"Breaking up is Hard To Do"
The moment when we end a relationship - or have an ending thrust upon us - is almost always exquisitely painful.
But of course it's not just the moment of break up that hurts. The aftermath, as we recover, is arguably just as painful not least because it lasts longer - sometimes for years. After the early 'phoney war' of feeling convinced that reconciliation is just around the corner, or of feeling relieved that the vicious arguments are now over, it is then that the long-term suffering begins.
Yes, some of us 'keep calm and carry on', and parting doesn't cause a ripple on the surface of our lives. But most of us, publicly or privately, follow the natural process of grieving - as we would with any loss, any bereavement, abandonment, or rejection.
At the centre is huge sadness at the passing of a relationship that, however bad it was by the end, in the early days was likely very good. There is sadness too at the loss of belief in a partner whom we originally thought was wonderful and at the loss of a future together we always thought was certain.
Then may come anger - at ourselves for 'not making it work', at our ex for their part in it all. Then too comes fear - particularly if the relationship has lasted the better part of our adult life we may be fearful of a future that involves coping emotionally, practically and all alone.
Our suffering will be physical as well as emotional. Recent research suggests that a breakup literally triggers physiological pain, as our body - faced with the prospect of being alone - shifts into alarm mode, tenses up, floods with hormones, struggles to cope with the stress. It's even been suggested that for up to three weeks after relationship loss we are at more risk of cardiac problems. The word heartbreak may be literally true.
Many of my clients come to me for help to recover from a relationship ending. The first thing I point out is that the reason breakups hurts so much is that they're never only about what's happening here and now. You're never simply mourning the end of a love. You are also mourning all the other times in your life when you were abandoned or rejected - not only the first boyfriend who two-timed you, but the schoolfriend who didn't want to play with you any more, or the fact that your father left home when you were very young.
The second thing I tell clients - and the hope I offer them - is that despite this, recovering from a breakup is not only possible but natural. It may seem as if you will never stop feeling devastated, never find any joy in life and in particular never find love again. But you almost always will.
So how? What helps is time and self-tolerance; the realisation that what you're experiencing is normal; the ability to accept what you are thinking and feeling; and above all, support. Support as you work through your many emotions, support as you start to realise that if the worst thing in life is being in an unhappy relationship, one of the best things in life is being free of that unhappiness.
But moving on isn't just about feeling better. To really move on - letting go of the past and claiming a better future - it's vital to understand what went wrong in the lost relationship, and make sure never to repeat those patterns again. Whether the error was in initially choosing a partner who was always going to disappoint, or in running the relationship in a way that was never going to work, the core task of getting over a breakup is to make sense of what went wrong, and to be brave enough to change so that future choices and future ways of loving are positive, beneficial, and help us thrive. How do I know when my clients have reached that point? It's when I hear some phrase that equates the following. "There were good things about my last relationship… and I now know that my next relationship will be much better."
If you're reading this while deep in post-breakup grief, both parts of that sentence may seem an impossible dream. How will you ever see anything good about the love that ended? How will you ever love again with any success? But I know - because my clients have shown me - that both of these aims are possible, both are eminently achievable. Both are what lie at the end of the relationship recovery journey.