Breaking up in isolation | Community | Chicago Reader

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Breaking up in isolation

Three people spill their post-breakup thoughts.

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It's tough enough to go through a breakup without being in the midst of a pandemic, but now partnerships are being tested, some are going virtual, and others are even dissolving. In the time BC (before coronavirus) getting over a breakup may have included going out, surrounding yourself with friends, distracting your thoughts, or even having a one-night stand. Nothing better than getting over someone by getting under someone, right?

As we all know, the present moments have never been so unique. So folks going through breakups—either accelerated by isolation or inconveniently occurring during the pandemic—are having to find new solutions for recovering from heartbreak or simply finding closure.

Dr. Laura McGuire, a sexologist and consultant, says isolation and relationships can be a strain for partners. "Being in any relationship takes time, trust, and communication; adding to that the inherent challenge of not doing day-to-day things together, limited communication and touch, and you have a true task at hand." They explain that isolating—separately—is something couples never signed up for. "For those who thought they could see each other every week or month, the future is completely unforeseeable. Lack of physical and emotional contact is not impossible to overcome but can certainly heap on stress, especially during a time when work and living situations are teetering on a thin line."

K, 26, recently went through a breakup in isolation after a partnership of eight months, while in isolation. During quarantine, K's partner came over for a walk and explained that the relationship wasn't working for her anymore. Their break led to a few follow-up conversations on the phone and ultimately to a final permanent breakup. K was completely shocked by the news.

"I knew she was dealing with some heavy things, but she never before indicated any problems in our partnership," they explain. "She ended the relationship mostly because she needed time to work through things and address her own mental health and happiness. I imagine stay-at-home gave her a moment to breathe and consider things. She was also unable to meet my needs as I struggled with the beginning of quarantine, which I'm sure influenced her decision to end the relationship."

For K, isolation has made dealing with emotions easier. They explain that destructive coping mechanisms are more out of reach and they can learn about confronting their feelings instead of running from them. "While I think isolation has helped improve my relationship with myself, I think it complicates how I feel about my now ex-partner. The circumstances of our breakup are incredibly sad and then situated within an incredibly difficult time. How do I not worry about someone I love? She lives alone, is struggling, how can I be there for her through this extremely precarious time? And do I even want to be?" K says. "Sometimes I feel like I am stuck in the breakup, unable to distance myself from it. Everyone says, 'Spend time doing things just for you,' 'Do things that make you happy,' but I was already committed to those things before the breakup! I think I would really benefit from going out and meeting new people!"

Dr. McGuire says that while breakups are always hard, "to go through that crash on top of not being able to go out and be distracted by the rest of life—family, friends, events—is something few could ever imagine. We know that isolation and loneliness is one of the most detrimental experiences to the human mind and body so right now any negative experience is exacerbated."

According to a study published in The Lancet, quarantine is linked to various psychological issues. Emotions like confusion and anger are impacting partnerships and for many people, isolating together or separate has brought to light fears, frustrations, lack of understanding, financial struggles, and much more. Relationship coach and expert Lee Wilson found in a survey that 31 percent of partnerships suffered under quarantine.

But it's still too early to conduct any real studies on how COVID-19 is impacting partnerships. An article in Psychology Today says that after Hurricane Hugo divorces increased, but after the Oklahoma City bombing divorces decreased. And because COVID-19 can't be categorized as either of these (natural disaster or terrorist attack), it's difficult to know the effects of the pandemic on partnerships or divorce rates. However, divorce lawyers are waiting for the impact. Baroness Fiona Shackleton in the UK said that their peak time for divorce is usually over the holidays, when couples are together for long periods of time. She is expecting a similar outcome during the pandemic. In China, divorce rates have spiked, which is something we may expect for the rest of the world.

Krister, 27, and their partner broke up when they were in Chicago and their partner was outside of the country, right before the shelter-in-place order took effect. "It was a phone call, so more or less I started the breakup already in isolation. We discussed trying to be friends and he suggested we talk more about it when he returned from his trip," they say. "Unfortunately, COVID-19 struck right after that decision was made, so chances of gaining more closure were slim."

Krister and their partner dated for almost a year and their friendly texts checking up on each other became harder to deal with while in quarantine. "I made a decision to distance myself more because it was becoming too difficult to pretend I wasn't hurting every time we interacted. I asked for more space while I was in isolation because it was cyclically dominating my mind."

Being single and dating during a pandemic can be a bit tricky, as in-person meet ups are not recommended. So being single and going through the loss of a companion can be especially difficult. The future may look bleak to those who can't plan or think far into the future. With no real end in sight for the pandemic, being alone can make things lonelier. Emotions are also heightened. People are feeling collective, overwhelming anxiety. Questions regarding our personal health, our partners' health, our friends' and family's health, are all stressors in our minds.

The folks that talked to me for this article were able to achieve physical distance from their partners. However, some folks aren't so lucky and live with their partners. The stay-at-home order has disrupted the standard long-term breakup. People are sharing kitchens with their exes, some are still sharing beds.

Buzzfeed reporter Julia Moser shared her experience of being dumped over Zoom, the video-conferencing app, in her childhood bedroom during isolation. "The breakup was about as humiliating as you would expect," she writes. Overall, Moser admits she feels miserable but is grateful she wasn't ghosted or gaslit (something that could very easily be done in times of isolation). Virtual breakups will definitely be another awkward and hard reality for people isolating away from their partners.

In many ways, isolation was exactly what Krister needed. They explain that they needed to relearn a love for themself outside of another person. However, that took some time. "Not having my friends and family around to hear me out was hard. All I wanted to do was vent, and it felt like a burden to call or text a novel of feelings rather than passively rant over a cup of coffee or a drink. I luckily have a roommate and they have been super supportive, especially because they exited a relationship a few months earlier."

Working on house projects, building furniture, caring for plants, painting, and drawing have all become part of Krister's daily indulgences. "I also tried to journal a bit and expel some negative thoughts through some personal rituals; any form of self-care I could think of (including flirting with strangers) was a great escape from the breakup and the impending pandemic. Animal Crossing has been a lifesaver!"

Other than a "happy birthday" text, Krister and their ex haven't spoken recently. Damiane, 26, is in a similar situation. More than two weeks ago, he and his partner decided to call it quits after six months, when they chatted face-to-face about larger issues in the relationship. The two haven't spoken since their split. He says those concerns were "inflated by the current circumstances," and although it was tough, the "quarantine brought things to the surface." Damiane and his partner were still getting to understand one another. He says, "Isolation definitely can act as a pressure cooker, and at times I could feel it breaking down the sinew of the relationship, but the issues were always present."

For Damiane, he says that having a partner during the pandemic is "immensely helpful," so the breakup was bittersweet. While isolation has compounded sad emotions for Damiane, it's also been a good time for reflection. "It is always hard to transition from being with a partner, but in this case [isolation] makes it a bit easier to create the physical distance that's necessary for closure." He says he's been busying himself by watering his plants. "It's spring and growing season is coming up, so lots of propagation."

While isolation is tough, it's been a rewarding time for people to invest in themselves and their self-interests. Whether you're in a relationship or not, spending time alone and reflecting on what activities make you happy can establish growth for future friendships or relationships.

Dr. McGuire agrees that folks going through a relationship change should focus their energy into things that they love. Right now can be a good time to look inward. "FaceTiming with someone who makes you laugh, teaching yourself a new skill, spending long stretches of time reading, or creating things that allow you to release emotion are all tools for healing," they say. "Above all, go easy on yourself; it is not like you can ask your mom how she survived a quarantine breakup. We are all learning as we go and a wide range of feelings and experiences with all of this is normal."  v

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