The young man in my consulting room was visibly trying not to cry. I could see the physical effort that was required to stop him from coiling up on the floor and sobbing his heart out. Ethan had just started therapy following a devastating heartbreak. His girlfriend of 3 years, Sandra, had left him. Ethan had no idea that Sandra was so unhappy in the relationship. There had been difficult moments, yes, but he did not see this coming.
Breaking up in a relationship is a life event that we have all experienced but rather would have been spared. It is a ‘common’ experience like moving out of the parental home, leaving school, or changing jobs. While some breakups are welcome — in particular if one partner experienced the relationship as abusive — the majority are likely to be seen as one of the most devastating and destructive life experience we can have. Breaking up is hard even when you are the one who is making the decision to walk away. If you are the partner who wished for the relationship to continue the feelings are likely to be even stronger. Being left behind can bring up a whole range of ‘old’ feelings of being inadequate or not loveable. Most people would experience being left as a form of rejection or abandonment. It can make us feel very young and unable to cope.
At some stage in our life most of us would have had an experience like Ethan where we felt our heart was broking into tiny pieces. In particular, the breakup of a long-term relationship can be traumatic. Dreams and hopes for the future are shattered and a period of profound re-orientation and grief follows. A breakup gives rise to a wide range of very strong and often conflicting feelings including rage, despair, resentment, relief, pain, and an overwhelming sense of sadness. The future feels very delicate and uncertain.
Losing a partner at the end of the relationship has often been described in similar terms to those of losing a loved person to death. This is often true for the partner who initiated the breakup as much as for the partner who was left behind. The intensity of the feelings may vary, and one partner may be more likely to be worse affected than the other.
When losing a partner — particularly a long-term partner — you go through various stages of grief and through a cycle of very intense emotions. In her ground-breaking book on Death and Dying (1969), Elizabeth Kübler-Ross describes the stages a grieving partner goes through when their loved one has died. Kübler-Ross’ description closely matches the emotions experienced when losing a partner in a breakup:
- Denial — there is a sense of disbelief that the breakup is happening. Surely, this was all a mistake and your partner will change their mind. At this stage you are postponing your grief as you are still hoping that things will work out eventually.
- Anger — the reality of what is happening has slowly set in. You may ask yourself how this horrible thing could possibly happen to you. You are frustrated and angry with your ex-partner for having ruined the relationship. You are angry with yourself for letting this pain happen to you. You may also be angry with others for not helping enough.
- Bargaining — in the original grief model bargaining referred to negotiating with a higher power for the situation to be different, e.g. you may pray for a different outcome. In the context of a breakup you may negotiate a different kind of relationship with your ex-partner, e.g. being friends from now on.
- Depression — slowly you are beginning to acknowledge the reality of the situation. Feelings of sadness, regret or fear of the future may arise. This might be the point at which you listen to sad love songs and cry.
- Acceptance — at this stage there is more of an emotional detachment from the initial rawness; there is less of a sense of shock. You may still feel sad but you are slowly starting to move forward in your life.
The length of each these stages varies for each person as does the order of each stage. Grief is not a linear process. You may come to a point of acceptance, but there can still be days filled with anger or overwhelmingly sad feelings.
You are also more likely to be affected by the end of a relationship if you experience complex grief. You may have some older feelings related to an earlier loss that get mixed in with your current feelings of loss. For example, if you lost one of your parents and never had the opportunity to grief your parent properly you are likely to have more intense and overwhelming feelings now when your relationship ends. You are generally more sensitive towards endings.
While both long-term partners are likely to experience grief at the end of the relationship, it is likely to be felt more intensely by the partner who was left behind. Loss of control, helplessness, hopelessness, paralysis, and shame may be some of the emotions felt in the early stages of the grieving process. Ethan felt ashamed at not having seen the warning signs earlier on leaving him caught unaware. Sandra walking away took Ethan back to earlier memories of growing up. His mum often complained about dad not paying enough attention. She often threatened to leave. Ethan had sworn to himself to be a good boyfriend, attentive to his partner’s needs. Now Sandra had shown him otherwise.
Most longer-term relationships do not end overnight. In most cases there is a slow process of separation taking place, consciously and unconsciously. In the case of Ethan, he realised that Sandra and he were struggling to address any difficult issues in their relationship. Both partners avoided any form of conflict. ‘Negative’ feelings were pushed down and lingered. Nothing got resolved. In the course of our sessions Ethan had time to grief for Sandra and to evaluate their relationship. He developed a new awareness and understanding of himself. This in turn helped him to build a more secure relationship when the time was right. Two years later Ethan emailed me to tell me that he was in a new relationship; he and his partner were now expecting a baby. In his new relationship both partners could express their frustrations more openly and work on resolving their disagreements. Ethan had become the partner he always wanted to be.
Cullington. Denise (2008). Breaking up blues. A guide to survival and growth. London: Routledge
Hayman, Suzy (2001). Breaking up without breaking down. London: Vermillion
Hendrix, Harville (2005). Getting the love you want. A guide for couples. Pocket Books
This post was previously published on Medium.
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