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The Overwhelming Compulsion to ‘Win’ a Breakup

IT WAS TOTALLY NOT MUTUAL AND YOU KNOW IT, STEPHANIE!

In the early winter of 2012, I experienced the ultimate breakup. My significant other and I didn’t simply go splitsville — I pulled the trigger and called off our entire engagement.

After a five-year, off-and-on relationship, and a rocky five-month betrothal, it became clear to me that our differences had become irreconcilable. So I ended it, then humbly announced the news to our friends and family on Facebook: “[My fiancée] and I have amicably and mutually decided to dissolve our engagement. Thank you all for your support.”

Of course, my Facebook post didn’t tell it exactly the way it happened, but I knew two things: First, there was nothing to gain by publicly announcing that the breakup wasn’t mutual (besides looking like a dick), and second, I still felt comfortable knowing the truth: That I had ended it, not her.

I had clearly “won” the breakup.

I know I’m far from alone in this compulsion. Pretty much no one, ever, has broken up with somebody and told them, “It’s okay, you can tell everyone you dumped me.” So what drives this behavior?

“It’s a mix of ego and self-preservation mechanisms,” says Demetria L. Lucas, a New York City-based certified life coach, author of Don’t Waste Your Pretty: A Go-to Guide for Making Smarter Decisions in Life & Love and relationship expert for Good Morning America. “Everyone’s greatest fear boils down to being perceived as not good enough. [When you get dumped], essentially, someone that you cared for deeply — evident in that you agreed to be in a relationship — has just assessed you and the relationship, and found it so lacking that they’re leaving you. It’s a devastating emotional blow.”

Getting dumped can be so devastating, in fact, that your brain may interpret the separation in a fashion similar to bodily harm, or even substance addiction. “Your brain is likely to prioritize thinking about your ex-partner in the same way that it signals you to pay attention to physical pain,” writes Melanie Greenberg, author of The Stress-Proof Brain: Master Your Emotional Response to Stress Using Mindfulness and Neuroplasticity, in Psychology Today. “Those who have been rejected may [also] experience cravings for their ex-partner similar to the way addicts crave a drug or people newly in love crave the presence of their beloved.”

And so, we enlist famous excuses like:

  • “It was mutual!”
  • “I was going to break up with them soon anyway, they did me a favor!”
  • “I planned it this way from the start!”

“Pretending to yourself or others that the breakup was mutual, or that you were the one to end it, temporarily takes some of the hurt off,” says Lucas. “It puts you in the power position instead of victim mode. Some people need to feel empowered to initially deal with the hurt. ‘I took this action!’ is a lot more empowering than, ‘This horrible thing happened to me.’”

Paradoxically, however, Lucas advises that if you’re not on the winning end of a breakup, keeping it real with yourself and others about what happened is better for your psychological well-being, as it helps to speed up the healing process.

“To be fair, there are people who are honest about being broken up with. It’s not empowering, but it can come with an incredible amount of sympathy and coddling, which are exactly what people dealing with broken hearts need,” says Lucas. “Pretending and lying about what really happened just delays the inevitable feelings of rejection. You can deal with hurt feelings immediately, or you can deal with them down the line, but they will have to be dealt with.”

So while it’s in your ego’s DNA to never want to lose a breakup, the old adage holds true: You can’t win ’em all, champ.