The Dynamics of Grief When a Relationship Ends

Grief and Loss

Loss, bereavement, and grief are often first associated with death. Grief counseling is not often thought for anyone who hasn’t experienced a death of a loved one. However, grief and mourning encompass so much more beyond loss that comes from death. Loss of a job, autonomy and independence, a pet, a campaign, a rift with a friend or family member and the end of a romantic relationship/divorce are all tremendous losses that in turn come with plenty of grieving and mourning.

When I do loss and bereavement/grief counseling it is for any loss, no matter how significant or insignificant it may seem. Everyone grieves differently but it is important to make sure you grieve appropriately and to give yourself the kindness and gentleness to mourn as long as you need to. Understanding the grieving process is helpful while going through a loss. I have chosen to write about grieving as it relates to a romantic break up/divorce as it’s a question that constantly comes up with many of the clients I see and it is something that many people do not normally associate with the grieving process.

Elisabeth Kubler Ross defined stages of grief (most appropriately for the dying and their loved ones) as Denial, Bargaining, Anger, Depression, and Acceptance. These stages do not have to happen in a particular order, nor does one have to go through all the stages. To further explain how to understand grief as it relates to a break-up, I use the stages of denial, anger, depression, and acceptance as ways to understand the dynamics of grief at the end of a relationship.

Depression and the Break-Up

Many times in a relationship, the person we are with represents so much to us. If the relationship is in its early stages and hasn’t had time to really take off, the grief can be centered around the loss of hope. This person and situation had the promise for so much of our hopes and dreams for the future. The end of this is the loss of that hope and the heaviness of the feeling of starting all over again. The loss of hope is obviously a part of the grieving of a long-term relationship as well, especially if there was a marriage, engagement or potential engagement involved.

Being in a relationship often requires the giving of oneself and the investment of one’s emotional energy and time. Intimacy often goes hand in hand with vulnerability. When we are vulnerable with another human being, we are more attached. The promise of someone else truly knowing, loving and accepting of who we are is a recipe for serious attachment. Change is difficult for many people. Losing someone who was once so important and prioritized to us causes us to have to change our lives. We have to adapt to life without this person.

Reminders are everywhere. We remember the good times and happiness that will never happen again. This is the depression component of grieving…losing the hope, the promise, adapting to a new way of life, losing someone who was a permanent fixture, a best friend, a companion. A break up is a death in a sense because you lose the person in the way you knew them to be. Even if you choose to remain friends with the person, things inevitably have to change and a chapter in life has to be closed. It’s normal to be deeply saddened by this and it’s what makes attachment so special–it means our relationships are special and have meaning which is very profound.

Anger and the Break-Up

Anger is complex and happens for so many reasons. Sometimes it’s covering up sadness, sometimes it’s protecting our ego as a defense mechanism to avoid having to take responsibility or accountability, and sometimes it’s completely justified when we are taken advantage of or disrespected. Either way, anger is a healthy emotion when handled properly. Anger in a break up usually happens when things didn’t end well–especially if it was unexpected. The shock sometimes enhances the anger. Grieving people often fluctuate between anger and depression. The disappointment and disillusionment you may feel after a tough break-up manifest in both anger and sadness. Sometimes you want to throw things and scream, sometimes you want to take revenge, sometimes you want to cry and beg and hole up by yourself. Sometimes you think you’re okay and then a reminder pops up which brings on a tirade of anger.

It’s important to try to understand why you’re angry. Do you feel cheated, betrayed, lied to, or that you wasted your time? Is the anger directed at yourself? A lot of the times I hear people say, “how could I have been so stupid?” This is where you need to be kind to yourself. It’s great to learn from mistakes and it’s okay to be angry with yourself but use that to grow instead of continuing to beat yourself up. Anger becomes dangerous when we act on our raw emotion or can’t let it go. Usually when people step back and have time to think the anger dissipates a bit. Understanding where the anger is coming from is very important in moving forward, as is accepting the anger as it is and letting yourself work through those emotions.

Denial and the Break-Up

Have you ever seen someone start dating immediately after a significant break-up? Some people may know it as the “rebound relationship.” Sometimes after a break-up, people throw themselves into something else: work, dating, alcohol, hobbies, exercise, etc. Sometimes the distraction is a healthy one and sometimes it’s not. Either way, the uncomfortable feelings that come with a break up lead us to distract ourselves so we won’t feel the pain. This can be a healthy defense mechanism because it helps us to move forward with our lives.

By the same token, suppressing the feelings too much without acknowledging them can have a backlash and end up in a breakdown if you’re not careful. You may be fine and think you’re fine and then one day just breaks down. No matter how much we deny or suppress, there will still be feelings we haven’t dealt with that are still beneath the surface, whether we like it or not. It’s important to honor and feel these feelings from time to time.

Acceptance and the Break-Up

Acceptance brings up the question, “how do I grieve a break up so I can move forward?” There is no easy answer and as I mentioned before, everyone grieves differently. The important thing to remember is to not try so hard to get over it. So many people sit in their grief extremely frustrated because they just want to rid themselves of the pain. Acceptance is basically saying, it is what it is. Ultimately, the only cure is time and everyone’s timeline is different. It’s okay to be angry, sad, disappointed, frustrated,  and confused for six months, a year, or two years. The point is to not fight the feelings too much when they come. It’s finding a balance of moving forward with life while also being kind enough to yourself to feel sorry for yourself when you need to.

You’re not supposed to feel okay, happy or accepting of a break up after it happens and you’re not supposed to put a timeline on when you’re supposed to feel okay again. Remember: This is a loss of something significant in your life and it’s normal to mourn. Talking to someone can also help and counseling can be a great place to talk things out. Sometimes the issues go a bit deeper than the relationship and the relationship ending is piggy-backing on other unresolved issues. Knowing yourself and your coping skills is also helpful. If being with friends, throwing yourself into activities or working more helps you, then do what makes you happy. If taking time off from everything helps you cope, that’s great too. Remember, it’s about doing what works best for you.

What To Do

Finally, life is not about dwelling in the past or living with regret. We all make mistakes and the only thing you can do is learn from them and move forward. Life is short and you owe it to yourself to be happy and pursue the life you imagine for yourself. Don’t give up hope for there are great people in this world capable of giving you love, compassion, fidelity, and trust. Sometimes things don’t work out because it just wasn’t the right person or the right fit. You only want to be with someone who truly wants to be with you anyway, something that feels right, safe and comforting. Use the break up as an opportunity to find something better than you may have ever imagined existed but keep in mind these important aspects of the grieving process…

Time and Patience — Realize that this is a process and for some a very lengthy one. Try to accept this and sit with it when necessary.

Be Kind To Yourself– Don’t beat yourself up over “would’ve, could’ve, should’ve’s.” Don’t feel like you’ve had a setback if you’ve had a bad day. Remember you have feelings and the depth of a loss means you experienced something truly meaningful.

Trust — There are learning and growth opportunities from these situations that will take you to better places. The more you know yourself and learn things from life experiences, the better decisions you will be able to make.