What to do When a Breakup Turns Ugly.

Breaking up is especially difficult when only one wants to end the relationship.  The one who is left is in a great deal of emotional pain from the grief and loss.  He or she also feels powerless to do anything about their circumstances.  Often they do not know how to handle the pain, which feels unbearable and seems never ending.  For some people, shifting into anger seems to alleviate their pain.  Actually, anger just masks pain.  But masking the pain may be preferable to feeling it.  The pain does not go away; it just goes underground and influences behaviors in negative ways.

Sometimes breakups turn ugly.  One or both parties start behaving in ways that are inappropriate, perhaps even frightening.  Behaviors such as stalking, threatening verbally and physically, name calling, complaining to your friends/co-workers, making unwanted phone calls, sending unwanted text messaging and emails, damaging property, stealing from your partner and worse, make a breakup ugly.

Scenario 1) John finally ended his two year and half relationship with Mary after months of vacillating back and forth. It was not working out for him and he did not want to invest any more of himself in it.  Mary was devastated and she pleaded with John to give her another chance. John’s resolve weakened and they did reconcile for a few months.  But the same unpleasant dynamics between them repeated, so he ended it again. Mary refused to accept the breakup.  She kept calling John and begging him to reconcile.  She kept driving by his home.  She left messages on his car.  She called his friends trying to solicit their help.  She sent him ecards, long hysterical emails and emotional text messages.  John felt sorry for her and would take her calls and answer her messages.  He kept explaining in a caring way that the relationship was over for him.  When John was nice to Mary, her hopes for reconciliation increased.  She tried harder to have contact with John.  She knew that her behavior was harming what little relationship they had left, yet she could not stop herself.  John’s compassion for her shifted into disgust.  He felt badgered and victimized.  He avoided all contact with her and after several months Mary gave up.

Scenario 2) After breaking up and reconciling five times, Judy decided to end her 4 year relationship with Marty for good.  As before, Marty begged and pleaded with her to take him back.  When she wouldn’t, Marty became angry and bitter.  He started making phone calls and hanging up.  He started threatening her.  At first he would make statements such as ‘You better watch out.”  Then the statements escalated into “I’m going to kill you.”  Judy was frightened and did not know what to do.  She was afraid to talk to her parents. She talked to all of her friends trying to figure out what to do.  She talked to him and told him that he was frightening her, but it did no good.  Sometimes he would switch from bitterness to apology but when she would not agree to give him another chance he shifted back into anger and rage.  He wanted her to hurt as much as he was hurting.  When he saw the fear in her eyes and heard the fear in her voice, he knew he was still able to have an impact on her.  It was not the impact he wanted to have but it was better than feeling powerless. One time when he saw her going into a pub with another guy he keyed her car.  The destructive action gave him some relief from the pain of seeing her with another guy. (All scenarios are fictitious).

The same recommendations apply here as in How to Handle a Breakup

Additional recommendations:

Be pleasantly matter-of-fact

If you have to have contact, be pleasantly matter-of-fact.  There may be many reasons that you have contact during and after a breakup.  People build defenses against loving and angry behaviors, but they do not build defenses against pleasant matter-of-fact behaviors.  When you talk to your ex-partner in a neutral tone that does not have an edge to your voice, you are more likely to influence him or her in a positive way, perhaps not in the moment, but later.

Keep contact to a minimum.

Do not receive or respond to phone calls, emails or text messages. Turn off your cell phone at night, even during the day, if necessary.  If your ex-partner arrives at your door at 3:00 am do not let him or her in.  The less contact you have with your ex-partner, the less either of you will be upset.  Ignoring contact tends to lessen contact.  There are certain phone calls you have to take, in particular, around custody and access of children/pets and financial matters. Make contact only when necessary.

Keep responses to a minimum.

Make short simple statements and repeat without adding more. Do not keep explaining repeatedly in the hope that your ex-partner will understand.  Most hurt partners do not want to understand. When you have contact, make precise simple statements that are to the point and repeat them in a matter-of-fact manner without adding anything more.


Getting back together is not a possibility.

I’m not willing to try again.

The relationship no longer works for me.

I want what is best for the children.

It’s not OK to say things like that.

Take all threats seriously.

Realize that your ex-lover is in a great deal of grief and loss and that the threats are coming out of the pain.  However, that does not make what they are saying or doing OK.  While you need to take all threats seriously, if your ex-lover has no history of violent behavior it is unlikely that he or she will become violent.

NOTE: If you ex-lover does have a history of violence then you should take great care to protect yourself and avoid contact.  You should also keep a low profile for many months, as seeing you get on with your life without him or her may fuel their grief/rage.

Mute your own emotions during contact.

As best you can, do not show hurt, fear or anger.  Ex-partners, who are being nasty, want to influence you; if they cannot do it in a positive way they will resign themselves to achieving it in a negative way.  For them, any influence is better than none.

Downplay threatening behavior.

If at all possible, ignore inappropriate, hurtful and nasty behaviors. You do not want to fuel behavior that is not OK.  If your ex-lover treats you badly in any way, the best way to handle this behavior is to ignore it.  If you have to respond, make a brief matter-of-fact statement, such as “It’s not OK to behave that way.” Do not add anything more. Repeat if necessary, then ignore.

Seek out resources among your family, friends and community.

Set up a friend, family member or counselor to call.  When you are in emotional pain it is natural to miss you ex-partner whether you initiated the breakup or your partner did.  Men find it helpful to call a female friend when they are struggling with their emotions. Do not call your ex-partner when you are in pain, lonely or missing them.  If you have someone that you have arranged to call when you are in distress, you are less likely to call your ex-partner.

Reach out.  When you are worried by your own behavior or your ex-lover’s behavior, it is wise to talk to and be with someone you trust  – a person who will help you handle yourself and the breakup in a healthy way.

Look after yourself

However your breakup unfolds, look after yourself by connecting with those you love and trust.  See professional help if you need to.  You do not want to repeat any of your behaviors that are unhealthy in a new relationship.  Now is the time to learn about yourself and make the changes you need to make.

With care and concern,

Dr. Bea Mackay

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