Why Taking The High Road Is So Hard After A Breakup

A lot of people like to think of themselves as levelheaded adults who can handle conflict with the grace and maturity of a saint. But even the most virtuous people lose their cool during a breakup. No matter how prepared you are for the end of a relationship, taking the high road is rarely an option. Here’s why:

You have to be calm to take the high road. You can’t “be the bigger person” when you feel small. Breakups cut to the heart of your vulnerability and either leave you feeling abandoned or vengeful or a combination of both. These responses come from a place of pain, a position that isn’t conducive to maturity or objectivity. Your feelings are running so hot that being cool, calm, and collected just isn’t possible.

You want them to feel as much pain as you do. Breakups are rarely equal in their distribution of emotional pain. One person almost always takes it harder than the other, usually the person who’s been dumped. If you’re in this position, you will be angry at your partner’s seeming lack of distress. You won’t understand how the relationship could mean so little to them that they can be so calm about losing it. You want them to feel pain because if they don’t, it means that they were never really in love with you.

You don’t want to excuse their behavior. Some breakups are nasty. Cheating, dishonesty, and codependency can all make the end of a relationship even more destructive than it would be in the best of circumstances. If you’ve been cheated on, it’s okay to not take the high road. Your sense of betrayal is justified, and you don’t owe them your forgiveness.

They’re pushing your buttons. The closer you are to someone, the better they are at honing in on your insecurities and using them against you. If your breakup is messy, you and your partner may engage in emotional warfare, exploiting each other’s vulnerabilities and calculating your actions to have maximum impact. In this situation, taking the high road feels like surrendering to a rival army, and you don’t want to lose. The best thing you can do is opt out of the drama. That’s the closest you’ll get to the high road.

You’re suffering from a victim mentality. Being rejected by the person you love can be humiliating, especially if there’s no obvious reason for the separation other than your partner deciding that you aren’t right for each other. This can be a big hit to your self-esteem and lead to a victim mentality. You start wallowing in self-pitying thoughts such as, “How could they do this to me?” and, “This is all their fault.” When you’re in this space, it’s difficult to forgive your ex or accept responsibility for your own role in the breakup.

Anger is cathartic. Let’s face it, anger can feel really effing good. It makes you feel strong, in control, and righteous, as if you’re exacting justice on a wrongdoer. Psychologist Leon Seltzer calls it “the low road to self-empowerment” because it allows you to believe (falsely) that you hold all the power. It also distracts you from the emotional pain and vulnerability you’re feeling.

We’re evolutionarily hardwired to maintain bonds. Breakups disrupt our instinct to bond with each other. As children, forming an attachment to our parents is a requirement to stay alive. As we grow older, this need for attachment transfers to romantic partners. We instinctively create bonds with people we love because we are a social species whose well-being depends on interconnectivity. Breakups rip apart our closest relationships and therefore go against our instinct to stay together. It’s no wonder taking the high road is so difficult.

You’re in fight-or-flight mode. Unexpected breakups can throw you into fight-or-flight mode. Your body is flooded with adrenaline and cortisol to help you respond to the perceived emergency, and your muscles literally tense, ready to leap into action. Thinking calmly and maturely when your body is full of “action” hormones is impossible. You won’t be able to think rationally until your danger response has subsided.

You want answers. If your partner dumps you out of the blue, you won’t be able to come to terms with it until you understand why it’s happened. Taking the high road may be possible at some point, but for the moment, you’re focused on getting answers. Sadly, there are rarely satisfying answers in situations like this. Love is messy, and you may never get the logical explanation you’re looking for.

You can’t let go. Losing a long-term relationship can set off a grieving process, and one of the stages of grief is denial. It’s a defense mechanism: losing your partner is so painful that you have to tell yourself it isn’t real to avoid falling apart. You will start planning how to get them back. You’ll tell yourself it’s temporary and they’ll be back of their own accord. Taking the high road isn’t a possibility when you haven’t accepted that the relationship is over.

How To Cope When You Can’t Take The High Road

For all these reasons, taking the high road can feel impossible after a breakup. If it’s outside your abilities at this early stage, there are a few steps you can take first:

Go no contact. The no contact rule states that you cannot have any communication with your ex. No texting, no phone calls, no face-to-face interactions, and no social media engagement (including scrolling through their feed). It feels like cutting off your arm at first, but blocking them on all channels will eventually help you move on.

Let your friends and family distract you. You may have lost your closest bond, but don’t isolate yourself from all the other people who love you. Friends and family are a vital part of getting over a breakup. Let them comfort you and distract you. Tell them what you need (long conversations about your ex? Zero mention of your ex whatsoever?) and they will be there for you.

 Have a rebound. Rebounds aren’t for everyone, but if casual sex helps you forget about your ex and bring a little joy into your life, it’s worth trying. It might take away your stress for a little while and remind you that other people are out there. On the other hand, if you know it will make you miss your ex even more, steer clear.

Take up an exercise class. Exercise is a healthy way to work through intense emotions. If you’re angry, go to a boxing class and punch a bag until your arms fail. If you’re confused and grieving, activities like yoga and running can help you process. Maybe you just want to feel like you belong in your body after the identity crisis of losing your relationship. Exercise can help with all these things.

Accept responsibility for the part you played. Ditching your victim mentality is painful because it forces you to see yourself as more than a victim of your evil ex. This doesn’t mean that you have to blame yourself for what happened–in some cases such as cheating, your ex may be fully to blame. But seeing the relationship as a complex interplay between two equally powerful individuals will help you regain perspective and agency as you move forward.



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