the question, ‘how to deal with a breakup when you’re the one who felt more’, I’m inclined to fall back on some classic breakup advice: be soft with yourself. This applies to any context in which you are mourning a relationship, but particularly because you expended a lot of energy towards someone who didn’t give as much energy back, I imagine that you’re tired. I would be (I have been). So give yourself a chance to rest! Sit with the feelings that you had, validate them, and when you’re ready take small steps towards moving on with your life— whatever that means for you.
If you’re hoping for a serious relationship in the future, I would try not to shy away from intense feelings for fear that they won’t be reciprocated. That happens unfortunately. In my opinion it’s better to be honest about your feelings sooner and be able to identify if your partner feels the same or needs more time to get to know you and the relationship. If you’re like me and you tend to fall in love fast (and hard), I recommend trying to make a goal for yourself, such as not expressing intense feelings until x time has passed. That way, you’ll have given yourself optimal time to validate your own emotional experience while also adhering to a healthy pace that doesn’t put pressure on your romantic partner.
Thank you for the prompt! If you missed the first response to the Ask Emma column, you can read it here.