Cruel to be kind: Why what you what to hear in a break-up isn't always what you need to hear

"He definitely still likes you"..."she was staring at you the whole time at the party"... sound familiar? It can be easy to slip into the habit of optimism to help a friend through a break-up, but, as Louise Bruton explains, all you're really doing is delaying the healing.

Once upon my early 20s, a terrible human broke up with me using some of the most direct and hurtful words anyone could use. The phrase “trial and error” was used and I was, according to him, an error. At the time, I was getting ready to move to another country for the summer and when I told a friend about this, he suggested that maybe the awful fella did this so it would make it easier for me to move.

That was the wrong thing to say.

In my state of rejection, I would have held onto anything so that I didn’t feel as bad as that boy wanted me to feel. I believed in the false hope in my friend’s advice and made it a false reality. As a result, what should have been a clean break turned into a long, drawn-out and nasty affair where I thought we had kissed and made up but instead it was a make up that would see me getting dropped from a bigger height much later on. It was not an isolated incident — there have been many times when I’ve been on the receiving end of bad relationship advice, as often as I’ve been the one to dish it out. And learning from experience, there’s a big difference in being told what you want to hear versus what you need to hear. 

What Love Island can teach us

With the wonderful and slightly pervy birdseye view of Love Island, we can get the outside perspectives on relationships. Every night, we see both sides of the relationships unfold in the villa. When things go tits up,  we can also hear the input, advice and gossip of friends and we can see so clearly when that advice is deathly wrong. Time moves at a faster pace in the villa, with one day equating to one week in real-time, so while they haven’t been together for a couple of weeks, Amber and Michael’s relationship has been dragged out because of all-round bad advice from their mates.

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Instead of calling a dead thing a dead thing, (different to the "dead ting" that Amber referred to Michael’s new moth Joanna as), the rest of the housemates kept the flame simmering on both sides, egging Amber on to tell Michael her true feelings, even though his face morphs into a vampire scowl whenever she speaks to him.

The danger zone

The danger zone in a post-break-up debrief comes when people try to interpret what others really mean instead of taking their nasty words at face value.   Suggesting that cruelty comes from a place of kindness warps us into thinking that 'treat ‘em mean, keep ‘em keen' is a practice that we should follow.

In a similar fashion, focusing on what you think they’re not saying over what they’ve actually said out loud pushes this narrative into a fictional place. Our imaginations run riot at the best of times, taking us to feelgood fantasies that comfort us or to the darkest corners of our brains to torture us. When you’ve been dumped, your mind tends to leap between the two, hoping for the best or feeling like you deserve to be treated badly. As our minds and hearts scramble away, we need our friends to step in and balance out those conflicting ideas. 

Cushioning the blow of a break-up should come in the form of a verbal slating against the offender while building you up.  It should never excuse bad behaviour or lead anyone down a garden path of possibility. Even if there is the faintest glimmer of hope that these kids might get back together again, for better or for worse, use this time to reassure your mate that they are brilliant and that they alone are worth more than the opinion of an ex. 

While it’s nice to have optimism in life, it’s also important to be a realist. Everybody needs time to recover from a break-up and if you wind up delaying the healing process, thanks to saying things like “he still likes you!” or “she was looking really sad yesterday - I think she misses you”, you’re not actually helping anyone. So if you find yourself consoling a mate who’s in the horrors of heartbreak, it’s better to feel a pinch of pain from a friend who’s delivering the truth early on, rather than a punch of meanness from an arsehole ex much further down the line. 

Featured image: Johnathon Sharp via Unsplash


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  • Read more: In a world of instantaneous gratification, do we expect the same of our relationships?
  • Read more: I’m three days into a break-up, and this is my experience so far. Sniff.
  • Read more: Love Island: How Michael's behaviour gave us all a lesson in 'gaslighting'

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