Leaving a relationship is difficult and may be one of the most emotionally painful experiences you will live. If you decided to be the ‘quitter’, you may think that this is easier because you are prepared and you have already mentally adjusted. The person being left, your partner, is likely to have more difficulties handling the breakup, as s/he is not fully prepared mentally and emotionally. S/he may have missed the cues, and is taken by surprise. However, leaving is not easy for either side. Each role brings its own issues. In any case, the break up will affect many areas of your life as you pick up the pieces and deal with the disappointment of a broken experience.
A break up affects people at many levels: emotional, social, psychological and material. No matter who breaks the relationship, the partner with the most economic power will “win”, i.e., will suffer the least damage at least in the social and economic realms. The aftermath of the breakup may result in resentment, retaliation, and anger from your partner and your own anger. Then there will be material demands such as dividing property, finding a new place to live, deciding on child custody, working with lawyers, and setting new boundaries with your ex partner. This whole process may take weeks or months and even years, as you adjust and rebuild your life and create new beginnings.
You may be hurting right now, even if you are the one who decided to break it off. The pain tells you that you need to heal and learn from this experience. Yet, many of us seem to rush into a new committed relationship before we have had time to take stock about what went wrong and why the relationship ended.
Although we are all different people, breakups follow similar patterns. Moreover, all crises, as they end, follow a similar pattern!
The following may help you make sense of the feelings and situations you may experience with the end of a relationship and other various crises. It is a road map to what to expect over time, until we can say that we have recovered and became wiser about the experience. These feelings and attitudes may happen in succession, a cycle, or concurrently.
Denial comes first, no matter if we are the one who leaves or the one left behind. Denial is a wonderful mechanism that allows us to only feel as much pain as we can handle in a given moment. Denial prevents us getting overwhelmed. As we adjust we come back to realities and over time accept what is. Denial subsides gently over weeks, months, or sometimes years.
Acceptance that the relationship has ended breaks denial. It involves asking honest questions about what caused the separation. If you are the one leaving, part of that work is already done, yet if the separation results in a flare up of destructive emotions involving anger and retaliation, there will be denial as you are experiencing the outcome of your partner’s wrath… and the consequences of enacting your own.
Fear. We don’t know what comes next as the fabric of our life disintegrates and we have now an empty slate, where we are free to recreate, alone, whatever future we want for ourselves, not knowing whether we have the courage to move on and meet the unknown.
We now slowly start adapting to new circumstances. Some of us are now single parents and must become self-supporting. We have an empty slate. This can be paralyzing. Unless we can identify and face our fears, the main one being fear of an unknown future, we are likely to experience all of them, unprepared.
The next feeling we experience it of loneliness. Some habits must be altered as you are now totally alone and no longer including another person in what you do. You need to transmute loneliness to aloneness, a state where you are comfortable being on your own and with yourself.
Let’s look at friendship. We may need the presence of friends more than ever when we separate, yet separation and divorce may be threatening to friends as they feel they may have to side, or the separation forces them to question their own relationship. You must be aware that some social relationships will end with the breakup. This may be a time to assess who around you understands the emotional pain you feel and your new status, without rejecting you.
Guilt and rejection are natural feelings during a separation and generally the person who breaks it off feels guilt for hurting the other, while the other feels rejected. Those feelings last as long as the “separation honeymoon”. During that stage everyone tries to behave. Then, within generally three months of the separation, anger is expressed, and the outcomes may be devastating. But, anger is necessary in the process of letting go.
Whether you are the one who leaves, or the one left behind, we brought a lot of our past in that relationship, and the past often determines the present course of events.
Anger can be the most explosive step, and still is absolutely necessary. Many people discover a brand-new side to themselves and experience rage to an extent they never thought possible. The rage is generally directed at the ex-partner and their property. Rage, if handled properly, is an excellent means to distance yourself emotionally from your ex-partner. In some cases, this emotion becomes extreme, as it also always involves vindictiveness and bitterness. Besides physical harm, an extremely destructive form of expressing anger consists in using the children as a vehicle. If you need to hit below the belt, do not use the children. It is they who will suffer most. Also, remember that if anger could not be expressed in the course of the relationship, it will erupt as you separate and divorce because buried feelings are now allowed to surface.
Grief is the most emotionally draining part of a crisis, yet it is critical to the recovery process. It combines sadness and despair, and may come out as a continuous self talk about the situation, feeling drained, emotional numbness, loss of reality, depression, sleeplessness, significant weight loss, rapid mood changes, and developing illness. A particular note: suicide ideations are common in approximately 75% of persons experiencing grief.
Letting go is another step that happens progressively. It is important to stop investing emotionally in a dead relationship, as this is an investment without chance of return. It is best to invest in your personal growth and fully disentangle. Adopting a no-contact policy for a while and removing mementos are good policy while you still feel fragile. It doesn’t have to be forever.
Then come self-worth. Some relationships that end in separation were destructive to one or both partners’ self-esteem and their sense of self-identity. Self-esteem is often at its lowest when the love relationship ends. To improve self-worth, you must come to terms with the various feelings experienced during a breakup. A separation can become an opportunity for growth and self-discovery. But to do this, you must make a decision to change.
After all this, there is a period of transition. You want to understand why the relationship ended, perform a kind of autopsy. This allows you to work on yourself and built different relationships in the future. During that stage, if you do the job, you will understand the various influences of your family of origins, your social circle, how your own habits and patterns contributed to shaping the relationship. Now is an opportunity to work it all out. This transition, if well handled, will prepare you to become free to be yourself. Here are some of the qualities you might work at:
Trust. Build a basic level of trust in yourself as you adjust to singlehood. Too often, we think we cannot trust anyone from the opposite sex anymore after a separation. Loving means to risk being vulnerable again and risking being hurt again. It does not mean that you have to withhold your trust.
Openness. Stop pretending to be someone you are not and to be feeling what you’re not. It is time to take off the mask and drop the shield. Wearing a mask cannot be sustained over time, as it consumes too much emotional energy and prevents intimate connections. Be yourself, at least with your (new) mate and friends. Keep the veneer for work and social, non-intimate relationships.
Love. A relationship forces us to ask what love means to us. Often we think that a relationship fails because we are not lovable enough, when in fact it was our partner’s definition of love that was, maybe, not appropriate for us. Learn to love yourself first and foremost, so that you can give love and receive love.
As children, we ought have received unconditional love from our parents. When this was denied to us we turn to our partners and we’re bound to be disappointed because the only unconditional love we can get as adults is the love and unconditional regard we give ourselves.
After a relationship end, we may find another relationship very quickly. It seems that this new relationship has everything which lacked in the previous one. It is not necessarily so. What has happened instead is that we are becoming who we want to be and we are taking back our power and taking responsibility for what we feel as we become clearer about what we want.
Too many people believe that rushing to a new committed, long-term, relationship is going to make them feel ok again. This will not work out. The healthy way to look at those new relationships post-separation is as “rebound.” They are transitional and designed to make you feel whole again. They fulfill the purpose of making us feel better about ourselves and emphasize passion and romantic love. Yet, be aware that they are built during a needy time in our life. Ensure that your new partner is aware of this. Also learn the skill of healthy termination.
Sex. Conventional wisdom has it that being single guarantees lots of free sex. The other side of the coin is that having a partner ensures stable and safe satisfaction of sexual desires. People may fall into extremes after a separation: that of no sex at all because of the pain, or that of near compulsive sex, – one night stands – by beaming anger, loneliness, self-doubts to their sex drive. What matters is to find how the emotional aspect of your relationships supports your sexual relationship and whether you can respect your partner and share similar moral value systems about what you consider appropriate sexual behavio
About being single.
There are a few more hurdles that you need to overcome before you can say that you have handled your separation successfully and that you have rebuilt a life to your liking, such as learning to live alone and become once again an independent person. It has drawbacks, especially for women. Single women do not fare well economically compared to single men and couples. It is also a stage in which you may become stuck for fear of being hurt again if you haven’t done your homework. Look at the benefits: now you have the freedom of choice. As you look backward and take stock, you have come out stronger and more emotionally resilient. You know more about yourself. You have worked through many feelings and experiences. You are free to choose to remain single or try another relationship!
A special word about children. Children of divorce go through the same process described in this article and need to rebuild too. As they follow your example, they will adjust more quickly as a result and grow emotionally resilient. Also, research points to single parents becoming more responsive to the needs of their children, because of what they have learned during separation and divorce.