“It just hit me out of the blue when Mike left me. We hadn’t really been together all that long, but I thought I’d finally found my true soul mate. Now it’s over and I feel totally rejected, like nobody’s ever going to want me again. It’s so hard finding a decent guy and now I have to start all over again; I don’t know if I can. I feel like a failure at relationships. I just don’t know what to do.” –Eric
“Steve and I broke up after eight years together. The house feels so empty without him and the pain can be so unbearable at times. The loneliness is the worst part for me and it’s like there’s this big hole inside of me, this nagging hurt that won’t go away. I think about him all the time and wonder if I’m ever going to get over him. I’ve never felt more alone and confused in my life.” –Josh
The ending of a relationship, for whatever reason, can be one of the most painful experiences that we can go through. Having made ourselves vulnerable by opening our hearts to another and loving him to the fullest capacity almost feels spiritual; now it’s been replaced with a crushing sense of loss and emptiness that feels quite devastating. The length of time together, the quality of the relationship, and the level of emotional investment in it all determine the intensity of the grief experienced when you and your lover part ways.
This article will explore the grieving process involved with relationship breakups and offer tips and strategies for facilitating your grief to move you toward healing so you can start your life over on better footing.
The Grieving Experience
The experience of breaking up with a boyfriend or partner can be likened to a death, with layer upon layer of losses resulting. Not only is his absent physical presence felt as a loss, but other losses like hopes, dreams, expectations, identity, security, and trust compound and complicate your adjustment. Life as you know it has been shaken and your vision for your future has been altered. You experience a roller-coaster of emotions. It’s common to feel rejected, abandoned, insecure, powerless, and hopeless. Confusion and feeling a sense of failure and regret are common, as well as varying degrees of anger, depression, and guilt. You might even become preoccupied with your ex-lover, obsessing about him and thinking constantly about your life together and what he might be doing now.
In her book, “Healing A Broken Heart”(1997), Nancy Joy Carroll, ED.D outlines four stages of relationship loss that are common in the aftermath of a breakup. They include the following:
Stage 1: Shock & Denial: This usually occurs immediately after the split-up. You might feel numb, believe that this can’t be happening and minimize the reality of the situation. You feel sad, angry, confused, and might blame yourself.
Stage 2: Despair: You begin to see that the ending is inevitable and experience profound sadness, loneliness, depression, and impaired concentration. You might try to bargain with your partner to try to convince him to give the relationship another chance. You idealize your partner. You feel unlovable, wondering if you can make it on your own, and feel a loss of identity.
Stage 3: Detachment: Anger becomes more pronounced and you begin to hold your partner more responsible for the relationship split. This stage is particularly helpful as your anger helps to create some distance for you from him and you’re not as enmeshed.
Stage 4: Recovery: In this final stage, you come to an acceptance of the loss and learn to “let go”, redefining yourself as a single man again and feel more empowered to cultivate new experiences and opportunities for personal growth.
Tips Along the Grief Path
You are going through a major shift in your identity. Be patient and kind with yourself as you journey through the grieving process. Keep these tips in mind as you forage through the pain you’re experiencing to prevent any blocks or impediments along the path of healing. It can be a rocky road, but staying focused and conscious will promote a smoother and more successful transition to the “new you.”
- Everyone grieves at their own rate and pace; there’s no timeline, so don’t rush yourself. It can sometimes take years.
- As you go through the stages of loss, be aware that healing is not linear. Expect to progress up and down through the stages. Endure through it.
- Avoid stuffing your feelings; be open to them no matter how much it hurts. Suppressing your emotions only puts a temporary band-aid on your suffering and prolongs your healing. It’s ok to cry.
- Avoid self-medicating your feelings. Beware of alcohol, drugs, gambling, work, food, sex, or other vices to comfort yourself during this difficult time. These can distract from your grieving work and become addictions.
- Depression and anxiety are common emotions during this time period. Should their experience interfere with your daily functioning or accomplishment of daily tasks, seek assistance from a licensed mental health therapist.
- Earlier losses and unfinished business from the past can be triggered when you encounter relationship loss. Be prepared to deal with these as well.
- Avoid making major life decisions. Allow yourself time to get more grounded and centered first. Grief can have a tricky way of clouding our judgment if not careful.
- Avoid jumping into another relationship right away. Grieve this one completely first.
- Ignore others’ attempts to tell you how you should feel or that you should “be over it by now.” They didn’t live your experience and they are typically projecting their own discomfort with loss and grief.
- Avoid being friends with your ex initially. It’s common for gay men to remain friends with their ex-boyfriends; decide for yourself if this is something that you would be able to do, and if so, allow yourself some time and space first to grieve. It can be very difficult to transition from “life partner” to “just friends” immediately after a breakup. You need time to heal to be able to appropriately view your ex in a new role.
Additional Healing Tips & Strategies
- Provide a daily structure for yourself to keep grounded. Stay busy, but not too busy that you get distracted from your emotional work.
- Get connected with others. Surround yourself with positive, supportive friends and get engaged with life, no matter how hard it is. Join a grief support group in your area to be with others who can share similar circumstances with you and normalize your grief.
- Find a renewed sense of purpose and passion. Join an organization or a cause you care about, take a class, cultivate a new hobby, get involved! Bring healthy pleasure into your life.
- Learn to be comfortable being alone. Do some self-soothing and nurturing activities. Find value in self-renewal.
- Take this opportunity to learn more about yourself. Work with a life coach to help you learn about healthy relationships and crafting a new vision for your future. Recognize patterns in your relationships and identify areas where you can improve your relationship skills.
- Challenge negative self-talk by replacing it with more enhancing, affirming, coping thoughts. Identify your strengths and value to boost your self-esteem. Use the power of affirmations and write them on index cards for quick reference.
- Remove items that remind you of your ex-lover and tuck them away somewhere so they’re not a constant visual trigger for you. There will come a time when they won’t be so jarring to you.
- Create a ritual of closure for your relationship (eg. throw a “I’m moving on” party with close friends, etc.) Find a way to commemorate the relationship and what it meant to you to aid in “letting go.”
- Create a scrapbook or collage of memories of your relationship when you’re ready.
- Release your feelings productively. Take out several sheets of paper and at the top of each write an emotion you feel (sad, angry, hurt, resentful, etc.). Then down the side of the full length of the paper, write “I feel…” and fill in the blank about that particular emotion to release all the feelings you have regarding that as it pertains to your relationship grief. Do some self-soothing afterwards.
- Keep a journal or write your ex-lover a letter sharing your feelings and what the relationship meant to you, etc. DO NOT SEND THIS TO YOUR EX! This is for your therapeutic benefit only. Or talk to an empty chair pretending your ex is sitting there and practice processing your emotions this way. This can be extremely cathartic.
Breaking up is hard to do, as an old song once put it. Realize that your pain is a tribute to the significance that this relationship held for you and that you are a survivor. How you choose to deal with the breakup will impact the direction of your life and how soon you will be able to rebuild your life. Identify healthy outlets that you can channel your feelings toward, pinpoint potential blocks that could get in the way of your healing process, and allow yourself to be open to love again when you’re ready. A new beginning with opportunity and possibility awaits you on the other side of the rainbow.
Reference: Carroll, Nancy Joy. Healing A Broken Heart: A Recovery Handbook for Relationship Loss. Brentwood, TN: Life Skills Publications, 1997.