Surviving the

Breakup of

A Relationship

[Editor's note: This chapter, which has been reproduced in print in various places, has reportedly helped many people survive the ending of a relationship.]

       The breakup of an important love relationship is the most traumatic of human experiences.

In many ways we can more easily cope with the death of a loved one. Although we don't understand death, at least we understand its finality.

With the breakup of a relationship, days and weeks of lingering and haunting "what ifs" often follow. The pain can penetrate every fiber of our being.

In the days following the breakup we think of little else than the one we loved and trusted, the one we had so much invested in.

Everywhere we go we are reminded of them -- a face in a crowd, the flash of a familiar shirt, a distant voice.

In an effort to get away from things we may take a trip, only to find how things we see and hear constantly remind us of that loved one.

Confronting Your Self-Doubts 

       And then there are the haunting doubts.

If the breakup came after a long and painful decision on your part, you may constantly "replay" conversations and constantly reevaluate the "evidence." Possibly your decision was too hasty; possibly the culprit was your pride; possibly a really honest and open discussion would have cleared things up.

There are thousands of "ifs," "possiblys," and "maybes."

If the other person made the decision to break off the relationship, in addition to your pain you are left with a feeling of helplessness.

Possibly they misunderstood something; maybe they would change their mind if you could only explain; possibly they heard something that wasn't true.

And if you, by chance, you did something in a weak moment to cause the breakup, you may then be left with the extra pain and burden of remorse and guilt piled on top of the pain of separation.

And then there are your well-meaning friends with their misguided efforts at trying to cheer you up.

       When Randy's relationship broke up, he decided to get away from things by taking a long trip to an ocean village.

 When he arrived he wanted to treat himself to an expensive restaurant with an ocean view.

The table he found had a perfect view of the water and the serenity was just what he needed. When the waitress arrived she said, "Sir, would you mind doing me a big favor and moving to one of the [smaller] tables? We try to reserve these for couples."

As Randy looked around he saw that the nearby tables were occupied by couples. He glanced at the table in the back that she was suggesting.

Randy forced a painful smile and said, "I see that table also seats two, so I'll tell you what I'll do. I'll do you an even bigger favor and just leave."

       Studies have shown that individuals get over a relationship faster and with fewer long-term effects if they don't try to transfer all the blame on the other person.

Dealing With The Hurt

       While struggling with the pains of separation, you might envy those "swinging singles" who seem to have an "easy come, easy go" attitude about relationships. It may come as some consolation to know that you are fortunate in having the ability to feel the love (and pain) involved in a relationship.

Despite our vulnerability, and despite the pain we may regularly suffer when we lose love, we are much better off than the people who are unable to develop deep and meaningful relationships.

Without the ability to truly know love, they are forced to remain "outsiders" and "observers" to life's most important human experience.

Even so, the pain of separation hurts, and it hurts very badly.

Witness the endless parade of heartbreak songs that have been published, or review the writings of poets and novelists over the centuries. Your experience has been shared by billions who have preceded you, and your hurt will be experienced by billions more who will follow.

       If you only knew it, there are thousands all around you right now who are feeling the pain of separation and the emptiness of lost love.

Some people in anger say, "I will never allow this to happen again." That's just another way of saying, "I will never love again."

Sure, for a while it may be necessary to withdraw while healing takes place. But shutting yourself off from the possibility of love over a long period of time stagnates your life, and it may even eventually send you into a slow, spiraling descent of general withdrawal and despair.

        It is said that women take the breakup of a relationship harder than men. Rhonda's experience is not uncommon.

I thought everything was fine. We had made plans...talked about marriage, where we would live, what kind of a house we would have, everything.

And suddenly his feelings started to cool.  He just lost interest.... He didn't really tell me why other than he just came to the conclusion that he didn't think it was working between us. He was really sorry, he said and [then]...he made it totally clear that it was over.

Maybe I should have forced him to explain, find out why. But in my anger and hurt I figured if he could treat me like that, I really didn't want anything to do with him -- now or ever.

[In the days that passed] I really thought he would call, tell me that there had been some sort of a misunderstanding....

       After a week, it really hit me. He meant it; he wasn't going to call; it was really over!

I went into a depression you wouldn't believe. I cried day and night. I would constantly wake up during the night with a really sick feeling in the bottom of my stomach. And there was a kind of a pain in my body that was like no other. I took three days off work -- "flu" I called it.

I decided to take a trip. But soon as I got there, I wanted to come back. I thought maybe he would try to call my home and I wouldn't be there.

He didn't call.

Then I started worrying that maybe something was wrong with him; maybe he had an accident or something, so in a weak moment I called him, and when he answered, he sounded cheerful. I couldn't say anything, so I just hung up.

Finally...I took down all his pictures and I packed up everything he had given me -- clothes, the little stuffed toys on the bed that I loved so much, everything -- and I packed it all in a big suitcase and put it in the garage. ...and then I cried all night.

    took long walks, just wandered around aimlessly. After three days when my "flu" was over, I went back to work.

Everybody said I looked awful and that I should take a few more days off. But I couldn't stand being by myself any more.

I started doing my work like some sort of robot.... I figured if I could just survive a couple weeks, maybe until the end of April, the hurt would start to go away.

It got to be my goal just to get through each day...then the end of the week...and then the end of the month. I even started "x'ing" the days out on a calendar, until the end of the month, just like prisoners are supposed to do.

I jogged for an hour every night so I would be so tired I could go to sleep. Sometimes it worked.

Rhonda later said that it took her over six months just to be able to go through a day without feeling the pangs of hurt and bitterness.

Although each of our experiences is different, each shares the common element of self-doubt, pain, disappointment, and despair.

Are there ways to speed the healing; ease the pain?

Ways of Coping With the Loss  

       Each of us is different; there is no one best way to cope with the breakup of a relationship.

Some people find that it helps to lose themselves in the company of friends. Some don't want to be around people. Some people find it helps to get away to an entirely different set of conditions. But this didn't work for Rhonda.

Some immediately try to look for a new love interest. Most who try this find that until they get over a previous love, a successful new relationship is impossible.

Nevertheless, there are some important guidelines for coping.

First, don't try to immediately repress the hurt. You may only succeed in pushing it beneath the surface where it will eventually manifest in some undesirable, hard-to-uncover form -- a general mistrust of affection, a lowered self-concept, general hostility, or whatever.

If you feel like crying, cry. If you feel like ripping up a pillow, rip it up. If it feels good to tear the person's pictures in a thousand pieces and then set fire to them, do that too.  As long as you know that afterward you can live with whatever you do, fine.

       So the first step is to accept your hurt as normal and expected. Confront it openly and honestly, but in small, manageable doses.

It's perfectly all right to feel totally miserable. You are not "weak." You don't have to apologize or explain to anyone. In short, accept your hurt as normal and expected, and allow yourself the opportunity to openly work through it.

It's much better to spend a measured amount of time totally "getting into" the hurt you feel. Keep a grip on things but totally allow yourself to experience your feelings.

If you try to suppress your anger and hurt, the residual effects will linger on and on, and continue to negatively affect other things in your life  — including efforts to form successful new relationships.

Then after a reasonable amount of time "walk away" from it and leave it behind, while simultaneously making a conscious effort to open the door to other things in your life.

Not easy, but many people have found that it's one of the most successful coping approaches known.

       If you feel that the fault or failure in the relationship was yours, don't be afraid to accept the responsibility. So you made a mistake. Acknowledge your failure and resolve that it's one mistake you won't make again. Contrary to everything you may be feeling, it's not the end of the world.

Try to overcome the emotional dependency represented by the relationship. If possible, plan a full schedule of things that will give you a personal sense of accomplishment and adequacy.

Sometimes one door has to close before another one can open.


The Value of Distractions  

       Distractions can help you deal with your feelings in tolerable stages. A distraction may be the company of friends, a long trip, if you have that luxury, or the launching of major and maybe physically-demanding, spare-time project (if you can force yourself into one).

Keep yourself occupied. Physical activities -- jogging, swimming, tennis -- are good therapy. And, as in the case of Rhonda, they will probably also help you sleep.

 As many people know, just "making it through the night" is often the most difficult part of each day.

You don't need photos or gifts around you that will constantly remind you of the person. Pack them all up and put them away where you can't see them.

In a year, or maybe two or three years, you might go through them and keep the things you want and throw out the rest.

In five years you might like to put a few of the photos in your album along with some other pictures of important people and things in your life.

"And This Too Shall Pass"

       Remember, as time passes, you will have an entirely different perspective on things. But, for right now, avoid the reminders. If it's obvious that the relationship is (or should be) over, take the "cold turkey" approach. Don't constantly "replay" or reexamine conversations or arguments you remember.

Yes, in time you will want to evaluate the relationship, to honestly admit its good and bad points, its rewards and its problems. But unless you know that a major error was made, something that can and should be fixed, walk away from the relationship and leave it behind. Make a clean and complete break. Wounds will heal faster if you don't risk constantly reopening them.

       Although you may believe at this point that you will never love again, try to remember that (given a chance) human beings are very adaptable and that there is not just one, "right person" in the world for any of us.

The concept of a "soul mate" may be an attractive and romantic one, but as many people who have lost their "soul mate" have found, not only can they love again, but they can often find someone who they can love at least just as deeply.

And for you, know that the next time you will be a wiser person, a person who has benefited by experience and is now more capable of a successful relationship.

 One final word. We said earlier that in surviving the breakup of a relationship we need to work through feelings of "emotional dependency." Much of the pain we experience after breaking off a relationship is centered in that dependency.

In working through the end of a relationship most people find, or are forced to find, a new inner strength and adequacy.

       Although people are important to our lives and happiness, no one person should be allowed to be absolutely essential to that happiness.

If you feel that you "can't live without someone," know that such dependency betrays your own innate worth and sense of adequacy. By divesting responsibility for our own welfare we make ourselves vulnerable and we can easily be manipulated.

Above all, we must assume responsibility for ourselves. A truly solid relationship can only result from the blending of two truly solid people.

       When a relationship ends painfully, we may have to face our need to assert ourselves and build our own capability as a separate, adequate human being.

Five years from now you may realize that the pain you went through only marked the beginning of a new sense of strength and personal adequacy.

As you have no doubt discovered, the painful events of our lives have a way of forcing us to grow.

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