Your Part in a Breakup

After the Breakup

This post is adapted from a workshop given at Single Life Ministries, in Vancouver, WA.

Breakups are part of life. Almost everyone goes through at least one breakup. I have only met one person who married his first girlfriend; they are still together. For everyone else, we get to deal with the aftermath of a breakup.

After the Breakup

Half of dealing with a breakup is forgiving the other person for their mistakes. That is not my topic tonight. Half of dealing with a breakup is processing your failures.

Bonus: Click Here to get a printable workbook for the issues discussed in this post.

Failure in a relationship can be almost anything

  1. Forgetting to pick up milk on the way home
  2. Forgetting an anniversary
  3. Losing your temper and yelling
  4. Losing your temper and giving the silent treatment
  5. Adultery
  6. Abuse
  7. Abandonment
  8. Addiction

Failure may cause regret, sadness, or desperation. Or, handled rightly, failure can lead to inspiration and success.

Failure is part of life, but agony does not need to be.

I only had one breakup before I met and married my wife. Forgiving that girl her for her stuff took me a few years. Admitting my failures in that relationship is an ongoing process. I did not start that process until my wife and I were married for a year. I realized how my failures in that first relationship were threatening my marriage.

Sometimes the right way to respond to failure is to change directions… To break up. Sometimes the right way to respond to failure is to keep going. In that first relationship, it was right for us to break up. In my marriage, getting a divorce would have been wrong. The sweetest times in my marriage have all come after I started to work on myself.

What I am going to talk about tonight is a tool to help you work on your stuff from your previous relationships. It comes from the field of addiction psychology. It comes from a tool to help addicts debrief a past relapse to prevent future relapses.

Many of our unconscious defense mechanisms have addictive aspects to them. We can be addicted to many more things that just alcohol or heroin or meth. We can be addicted to harmful ways of behaving in relationships. We can be addicted to behaviors, attitudes, or emotions that harmed past relationships. Those same behaviors, attitudes, or emotions may threaten current relationships.


In Psalm 139, David is crying out to God on one of the many occasions that someone is trying to kill him. He thanks God for his faithfulness and steadfast presence in his life. Then he gets to the end of his prayer is verses 23 and 24 and says this:

Search me, O God, and know my heart!
Try me and know my thoughts!
And see if there be any grievous way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting!

David, a man after God’s own heart, is praying for God to show him his failures. He is also praying for God to help him correct his failures. This is my prayer for us tonight, including me, because I am a work in progress as well.

Get Perspective on the Failure

The cost of failure is different for everyone. The cost of a missed free throw in basketball is different depending on what level you are playing at. If you are six years old playing your first game, it does not cost much. If you are in the NBA, it could cost the playoffs or next year’s contract. Either way, it is something to learn from and an easy failure to bounce back from.

The cost of buying a house that you cannot afford might be foreclosure or bankruptcy. This life lesson is much harder than missing a free throw and it is much more difficult to bounce back from. But it is not impossible to bounce back from.

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The cost of failing in a romantic relationship or marriage is immeasurable. A typical divorce costs at least $15,000. Housing, transportation, and food costs are higher for broken families than for intact families.

And those are just the financial costs. There are also short-term and long-term health problems that correlate with divorce. There are emotional health problems. There may even be spiritual problems.

Divorce SUCKS. Breakups suck, but they suck less than divorce. Working on yourself sucks, but it sucks less than a breakup and less than a divorce.


What I am about to describe is just one-way of doing this. The goal of this approach is not to sit and stew in the past. The goal is to bring the past into the present so that you can change your future.

Pay attention to what you feel as you go through this process. You may feel sad or mad; that is normal. Pay attention to the emotional intensity.

If you stay below 5/10 on intensity, you are in the green zone. You may grow in this process or you may not. If you stay in the 6-7 range, you are in the yellow zone. You will be uncomfortable, and you will grow in the process. If you get into the 8-9-10 range, you are in the red zone. In the red zone, you may need to take a moment to sit quietly, breathe deeply, and pray. Do what you can to come back down into the green zone before starting again. If you cannot, set this aside for a while.

Another warning is that we tend to remember the past in light of our current emotions. If you feel sad right now, you will feel sad as you think about the past. If you feel mad right now, you will feel mad about the past. Do a quick self-check before you start. How do you feel right now? How intensely do you feel that way?

The Model

Here is the model that we are going to work with. Think of this as a chain of causes and effects that spirals from your birth to your death. We are going to look at just one loop in that spiral.

Internal Decision Making Cycle: Senses, Perceptions, Thoughts, Feelings, Urges, Decisions, Decisions, Actions. @DanielTStephens

Your brain and body usually take only fractions of a second to go from senses to action.

The goal of this workshop is to slow the process down. Way down.

Describe the Relationship in Detail

Think of a conversation with your ex near the end of the relationship. What happened? Do not just give an off the cuff answer, put some serious thought into it. A cursory answer will not help you move on. A detailed answer will help you learn and move on.

Try to recap what happened with gradually increasing detail.


  1. What did you see?
  2. What did you hear?
  3. What did you feel (sense of touch, not emotions)?
  4. What did taste?
  5. What did you smell?

You may need to make several “laps” through those first five questions. That is normal.

What Thoughts Led to Failure?

Senses cause thoughts. But not all senses accurately represent reality. Bad perceptions lead to thinking errors. Start by answering the question, “What did you think?” and watch for these thinking errors:

  1. Exaggeration. Making things seem bigger than they are. Try to get an outsider’s opinion or use a pro/con list.
  2. Minimization. Making things seem smaller than they are. Try to get an outsider’s opinion or use a pro/con list.
  3. Positive Bias. Confirmation bias. This is when your thinking focuses on good aspects of a situation that is neutral or bad. This is one way to combine thinking errors 1 and 2. Exaggerating the good, and minimizing the bad. Try using a prioritization grid to sort things out.
  4. Negative Bias. Negation bias. This is when your thinking focuses on bad aspects of a situation that is neutral or good. This is the second way to combine thinking errors 1 and 2. Exaggerating the bad and minimizing the good. Try using a prioritization grid to sort things out.
  5. All-or-nothing thinking. Black or white thinking. Binary errors. This happens when you have a long-term pattern of thinking errors 4 or 5. This is when you use words like “always” or “never.” If you used “always” to describe what you thought, ask yourself, “has it ever NOT happened that way?” If you used “never” to describe what you thought, as yourself, “has it ever happened that way?”
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What Feelings Led to Failure?

Thoughts cause feelings. Whatever you thought about what you perceived in the situation caused you to feel a certain way.

From the time we were infants crying for food, we have learned to feel a certain way about that type of situation.

Just like there are primary colors, there are primary emotions:

  1. Joy
  2. Sadness
  3. Fear
  4. Disgust
  5. Anger

All other emotions are secondary or complex emotions. Secondary emotions are results of primary emotions. Like links in a chain. Complex emotions are mixes of primary emotions. Just as you can mix the primary colors to get all the rest, so you can do with the primary emotions.

The experience of complex emotions is unique to every individual. The experience of secondary emotions is unique, but there are some similarities. The experience of primary emotions is universal. Joy and sadness, and anger are almost the same for everyone.

When you are answering the question, “What did you feel?” Do your best to boil it down to how much joy, sadness, fear, disgust, or anger you felt in the midst of the situation. This will be the most relatable and repeatable way of sharing it with other people – if you get to that point

Incidentally, this is also the emotional theory used in the Disney movie Inside Out.

What Urges and Decisions Led to Failure?

Remember that we are breaking down a process that happens in fractions of a second. We are really really slowing things down.

Feelings cause urges. In one sense, your feelings are the running average of all your life’s emotional lessons. The reason for your feelings is that they are supposed to urge you to do something. Feelings are instincts. Instincts urge us to respond.

You might feel urged to respond to a screaming child by yelling. Or telling them to calm down. Or giving them a hug. You might feel urged to give a one finger wave to the driver that cuts you off on your drive to work. You might feel urged to … [fill in the blank].

Think for just a minute of your favorite story. It could be a book, a movie, story a friend tells about something in their life, just about anything.

Stories become great stories when:

  1. You feel the same emotions as the characters.
  2. You think the same thoughts as the characters.
  3. You feel the same urges as the characters.

A great story is an example of when feelings and instincts cause exactly the kind of urges they should.

But there is a problem. If your feelings are right, but out of proportion to reality, your urges may be wrong. If your feelings are wrong, but in proportion to reality, your urges may be wrong.

Your urges are only right if:

  1. Your feelings about a situation are correct
  2. Your feelings are in proportion to reality.

That means your urges are right only 25% of the time.

I love cop stories. Great cops, at least in great stories, follow their gut. What makes these cop characters so entertaining is that we know that our guts are only right 25% of the time.

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Questions to ponder:

  1. How were your feelings correct or incorrect for the situation?
  2. How well did your emotional intensity match the situation?
  3. What were you urged to do?

What Actions Led to Failure?

Urges plus decisions equal actions. The bad news is that your gut is only right 25% of the time. The good news is you can make a decision not to follow it.

So… “Trust your feelings, Luke” is not good advice. (Thanks, Obi-Wan). Instead of trusting your feelings, slow down and think. Your feelings may be correct. Your feelings may be in proportion to reality. Slowing down and thinking about it allows you to confirm.

Slowing down and thinking about how to respond to something is critical. It increases the chance that you will be right.

When you have failed, breaking down your thought process in hindsight is painful. It is also beneficial. Hindsight, by itself, is not 20/20. Otherwise, we would learn from our histories and not make the same mistake repeatedly.

In this process, it is good to armchair quarterback yourself. It is not fun, but it is good.

Analyzing our decisions with honesty protects us from repeating our mistakes. Here are the questions to consider for this step.

  1. What decisions did you make?
  2. What information did you consider in your decision?
  3. How long did you pause to think about the decision?
  4. What action did you take?

What Reactions Informed You of Failure?

Actions cause Reactions. Reactions happen in others and ourselves. Reactions include another set of perceptions, thoughts, feelings, urges, decisions, and actions within ourselves. We can only speculate about those things for other people unless we directly ask about them.

This could be crazy-making. You could start to see the endless cause and effect machine at play here. To avoid the crazy making, think of our discussion so far as the cause, and the reactions as effects.

Examining reactions requires you to make judgements about effectiveness and morality.

  1. How effective were your:
    1. Thoughts?
    2. Feelings?
    3. Urges?
    4. Decisions?
    5. Actions?
  2. How moral were your:
    1. Thoughts?
    2. Feelings?
    3. Urges?
    4. Decisions?
    5. Actions?

Examining reactions are the hardest part of this process. It is also the most valuable part. To do it best you need to involve trusted people in the process with you.

You might include a parent, a sibling, a pastor, or a counselor. The point is that you involve other people in the process. Do not do this alone.

Future Commitments

Reactions lead to commitments. Those commitments might be unconscious or conscious. Our goal is to make them conscious.

Failure is unavoidable. You can reduce the cost of failure by making commitments to change.

Fill in the blanks here:

  1. When I think… I will…
  2. When I feel… I will…
  3. When I want to… I will…
  4. When I choose to… I will…
  5. When I fail… I will…

If you have done the work involved here, you will have filled in the blanks in those commitments. To cement those commitments, write them down and put them where you will see them at least daily. Even better if you will see them many times a day.

Post them on your refrigerator. Carry them on a 3×5 card in your wallet. Tape them to your steering wheel. Write them on your bathroom mirror. Make them the desktop background on your computer.

These are your affirmations. These are your commitments not to repeat your past mistakes.


  1. What failures in your life have turned out to be blessings?
  2. When have you examined the reactions of others to your failure? What helped you to do it?
  3. What are your affirmations?

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By Dan

Founder, Executive Director, Mental Health Counselor at Restored Life Counseling