I see a lot of people in relationships, and quite often couples come in to work through serious relationships troubles. In many cases, they are on the brink of a breakup by the time they decide to give therapy a try. Sometimes we are successful in working through problems, and the couple moves forward together, even stronger than before. On occasion, though, couples do break up, despite all of our best efforts. In almost every case, I see clear symptoms of grief in one or both members of the couple. They often move through each of the traditional “phases of grief” written about by Dr. Elisabeth Kubler Ross. When we phrase the process of grieving the loss of a relationship in those terms, it can be helpful in coping with the difficulty of a break up, and assist the person as they work through their feelings and move on.
I will outline the phases of grief here (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance) and reframe them in terms of how they can apply to a breakup. Remember, just as when the phases of grief are discussed in the field of death and dying, they may not follow this exact order, you may be in one phase, think you are done with it, and a year later experience it again, etc. People are complicated beings, and there is no formula for how we respond to life changes.
When you receive news you don’t want, denial is one way to cope with possibly overwhelming emotions. Denial gives your heart time to adjust to the new situation – it’s sort of an emotional protectant. In the denial phase it’s not uncommon to think that despite the reasons you split up, that your significant other will come back to you, or that you can work through the problems. You may not want to face what is happening. The denial phase is a normal part of grieving the loss of a relationship, and people spend varying amounts of time in denial. When you are ready to accept the finality of the breakup, you may be ready to move on from denial.
In the anger phase, you may blame your partner for causing you pain, or for breaking up your family. The circumstances may seem very unfair, and you may even lash out at friends and family who want to be of support. Anger is a normal emotion – it’s what we do with it that can become destructive. To help you not to get stuck in this phase, work through your anger, perhaps by exercising, journaling, or talking to a counselor. You may have quite a few emotions to express, but once you do, you’ll begin to feel lighter and be able to move out of the anger phase.
Bargaining can show up in different ways. You may literally try to bargain the breakup away – promising your ex that things will be better, to give it one more try. Sometimes these promises can prove impossible to keep, but in the bargaining phase of breakup grief, it feels like anything is possible if you just get one more try. The thing is, you are both still the same people you were before the breakup. Without major, ongoing change, attempts at bargaining are not likely to succeed.
Once you begin to really realize that the situation is not going to change, it’s not unusual to feel sad and even hopeless. You may feel depressed, a lack of motivation or energy, and as if nothing can really make you happy. This is a time for reflection. Rely on your support system to be there for you, be sure you are taking care of yourself, especially in getting enough sleep, exercise, and nutrition. Avoid things like alcohol, drugs, and jumping into a rebound relationship – these things can temporarily numb your pain, but they do more harm than good in the long run.
Reaching a stage of acceptance doesn’t mean you wake up one morning and everything is suddenly okay. It is more a matter of realizing the relationship is over, taking the lessons you learned and knowing that even though there still may be rough days ahead, you can make it through. It’s integrating the feelings of sadness, anger, and all the other stages into the person you are now. A breakup doesn’t define who you are – neither does a good relationship, for that matter! In the acceptance phase, you begin to get in touch with yourself again and what you want out of life.
Going through a breakup is rough, no matter what. I hope putting it in these terms has helped you find a new perspective if you are facing a breakup, and that you come away knowing that even the roughest days won’t last forever.