By Terry Gaspard, MSW, LICSW
When a romantic relationship or marriage ends, it’s natural to experience feelings of rejection, anger, sadness, guilt, or regret. Self-defeating thoughts can grab hold because you’re vulnerable and trying to make sense of things. However, it’s important to realize that this is a normal part of grieving and letting go after a relationship dissolves.
While it’s normal to go through a period of self-reflection when your relationship ends, it’s crucial that you keep things in perspective. Losing a partner, even if you made a decision to end the relationship, can disrupt your life on so many levels because your ex was undoubtedly a part of your daily existence. As a result, breakups can weaken your ability to sleep, eat well, and function at work and in social spheres.
To complicate matters, studies have discovered that experiencing a breakup can leave you with a diminished sense of self or self-concept (those things that make you unique). This makes perfect sense because your identity probably became incorporated with your partner’s sense of self and now you’re left with the task of redefining who you are.
According to author Lisa Arends, letting go of a romantic partner involves letting go of feelings and memories. She writes: “Getting over someone is a process of repeated exposure to the triggers and the desensitization of their influence. As time passed and I faced each trigger again and again, they lost their power and their hold. The emotions have faded. But the memories remain.”
When your relationship ends it’s normal to mourn the loss of a dream, according to author Linda Carroll. The anguish of heartache also registers in your body. She writes: “There is a change in blood flow in the brain, and the anterior cingulate cortex (responsible for the regulation of distress) becomes active. Recent MRI studies of subjects in the midst of a breakup revealed that the part of their brains that registered emotional rejection was the same part that reacted to severe pain.”
The reality is that breakups are hard. We’ve all faced them and been challenged by letting go of the why and how things could have gone differently. Goodbyes are never easy but it’s better to let someone go than staying with them out of insecurity or fear of being alone.
Ask yourself this: Do your fears of being alone prevent you from looking at your breakup honestly? For instance, it’s likely that there have been problems in the relationship for some time and that one or both of you have been unhappy. A recent study at the University of Toronto confirmed that a fear of being single can lead people to stay in unfulfilling relationships.
In terms of adjusting to the end of a relationship, the late Dr. Bruce Fisher coined two terms that shed light on how individuals experience different emotions depending on their role in the breakup. In Dr. Fisher’s groundbreaking book Rebuilding: When Your Relationship Ends, he writes “Dumpers are the partners who leave the relationship, and they often feel considerable guilt; dumpees are the partners who want to hang on to the relationship, and they often experience strong feelings of rejection.”
For instance, Jake made a decision to end his ten year marriage after three months of counseling. He initiated the process, filed divorce papers, and expressed some relief but also guilt during our last session. On the other hand, his wife Kerry expressed feelings of sadness and rejection about Jake moving out. She stated: “The hardest part of Jake leaving is facing coming home to an empty apartment after he moved out.”
It makes sense that if you were the one left (or the dumpee) feelings of rejection and loss can cause you to feel less self-worth and diminished self-love. But as you learn to accept what happens and begin to love yourself again, your feelings of rejection will diminish. And when you’re connected to feelings of self-worth, you’ll have more energy to relate to others in meaningful ways.
Part of the grieving process at the end of a relationship is accepting that what you wanted to happen no longer will happen. Thoughts might range from: We will never have children together. To the mundane: We won’t ever eat another meal together. While these feelings are more common for dumpee than dumpers, both people typically experience a grief process.
Here are 5 ways to heal from a breakup:
1. Acknowledge and accept your feelings about the breakup. This includes your emotional reactions such as sadness, anger, fear, rejection, and guilt. They’ve probably been there all along (in your relationship) and are simply intensified during and after your breakup.
2. Observe what’s going on in your life. This includes some examination of your part in the relationship ending. Are you taking care of yourself physically and emotionally? If not, devise a plan to nurture yourself and get your well-being restored (counseling, exercise, eating a balanced diet, etc.).
3. Practice forgiveness. Focus on those things that you can control. You can’t control the past but you can make better choices today – such as letting go of hurt feelings. Attempt to forgive yourself and your former partner – or at least accept their behavior. This doesn’t mean you condone hurtful actions, but they simply have less power over you!
4. Adopt a perspective of seeing relationships as teachers. We learn a lot about ourselves from loss and can approach a new relationship with our eyes wide open. Just because your relationship is over, it doesn’t mean you’re inadequate or inferior – or there’s something wrong with you. Give yourself a break.
5. Cultivate supportive relationships and new interests. Being with people who accept and support you can help ease feeling of rejection and guilt. Get energized by a new hobby and invite a friend to join you. Consider something that causes you to go outside your comfort zone such as ballroom dancing or photography.
Taking an inventory of how your feelings may be impacting your behavior can help you gain a healthier viewpoint. Are you neglecting your health, interests, family, or friends due to grieving the loss of your relationship? It’s important not to fall prey to a victim mentality and to make self-care a priority.
Although it’s hard to understand it at the time, a breakup can be a catalyst for change and you can discover new aspects of yourself in the process. Consulting a counselor, support group, or divorce coach may help to facilitate healing. Lastly, developing a mindset that you don’t have to be defined by your relationship ending can help you to heal and move forward with your life.
Let’s end on the powerful words of Linda Carroll: “Anger is a normal and necessary emotion. It almost always accompanies loss, or the fear of loss. It helps us pay attention to a painful situation and gives us energy to do what we can to change it. We need to feel it, act on it, and then move on.
Follow Terry Gaspard on Twitter and Facebook. She is pleased to announce the publication of Daughters of Divorce: Overcome the Legacy of Your Parents’ Breakup and Enjoy a Happy, Long-lasting Relationship (Sourcebooks).