Breaking Up & Relationship Half-Life Theory

Many years ago I remember a friend of mine remarking to me that the amount of time required to get over and completely move past a breakup or divorce was half the length of the time the relationship lasted. One year relationship, six months of recovery after the breakup. Twenty year relationship, ten years of recovery after the breakup — I may have just triggered a horrible “IT TAKES THAT LONG?” reaction from many of you, and I’m sorry for that. At the time I remember dismissing this as ridiculous, or something that people believe out of convenience, like so many casual theories of psychology and human behavior.

But for whatever reason, the idea stayed in my head, and I have carried it around with me ever since. Anecdotally, I can say now that it is more than worth entertaining. It’s quite likely rather accurate, though I would add an extra condition, which is that the half-life decay probably begins after the completion of the Kubler-Ross stages of grief.

That is, if a person gets stuck in the grieving process, and is not able to cycle through all of the stages, it will delay the recovery period. Grief, thusly, precedes recovery. The failure or inability to properly grieve over the end of a relationship is a retardant to all subsequent processes. They are dependencies, and can’t be completed in parallel.

The fact of my very recent willingness to think and write dispassionately about the end of my “marriage” (we weren’t married legally, but our lives were organized in a manner consistent with being married — co-habitation, co-mingling of finances, etc.) has even followed this timeline. The relationship lasted approximately 5 ½ years, and it took me about four months to complete the grieving process. It would likely have taken longer, except the fact that he entered a new relationship and so all of the delusions that prevented me from moving past the bargaining phase were stripped away and I was able to move quickly thereafter through depression and into acceptance.

The half-life recovery mark would have been reached only in March of this year, though I was just beginning to be able to write some about it in December, spurred on by the death of my Great Dane, Andalusia, who we had adopted together. The relationship and even the breakup now seem to have been things that happened to a different person, not to me. The ability to depersonalize a past pain or trauma seems to be the sufficient condition for having truly moved on.

This is why something like post-traumatic stress disorder is indeed a disorder. It is the continued suffering of a trauma long after the normal mental recovery process should have discarded the pain as being in the past. Most pains or traumas in our life should pass into memory, and though they may continue to be relied upon to instruct future decision-making (moving on does not mean forgetting), they no longer occupy a part of our active conscious experience. In a sense, we could say that completing the process of “moving on” is like the transferring of an experience from our RAM to our hard drive.

For a long period after the divorce, many things in daily life reminded me of my ex. These are the holes grief bores into us. Sitting down to dinner, cooking a certain dish, watching a particular TV show, and other mundane daily activities spark memories of exes for the duration of the half-life decay after a breakup or divorce. There seem to be no short-cuts around this process, for it is the fading away of memories, which the more distant they become, are less and less easily accessed. The less frequently they are accessed, the less frequently they can be accessed. It’s a virtuous cycle that eventually purges our experience of the common reminders.

The reason it seems this half-life theory functions is that the longer the relationship, especially when cohabitation is involved, the more visceral the memories, and consequently the longer it takes for them to be purge them. They are not just stored in your brain, but in your body too. But we are built to forget. Forgetting is what allows us to live in the present moment, unhindered by the past.

It is no wonder that alcohol often becomes a constant companion to a newly single individual — it provides an acute (but temporary) ability to forget. Rebound sex is likewise an attempt to accelerate the moving on process by creating new associations with the sexual experience so that it is no longer uniquely identified with the past relationship partner. Both alcohol consumption and sexual excitement (particularly climax and orgasm) have the effect of suspending significant portions of ego functionality which is responsible for much of conscious memory. With alcohol and sex, the effect is only temporary, though, and the memories return.

The reason that memory of the past is a hindrance is that it serves as a continual point of comparison against which we judge and evaluate the quality of present experience. People who do not know how to cope with being single will jump from one relationship to another, attempting to “replace” their former long-term partner. To the extent that they want a replacement, something to fill the specific holes left by that one relationship, they will almost invariably be disappointed — and increasingly so.

The desire to find a replacement — somebody who is able to perform all of the emotional (and other) functions of the previous relationship — may take place during the grieving process itself, as a form of late-stage bargaining (or the failure of which may actually stir the real bargaining process with the ex partner), or after grief is over and during the recovering process. They will likely play out in different ways, depending on the circumstances.

In the first case, the individual goes out into the dating world again seeking a replacement. They may encounter a series of desirable individuals, with whom they might even be quite compatible, but they mistakenly perceive incompatibility because they are seeking a complete replacement of the former partner, rather than a new, unique, healthy relationship that would arise organically from getting to know somebody else and sharing time and experiences with them. These pre-conceived expectations will likely lead quickly to disappointment and a cycle of frustrated dating, since it is improbably that anybody could actually replace anybody else.

Even to the extent that they aren’t seeking a true replacement, but just a replacement of the intimacy, they may be equally disappointed and frustrated, because beginning a new relationship means, necessarily, going through the entire process of attraction, courtship, negotiation (that is, establishing the terms of the relationship), initial disillusionment, recommitment, and eventually to true emotional intimacy. Even though this process can be accelerated with extremely emotionally mature individuals, the steps cannot be skipped entirely, and attempting to do so will damage the chances of a stable and healthy relationship emerging from the process.

Not infrequently, this desire for a quick return to the state of intimacy one had in a previous long-term relationship, and the ensuing frustration with not being able to find it, leads the person to consider, or even start pining for, a reconciliation with the old relationship. They will start to reason that “in spite of the challenges” of the old relationship, “at least there we had X, and now that I don’t have X, I’m more willing to pay for it by enduring the challenges.” This line of thinking almost always overestimates the value of X and underestimates the pain caused by the challenges, but it is rather difficult for a person to maintain rational objectivity about such things when they are in the depths of emotional suffering.

It would appear that if the grieving process actually runs its course, most people will no longer seek a true replacement, and instead will just be looking for somebody else who fits a general mould that their ex partner also fit. The half-life theory suggests that the rigidity of this mold will gradually wear off over time, until the half-life period has expired entirely, and then, ideally, the person would be able to pursue a variety of experiences in their relationships until their find one that provides a sufficient level of satisfaction judged independently and on its own merits, rather than as something compared to the past relationship.

Age and experience seem to contribute to more objectivity about this subject. Emotional maturity alone certainly goes a long way to allowing one a realistic perspective on a breakup and the prospects about new relationships, but I think it is not until a person has experienced two or three long-term relationships and their end that they see that there are more possibilities and even types of possibility for relationship satisfaction than the one they had.

The willingness to experiment with new kinds of people, new types of relationship structure, while potentially putting oneself at emotional risk is, nevertheless, in my view at least, the only way to increase the likelihood ofdeveloping a lasting relationship. The reason for this is that society has given us few, probably very few, “templates” for romantic and domestic relationships, and even if we reject the social norms consciously, they certainly continue to impact our decision-making subconsciously. There’s probably no way to avoid this entirely, but experimentation, and an openness to different possibilities presents the opportunity to rewire our brains away from the WYSIATI (What You See Is All There Is) bias that clouds our judgment and closes us off to potentially fulfilling experiences.

It would seem that experimentation with new forms of relationship may also hold the potential for accelerating the decay of the old relationship’s grip on our consciousness. If you avoid attempting to replicate a previous relationship, fewer things in the new relationship are likely to remind you of the old one, meaning that you can forge new patterns that do not conflict with the old ones. This is probably an “advanced” skill, suited for those who have already done a lot of self-analysis and psychological work, but is probably essential for people who have come out of extraordinarily long relationships for which the possibility of waiting for the half-life decay to run its course simply isn’t possible.

A person in their 50s coming out of a 20+ year marriage may indeed not have the option of waiting a decade before starting to pursue a new relationship again, whereas letting the half-life decay run its course probably does make a lot of sense for a person in their 20s coming out of a 1-year relationship. In either case, though I think the willingness to depart from one’s own preconceived idea of the perfect relationship and perfect relationship partner is worth the effort.

In the aftermath of the sexual revolution, the explosion of divorce, and the emergence of polyamory as an increasingly socially acceptable relationship structure, it may seem like the idea of a life-long, or even just extremely long-term monogamous relationship is unattainable or antiquated. One could say that I have skin in the game in this question, and have recently been questioning my own assumptions about the viability and desirability of monogamous long-term relationships.

Far from prescribing them for everybody, or proscribing people from attempting whatever might lead them to the most optimal happiness, my own uncertainty on the subject leads me to a rather permissive attitude as to the behavior of others. But no matter how much I am able to see the logic in these alternative arrangements — and the logic seems to be sound, I cannot help but think that it is the same logical soundness that appears in communism, which once applied to actual human practice leads either quickly or slowly to ruin. This isn’t a moral judgment, it’s a practical question. One I don’t have a ready answer to.

But for me, I think I have decided I’m willing to give committed, long-term monogamy at least one more go. This is surprisingly becoming an almost hostile position to hold in the gay community, almost an offense to those who claim monogamy is impossible, and for whom any attempt of doing so shines a light on their own unwillingness to keep difficult commitments. Two generations ago, it was rebellious not to marry. It may well become in my generation and in the subsequent ones an act of rebellion to be willing to marry, and to keep to it through monogamy.

The reason I’ve chosen to close with these thoughts is that much of the previous discussion about experimenting with new kinds of relationships, enduring the suffering of grief, etc., seems to suggest that opening oneself up to the risk of failure carries a potentially high cost. And it does indeed. It may lead one to believe that “it’s just not worth all the risk.” But I really think it is. Risk-taking is prerequisite to real Love, and life without Love really isn’t life at all.

Regardless of one’s religious disposition, St Paul’s words about Love from his first letter to the Corinthians are among the most beautiful and wonderful that have ever been written on the subject.

“Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails…and now abide Faith, Hope, and Love, but the greatest of these is Love.”

The idea of two people, deeply committed to pursuing this with one another, with all of the realism of the difficulty of achieving it, and who trust one another to be patient, to suffer long through the painstaking process of constructing a relationship predicated on these values — this idea is still worthy of pursuit. Even after other attempts have failed. Even after the heartache of disappointment and betrayal.

Thus, from grief to recovery to the return to pursuing genuine Love again, Faith and Hope are predecessors to Love, for without the Faith that the risks being taken are worth it, without the Hope that it might actually succeed, Love is but an unreachable fantasy, destined for fairy tales and Disney films.

But it can be real. It can be made to be real — if we choose to make it real.