Breaking up with someone can feel like getting punched in the gut nonstop for weeks on end. And it's not just the debilitating physical and emotional pain—a breakup screws up your daily life. It messes with any plans you had for the future, with your social circle, your tenancy agreement, and your belief that the world is ultimately a fair and just place. According to the stress scale of psychiatrists Thomas Holmes and Richard Rahe, only the death of your partner causes more stress than breaking up.
Despite all that pain, many of us have had more breakups by the end of our 20s than our grandparents had in their entire lives. But that's a good thing, right? We have the opportunity to find our perfect partners, while couples in earlier generations might have stayed together because society dictated they should.
German psychiatrist Adelheid Kastner doesn't agree. Last month, the 54-year-old published her book Tatort Trennung, which translates as "Crime Scene Breakup." She leads the psychiatric clinic at the Kelper University Clinic in Linz, and garnered fame as the court-appointed expert in the Josef Fritzl case. In her book, she explores cases where breakups have dramatically damaged or even destroyed people's lives, and she claims those breakups could have been avoided.
VICE: With the title of your book, you're basically saying breaking up is like committing a crime?
Adelheid Kastner: Breakups can be an enormous strain on people—we can deeply suffer from them. If you look at people's well-being after a breakup for a longer period of time, it's clear that people don't necessarily become any happier in a next relationship. Dating sites suggest you can change your partner like the wheels on a carriage, and many people assume a next partner will make their life better. But it's very possible you won't find anyone able to do that.
Even if you break up in your 20s or early 30s?
Of course the chance that you'll meet someone new who you can make it work with is much higher at that age. But even at around 35, most people who understand what it takes to be in a relationship aren't available any more.
Isn't it true that you figure out what's really important to you in a relationship after breaking up a few times and getting to know yourself a little better?
Well, I believe that you know what you value in a relationship in your early 20s. How do you feel about being faithful? What kind of family do you want? Your circumstances can change, but your views on those matters rarely change dramatically. And you have to remember that, in order to be in a successful relationship, you have to adapt, too. Your partner doesn't stay the same person for the next ten, 20 years. A stable relationship mainly depends on if you share the same values and are both willing and able to work through complications. It has less to do with finding the perfect person who fits like a key in a lock.
But aren't there just situations where it's better to break up?
Of course there are: If someone in a relationship doesn't respect or accept the other, humiliates their partner, or doesn't take their partner seriously. I'm saying that the motivation behind a breakup shouldn't be the conviction that you could find someone better. It should be: I'll be happier on my own. If you change your partner every few years, it will be hard to feel at home with anybody.
So you're basically saying we throw out our relationships too easily.
These days, many people find it easier to separate from their partner than to separate from their romantic ideals and fantasies. A lot of times it's not necessarily the boyfriend or girlfriend who is wrong for someone, but it's just that their expectations of relationships are wrong.
My grandparents were together for more than 40 years before my grandfather died. When I asked my grandmother about their lengthy relationship, she said: "The secret to a long relationship is to not break up." But back then, marriages weren't only held together by love, but also by economic and social circumstances.
Sure, but it wasn't just those circumstances. I think there was a bigger focus on standing by each other and taking care of each other. Today, it's just easier to replace things than repair them—your smartphone, your laptop, your washing machine, your boyfriend. My advice would be: Don't start a relationship because you want to experience something that's different emotionally. And break up with as few people as possible.