Splitting: The Mental Habit That Keeps You from Getting over a Breakup

by Susan J. Elliott, J.D., M.Ed.

Copyright 2008-2017


Five things to know about splitting and how to stop it.

Splitting makes it much harder to get over a breakup, so it’s important to understand what it is. Here are 5 things you need to know to get on with the healing: 

1. What Is Splitting?

Splitting is mentally and emotionally separating the good traits and behaviors of your ex from the bad. It’s compartmentalizing your ex and concentrating on only one compartment. Splitting is very harmful to your recovery from this breakup. 

In one of my YouTube videos, I answer a post from someone waiting to reconcile with an ex who once came back after a breakup. She was so focused on the fact that he broke up with her once before and came back, she forgot that he also left again after announcing that coming back had been a mistake.

Another woman said her ex had mentioned reconciliation a few conversations ago. She was focused like a laser on that, while forgetting he was still gone, and that she had no idea what he had been thinking in the weeks since he said it. 

These are examples of splitting, but there are plenty more: People who are on their first breakup, or whose ex has never mentioned reconciliation, also split to avoid the pain of facing who their ex really is and how hurt they really are. People are devastated, thinking of the beginning love when things were good, and ignoring the way things fell part, or the many hurtful things that were done. The constant memories of a time love was young and the relationship was new result in almost debilitating pain.

Splitting is something I had done with my abusive husband; it’s something many abuse victims do. They don’t know how to let go, so they force themselves to ignore the terrible behavior — or worse, blame themselves for it — and concentrate on the person they fell in love with.

Splitting is the mental magician trick, for anyone, of chopping people up into good and bad, and being so in love with the good and wishing equally hard that the bad is an aberration or a phase, and that it will just go away or be an aberration.

2. Splitting Happens During a Relationship, Not Just During the Breakup

When the person you loved and who loved you starts to engage in unloving behavior, you can’t make sense of it. This person, compared to the other person, just does not make sense. It does not compute. When the bad behavior starts, it’s easy to shove it to the side as it doesn’t comport with the person you know—not at all. 

You fell in love with the attention, the love, the cards, the calls, the gifts, the thoughtfulness. Now you struggle to ignore the snarky remarks, the inattentiveness, the thoughtlessness. This person was all about you then, and now you wonder if there is someone else. 

In your mind you hold onto what you had, while ignoring what you have. You tell yourself that this is not the real person; the one you fell in love with is. But the person you fell in love with has not been around for a long time, and the person who fell in love with you and treated you so well — as loving partners are supposed to do — is gone, for good. Even if he or she appears for a time, that’s not okay, because the way your partner is treating you now is unacceptable. So stop holding out hope: The present person you are seeing is an ass, and that is not okay.

Bad behavior usually does not happen overnight. It’s a slow, insidious process. You gave passes for the “now and again” bad behavior until it became the norm, and then you just ignored it, hoping it would go away. Look back on the last months or even years of your relationship: How much bad did you ignore? How many times did you forgive? How many times did you excuse or justify?

If you acknowledged the bad behavior, then you might have to do something about it — and you could no longer think of the great and wonderful things that happened at the beginning. You’d have to let go of the hopes and dreams you had for the two of you. And then you’re left with nothing. 

But if you want to get over this, it’s important to stop splitting and start letting go. Many people talk of being in excruciating pain because they miss that loving person, that good person, so very much. They deny that the loving person has really been gone for a long time. But chances are, they have been, and you’ve just been ignoring their departure. If you began the splitting during the relationship, get honest with yourself about how much you’ve let go and get honest about what your ex was really like in the past few months or years. 

3. Stop Rationalizing, Justifying, Excusing, Ignoring, or Denying Bad Behavior

We want so much to believe that the hurtful behavior does not represent the person we love, but we practice denial when we refuse to accept what is happening. As I’ve said, so often we think, “I would never act like that…” so we try to believe the best about someone else, especially someone we’ve come to love.

We try to understand or excuse their behavior. We rationalize and justify: They’ve had a bad day… things are not going well… they’ve lost a loved one… they’re miserable in their job. We do everything we can to try to believe the way they are acting is not really who they are … but none of us acts in a way that isn’t who we are, except for extreme and unfortunate circumstances.  

And if your partner turns on you during extreme and unfortunate circumstances, that is not a healthy partner. Staying in denial about that is splitting: It’s choosing to ignore the bad and continue to embrace only the good. If someone truly is having a hard time and lashing out at you, that person does not deserve your excuses or your love. They don’t deserve you justifying and rationalizing their behavior while they hurt you. You’re being unfair to you when you do that. You’re giving someone permission, under the right circumstances, to mistreat you. But mistreating you is never okay under any circumstances. And lashing out is something a healthy person who loves their partner does not do.

4. Take a Good Look at Your Thoughts and Retrain Your Brain

It’s hard to stop splitting but you have to work to not get swept away by good memories. Force yourself to remember and concentrate on the person who hurt you. Work on your cognitive skills to balance the knowledge that, yes, they are the same person. When you’re lost in reverie, come back to reality and concentrate on the hurtful things that happened. If you remember that the ex said “reconciliation” three weeks ago, force yourself to acknowledge that it was three weeks ago, and you have no idea what the ex has thought of since. If you are thinking about the fact that you’ve reconciled before, force yourself to remember that you’ve broken up more, and that a good relationship does not go through breakup/makeup countless times.

If you’re splitting, it’s OK to work on grieving the good person, but keep acknowledging the hurtful person.

To stop the splitting, you must start looking at your relationship history and your ex in a more objective way. It’s important to not dwell on the beginning of the relationship and to recognize and understand the times you have chosen to focus on the positive things said (maybe even recently) and ignored the actions. Make an effort to acknowledge that even though they said A, they did B. It’s work, but you have to do it if you want to heal and move on.

5. Don’t Allow an Ex’s Wistful Thinking to Send You into Wishful Thinking

I’ve been counseling people post-breakup for a long time. I have seen time and again a thoughtless ex go to a client who has struggled mightily with the breakup. The ex will ask to “touch base” and start in with some wistful memories. They don’t want to get back together; they’re just feeling sad and, for some reason, feel the need to share that with the person they hurt. I’m always astounded by this, but I’ve seen it over and over again: They don’t want to get back together; they just want to stroll down memory lane once more. But the client usually doesn’t get that. This senseless, thoughtless walk down memory lane is usually mistaken for reconciliation or an indication that the ex is having second thoughts. (“Look, my ex can’t live without me!” “I think my ex is beginning to understand that life without me isn’t great!”)

It’s rarely that. Usually the ex strolls off again — having gotten the fix they wanted and needed — and leaving the client in tatters. If something like this happens to you, you have to concentrate on the fact that the memory lane madness is not nice; worse, it’s meaningless. Don’t mistake an ex’s selfishness for genuine feelings. It will bite you in the end. Refuse to do a “post mortem” on the relationship with an ex. It will do you no good and serves no good purpose.

If You Want to Heal, You Need to Stop the Splitting

Stop the splitting; it will help you heal. It’s time to take charge of your brain, patrol your thoughts, make sure you’re not creating an elaborate, fantasy ex that only existed at the beginning, and be realistic. Realize that both the good and the bad person are the same, and that you don’t want the person who has hurt you deeply. Be glad that person is not in your life, but you still are.

Be good to yourself, put the two halves together … and then dump them both.


Copyright 2007-2017 Susan J. Elliott, J.D., M.Ed.
All Rights Reserved No Duplication is Allowed Without Explicit Permission of the Author

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