Despite the pain, breakups can be our greatest triumph

“I won’t let that get me down,” announces presenter Vanessa Feltz emotionally at the end of their 16-year relationship. She is absolutely right in seeking “fun and laughter” where and how she can. Because a breakup, no matter how painful, can prove to be our moment of greatest triumph.

Once the dust has settled and the excruciating pain has subsided, a breakup can provide an incredible opportunity for reflection, growth, and healing. We are our most authentic and vulnerable selves, full of renewed potential and strange feverish energy. Once we harness that intensity and reuse it as a force for good, we are liberated and free to write the next chapter of our lives.

Just look at actress and writer Rebecca Humphries, who blew up on Twitter with a calm, dignified statement in response to her boyfriend Seann Walsh being caught on camera kissing his Be sure to come dance Partner. I read her memoirs why did you stay this week, in preparation for interviewing her on my podcast. And I’m amazed at how often we stay in relationships that we know are no longer right. We just stay too long – because we’ve been socially conditioned to believe that a partnership should last forever; that we should celebrate anniversaries in ascending hierarchies of gifts, from wood and paper to rubies, gold and diamonds.

There’s no way I can know what happened in Vanessa’s relationship. And I send her support and love at this difficult time. But I’m amazed at how many people cited adultery as a “reason” for a breakup prior to the introduction of no-fault divorce last year. While many relationship therapists, researchers (and geeks like myself, fascinated by the psychological nuances and chess-like complexities of human relationships, would rather ask, “What is the reason for adultery?”)

One thing I do know is that the two times I was cheated on, I tried to leave the relationship before the affair started. But I wasn’t brave enough to listen to the tiny voice inside me and the voices of friends who cared about me, all of whom told me not to go back.

For all of these reasons, I was shocked and disappointed when I read reports of a study that says unhappy marriages are better for health than being single or divorced. What gossip. When a relationship has become toxic, where communication and trust have fatally broken down, our deepest sense of self is eroded. Our sleep and appetite are disrupted. We’re so fixated on pleasing our constantly awkward partners that we forget to take care of ourselves. This is the reddest of all red flags. It is time to go, to rebuild and rediscover our agency and purpose.

Studies have shown that people who have experienced a breakup report on average five different categories of positive personal development that they believe will improve the quality of their future relationships. These range from boosted self-confidence to learning how to be a better partner and, perhaps most importantly, how to choose a better partner. In this context, a breakup sounds like an important stage in life, a bold (albeit timid) step into our future.

Of course, sometimes there can be pragmatic arguments for staying together for the kids, for the dog, for the in-laws, for the community of friends who hate having to take sides, for the house, or for the other affluent lifestyle. Our finances take a hit when we end things. And yes, it can affect our diet. Still, there are all kinds of ways to live and eat together that don’t involve staying in a relationship with someone who no longer respects you. Rebecca Humphries moved in with nice friends who flocked around her and provided sustenance in every way.

I learned from my polyamorous friends that we shouldn’t assume that the length of a relationship is a measure of its worth. Perhaps it’s time for this thinking to permeate our broader conversations about relationships.

Rosie Wilby is a comedian and author of The Separation Monologues (Bloomsbury)


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