Q: I have a friend whose girlfriend broke up with him. Months later, he keeps going on and on about how she betrayed him and hurt him. I’ve tried nicely saying to him that she didn’t lead him on or lie to him. That sometimes people break up even when they love each other. He feels that because he loved her, she betrayed him, and that’s all there is to it. I’ve had other friends react this way as well. They think just because they want to stay in the relationship that the relationship should remain intact, even if the other person wants something else. And then when a breakup happens, it’s a “betrayal.” What can I say to these friends? Why would they think this?
Betrayal or Break Up
A: Easier on the ego that way. He gets to see her as a bad person instead of seeing himself as the person she no longer finds attractive enough to keep.
You can say this to your friends as-is, though whether you should is more complicated. For one thing, they’re not buying. You’ve already said a much nicer version of the same thing to this friend — “Sometimes people break up even when they love each other” is both maximally kind and true — and he had none of it.
I suppose you could try again with your buddy whose gal done ’im wrong, making a different version of the same point: that sometimes people are both great people and partners but just aren’t right for each other. Most relationships end, right? And even when they end because one or both actually did something bad, the bad thing often stems from their being an awkward fit in the first place, not because these are terrible people. This phrasing is a little more credible, arguably, than saying she loved him and left anyway.
But as you feel around for the perfect phrase, you also have to contend with the second issue: whether it’s even your place to correct your friends’ thinking.
In many cases, it won’t be. People deserve liberal license to be themselves, and post-breakup people get an extra allowance to bray about cosmic injustice.
It’s when the lamentation phase stretches for months and becomes a tacit indictment of the ex’s character — “betrayed” is a big charge — that I can see stepping in.
I have no way of telling whether it’s even remotely a risk here, but such blame can be the seed that grows into justification for intimate violence. Behold the description you used of your friends’ mindset: “They think just because they want to stay in the relationship that the relationship should remain intact, even if the other person wants something else.” How is that not the baseline logic of control?
Accordingly, you have more latitude and imperative to advocate from the ex’s perspective.
For those who can’t see past their own entitlement and/or hurt feelings, often the path through their defenses is to make it about them:
You: “Have you ever broken up with anyone?”
Friend: (Presumably, yes.)
You: “Why did you do that?”
Friend: (Some typical reason, presumably.)
You: “Do you see yourself as having betrayed her?”
If needed, you can make it about you, too. “I know you’re hurting. I would have a real problem, though, with being blamed for a breakup the way you’re blaming her. If my feelings change, then how is that not completely my prerogative? Both to feel what I feel, and to break up — which is the honest thing to do, after all?
“If someone said you had to keep dating someone you didn’t want to date anymore, would you really agree to that?” Sympathizing plus humanizing plus prompts for internalizing — the wiring, I hope, of the empathy light bulb he needs.
Washington Post Writers Group