BREAK-UPS: HOW TO SURVIVE THEM
BY KALI MUNRO, M.Ed., Psychotherapist, 2001
Published in Healing Words Newsletter, Vol. 4, June 2001
The loss of a relationship can be incredibly hard – you can feel so much pain. There’s not only the grief from losing someone important in your life, but the pain of seeing your hopes and dreams of a future life together disappear as well. Sometimes this is the hardest part – having to totally readjust your view of how you saw your life unfolding in the next 5 to10 years. Suddenly, you can’t see into the future and it’s scary.
FEELING LIKE YOU’RE STARTING OVER?
You may feel like you’re starting over – that you’ve lost everything that was important to you and you’re not sure what to do anymore. It may be hard for you to imagine your life without your partner – your lives have been so intertwined.
Let yourself know that you will get through this.
HAVING DIFFICULTY TRUSTING AGAIN?
You may find yourself questioning who you can trust, including your own judgement since you may not have expected the break-up. You may wonder if you were wrong to have trusted your partner. You may begin to question how real your relationship was because if it was real how could it be over?
Your ability to trust may feel shaky. You probably trusted your partner, and expected your relationship to last. You may feel alone and abandoned, even if you’re the one who decided to leave.
While it takes time, you can re-build trust in yourself and others again. Even though this relationship is over that doesn’t mean that you were wrong to trust her/him, and even if you were that doesn’t mean that you’ll make that mistake again. You can learn from this.
HAVING AN IDENTITY CRISIS?
You may experience an identity crisis, not knowing who you are any more without your partner. Not necessarily because you didn’t have your own identity while in the relationship, but that your relationship had become part of that identity. This too will change and you will feel more secure in yourself again.
Break-ups can hurt immensely and shake us to our very core. They can throw us right back to the feelings we had in our first relationships – the ones we had with our parents.
If as a child, your relationship with your parents were loving and supportive, you may find yourself wanting to be with them, even wanting to be a child again when it felt safer and easier.
If your relationship with your parents was difficult, lacking, or abusive you may feel some of the feelings that you felt with them (even if you weren’t aware of them as a child.) You may feel as though you are drowning in grief and feelings of abandonment. If you feel as though you are being punished or that the break-up means that you are unloveable, or unworthy of love, you are probably triggered – those are messages, beliefs or feelings that usually originate in childhood.
At times of loss, it is very common for feelings, beliefs and memories from past hurts, traumas, and losses to come up. Not only are you dealing with the present loss, but your past losses as well. No wonder, it hurts so much! And, there are ways to cope with triggers.
HOW TO SURVIVE “THE TRIGGERS”
It is really important that you try to separate out which of your feelings, beliefs and responses belong to the present situation and which ones belong to the past. This is hard to do when you’re feeling overwhelmed but it can also help you to feel less overwhelmed. Separating past and present feelings will help you to attach less of your pain to the break-up and can help you to feel more hopeful about getting over this break-up, because maybe you are not as upset about the break-up as you thought. You’re still just as upset but it can be helpful to know that it’s not all about the break up, that some is also coming from the past.
When you know that you are triggered (past feelings and issues are coming to the surface) you can find ways to comfort or reassure yourself, or to deal with those issues in other ways. The first step though is to separate the past from the present.
WAYS OF SEPARATING THE PAST FROM THE PRESENT
Ask yourself where your feelings are coming from, and notice what you become aware of, including later on in the day.
Notice whether your feelings are familiar to you – whether you’ve felt this way before – and if so remind yourself that some of your feelings are probably coming from the past.
Spend time being aware of the past origins of your feelings if you know, and if that’s not too overwhelming for you.
Let yourself know that even if you don’t know where all of your feelings are coming from, it’s likely that some of how you are feeling is from the past.
STAGES OF GRIEF
You will get through this, even if it doesn’t feel like that right now. Grief moves in stages – it has a beginning, middle, and an end phase. It might help to know where you are in the process.
FIRST STAGE OF GRIEF – In the beginning, you may feel in shock, denial, or numb. It may be hard for you to believe what has happened. It may be hard to make sense of it all. You may find yourself expecting to come home to your partner or for her/him to call at a regular time only to discover that’s not the case any longer. It may take awhile for you to fully comprehend that the relationship is over.
During this phase many people operate as if the relationship is still on even as they grieve the loss. For example, even though you may be really upset, you may not have fully accepted that the relationship is over. Deep down you may be waiting for her/him to come back. (People do this even after a death, it’s normal.) This period of disbelief or shock is the body’s natural protection against pain.
You may try to get back together even when you know it’s over. You may go over and over in your mind and with everyone you talk to what you think led to the break up or what might have made a difference and resulted in a different outcome. This is the “if only” stage – “if only I had…or, if only I hadn’t…” we might still be together. If you are doing this, you are likely trying to make sense of what has happened, trying to understand and take it in, and trying to change it too. It’s hard to take in that a break up is permanent. You’ll need time to fully absorb this reality.
At this stage, you may have trouble remembering things, focusing, and feeling a sense of purpose or direction in their lives – you may feel as though you are drifting through the day. This is a natural initial reaction to loss.
SECOND STAGE OF GRIEF – The second stage involves feeling fear, anger and depression. This stage often lasts the longest and can be filled with feelings of insecurity, panic, worry, crying, anger, and feelings of depression. Some people don’t allow themselves to feel, while others have trouble letting go of how they are feeling. Both are essential – feeling and eventually letting go.
Some people worry that if they let themselves feel that they’ll be overcome with emotion and never come out of it – they’ll drown in their feelings and not be able to function. Others feel their feelings but can’t seem to let go of them even after a lot of time has passed. Either way, it’s important to give yourself permission to feel and at some point to let go so that you can move on.
In the beginning, you may think that you will always feel this way, but you won’t. Your feelings will pass. You’ll discover that the time between down periods increases. Too often with break-ups we don’t feel that we have the right to feel upset much longer than a few weeks when the truth is it usually takes longer. I have found that grief tends to run a cycle of at least one year unless of course the relationship wasn’t very important, was short-term, or you were grieving before you actually left her/him. But, if you spent a number of years together, and the person was important to you, even if you’re the one doing the breaking up you can still be grieving for approximately one year. Of course with very long term relationships, it can take even longer to feel back on your feet but it is still possible to recover.
THIRD STAGE OF GRIEF – This is the stage where you begin to accept that the relationship is over, and that you’re going to be okay. You realize that you haven’t thought about your ex-partner in awhile, and that without realizing it you are moving on. You’ve gained back some of your zest for life, and are beginning to see a future ahead of you.
Sometimes the process involves a little movement forward and a little back. This is okay and perfectly normal, afterall you need to get used to your forward steps and occasionally may need the comfort of what you were feeling before. Try not to be hard on yourself, change is not a linear path. It’s full of up’s and down’s. It’s okay to feel good and then feel hurt and angry again, especially if you see her/him in the community or dating someone else.
In the acceptance stage, you’ve done a lot of thinking about the relationship and the break-up and you realize things that you hadn’t before. You understand yourself better, and you aren’t as angry or hurt. You find yourself laughing more, and feeling hopeful. You begin to notice that you’re feeling better and that you are ready to trust again, or at least to try.
Try not to lose faith if you fall back into a funk – each time that you feel better will have an accumulative effect. Grief comes in waves – up and down.
Sometimes letting go just happens after you’ve let yourself grieve and rage and whatever else you need to do. Other times, people have to deliberately and consciously focus on letting go. It is tempting to hold on, and scary to let go. Saying to yourself that you are letting go of your ex-partner can be helpful. Interrupting yourself when you get stuck thinking or talking about her/him and redirecting your focus onto something else is all part of letting go.
Filling your life with activities that you enjoy – creative, playful, sociable, soulful activities – are all ways to nurture yourself back to health.
Breaking-up can feel unbearably hard and so permanent. Let yourself know that you won’t always feel this way and in the meantime let yourself grieve your losses fully. You will feel stronger and lighter for having done so.