Strategies for coping with the end of a relationship, Part I
The ending of a relationship is a difficult and painful time for both the leaver and the left. What follows focuses on the leaver’s experience. In “Strategies for coping with the ending of a relationship: Part II,” the experience of the one who is left will be the focus. Remember that your relationship is unique to the two individuals involved and the history of your relationship; however, drawing on human experience in general there can be coping skills that are helpful.
Coming together and falling in love and coming apart and moving on are part and parcel of life. Divorce statistics alone suggest that coming apart is a potential outcome. Nonetheless, the culture promotes the myths that “love is forever” and “love conquers all” and is therefore unconditional. So if your relationship ends then you must have done something wrong or something must be wrong with you. In fact not all relationships last forever. They are part of the process of life, not a destination. Rarely do two people arrive at the ending of a relationship on equal terms: someone usually leaves, often emotionally first and then physically and someone is left, often bewildered and hurt. We have lots of courtship rituals enmeshed in the fabric of the culture that provide information on how to woo a potential lover. But after that, the couple is pretty much on their own to deal with what goes on during the various stages of relationship including a breaking-up stage, should it occur. During a break-up there are natural processes that occur and things that can move the process along to ultimate healing and behaviors that can effect the process more negatively.
Remember those days in the early stages of your relationship, sometime referred to as the joining or honeymoon stage? “We could finish each other sentence”. “We felt like we were made for each other”. In break-up it can feel like you were never really loved “or you would never be doing this to me”. You can feel totally out of sink with each other and that is partly because you are each in a different phase of the break-up process.
It is painful to leave someone you once loved and whom you felt was your soul-mate and life-partner. It is painful to look into your partner’s eyes and say, “I don’t love you anymore” or “I have to move on with my life”. By the time the leaver announces their intention they have already gone through a process (often long) of assessing the relationship, trying to fix it, trying to live with their sense of disappointment in both themselves and their partner, maybe sought counseling, felt guilty, angry, fearful of the future, gotten depressed, pulled away emotionally and/or physically and finally made a decision. After all that the decision itself can be felt as a relief. The left too may sense something is wrong but remains hopeful that “it will all just work out like it has in the past”. In reality both the leaver and the left experience similar processes but the timing for each is very different as is the felt experience of being in control.
Once the leaver has made the decision to part there are some behaviors that can reduce the overall emotional distress and move the process of detaching forward.
THE PERIOD BEFORE THE ANNOUNCEMENT
Since emotional detachment (feeling uncomfortable being around your partner) is occurring the left may ask, “What’s wrong?” Try not to make them feel “crazy” by saying “Nothing’s wrong.” Instead mention that things have been tense and uncomfortable and that you have become more inward. Develop a plan for leaving if you live together that includes a leaving date and stick to it. Don’t be fooled if things suddenly improve. That usually occurs because the couple is afraid of the next step not because things have really improved.
Once you have clarity sit face to face with your partner and calmly state your decision. It’s OK to express your sadness, even cry but try not to be angry in this moment. Since explanations aren’t generally heard at this time (but they are often asked for) don’t be wordy or blaming. Remember that as you have been unhappy so has your partner albeit to a lesser extent even if they “forgot” or insist it can get better. They are in the bargaining stage and you by now are past that so don’t revisit it or get caught making promises you won’t keep. “I am sorry but for me it is over and I have to move on”.
Many people at this stage try to move from lover to friend as a way of softening the blow and maintaining contact. Generally this doesn’t work so avoid asking for or promising it. You really don’t know what the future will hold so stick to what is occurring now. If you have trouble with words or anticipate interruptions then write down what you have to say and sit with them while they read it. Try not to be seductive literally or figuratively. Don’t have sex “one last time”. Later your ex will feel used. Move on by finding and/or using your own support system and let you ex-partner have theirs. Calling a lot “to just see how you are doing” usually fosters false hope and can engender anger (“If you really cared you wouldn’t have left”). If you both need to maintain some contact try to make it predictable, same day and time, and not frequent.
Give yourself time to grieve the actual loss which, up until you left, was only anticipated loss. For the leaver making and then acting on the decision to leave often provides a sense of relief at first. But once you are on your own again the reasons you left start to recede into the background and the things you liked about the relationship are often remembered. Grieve those losses. Try not to jump into another relationship to soon. Redevelop your independent self and let yourself get back on an even keel. How long this takes depends on the person and the length of time you were in the relationship.