NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Relationships: Coping With the Stages of a Breakup

Anyone who has ever gone through a breakup knows that it's hard and that, in most cases, it's a process. That will mean different things to different couples.  For some couples it might mean that they go back and forth, breaking up and getting back together several times before they completely end it. Other couples might try to change their relationship from being monogamous to opening up the relationship so they can each see other people.  Some couples might want to transition from being lovers to being friends (see my articles: Overcoming the Heartbreak of a BreakupBeing Honest About Your Relationship: Are You Really "Taking Time Apart" or Are You Breaking Up? and Can You and Your Ex Transition From Being Lovers to Being Friends?).

Relationships: Coping With the Stages of a Breakup

The emotional attachment that each person feels for the other usually doesn't end on the day they break up--even if it's a final decision after much going back and forth.  Instead, over time, the feelings usually decrease gradually.  But for many people, if the relationship was significant and there wasn't a major betrayal, feelings of love often remain, and many people say, "My ex will always have a special place in my heart."

No one wants to go through the emotional pain of a breakup, but go through it you must if you're going to remain true to your feelings and not shutdown emotionally.

Even if you're the one who initiated the breakup and know that it's best for both of you, it's still a major loss to contend with and usually brings up emotions about prior significant losses.  Sometimes it's hard to distinguish the emotional pain from the current loss from whatever it's triggering from the past (see my article: Reacting to the Present Based on Your Traumatic Past).

Many people remain in a relationship that has, for all intents and purposes, ended on an emotional level because they don't want to go through the pain of the loss or go through the process of trying to meet someone new.  Their attitude is, "The devil I know is better than the devil I don't know."

But there is a price to pay for remaining in a relationship that has already run its course because in order to remain in that kind of relationship, people often need to numb their feelings.  Also, the dissatisfaction of being in the relationship can get displaced in other ways with irritability, anger, feelings of being stuck, and so on.

On the opposite end of the spectrum are people who are quick to end a relationship because they're obsessed with the idea that there might be "someone better" for them.  This is a particular mindset that some people have that's exacerbated by the many dating apps where there are thousands of choices for a potential "better" partner (whatever "better" means to the particular person).

This can lead to an overall devaluing of an existing partner and the idea that romantic partners are expendable and exchangeable for an "upgrade" at any time.  So, it you're unhappy with something in your relationship, rather than trying to work on it, you can just search for someone new.

Coping With the Stages of a Breakup:
The following stages of a breakup are the some of the same basic stages of any loss.  Although these stages are listed in a particular order, you might experience them in a completely different order.  Also, it's likely that you'll go back and forth between the stages rather than going through each one in a linear manner.
  • Shock:  Even if you're the one who wanted to break up, the reality of the breakup and how it affects you can come as a shock.  Except for the most extreme cases, you might initially feel some ambivalence about breaking up, especially as you go through painful emotions.  If you're not the one who wanted the breakup, you might really be shocked when your partner lets you know that s/he wants to end it.  You can go through a period when the breakup feels unreal or like you're dreaming because you're so shocked.
  • A Need For Answers and "Closure": Whether the breakup is mutually agreed to, you wanted it or your partner wanted it, there are often many unanswered questions about why things didn't work out between the two of you.  Many people mistakenly think that if they could only understand what happened, they would feel better about the breakup.  While it might help somewhat, going through a breakup isn't a cognitive process so much as it's an emotional process.  So, even if you have all the so-called answers to your questions, it still might not make sense to you on an emotional level.  For some people this becomes an obsessive quest for "closure" which often doesn't help because the breakup still doesn't make sense to you emotionally, and a conversation for closure often just leads to other questions: "But why?" "Why don't you love me anymore?" (see my article: Coping With a Breakup When Closure With Your Ex Isn't Possible and When the Need for Closure Turns Into Harassment).
  • Denial:  If the breakup is very hard for you to deal with, especially if you didn't want it, you might go through a phase of denial where you tell yourself that your ex isn't really leaving you.  You might convince yourself that your ex is going through a phase and s/he'll come back when s/he realizes how awful it is to be without you.  At this point, it's too painful for you to accept that the relationship is over and you would rather believe that there is some mistake than accept the end.
  • Bargaining: If you didn't want the breakup, rather than face the pain of the breakup, you try to bargain with your ex that you'll make everything right in the relationship--whatever it takes.  Things that you weren't willing to do before now seem palatable to you as compared with dealing with the pain of loss.  In most cases, this is a way of delaying acceptance and facing the unknown.  This is especially true for people who don't like to be alone and would rather remain in an unsatisfactory relationship than be alone.
  • Anger:  If you didn't want the breakup, you might feel very angry with your ex because you feel s/he caused you to feel pain.  You might experience the end of the relationship as something that is being "done" to you rather than an acknowledgement that things weren't working out.  Depending upon your temperament, you might take out your anger on your ex, your other loved ones or yourself.  Anger often hides profound sadness, and many people would rather feel anger than sadness.  But anger can also be used to mobilize yourself to make healthy changes for yourself when you're ready to do it (see my article: Anger as a Secondary Emotion).
  • Acceptance:  Unfortunately, not everyone gets to this stage.  While there is no denying the fact that the relationship is over, on an emotional level, many people remain in a limbo state hoping that they will reunite with their ex--despite significant evidence to the contrary.  These people can neither go back nor move forward and remain stuck.  However, most people go through an initial stage of acceptance.  They might not be happy about the breakup, but after a while, they begin to see new possibilities for themselves.  As time goes on, acceptance takes on new meaning and most people begin to feel hopeful again.
Whether you initiated the breakup, the breakup was mutually agreed to or your partner ended the relationship, breakups can be challenging, especially if they trigger earlier losses.  

The stages of a breakup and the feelings of loss aren't sequential or linear.  Some people go back and forth between the different stages many times before they reach an initial level of acceptance.  

Acceptance doesn't come all at once.  After the shock, denial, anger, bargaining and need for answers and closure stages, acceptance might be paper thin.  It might start with accepting the fact that the breakup is real and you're not getting back together again.  As time goes on, acceptance can take on new meaning and can lead to feeling hopeful again.

Getting Help in Therapy
If you're struggling with the loss of a breakup, being kind and patient with yourself will help you.  But if you find that after a period of time, you're still struggling, you could benefit from the help of a licensed mental health professional.

A skilled psychotherapist can help you to go through the loss so you can accept the end and come out on the other side feeling hopeful (see my article: How to Choose a Psychotherapist).

Rather than struggling on your own, seeking help when you're in an emotional crisis can help you to mourn the breakup so you can move on and lead the fulfilling life that you deserve.

About Me
I am a licensed New York City psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR, Somatic Experiencing and AEDP therapist who works with individual adults and couples (see my article: The Therapeutic Benefits of Integrative Psychotherapy).

I use Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) for couples, which is a well researched, evidence-based therapy that is effective in helping people deal with relationship problems.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.