The End of a Relationship: How to Recover from a Broken Heart
by Dr. Judith L. Allen
Not all love matches work "forever." Although that is usually the initial hope, dating and practicing relationships are a path of inquiry, looking for a life partner. Even some marriages turn out to be about that search when it comes to light that you may not have known your partner as well as you thought. That once "perfect" pairing turns out to be a match that was perfect for a period of time and now someone has changed their needs and wants to the point that the relationship is no longer fitting into their new life plan.
The term 'recovering from a broken heart' usually means that there are still strong feelings and attachments to the person you once loved and whom you depended on. It also may tend to imply that the breakup was not the outcome you desired, leaving you feeling some form of powerlessness. There is probably some underlying message that somehow you've failed or that you may not have been good enough in some way.
Those who have faced an ending to an important relationship with someone they loved, and perhaps still love very much, can certainly relate to an aftermath of sadness, grief, disorientation, self-doubt, and often a temporary feeling of depression and despair.
It takes time for your heart to mend, which usually involves a time of thinking through and reliving all the shared experiences. It takes time to re-evaluate your choices from beginning to end, to look for clues that may not have been apparent at the time. This can mean weeks or months and even years for some, of feeling waves of emotion as your mind revisits experiences that keep getting triggered by your daily activities.
One of the most difficult parts of breaking up is getting through the initial shock, sadness and loss. Even those who feel that it was their choice to end the relationship go through a period of feeling lost and confused without their former partner. After all, life has changed drastically and quickly!
It's important not to misinterpret the pain you're feeling as a sign that you did something wrong when the relationship came to an end. Most people tend to feel that they are in more pain than the other person. It's a natural part of the healing process to feel this and it means that you are now focused on yourself and what you need, instead of thinking in terms of the other person's needs. Allow yourself time to engage in recognition of your pain and your loss.
You may have read rule-of-thumb statements similar to one that goes "It takes as much time to heal as the time involved in the relationship." In my experience this has not been a fact for most people. The deepness and dependence on the relationship is often rooted in unfulfilled needs from childhood. What seems like a brief relationship may take a year to heal, where a long-term relationship may end and be processed in a relatively short time. There are no real rules for how much time it takes, but it's a good idea to seek help if the time seems extensive and protracted, beyond what would seem a normal time to each person, or if there seems to be no progress in the healing.
If you want to see how that progress is going for you, watch for these steps and work on getting through each one completely.
Step One: Adjusting from being part of a couple to being on your own
This may be the hardest step. When you care for another person, over time, you blend your energies in the form of hopes, dreams, plans and expectations with that person. When the relationship ends, you go through a process of individuation, pulling back and reclaiming yourself and your evolved identity. This can feel for a time like part of you is actually missing. Even if you want someone out of your life, the ending of the pattern of familiarity leaves a feeling that you are not whole for a time. Your mind is searching to rebuild the feeling of independence you once knew, while incorporating the development which has taken place during the time you were involved in the relationship.
Because of the newness, the strangeness, and the confusion of your mind during this time, you may experience a period of tearfulness, hopelessness, and not feeling joy. You may not feel like socializing or eating, and you may experience physical symptoms such as an aching in the pit of your stomach. You may feel loneliness even in the presence of close friends. It's interesting to note that these symptoms are similar to those reported from people recovering from drug, food and alcohol addiction in the earliest stages. It's normal during this step to feel sorry for yourself as you review many painful memories. People experience strong longings to return to the situation that has ended, to prevent or stop the emotional and mental processing of this first step. It's a longing for the familiar and the ensuing confusion that drives people at this time to want it to be over.
Allow yourself to feel sorry for your loss. This means allowing tears, feelings of loss and wanting to be alone for a time. If you ignore these feelings or try to distract yourself, they will only remain for a longer period. Cry about it, write about it, talk about it with a therapist or close friend who will listen without judging.
After an initial period of grieving and mourning your loss, make a commitment to begin to get back to re-building other connections which you may have neglected while you were part of a couple and through your grieving period. Begin to make plans with old friends, sign up for a class to make new friends, plan a gathering at your home or have one at the home of a friend. Only schedule part of your time with others, and use some constructive alone time to continue the review of the past relationship. Your mind needs to find answers to your questions. You may need to do research to gain the understanding you need, and/or talk to a professional to do some soul searching. You'll want to know if you lost something positive in your life, or something that was negative and needed changing even before the actual breakup.
Based on what you will learn about the past experience, you can begin to build a listing of what you want in your future. That evaluation can help move your mind from the past to the future, where hope exists. The only part of life you can control is what you think and do today, and what you make plans for in your future.
Practice healthy avoidance. Avoid seeing or interacting with your former partner, avoid excess in the use of alcohol, food, and medications. You may think you are reducing emotional pain, but you are actually setting up to continue it for a longer time. Calling him/her to relieve the pain is simply continuing the connection where your recovery will be destined to start over and over again.
Don't avoid feelings. Don't avoid what can really help, such as exercise (at the gym or maybe dancing), communication with friends, and reading.
Step Two: Starting to Smile Again!
When you find yourself free of thinking about your past relationship for a few hours at a time, you are starting to move from the hardest first step. You are now at a place that you can quantitatively measure your progress. Make a notation of each event, thought, or experience that makes you smile. Those can begin the new foundation you are building for yourself. You were there before, you are getting there again, almost as a reward for facing the hard work you have done up to this step.
You may even have periods where you are able to think of the past relationship in terms of being needed in your life for that specific period of time. You may find that you are becoming more philosophical and enlightened about the meaning of the past relationship. Look for new meaning each time your mind goes back to cover more details.
There is a phenomenon that most people find disconcerting for many months. You may feel that you're doing better, you're beginning to smile, and you may even have started feeling good enough to date again. Then, out of nowhere, you are hit with a flood of emotions! You think to yourself "I thought I was doing better than this, what’'s wrong with me?" Know that it is part of the process that can be looked at with a metaphor of the ocean and the waves coming in and out. Recovering from a relationship comes in waves that cover you, but as time goes on, the waves become more infrequent and have less power. Eventually, the tide will go out and not return, but during recovery from a breakup, understand that you have little control over the pattern and frequency. Don't lose sight of your path to find things and people who make you feel like smiling again.
Step Three: Getting back to being yourself
Life is now returning to some semblance of normalcy. You'll find that you're able to concentrate, get excited by prospects of the future and you no longer feel as if you are in transition. You have returned to a place where you have your identity back, and you may be ready to date and get involved in a new relationship. You may have another path, such as working on your career for the time being. You'll find that your mind has found many answers to your questions that arose during the period of grief and that you have come to a settled place of feeling like you know what was wrong with the past relationship. Hopefully, you can find it comfortable to say with honesty - Nice person, bad match. Additionally you may honestly see why it was perfect for a time, but destined to be only for that specific period of your life. Your needs are changing all the time. Still, watch out for the occasional wave of memories.
Step Four: Maturity about how relationships work (and don't work)
When you get to this point, you're well on your way in your development of complete healing. You may have even talked about or seen your former partner, and the stinging pain was gone. You are involved and connected with friends and maybe in a new relationship. As time has gone on, you've re-evaluated what is important in your life and changed your list somewhat of what you want in a partner. It may have gotten longer or even shorter based on your previous experiences. You know now that you can and did recover and that if it ever happens in your future, you can depend on the strength you demonstrated to get you through the process again. No, of course you don't want it to happen again, but you also don't want to waste any time getting out of a relationship which is fundamentally over. Each relationship is giving you more information as the desired picture of your life comes into clear focus. Remind yourself that you survived before and you can do it whenever it is needed in the future.
Judith L. Allen, Ph.D. is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and Licensed Professional Counselor by the Texas State Boards and a State Board Registered Counselor by the Washington State Board. Originally from Los Angeles, Dr. Allen has been in practice for 25 years and has an active practice for Online Counseling and an office practice in Wenatchee, Washington, where she specializes in relationship and communication issues for adults and children. Judith may be reached at Judith@AskTheInternetTherapist.com