Amputated Relationships and Attachment: How to Let Go

Sad SnowmanHerman hates November and December. He and his wife got divorced, and his life feels really empty this time of the year.

After many years of joyful celebrations, Julia’s family split in half over some argument that no one remembers, but the two sides are at war, don’t get together anymore, and probably never will.

Sound familiar? Although this time of year is a happy time for many, the emphasis on family gatherings can cause great pain to people who have lost a loved one through divorce or breakup, along with changes in the quality of relationships. Whatever the reason, the relationships that were before no longer exist; they’re gone. Even if some semblance of reconciliation happens, things will never be the same. You can’t bring back the past.

Maybe you’ve become so used to things that you don’t usually feel the loss anymore, but holiday times bring the feelings back up and you hurt. Julia felt like she lost her right arm when her family split up, and the hurt she feels now during the holidays is like a painful phantom limb.

A phantom limb is a feeling or experience that sometimes occurs when a limb has been amputated due to traumatic accident or illness. Although the limb is gone, the person senses that it’s still there, and there can be immense physical pain and suffering. Clearly, this kind of pain trumps anything I’m talking about, but I am using it here as a metaphor for the emotional experience of losing a relationship, an emotional amputation. The relationship as it was no longer exists, but the emotional space where it once resided throbs in its absence, a phantom reminder of the death of the relationship.

So what to do?

Buddhists, yogis, and psychotherapists talk about the benefits of letting go. Easy to say, hard to do, but we can start with a deliberate withdrawal of emotional investment in what once was. Hanging on to the past, not letting go, is another way of saying attachment, a sticky, gluey holding which fogs the brain and prolongs pain. We can gradually alleviate the pain of loss by changing our perspective, leaving the past behind and creating a different present and future.

Of course, when we’ve been hurt, we all need a period of mourning, like a bandage covering a wound until it heals, but even if you have a bandage on your arm to protect a very deep wound, you will at some point have to remove the bandage and clean the wound. Some people pull the bandage off little by little. Others prefer one fast, painful rip. Both systems work. Or you can wait until the glue wears off and the bandage falls off by itself. In none of these cases should you labor to keep the bandage on after it has lost its usefulness. It’s not a badge of courage or of devotion to remain attached to a phantom and remind yourself that you’ve been wounded. Remove the bandage and let some fresh air touch the wound and speed its healing.

Open your heart. Keeping it closed to surround a memory can turn thoughts into splinters that ache and maybe even become infected. It’s like being possessed by an evil ghost.

If you and your beloved have split up and you’re mad and hurt and aching, mourn, of course, and then move on and use that energy to invest in your own ability to find happiness elsewhere.

November and December are happy, sad, hysterical, fun, hyper months. Enjoy what you like and find nourishing, and leave behind what doesn’t serve you, what might even harm you. Treasure whatever positive, precious memory you might have, and use the positive feelings associated with it as drive to move on. Mad? That’s a strong energy, too.

© Copyright 2014 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Lynn Somerstein, PhD, NCPsyA, C-IAYT, therapist in New York City, New York

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • 18 comments
  • Leave a Comment
  • Lila

    Lila

    December 25th, 2014 at 8:39 AM

    or you can move away from that anger and decide that this is the year that you will put all of that away and behind you

  • Monica

    Monica

    December 25th, 2014 at 11:17 AM

    I am the rip the bandage off all at once kind of person.
    No sense in letting the wound heal a little at a time
    Give it some air
    Let it breathe
    That’s the only way for me to achieve real healing, to feel the pain but to also be very aware of the progression of the grief and how it diminishes just a little bit every single day

  • alan

    alan

    December 26th, 2014 at 7:03 AM

    There can definitely be those phantom pains that you may feel when you lose someone that has been this important in your life for so long. The trick is to get to a place where you can visualize your life without this person in it and be able to see past the pain, and see that it will one day be possible to think of them with fondness but not with the pain that could be associated with it right now.

  • RosemarJason

    RosemarJason

    December 26th, 2014 at 8:25 AM

    My fiancee and I broke up recently and so I hated to even have to talk about it at Christmas dinner. Luckily my family all successfully avoided the topic so I didn’t have to talk about it all that much. Thanks to whoever gave the family the message because it saved me form having the conversation that I really didn’t want to have to have!

  • Lynn Somerstein

    Lynn Somerstein

    December 26th, 2014 at 9:35 AM

    Lila, Monica, Alan and RosemarJason– I can see you’ve all had experience with these issues and have good things to say. Thanks for writing in.
    Take care,
    Lynn

  • gregory

    gregory

    December 27th, 2014 at 9:52 AM

    Like something poisonous, you sometimes have to amputate it and move on to maintain the part of you that IS still healthy

  • Lynn Somerstein

    Lynn Somerstein

    December 27th, 2014 at 10:51 AM

    Gregory, great observation– poisonous, like when you’ve been bitten by a dangerous snake.
    Thanks!
    Take care,
    Lynn

  • gregory

    gregory

    December 28th, 2014 at 8:18 AM

    As you can tell Lynn, I have definitely been in this type of situation before and only with great struggle did I learn to let go

  • Lynn Somerstein

    Lynn Somerstein

    December 28th, 2014 at 11:18 AM

    I see, GRegory. I’m glad you learned to let go– how did you do it?

  • gregory

    gregory

    December 29th, 2014 at 4:14 AM

    Well, it wasn’t easy and for a while i had to just vow to immerse myself in things like work and the gym… things that would allow me not to think about her for a while in hopes that not thinking would make the pain go away some. And it did, but there was still something there lingering in the background that I just couldn’t overcome. So I wrote it all down in a letter to her and spelled out exactly how I had once felt about her, what her actions had done to me and to us and how I now felt about her. It wasn’t easy and there were a lot of tears shed that day. I never mailed the letter, it almost felt in the end that it was good enough that I let it all out that way. Now whenever I think of her there is a tinge of regret but mostly only a small smile about the good things. The bad don’t hurt quite as much anymore.

  • Lynn Somerstein

    Lynn Somerstein

    December 29th, 2014 at 10:27 AM

    Gregory, this was a genius way to deal! What an example of positive ways to work out the negative. I hope everybody reads what you’ve said and takes your letter to heart.
    Thank you!
    And HAPPY NEW YEAR!!
    Lynn

  • gregory

    gregory

    December 30th, 2014 at 4:14 AM

    Thanks Lynn and happy new year to you too!

  • Javier

    Javier

    January 2nd, 2015 at 9:06 AM

    I had experienced great emotions of anger and confusion. But more anger than anything. Mostly because my soon to be ex spouse gave room for reconciliation and then find reasons from others not to. So closure is hard and I am at a point to just say forget it and move on.

  • ElkE

    ElkE

    January 3rd, 2015 at 9:40 AM

    Sometimes I wish that I could just cut this man out of my life completely but every time that I feel like I am making progress and moving in the right direction he always comes slinking back and stupid me, I give him another chance all over again.

    I am hoping that this can be the year that I can finally extricate myself from his life completely but he has such a strong hold on me, I don’t know what it is but I always feel like it would just be so much easier for him to change and be who I need him to be than it would be for me to totally turn my back and not have him in my life.

  • Lynn Somerstein

    Lynn Somerstein

    January 4th, 2015 at 2:13 PM

    Elke, what would it be like for you to change and not want him back in your life?
    Let me know.
    Take care,
    Lynn

  • Deanna Hill

    Deanna Hill

    March 4th, 2015 at 2:12 PM

    How do you cut them out of your life when you have kids and your ex is texting how much they still love you and miss you?

  • Orphan Izzy

    Orphan Izzy

    July 19th, 2015 at 11:27 PM

    I’m having to go through this every relationship I’ve ever had believe it or not including my entire family who I love dearly but all of them have changed drastically into different people and are all hateful and abusive people now and I’m literally alone in the world. I don’t know how to do this the article talks about.

  • Lynn Somerstein

    Lynn Somerstein

    July 20th, 2015 at 1:16 PM

    Hi Orphan Izzy,
    Your position sounds excruciatingly painful. You need to talk to someone who is in your corner. Have you thought about seeing a therapist?
    Take care,
    Lynn

Leave a Comment

By commenting you acknowledge acceptance of GoodTherapy.org's Terms and Conditions of Use.

* Indicates required field.

GoodTherapy uses cookies to personalize content and ads to provide better services for our users and to analyze our traffic. By continuing to use this site you consent to our cookies.