The grief that comes from a relationship breakup can be excruciating and can follow a similar pattern to grief resulting from a death-related loss. The main difference is that the other person is still around, and this can cause hang-ups in the separation process.
Common grief reactions can be numbness, shock, confusion, anger, sadness, guilt, regret, searching, purposelessness, anxiety, and relief. People tend to experience these emotions and the thoughts that bubble up with them when there has been a loss of any kind. With difficult breakups, however, one can be focused intensely on the emotions and thoughts that one believes can be resolved by talking or getting back together with the other person. This is the yearning to reconnect with the person who was lost and is not the same as stalking or obsessive behavior.
After a breakup, it is important to recognize the old adage that “hindsight is 20/20.” This is true in death-related losses, too. For example, when someone looks back and thinks, “I should have known that the pain she complained about was cancer! I should have urged her to get a check-up sooner, and then she would be alive.” Although a lesson may be gleaned for the future, there are usually feelings of blame, anger, and sadness that dissipate over time. Usually, the survivor has no other choice but to accept what happened and how it happened and realize that there is no going back.
In a romantic separation, because both people are still alive, there is sometimes the possibility of “going back” and “fixing” things. Grasping onto this hope of reconciliation can short-circuit acceptance, because the focus is not on accepting an unchangeable fact of nature, like death. The focus is on changing being separated to being together again—at least on the surface. Underneath the surface, what a person may desire to change is actually his or her feelings: to stop feeling self-blame, to quell anger, and to comfort sadness. There are people who wish to reconcile to make the other person happy, but that strategy can only succeed if the other person is willing and receptive to such generosity.
Much depends on the relationship and the people involved. There are certainly stories of people getting divorced and years later getting married again (and then getting divorced again, etc.). We have all heard of those couples who break up and get back together over and over. There are factors for wanting to reconcile such as marriage, children, family, future plans, property, sex, and love, to name a few.
Sometimes, these factors are not enough. Too much negativity—anger, resentment, and hopelessness—have built up for anything to matter more than breaking up. At this point, the one who wants to return to the relationship may dwell in guilt, regret, anger, and sadness. “I was a horrible girlfriend.” “I shouldn’t have gotten on his case about his drinking.” “If I had only agreed to couples counseling, we might still be together.” “How could she do this to me?” “No one will ever love me the way he did.” When getting back together is not going to happen in the foreseeable future, these feelings and thoughts can keep us connected to the lost person. The connection is based not on love and affection but on pain and yearning. Yet, this is still a connection. It is normal to want it, and most people feel this sort of connection up to a point, but when it seriously begins to disturb how someone functions in other areas of life such as school, work, family, and friends, then this connection poses a greater problem.
The idea of severing this connection is oftentimes too much for the heartbroken to imagine, but sinking into emotions and thoughts that keep us stuck in the past of our mistakes and learning process will lead us to ignore the present and the future. A better way to move through heartache is to integrate the loss and seek self-forgiveness (and forgive the other person) inch by inch.
Integrating a loss is about knowing and accepting that there is a part of one’s heart that will always love the other person. He or she may be “the one that got away,” and there may always be a twinge of hurt when thinking about this person, but shifting one’s focus to the relationship being done, in the past, and with its ups and downs will help ease the pain that wishful thinking, masquerading as hope, brings. Mourn the relationship and why it ended, rather than trying to get the other person to come back, explain, or forgive.
Self-forgiveness and forgiveness of the other person likewise require a practice of acceptance, as well as acknowledgment, and the realization that holding onto one’s feelings of unworthiness, or the other person’s shamefulness, or any other judgments, only serve to keep one connected to misery.
Remember that as with grieving, people have different styles of breaking up. Some recover faster than others, and some take longer. It is individual and can be infuriating or confusing to partners, family, and friends when two people from a relationship grieve the breakup differently. As with all hurt, treat heartbreak with compassion, and generally avoid saying things that may be invalidating and belittling of the experience, like “There are other fish in the sea,” “You’re young,” “You’ll find someone else,” or “You’ve got to just get over it.”
In the meantime, for the heartbroken: being patient with oneself, finding supportive people to talk with (including a counselor or therapist), socializing, exercising, and finding some healthy distractions will make the road to feeling whole again a little less bumpy.
© Copyright 2012 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Ivan Chan, MA, MFTi, therapist in Santa Barbara, California
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