As the holiday season approaches, if you are celebrating, there is perhaps one certainty that can be applied that does not depend on your ethnic or cultural background or even your religious beliefs. It may be a season for sharing and being together with family and loved ones but the extra pressures that it entails means it is also the worst season of the year for arguments and relationship break-ups. In my previous life as a counsellor in London, the dark days or January always saw a surge in people wanting a first appointment, which ran parallel with an annual mini-boom in the demand for small apartment and flats to cater for the fallout from so many unhappy endings. However, because this year’s break-up season seems to have started unusually early for some of my friends and acquaintances; it seems like a good time to reflect on a process that almost all of us will experience, sooner or later.
The end of relationships can be complicated, no matter how bad things were, but it is very rarely a spontaneous event that catches both people unawares. More often than not, one of you, usually the one who ultimately declares the party over, has moved on in their own minds at least and concluded that it was over sometime before that final, difficult, highly charged or even gentle conversation, which takes at least one of you by surprise. All too often the end of a relationship feels like a death, of sorts even if you are the one who initiated the breakup and believe that it is the best thing for all involved, therefore the letting go of a relationship often follows a similar process as mourning after a death.
Over the years many people have tried to hang a process on what to expect after the end of a relationship but Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ groundbreaking book On Death and Dying, regarded as the standard for explaining the 5 stages of grieving experienced when one learns that they are dying, is now often used to describe the process of grieving the death of a loved one or grieving the end of a relationship. However, I would like to add a 6th stage to her model, when describing break-ups, which is based on both my personal experience and those I have observed professionally over the years:
1. Denial – In this stage our heart rather than our head rules our belief system as we try to adjust to the idea of life without the person we’re losing. Even though we know the relationship is over, we don’t really believe it. Against the better judgment of everyone around us, we can’t help but entertain fantasies of things somehow working out. We see hidden glimmers of hope buried in clear indications that it’s over. This is the phase when we are most susceptible to late night texting.
2. Anger – It can manifest in many different ways – anger at your ex (“How could they do this to me?), anger at the universe or God (“Why can’t anything ever work out for me? Am I cursed?”), anger at the people or situations associated with the break-up, anger at the other woman; anger that your partner “changed” after they lost their job, or anger at the people who don’t stand with your anger (“Can you believe they still want to be friends with him after what he did to me?”). This is the phase where we think it’s a great idea to tell everyone and anyone what a delusional idiot or possessive and jealous bastard your ex was, or send them hateful texts or emails because you don’t want them thinking they got away with it.
3. Bargaining – Bargaining often runs parallel with denial. Bargaining can involve searching for any possible way to make the relationship work through negotiation, threats or even black magic. Perhaps promising your ex that you will change, or go to therapy, or telling them they are hurting the children, your separate families, even the cat by leaving. During this stage, you are at risk of taking up a new interest in tarot cards, astrology or any other hocus-pocus that will forecast a reunion.
4. Depression – Just like anger, depression surfaces in many different forms. You feel tired all the time and may want to do nothing but lay in bed feeling tearful. This is when you begin to feel disconnected from people even while you’re with them. You may also have trouble sleeping or sleep too much, or lose your appetite or overeat, or maybe start hitting the bottle or taking drugs. However, it’s a feeling of hopelessness that can feel most debilitating, because it can make us feel like you’ll never move on and that nothing will ever work out again.
5. Acceptance – This is the stage in which we can make peace with our loss. It rarely comes on suddenly, more gradually, little by little, interspersed with some of the other stages. Acceptance doesn’t always involve sunshine and smiles – there is almost certain to be lingering sadness. Acceptance entails letting go of the relationship and slowly moving forward with your life. There may be times when we feel like this stage will never come, which usually means you are still struggling in an earlier phase.
6. Forgetting – Even with full acceptance your ex may take a while to distil into the background noise of your life. In Stage 1 you may have thought about them every hour, even every minute, but when you notice you have gone a few days, or even a full week, without ever thinking about them, quite possibly because you are happily immersed within a new relationship. It is only then that you can say you are truly over it.
Finally, knowing your stage can help normalize your break-up experience. But remember there are no ‘normal’ time limits and no rushing the process. Grieving is like digestion: there is little you can do to speed it up. It takes time to get through it. But take heart in the fact that break-up grief, like everything else, will eventually pass. Also never forget that few things last forever, so the end of a relationship shouldn’t be regarded as a failure; that is just a myth created by Hollywood movies and society. If it ends, it ends because it has run its natural course – so all the finger pointing in the world will rarely change that fact. For most of us, there will be new people new loves, who will often appear when you least expect them to. So never let a break-up blight the rest of your life, like some people do, and always remember Tennyson’s famous line:
Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.