Loss of a relationship

 The second most intense life stress, after death, is divorce or loss of a love relationship. Most of us beyond 14 or 16 have felt the intense pain and anguish of being rejected by a lover. Many writers have dealt with marital problems and the long, distressful process of divorce. Kessler (1975) described seven stages of divorce:

Stage 1: Disillusionment

 After the bliss of falling in love (with the ideal person for you), a new idea sneaks into your mind: your lover has some faults. You may begin "psychologizing," e.g. "he is very self-centered," "she is nagging like my mother," "he flirts with women to hide his sexual fears," "she gets a lot more involved with the children than she does with me," etc. If these feelings grow in either person, without being resolved, the relationship is in trouble.

Stage 2: Erosion

 The disappointments and fault-finding reduce the love and attraction. They may not know what is wrong or what to say. If the relationship is becoming a little strained, this is the best time to have a good, straight talk or to seek marriage counseling. If no changes are made, a lot of destructive interactions may take place: put each other down, compete for attention, spend money carelessly, find new interests, watch each other critically, avoid each other, stop "confiding" or having sex.

Stage 3: Detachment

 Each disappointment hurts. "Love dies a thousand deaths." Lovers pull away to avoid hurts and sadness. If the isolation continues, it becomes more and more difficult to return to being lovers. Sometimes only one person is in the detachment stage; that is enough to kill the relationship. In this stage, the couple share and talk little, imply that "I don't care" even though they're hurting, and begin to think of other possible partners. They can't decide to leave or not. Often anger sets in--anger makes it easier to decide to separate.

Stage 4: Physical separation

 Separating is a sure sign the relationship has failed. Before, you might say, "we aren't getting along; we're fighting a lot," but now the relationship is gone--lost. There are many reactions to separation: often it is a painful, crushing void, sometimes if you have wanted out for a long time it is a relief, usually there is loneliness, fear, and feelings of failure. There are many adjustments to make--new place to live, new routine, new people, etc.

Stage 5: Mourning and letting go

 We mourn the loss of a partner, even one who has caused us pain. It is the loss of a dream, if nothing else. We rid ourselves of the "ghosts" of our past love, give up hope of reconciliation, and realize the ex-lover is gone forever. Usually there is a mix of intense emotions: sadness, anger, guilt, fear, hope. Often we spend hours reliving the old relationship--how awful he/she was, how it should have been, whose fault it was, etc. The person needs to "work through" these old emotions. Eventually, he/she will decide to get on with his/her life.

Stage 6: A new life.

 The focus shifts from the past to the future. Sometimes there is even an obsession with a new interest or life-style--new clothes and looks, drinking, seducing and partying, or complete involvement with work and planning a new career or volunteering to help in some social-political movement. Some are eager to find love again, others hate the opposite sex, others are scared of emotional involvement. In some ways it's like being a teenager again.

Stage 7: Healthy adjustment

 With luck, one emerges from a broken relationship wiser, tougher, stronger, and mellower. You have found some good friends and made reasonable plans for the future. You are no longer so worried you can't sleep at nights and, although life is hard, you are ready to move on to something better.

 Each person is different. Some skip stages; some get stuck in a stage; some slide through the stages quickly and silently. Seldom do a divorcing couple start and go through the same stages at the same time. The earlier a couple attends to problems, the better. It is an unending task of true lovers to be sure the fun and affection outweigh the boredom and resentment. If you are stuck in stage 2 or 3 for a few weeks and can't work it out or get your partner to seek counseling together, go by yourself. If you are still mourning a former relationship (that obviously had problems) after more than two or three months, seek some help with speeding up the recovery process.

 I have counseled many young people in the depths of agonizing depression following a break up with a boy/girl friend. Many felt the situation was terrible, almost unbearable (see cause #6 above). Indeed, some had thoughts of suicide. Yet, in my classes three-fourths or more of the students have broken up with someone they thought at the time was the best partner they could ever find. But, when I ask if that expectation has thus far proven to be true (that they couldn't find anyone as good), less than 5% say yes. There is an inexhaustible supply of people to love. It is a cruel hoax to imply that there is only one person for us to love. So, should you leave a strained relationship without regrets and pain? No, there is another way to look at it.

 Feeling terribly upset when losing a lover may be hard but desirable. After listening to the pain for hours, I have often asked a person who has just been rejected, "How would you rather react to such an important loss?" The point is: your sadness comes from your good traits--you were loving, devoted, caring, committed, trusting, and involved. You had given your whole self to the relationship. Isn't that the way you want to be? Isn't that the way you want your future partners to be? Would you really want to be so self-centered, so uninvolved that you could easily dismiss a love relationship? So, bear the unavoidable grief for a few weeks, then get on with building a future.

 It is commonly said that the cause of a break up or divorce is shared, that it's 50-50. That isn't necessarily so. It may be largely one person's responsibility--their needs, personality, irrational ideas, or emotional problems. It may be neither's responsibility; they may simply have different interests, values, opinions, life-style, etc. which are no one's fault. You don't need to assign blame, but it would be wise to understand what happened so the same problems can be avoided in the future. (Young children often blame themselves for their parents' divorce, how sad. Shaver and Rubenstein [1980] suggest this results in self-doubts and shaky relationships many years later.)

 How can you help yourself through the loss of love? Stearns (1984) deals with getting through a crisis. Many books specifically address marriage problems (see chapter 10) and divorce or breaking up (Fisher, 1981; Bloomfield, Colgrove & McWilliams, 1977; Gettleman & Markowitz, 1972; Kranitz, 1987; Krantzler, 1972; Krantzler, 1977; McKay, Rogers, Blades, & Gosse, 1984; Phillips & Judd, 1978; Weiss, 1975). Make use of one or two. Broder (1988) focuses more on coping as a single adult after a divorce. Books for children are by Gardner (1971), Franke (1983), and Richards and Willis (1976). Bernstein & Rudman (1988) review several books for children suffering through a separation or loss. The pain of divorce on adults and children is dealt with more extensively in chapter 10.

Some advice by parts of the problem

 Level I (behavior): Find a friend or two to talk to; really pour out your feelings. Accept the support offered by friends and family. Immediately put away all visible pictures, cards, clothes, anything that reminds you of the lost lover. You don't need constant reminders.

 If you are still "down" after 3 or 4 weeks of post-divorce grieving, find more things to do, go places, have some fun. Some people want to avoid the opposite sex for a while, but other people find that the best way to forget an old love is to go looking for a better love. When you are stronger, say 4 to 6 weeks after separating, take all the reminders of the former partner, even the out-of-sight ones, have a good cry, say goodbye to them, and throw or store them away permanently. It is time to start a new life.

 Level II (emotions): See the last section of this chapter and chapter 12. Desensitization or a "depression chair" may lessen the pain of remembering the past.

 Level III (skills): Social skills, assertiveness, and decision-making skills may be helpful (chapter 13).

 Level IV (cognition): Challenge the irrational thinking that leads to possessiveness and awfulizing (see cause #6 above and method #3 in chapter 14). Often, one person has trouble letting go during the break up. It is true that through marriage vows and thousands of soft utterances we pledge our undying commitment. We intended to love our spouse forever, but we can not control all our feelings; love can turn to indifference or hatred in spite of all our pledges. This is a reality that every lover must know, face, and accept. In life, being loved is a wonderful experience but it is not a "right" we can demand. We are not in control of love. Thought stopping (chapter 11) can reduce painful thoughts and fantasies.

 Faulty conclusions abound when falling in love and scrambling out of love. We make the partner into a saint, later the same person may be seen as an ogre. If you still think the departing partner is so wonderful you can't live without her/him, make a list of her/his faults or liabilities. If he/she seems to be awful, remember his/her good traits and realize there are reasons for his/her meanness. Each partner will benefit from considering the possibility of finding a better relationship. Gradually specific plans for a better life should emerge for both people. You have loved and been loved; it can happen again.

 Level V (unconscious factors): During the emotional turmoil of breaking off a relationship, sometimes hidden traits (in both people) are openly exposed, e.g. possessiveness, fear of responsibility or intimacy, self-centeredness, self-put downs or criticism of others, sexual self-doubts, irritating or self-defeating habits, and so on. To understand is to forgive. Insights into your own weaknesses can become self-help projects. The next relationship benefits from this growth.

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