Long Reads

Dealing with a breakup: “Why you should say congratulations, not sorry, after a breakup”

The last week of February has been voted the most popular for a breakup, as it comes after big annual celebrations including Valentine’s Day, Christmas and New Year. Here, writer Tiffany Philippou argues that being set free from a bad relationship that wasn’t right for us should be a cause for celebration – not concern.

I was at yet another one of those parties that have had an increasing presence in my life since turning 30. You know, the ones where everyone seems to be standing in a pair, and we’re drinking out of real glasses, as we chat about mortgages and furniture brands.

At one of these events, I was explaining that: “No, I wasn’t moving in with my boyfriend after all, because we’d broken up, actually.” The reaction is always the same: their head tilts and they look at me with wide, earnest eyes. Then they say: “I’m sorry.”

I can’t stand it — I wish they’d say congratulations.

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Yet, how can being a single woman who breaks away from societal conventions be truly celebrated, when we’re made to feel like such a failure when we’re experiencing the prerequisite of single life — a break-up?

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Dealing with a breakup: "42% of marriages end in divorce — and a lot of relationships continue that really shouldn’t."

Saying the words, “I’m sorry” tells me you think I’ve failed. We currently measure the success of a relationship by its longevity, but this is neither true or realistic. I don’t need to tell you that most relationships come to an end — 42% of marriages end in divorce — and a lot of relationships continue that really shouldn’t. I’m sure you can think of at least one, perhaps, even your own.

That’s why I believe we should celebrate the escape from troublesome relationships. It takes a lot of courage to step out of a relationship and into an unknown world with the hope of something better. Before my relationship ended, I’d lie awake at night, petrified. Leaving felt like a big risk, because perhaps this was as good as I deserved from life. If I stayed, I’d get the marriage, house and kids: all those things society tells us we want and what it measures our worth by.

A relationship ending doesn’t mean it was a waste of time, especially if we think about what it taught us. I’m happy my relationship happened. In fact, I’m delighted: I enjoyed most of it, hugely. I left that relationship a better person and I learnt more about myself than I could possibly imagine. I now know what I want, which is the most important lesson to learn of them all.

Elizabeth Day, whose smash hit podcast How to Fail calls on us to reframe our relationship with failure in society, summed this up on Fearne Cotton’s podcast, Happy Place. “Now I choose to believe relationships end because that person has come into my life and taught me the lesson I needed to learn,” she said.

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Dealing with a breakup: single people are hugely optimistic about life and love.

It doesn’t matter who ended the relationship: the relationship isn’t right if you both wholeheartedly don’t want to be in it. To be dumped is to be set free – and to even use language that equates being broken up with to being thrown into a dustbin is pretty outrageous, too. 

Of course, break-ups can be sad and complex. I’m not asking you to shout congratulations at me like you’re at a surprise birthday party. What I am asking is you respond, empathetically, and invite a proper conversation about my experience and feelings. Rather than making the presumption that all break-ups are bad. “I’m sorry” is what you say when someone has died. No-one has died and if anything, I feel more alive than ever. 

How to get closure after a break-up
Dealing with a breakup: there is a stigma around being single that gets worse with age.

Break-ups are hard; they’re really hard, but not because you’ve been banished to single purgatory as the common reaction suggests. They’re hard because you have to allow your imagined future to dissolve and rewrite a new narrative for yourself. They’re also very messy: you often have arguments and face financial penalties as you disentangle your lives. Wounding words are said that cut deep into your insecurities, and come back to haunt you when you’re at your lowest ebb. But, despite this, we know it’s far better to be single than to be in an unhappy relationship.

I suspect a lot of people are staying in bad relationships out of fear – and I feel much sorrier for them. I understand the fear because there is a stigma around being single that gets worse with age. There are things I don’t get invited to, living is a lot more expensive and it’s scary to think we may be alone forever, which is not how us humans are engineered to be. 

In Alain de Botton’s essay on Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person, he says: “We have to be wholly at peace with the prospect of many years of solitude in order to be appropriately picky; otherwise, we risk loving no longer being single rather more than we love the partner who spared us that fate.”

I believe single people are hugely optimistic about life and love – those who’ve just been through a break-up feel that optimism even more so. We have faith that we deserve more than what we had before, and we have the courage to go out and get it. I believe that is worthy of celebration. 

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This feature was originally published in December 2019

Images: Getty, Unsplash

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