Coping With a Break Up
Clearly relationships with others are important to us as human beings. Having successful intimate relationships takes on added significance during our “college” years when we are between the ages of 17 and 30, have “left” our families, and are expected to form our first serious commitment. We learn that it is often in or though intimate relationships that our sexual, romantic, companionship, and intimacy needs will be met. It is no wonder then, that we find ourselves preoccupied or consumed with pursuing, maintaining, ending, and recovering from the loss of such relationships. While each of these stages of relationships can be difficult and challenging, it is commonly when relationships end or “don’t work out” that we struggle the most.
Experiencing a break-up can create a sense of crisis and trigger a mixture of many intense feelings. These feelings vary and often include:
- Confusion (i.e. “how did this happen?” “What went wrong?”)
- Ambivalence (i.e. “I’m glad to be out, but I miss her/him”)
- Anxiety (i.e. “what will happen”)
- Guilt (i.e. “maybe it’s my fault”; “if only I had…”)
- Betrayal (i.e. “how could s/he do this to me?”)
- Isolation (i.e. “now I have no-one”)
- Rejection/Abandonment (i.e. “it’s me…I’m unlovable”)
- Sense of helplessness or victimization (i.e. “how could this happen to me?” “I don’t know what to do; I can’t do anything.”)
The ending of a relationship can also significantly impact our daily lives and alter our abilities to function as we usually do. Often there is an overall loss of energy, a lack of direction, inability to focus, and disruption or a sense of emptiness in our typical routines and activities. Most people experience a change in their sleeping and eating patterns, either having difficulty sleeping or sleeping too much, and ether overeating or having difficulty eating at all. Dealing with external events and continuing to engage in typical behavior or perform ordinary tasks as we are used to, can become a struggle during this time. After “breaking up” it is common to feel emotionally overwhelmed and experience frequent, sometimes uncontrollable, emotional out bursts or to become “numb” with little expression of feeling.
In an attempt to cope with this situation, we sometimes try to avoid or deny our feelings. We can react by obsessing or being preoccupied with our lost love, by withdrawing from others and retreating into fantasy, by immersing ourselves into other relationships or work, and by trying to find a “fix” using our addictions to numb the pain and escape the situation. These types of reactions and attempts to cope frequently create deeper despair.
The best way to deal with the ending of a relationship is to let yourself grieve (i.e. feel your sorrow). This is often a significant loss and generates many strong and important feelings. Although experiencing these feelings is often painful, frustrating, and unpleasant, it is in doing this that we begin to recover and let go.
During the grieving process we can engage in a time of self-reflection; we begin to return to our self through our time alone and focus on our own growth and development. This can be a rich time in which we learn about ourselves and ourselves in relationships.
- What did you notice about your self in the relationship?
- What is positive?
- What would you like to change?
- Where there patterns or issues that brought you into this relationship, and /or caused it to end?
Asking yourself these questions can help you deal with the loss differently and also to create better relationships for yourself in the future. Beyond examining yourself in the relationship, this can also be a time to re-learn what it is that you like and take pleasure in. You can nurture yourself by focusing energy on activities and interests that comfort or please you. What are your priorities and preferences in life? What were these before your relationship began? Who are you on your own and how do you want to live your life?
Sometimes it is helpful to talk these things through with others (i.e. family, friends, other support people, and professionals). Putting emotional wounds, feelings, questions, doubts, and hopes into words helps to clarify our experience and assist us in constructing realistic goals or expectations.
Heal & Recover
It is important as we recover and start to heal, to at some point make connections with others and rebuild our social relationships apart form our ex. Friends are typically a vital source support, along with being emotional and social reference points. Keep in mind some friends deal better with your feelings and “break-ups” than others. Seek out those that feel helpful to you and truly validate your experiences. In connecting with others you will often find a renewed sense of self.
Eventually, as you work through this process of recovery you will begin to make new choices for yourself and feel better. Loss “takes time” to heal from. However, if you let yourself grieve, acknowledge the loss, focus on learning from your experience, and spend your energy concentrating on you (i.e. your needs, desires, feelings, and wishes). With time you will find yourself “moving on”. Whether this means you chose to remain single or enter into new romantic relationships, you will notice you feel differently than you did in the beginning and realize you are now doing things differently as well.
Written by: Kathy Sullivan, L.C.S.W./University of Oregon Counseling Center