Last night, my flatmate came back in a flood of tears, threw some things in a bag, announced that she had broken up with her boyfriend of three years, and was going back to her family for a while. When I passed the new on to my other flatmate, she asked the same question people always ask in these circumstances : "Do you think they've really broken up?"

I didn't know. Neither do they, I suspect. Sadly for me, I've had lots of breakup experience, and I know that these things aren't like business deals : you can't just tear up the contract and carry on. It's a long, tiring, drawn-out process. Based on my own experiences, they all tend to fall into a roughly similar pattern.
  • The Initial Breakup
    Can be done in a multitude of fashions, from a long adult discussion to good, old-fashioned screaming at each other in the street

  • The Silence
    Sometimes this can last one night, other times it can last for months. It is almost always a good idea to get away from each other as soon as the breakup conversation (or row) is finished. After all, it's hard to change the topic to anything else once you've finished discussing how to divide up your goods.

    Feelings at this point can be wildly varied - from a sudden rush of relief to a nauseating loneliness. It's possible at this point to wonder if you've made a mistake, as you notice yourself almost every daily routine changing slightly (breaking up with a long term partner feels a little like moving to a different city).

  • Being Friends
    Some people I know are still on good terms with everyone they've ever been with. Others, like me, just can't do it, and think it's a myth. Whatever the truth, these days almost everyone gives it a shot. After all, you can split your CD collection and move into a new apartment, but trying to split your friends 50/50 can be hard, and if you both like the same places, a clean break is really hard. And after all, surely two mature adults can reach a compromise. Can't they?

    It's a difficult tightrope to walk, with two basic problems. One, it's unlikely that both people will recover from the break-up at exactly the same speed. Often, one partner will seem to deal with it a lot better, getting out more and possibly even finding someone else. This can only cause resentment from the person left behind. After all, the only thing worse than being miserable is percieving the source of your misery as being happy.

    The other problem is that you can't turn attraction off like a light switch. You can start with the best, purest intentions, but after a few drinks it's easy to look at the other person and remember that not too long ago, they would have been coming home with you after a night out. It takes a long time for that connection between people to truly fade.

  • Post-relationship sex (Optional extra)
    The single worst thing that can happen during a break-up. And it happens so often, cause it's also the best thing that can happen during a relationship. I have yet to meet one person who hasn't enjoyed sex with their ex. Regretted it, yes. But they always enjoyed it.

    Obviously, this is a tremendously bad idea. It's possible to fool yourself into thinking that its a freebie with no harm done, but it ain't. The difficult part of breaking up successfully is getting that link between you to fade it - sex always just reinforces it, no matter what the circumstances

  • The gradual emergence of the truth
    During a breakup people tend to become a little more defensive. They lie about how they really feel, and occasionally even try to stop themselves feeling. And during the aftermath, all those stifled truths bubble to the surface. Sometimes they come out in big soap opera-style revelations, but usually one or both of the partners enter into a pattern of behaviour which displays their feelings so prominently that even a blind five-year old could see them. Gradually, it becomes obvious that the arrangement isn't working out, leading to...

  • The Real Breakup
    Ah, a real treat this, and something I've never managed to avoid.

    Sometimes, of course, this can actually be the reunion of a couple. Usually not though. It's a replay of the first breakup, except that this time both people's feelings are clear. Also, they've both experienced life without the other.

    Some couples at this point reach mature and selfless compromises. So I'm told anyway. For me, they always descend into screaming, recrimination, threats, declarations of love, declarations of hate, promises of restraining orders and the odd attempted murder (btw - total attempts on my life so far = 1).

    I don't think I've ever successfully pulled one of these off with a satisfactory result, so I'm not going to bother offering advice, but I do know that they are inevitable. It's a curse of the human condition that we have a need to have one last attempt to wrap everything up in a nice neat little package. Except that never really happens. And perhaps that's the point of the real breakup, to finally realise that there will never be a tidy ending to the relationship, but that you just have to move on anyway.

It goes without saying that there are a thousand times more exceptions to this pattern than there are examples. If there's a third person involved, someone leaves the country or the relationship ends on incredibly bad terms on both sides, a whole new set of rules apply. And sometimes, people do just break up and live happily after it.

Still though, I know that all the above is true for me. And if you ever figure out how to work out a friendship, please let me know.

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