You promised (or assumed) you would be together forever. But now your relationship is broken, your partner feels like your enemy and you’re on the path to breakup. You’re not alone: about half of marriages end in divorce and the numbers are even higher for couples who live together.
But knowing that other relationships have failed isn’t very helpful, is it? It doesn’t make your pain any easier.
If you accept your breakup as an opportunity to learn, over time it will provide you with huge potential for personal growth. That doesn’t mean it will be easy or quick or even follow a direct path. There will be ups and downs, reversals and false hopes. But if you stay with your commitment to growth and health, one day you will be able to look back and see how far you’ve come.
Let’s consider some of the more common patterns we see among couples who break up.
Who starts it
Some couples reach a point in their relationship, sometimes after they’ve had some counseling, when they agree mutually that it’s time to break up. Although still painful, the split will be easier for them than for other couples in which one partner plans and initiates the breakup while the other resists or is taken by surprise. The lines are not always clearly drawn, but knowing where you fit may help you recognize yourself in the emotions that follow.
Denial is a natural reaction. Your emotions say, “this can’t be happening to me,” even as your relationship is crumbling around you. Denial can last days, months or even years, depending on your willingness to cope with the uncomfortable reality.
If one partner initiates the breakup “out of the blue,” the other partner may be taken by surprise. Over time, as you learn about yourself and your relationship, the feeling of surprise may be replaced by the questions, “How could I miss the signs? Why didn’t I see that coming?”
No matter how many wonderful things your partner said about you during the best days of your relationship, breakup often brings a sense of personal failure and rejection.
Both partners may experience guilt in a breakup. The partner who initiates the split may feel especially guilty, but couples may also feel guilt about personal weaknesses that contributed to the relationship problem, or about breaking up their family or failing to keep a religious commitment.
As the reality of the breakup sinks in, you may be surprised by the intensity of your anger. Anger is a normal and even healthy emotion that can help to heal some of the open wounds of the breakup. But misdirected anger can cause further problems. Blaming and revenge are unproductive. No matter how justified you feel, avoid targeting your anger at your partner; look for a way to release your anger by talking with a therapist or trusted friend.
Breaking up may introduce situations and challenges you didn’t have to face during your relationship, for example, being alone, handling finances, making important decisions and even dealing with the emotional chaos of the breakup. You may feel confident to cope with some and fearful about others. Facing the fear, dealing with the challenges one small step at a time, is the best way to keep yourself from becoming a victim of your fear.
At some point, one of the partners may try to negotiate his or her way out of the breakup: “If I promise never to [fill in the blank], can we get back together?” Bargaining may be part of denial or it may signal an opportunity to seek counseling for the individual and the relationship.
Even if you have been unhappy in your relationship for a long time, you may be surprised by the profound sense of emptiness when you break up. The habits of being together – sharing day-to-day activities, sharing a bed, sharing friends – are suddenly shattered. If instead of feeling deprived and longing for your lost partner you see this as an opportunity to strengthen your Self, the loneliness will slowly diminish.
You need friends you can trust, especially during this difficult period. But friends you saw as a couple may “take sides” or see your breakup as a threat to their own relationship. Take it slow and seek activities that will allow you to expand your circle of trusted friends.
Grieving / despair / depression
The grief that follows the loss of a relationship is normal. The sense of loss can affect your energy levels, your appetite, your productivity and your sleep patterns. You may feel depressed and unable to enjoy the things that used to give you pleasure. Eventually, your grief will subside, but if you begin to think about harming yourself or someone else, talk with a therapist.
As impossible as it may seem today, one day you may be able to look back and feel relief, not only that you survived the breakup but that you found your way out of a difficult situation into a happier and more productive time in your life.
All of the emotional turmoil of breaking up may make you especially vulnerable to a rebound relationship – one that seems to fulfill all of your needs and hungers and be the opposite of everything that was wrong with your partner. This is unfair to you and it’s unfair to your new partner. It will take at least a year, and possibly longer, before you are ready to embark on a new relationship. Meanwhile, take this opportunity to spend time with friends and to develop your self-esteem, your interests, your confidence and your independence. When you are ready for a new relationship, these will serve you well.
If you think your relationship may be worth saving, this is a good time to seek counseling. But even if you’re already into your breakup, a skilled relationship coach may be able to make the process easier for you.
For a free phone consult, call Dr. Fibus at 818.395.2831.