What You Can Learn in Breakup Bootcamp

What You Need to Know in the Breakup Bootcamp

I’ve noticed that some “relationship coaches” who have no credentials in couples therapy or mental health whatsoever regularly attempt to find clients by offering some sort of “bootcamp.”

I was thinking…why is this phrase so appealing to couples? My online dictionary offers several definitions of the phrase “bootcamp.”

It could mean “a military training camp for new recruits, with strict discipline.” Or  perhaps “a prison for youthful offenders, run on military lines.

I imagine that the most common understanding of the word as it is used in marriage coaching is “a short, intensive, and rigorous course of training” (ironically, usually offered by facilitators or “coaches” who themselves have little or no science-based training whatsoever).

But this post is not going to go there. When it comes to the notion of a couples therapy “bootcamp,” I like to play around with the most specific, but obscure definition; “a grueling, late-summer boot camp for would-be football players.”

breakup bootcampFootball Players? How is preventing a break-up like training to be a good football player?

Because absent the notion of trying to kill each other, there are predictable “patterns” and “plays” that lead to relationship breakups or breakthroughs.

If you understand these moves in advance, you’ll be way ahead of the game. This post will offer you a bootcamp in preventing relational breakups.

Dr. Brian Gabriel Ogolsky is the Director of Graduate Studies, and an Associate Professor of Human Development and Family Studies at The University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign.

Dr. Ogolsky is one of the important new researchers in science-based couples therapy, and I’ve written about his work in an earlier post.

Dr. Ogolsky ongoing research examines how relational partners maintain healthy romantic relationships across the life course. His work has the potential to deeply inform science-based couples therapy, and promote new public policy initiatives that will enhance family dynamics.

His science-based research tells us that there are 4 breakup patterns. His fascinating study was, in effect, a break-up bootcamp that revealed the good plays and the disastrous plays that lost the relationship game.

“The four types of dating couples that we found included the dramatic couple, the conflict-ridden couple, the socially involved couple, and the partner-focused couple.” Dr. Brian Ogolsky

Breakup Bootcamp… Drama…the Worst Play Ever!

breakup-bootcampGet rid of drama. Emotional dysregulation is a relationship killer. If you’re addicted to heavy drama with lots of ups and downs and wild swings in your commitment, you’re often going to to do things separately and tend to focus on complaints instead of compliments with your partner.

Attachment science helps us to understand how to work with these couples in science-based couples therapy.

Research tells us that these drama-saturated couples are twice as likely to break up as any of the others that I’m about to discuss.

With these couples, we find problematic personality disorders, emotional abuse, depression, and problems with affect dysregulation.

It’s also here that we will find the most challenging of attachment styles; Avoidant Attachment and Anxious Attachment. Anxious Attachment, in particular, is prone to emotional dysregulation. On the other hand, Avoidant Attachment is known to elicit intense emotional reactions from frustrated partners regardless of their attachment style.

Staying emotionally regulated while your partner is being particularly annoying, unfair, selfish, (fill in the blank) is an essential relational skill set.

Dr. Ogolsky had a lot to say about high-drama couples;

“These couples have a lot of ups and downs, and their commitment swings wildly. They tend to make decisions based on negative events that are occurring in the relationship or on discouraging things that they’re thinking about the relationship, and those things are likely to chip away at their commitment.” Dr. Brian Ogolsky

Breakup Bootcamp Breakthrough…Partner-Focused Couples

break-up bootcampPartner-focused couples comprise about around one-third of the study sample. Dr. Ogolsky reports that they are more resilient than the high-drama couples, and were much more likely to stay together.

Partner-focused couples displayed a high degree of thoughtful behavior. They were careful and mindful of the impact that their behavior had on their partners.

Dr. Ogolsky said:

“These partners are very involved with each other and dependent on each other, and they use what’s happening in their relationship to advance their commitment to deeper levels. People in these couples had the highest levels of conscientiousness, which suggests that they are very careful and thoughtful about the way they approach their relationship choices.”

Break-up Bootcamp… Conflictual Couples May Lack Staying Power

breakup bootcampSome couples are simply more conflict-prone. They may not hit the dramatic lows of the problem-saturated high-drama couples. But they’ll squabble about petty issues at the drop of a hat.

Couples that were full of conflict in the breakup bootcamp study were about 12% of the study sample. These couples also struggle with self-regulation.

Excessive ongoing conflict, even with passionate reconciliations is hard on the nervous system. Self-regulation and co-regulation is an essential skill for long-term relationship survival.

“These couples operate in a tension between conflict that pushes them apart and passionate attraction that pulls them back together. This kind of love may not be sustainable in the long term–you’d go crazy if you had 30 to 50 years of mind-bending passion. Partners may change from one group to another over time.” Dr. Brian Ogolsky.

Break-up Bootcamp Breakthrough…Team-Players…Socially-Involved Couples

Socially-involved couples are the remaining 19% of the study subjects, and like the conscientious partner-focused couples, they had very good relationships. What made these couples particularly resilient was their shared and extensive social network.

Unlike Romeo and Juliet, the socially-involved couples had a deep bench of friends offering support and encouragement. These couples are a sort of anti-Romeo and Juliet. They enjoy a mutually shared wealth of harmonious relationships with their friends and families.

Deep abiding social connections are an important source of relational strength. Couples that lack social supports have a hard time getting into the game of building a resilient intentional family.

It’s often overlooked that the context of a relationship has a profound influence on it’s chance for success. If friends and family offer support and encouragement, the couple has a much greater chance to survive and thrive.

“Ideally long-term relationships should be predicated on friendship-based love. And having mutual friends makes people in these couples feel closer and more committed. Naturally, couples can move between the categories over time as their relationship matures.” Dr. Brian Ogolsky

Break-up Bootcamp…How to Win

breakup bootcampThe winners in the breakup bootcamp understand that it’s important to lean into your partner and keep their needs in mind.

It’s also important to develop a careful appreciation for your partners’ family of origin and friendship network. This emotional investment might offer you a wealth of support during the tough time-outs and daily stresses of a committed relationship.

No one said it was easy. Success is never certain…and failure may never be final.  Don’t give up. The research says that you can fine-tune and improve your relational game over time.

If you focus on avoiding needless drama and conflict and cultivate an appreciation for the network of friends and family that are rooting for you both, you just might win the game.


Ogolsky, B., Lloyd, S. & Cate, R. (2013). The developmental course of romantic relationships. New York, NY: Routledge Academic Press.

About the Author Daniel Dashnaw

Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist. He currently sees couples at Couples Therapy Inc. in Boston, Massachusetts, three seasons in Cummington (at the foothills of the Berkshires...) and in Miami during joint retreats with his wife, Dr. Kathy McMahon. He uses EFT, Gottman Method, Solution-focused and the Developmental Model in his approaches.

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