Relationship Breakup and Loss
It is never easy when a relationship ends. No matter who did what or who left who, the breakup of a relationship can turn your world upside down.
As humans, we are biologically hard-wired for connection. Just as much as we need food, shelter and clothing, we are designed for close intimate relationships. As babies, our needs for protection, nurturing, safety, soothing and comfort are met by our primary caregiver.
But our need for a close attachment with a significant other is not confined to the infancy period. As adults, those same needs are met within couple relationships. So it is not surprising that when a significant relationship ends, people often describe it in life and death terms: ‘When she left, a part of me died.’ ‘It’s like there is this hole in my heart.’ ‘I felt my heart ripped out.’
Relationship loss is no better described than in the last two paragraphs of W. H. Auden’s poem, “Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone:”
He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.
The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.
For nothing now can ever come to any good.
Why It Hurts So Much
When couples part the pain can be profound because it represents the loss, not just of the relationship, but also of shared dreams, commitments, and hopes for the future. It is a sad and disorientating time.
The end of a relationship launches us into uncertainty. No matter how healthy or unhealthy the relationship was, the shared world, as we knew it, changes. Questions and doubts begin to creep in. Who am I now, without him/her? Will I find someone else? Will I end up alone? Being unable to answer these questions often seems worse than being in an unhappy relationship. And the end of a relationship also brings changes to responsibilities, living arrangements, other relationships, and even one’s identity.
Recent research in neuroscience suggests our brain processes relationship breakups in a similar way to physical pain. From an evolutionary perspective, this makes sense. The function of pain is to make us aware of physical threat or danger so we can take steps to protect ourselves. In nature, to avoid predators and harm, animals remain in groups rather than alone. We can say the same would have been true of our tribal early ancestors. It is in our human makeup to be with at least one other to maximise our chances of survival. This helps explain how difficult it is for many people to let go of the ex-partner and move on.
And our human needs extend beyond just staying alive. Psychologically and emotionally, we need close attachments for growth, safety, comfort, and soothing. Being attached to someone provides our greatest sense of security and safety. Couples, in essence form a tribe of two (or more with children). They develop a language of their own, with shared values, beliefs, views, ways of functioning, eating habits, humour, secrets, and life experiences. When a partner leaves, that attachment is severed. We are alone with a felt sense that all that was shared is lost. Everything feels uncertain, unfamiliar and scary. We cannot simply, ‘just get over it.’
The loss can be so impactful that it often triggers obsessive thinking such as repetitive thoughts about the ex-partner: how he/she may be feeling, their whereabouts, whether they are missing the relationship, and so on. One client mentioned, ‘I keep seeing her with the new guy over and over again in my head and it kills me, even though I don’t know the guy.’ There may be a felt need to do specific activities or visit special places that were shared and even hoping to see the lost partner. Intense and sometimes conflicting feelings of anger, relief, sadness, remorse, guilt, hopelessness, regret, etc. are common.
For some, the end of a relationship is like experiencing a death, of sorts. Even if one has chosen to leave the relationship or even if the relationship was unhealthy, full of drama, abusive, or did not seem to have a future, letting go is still difficult. My clients have described their loss as, ‘when it ended, I imploded’, ‘I felt intense pain, then I felt nothing, numbed out’. In a desperate plea, a female client said, ‘Please Kim, help me get him out from under my skin.’
And friends and family can sometimes be unhelpful, in particular if they serve as reminders of unhappy times during the relationship or if they have failed to understand what the relationship really meant to you.
Mourn the loss, Grieve to heal
Losing your partner hurts. As humans, it’s natural for us to want to avoid pain. However, grief is a natural response to loss. Grief is not an illness to be medicated – it’s a normal and expected response to loss. So it’s not really a problem to be ‘fixed’ as such. Grieving for the loss of a relationship is a personal and highly individual experience. No two individuals grieve the same way.
Grief can be best described as a wave-like experience. Feelings and emotions go up and come down, and this pattern repeats until, over time, it reduces in intensity and frequency. Occasionally, our feelings and emotions can be triggered, for example, upon hearing a familiar song or seeing someone that resembles our ex-partner. Expect to feel stronger emotions around significant days such as birthdays, anniversaries, Christmas, etc. It is important to note, these feelings are normal and not an indication that things are not on the mend.
How we handle the loss of a relationship and how we grieve is influence by attachment styles experienced in our early years. Attachment styles are the ways we were cared for in our formative years. Those with secure attachment styles, whose caregivers were accessible and responsive, are able acknowledge that the loss hurts and are able to allow themselves to grieve. They know this pain will take time to heal, but are able to allow themselves to feel the pain while exercising self-care, seeking support of others, and spending time alone to process the loss. They spend time reflecting on what they can improve. They remain hopeful that they will find a suitable partner, and love, again.
By contrast, those with anxious or insecure attachment styles, due to inconsistent or neglectful caregivers’ attention in their formative years, have a harder time accepting and grieving the loss. They may try to get back with their former partner or might even stalk them. They may avoid the pain by jumping into another relationship. They have limited capacity to reflect on their actions and may blame their ex-partner for the loss. They may vow not to partner again. They tend to withdraw from social contact or even isolate themselves. These actions will interrupt the ability to grief and inevitably slow down healing. These people may also get stuck at grieving, especially if they start pining for the partner as pining is a sign of reluctance to let go and accept the loss.
Whether we are able to gracefully accept a relationship loss or dwell in self-pity and unhappiness also depends on our general self-regard. Those with low self-esteem struggle more with relationship loss. They are more likely to stay stuck in the grieving process, feel bad about themselves, and harbour ill feelings towards their ex partner. Their experience of loss may cause them to erect walls to self-protect or to be emotionally closed off to new partners. Their avoidance to grief may lead to depression.
People with high self-esteem are not immune to any less pain when a relationship ends. But they are able to see the part they play in the relationship, learn from it, and seek help to process the loss. Importantly they still see themselves as valuable and worthy of love.
Steps You Can Take
Accept your feelings
Your feelings will fluctuate between shock, disbelief, relief, confusion, anxiety, denial, anger, sadness, guilt, fear, remorse, acceptance and more. Make it OK to feel the pain. Suppressing or avoiding your feelings makes them stronger. So, go through the pain, not around it. The sooner you face the pain, the sooner it passes. Avoid the use of alcohol or drugs to numb your pain. Allow yourself to feel all the feelings. Whatever emotions you feel, they are all valid.
Remember, emotions do not remain constant. They ebb and flow, go up and down. Allow yourself to feel them in the same way. The more you can allow them to surface, without fighting, the easier it will be for them to subside, and they WILL subside. For a period of time, accept that you will be ‘feeling pain to feel good’ and that dealing with it actively will set you on the path to healing.
The pain of grieving can be both emotional and physical. Watch out for physical symptoms such as tight feelings in the throat and chest, oversensitivity to noise, breathlessness, muscular weakness and lack of energy. If physical symptoms persist, consult your doctor.
The single most important factor in healing from loss is having the support of others. This is not the time to brave it alone. If you can, seek out a few trustworthy and reliable friends or family members who can be there for you, without their own agendas. Even if you are uncomfortable talking about your feelings, it is important do so during grieving. Part of loss is about disconnection with a loved other. So, seeking to connect safely with people will advance your healing. It will also prevent feelings of loneliness.
Know the difference between normal grief due to relationship loss and depression. Emotions brought on by grief can be intense and paralysing after a breakup, but the sadness begins to lift, little by little and you will start to heal and move on. However, if you don’t feel yourself moving forward, you may be suffering from depression.
Remember, grief is experienced in an ebb and flow, wave-like pattern where feelings and emotions go up and down, with a mix of intensity and frequency. Even when you’re in the middle of the grieving process, you will experience moments of pleasure or happiness. With depression, on the other hand, the feelings of emptiness and despair are constant. Read more on Depression.
Create time and space for your grief
Grieving is an experience that involves major psychological and emotional components. Spend time to process: what is your loss, what has changed, how can you adapt to this change and create a new sense of control over your life. Try to allocate a part of your day or week to process and honour your loss.
Processing the loss is in part, making sense of it. Honouring the loss is really about honouring you. You are important, and the pain that you are going through has a purpose. Within the pain, is a life lesson that you can embrace for you and your future. Activities such as writing a journal of your feelings, taking pictures, painting, going for a walk, etc. can be therapeutic and will help you with healing.
Take care of yourself
Apart from being an emotionally draining time, grieving can be physically trying. Cultivate and maintain some part of your day to consciously look after yourself. Eating a balanced diet, exercising and getting plenty of rest will help you get through each day.
Your Loss, Your Grief
Sometimes, in trying to be helpful, people can do the opposite. Don’t let anyone tell you how to feel or think. Your grief is your own, and no one else can tell you when it’s time to ‘move on’ or ‘get over it.’ Let yourself feel whatever you feel without embarrassment or judgement. It’s okay to be sad, angry, to yell into your pillow, to cry, or not to cry. It’s also okay to laugh, to enjoy moments of joy, and to let go when you’re ready. And if you are not ready for now, that is ok too.
It is not unusual to become ‘stuck’ in the grieving process. This can happen if your relationship was unfulfilling or if you stayed in it far too long or for the sake of the children or simply out of the fear of being alone. It will be helpful for you to seek professional counselling to help you during this time, with a view to not repeating the same pattern again when you are ready to re-partner.
And if your relationship was challenging, toxic or abusive (including neglect or emotional abuse) you can become stuck in the grieving process. Questions can plague your mind. You may feel overwhelmed by your emotions. Or you may not be able to share your loss with your friends or family. In these situations it is helpful to see an expert therapist specialising in grief and loss to help you through the healing process.
Grow from grieving
Many experience significant personal growth from grieving a significant relationship loss. As we move through the ebb and flow of painful grieving and life changes, there is an opportunity to realise that the loss of the relationship and of the ‘old me,’ gives birth to the potential ‘new me.’
A client I was helping through separation and subsequent divorce said, ‘I am going through the absolute worst time of my life. But at least I know, no matter what happens in future, I’ll be able to deal with it.’ She was surviving ‘the worst’ and this offered her the evidence of her personal strength in the face of great adversity.
Another area of growth can come from how our relationship with others changes. As much as the loss of a relationship can produce negative changes in our relationships, there can also be also positive changes. As we seek others to support us in grieving, we are opening ourselves up to the experience of increased closeness. Closeness facilitates 'connectedness' which allows a greater sense of compassion and empathy towards others in general and to others who share similar difficult losses.
Another possible aspect of growth can be when we are grieving a significant loss this can act as a ‘wake up’ call for us to adopt new habits, to live and act more deliberately and consciously. Through the pain of grief, we can better appreciate our lives and make healthy choices on how and with whom we spend our time.
There is no doubt, the loss of a relationship is difficult, painful and confronting because it engages our deepest vulnerability - the fear that we are unlovable. You can make your way back from that fear. It takes time, patience, a sense of hope, and if necessary, professional help. Meanwhile, be gentle and kind with yourself.
Help us to be the always hopeful
Gardeners of the spirit
Who know that without darkness
Nothing comes to birth
As without light
- May Sarton