Is A Gut Feeling Enough To Breakup?

It's not always easy to get over something.

via HBO

When Carrie and Big broke up in the Sex And The City movie, it was a spectacle. Who among us doesn’t have vivid memories of SJP crying in her Vivienne Westwood gown pelting Chris Noth with a bouquet of white roses on a busy New York street? 

But as all we know, real relationships aren’t like those in Hollywood. Chances are, most of us aren’t going to experience breakups on our wedding day, or be dumped via a post-it note by a man named Berger (still not over it). In real life, romantic relationships are a lot less sensational, and the reasons behind a split can oftentimes be a lot more subtle.

According to a study published in British journal PLOS-ONE, some of the most common reasons behind breakups include cheating, consistent arguments, and a lack of respect. The number one reason, however, is simply drifting apart. Not all splits need to be mired by massive bust ups, infidelity, and sudden changes. Sometimes it just… isn’t working anymore. And your gut is telling you that something is wrong.  

IACP Accredited Counsellor and Psychotherapist Helen Browne says that niggling gut feelings and doubts are super common in romantic relationships. They can, however, often be hard to address because they don’t seem like ‘big’ issues. After all, why rock the boat when you’ve been plain sailing up until this point? It is important though, says Helen, to bring any concerns to the fore if they’ve been on your mind for a while – no matter how small they may seem. 

“This can be very difficult because it might feel like things are still the same, but that feeling [of doubt] is still there,” she tells STELLAR. “The way to address this most effectively is to name it as directly as you can. If it’s a sensitive topic you can start with something positive like ‘Remember that trip we took? That was amazing, I’m wondering why we’re not doing it again this year.’ Or ‘We used to be so good, I feel like something changed and I don’t know why that is.’”

Gut feelings

Helen says that such doubts are even more common for long term couples, but do absolutely not mean that a relationship is doomed. In fact, “Relationships can weave in and out of positive times. You can fall in and out of love with the same people. You can feel really attracted to your partner sometimes and other times not, and that feeling can be really frightening. One person could be perfectly happy, feel really safe and secure, and another person could feel very worried that the relationship is ending. If that’s the case, you need to figure out where that feeling is coming from, what you need to be reassured, and ask for that.”

It’s this ‘feeling’ that many people point to as the precursor for breakups. Everything seems okay in theory, but things don’t feel the same. There’s nothing outwardly ‘wrong’, but there’s a sense of a change coming. Nobody else can see it, but you can. Gut feelings come from the ‘emotional brain’, the part of the body that processes feeling in relation to good and bad stimuli. Sometimes you’ll recognise negative stimuli immediately and know where that feeling is coming from. Other times, you won’t. 

via Searchlight

“I had a feeling my relationship wasn’t right for a while,” Abi* tells STELLAR. “When I spoke to my friends about it, they tried to tell me it was all in my head, but I had a gut feeling things had changed, even though nothing massive had happened on the outside. A few weeks later we broke up. Everyone was so surprised but I knew it was coming. When you’re in it, you just know.”

As it turns out, ‘just knowing’ is incredibly common – especially when it comes to romance. Back in 2005, Professor of Psychology Timothy Wilson wrote for the New York Times that people who experienced and listened to ‘gut feelings’ tended to have a far more accurate insight into whether their relationships would last. By contrast, those who engaged in a lot of “over-thinking” or “navel gazing” experienced far more confusion and uncertainty. 

Making a change

Arguably, none of us should be making massive life decisions based on a feeling (Helen says that although we should always listen to our gut “there’s also no evidence that a feeling is reflective of a fact”), but many women do tend to have keen insights into what they expect from relationships, and know how to speak up when they’re not getting it. 

On an episode of Doireann Garrihy’s podcast, Doireann & Friends, psychologist Allison Keating says that when it comes to ending long term relationships, a lot of the time, “Women have left [the relationship] nearly a year before, psychologically. When they start speaking [out] first, they have [already] made the decision, they just needed some space to give themselves permission to do it.”

So, you’ve given yourself permission, and the breakup has happened – what do you do now? Turning to friends and family for support is the first step, says Helen. The second is looking for positives – “because there will be many. Whether it’s finally getting to do something your partner didn’t enjoy, or simply doing something alone. You’re readjusting your life. You need to be gentle about that adjustment.”

If you have children or own a home together, things can understandably be even more tricky, “particularly in Ireland as it’s very difficult to separate households with the housing crisis, it requires so much time and sensitivity. The more amicable, civil and cooperative you can be for each other, the better the breakup will be for everyone.”

You might have split over a deep-seated betrayal, or just because things just didn’t feel the same anymore. Regardless, the most important thing “is not to rush. Whether you’re nursing a broken heart or you’re delighted to be out of a relationship, any breakup is a massive change. It might not always be as easy as we expect to be ‘over’ it.”

This article first appeared in the September 2023 issue of STELLAR magazine.