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How to break up in a pandemic, according to a couples therapist

PHOTOGRAPHY BY NICOLE WONG
Words by Isabelle Sacks

A double dose of grief.

Break-ups suck. Always have, always will. But if you’re breaking up during a pandemic, it’s especially painful.

Having been through my own pandemic-era Facetime breakup, I know just how tough it can be. I also know of many others who would have done well with any professional advice on how to navigate this messy territory with dignity and grace. So for the benefit of all currently leaving entanglements, I spoke to FJ’s go-to couples therapist, Natalie King

Some of her advice certainly would have been handy for me (I’ll keep it front of mind for the next pandemic).

Step one: Get your feelings sorted

Natalie’s biggest piece of advice is to slow down and take some time to self-reflect before you make any rash decisions.

“There’s definitely just a higher sense of frustration and anger in general, because of lockdown and because of the pandemic, and then that’s infiltrating into people’s relationships without them even meaning for it to,” Natalie says. “The lockdown has put a magnifying glass on any little niggle that was already coming up, and it’s just amplified.” Knowing that relationship distress is common under these extraordinary circumstances can help you reframe stressors as temporary issues that may abate, or help them at least feel more manageable as life returns to a semblance of normal. 

During this difficult time, it’s important to really ask yourself: is this being caused just by lockdown? Or is it that I’m feeling frustrated in the relationship? Natalie says that free journalling can be helpful in clarifying those thoughts. “It’s such a therapeutic thing to do, to write things down,” she says.

Natalie recommends giving yourself a bit of a buffer in which you make no big decisions about your relationship. “Try to take things one day at a time. Because everything’s so amplified and intensified, you don’t want to be making a purely reactive decision,” she says. This can help release a sense of urgency and further mitigate feelings of stress. 

Keep in mind, every situation is going to be different. “Sometimes you just know you need to break up with that person,” Natalie says. “If you feel like waiting is detrimental to your mental health, then you’ve got to make that call.” Of course, the same goes for relationships in which your safety is at risk, such as where there is a history of domestic abuse. 

Step two: Get face-to-face 

Even a pandemic doesn’t make a text-message split acceptable. So whether you’re quarantining under the same roof, or need set up a video call, it’s crucial to speak to your partner face-to-face.

Natalie stresses that even though a FaceTime or Zoom is not the ideal way to break up under normal circumstances, “if you have to do it via video call, that’s what you have to do right now – and that’s okay”. It’s also important to be gentle with ourselves about this fact. “It’s not that you’re doing it out of fear of not wanting to see that person,” Natalie says. “I think that, doing it over video call, it’s still saying to that person, ‘I respect you enough to show my face to you’.”

As Natalie sees it, the one upside of doing a socially-distant breakup is that at least there’s less risk of breakup sex.

Step three: Have a frank conversation 

If you’re living with your partner, a breakup would have been complicated regardless of the pandemic. But restrictions, safety concerns and financial issues can mean that couples may be forced to live together for months beyond their split.

Natalie recommends that you come up with a defined plan together, to navigate that period when you may be existing in the same space. As hard as that conversation might be, “if you don’t have the conversation, it’s just going to be a pretty hostile environment, which will probably do more damage to both of your mental health,” she says.

If you 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. 

“Try to remember that while this certainly won’t be a fun period, it will be temporary,” Natalie says.

Step four: Start to heal

A lot of the ways we try to get over a relationship are unavailable to us right now. But just because you can’t go out drinking with your friends or easily nab a rebound, that doesn’t mean you’re destined for months of grief, even if you’re isolating alone. 

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. “If healing looks like watching three romcoms in a row and crying throughout them all, that’s just fine,” Natalie says.

It’s important to go slow and do what you can to be gentle with yourself. “Know that you’re going to have days where one will feel positive, and the next one might not feel so positive. And that’s okay. It’s a period where it’s going to be up and down, especially when there’s this added intensity,” Natalie says.

Natalie is a big proponent for a clean break. “I always like to of cut off numbers and block social media,” she says. She recommends creating boundaries and avoiding contact with your ex after the deed is done, and also suggests boxing up any physical triggers you may have around the house that remind you of the relationship.

If you can, reframe your breakup and treat it like a restart button. “Breakups can be an opportunity to rediscover yourself without having to consider someone else’s feelings. You get to reassess what you really want and what’s going to be good for you in your next relationship, because it will definitely be waiting there for you if that’s something that you want,” Natalie says.

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