Grieving When Your Relationship Ends: The 3 Important Phases
Whether you are the one who has made the decision to end your relationship, or are the one on the receiving end of your partner telling you they no longer want to be with you, the ending of a relationship really hurts.
If you are the one who has come to the end of your tether and can’t go on any more, your grieving will have started well before you end the relationship.
For your partner, their grieving may not start until after the “ending conversation” and subsequent separating.
Susan Elliott has grouped the usual stages of grieving into 3 phases of grief specifically for when a relationship ends which can help you more easily understand what you are currently going through.
The 3 phases usually don’t follow a straight line though. You will find yourself slipping back and forward between these, and will also probably cycle a few times through them before coming out the other end, by which time you will find you have come to a fuller acceptance of what has happened and have emotionally detached from your ex-partner.
The most important thing to remember is to be gentle with yourself during this grieving time, and give yourself plenty of time to feel all of your feelings, sharing them with a trusted friend, writing about them in a journal, or talking with a Psychologist specialising in relationships.
What not to do
Too many people mistakenly think it’s best to keep themselves busy, by throwing themselves into work, drinking more, shopping till you drop, or any other kind of distraction. But this only prolongs your misery. Emotions not felt and processed stagnate in your system, keeping you tethered to the trauma and not being able to move on.
Stage 1 – Shock and Disbelief
If you are the one that didn’t see it coming, you can feel like you’ve been punched in the guts and be in shock for quite a while. It can feel like you are now in a void which makes you feel lost and alone with no solid ground.
Sometimes in shock, your mind just wants to shut down and not feel the reality of it all for a while, but soon this lifts and a flush of other emotions emerge.
Sad and devastated
Whether a relationship ends suddenly or is premeditated, there is still an adjustment to the loss for each of you, which leaves you feeling sad, disappointed and devastated.
After all, you have lost all the time, energy and emotion you have put into the relationship. You have lost all your hopes and dreams for a happy shared future together. You are now without your identity as a couple and your ability to do all your usual couple things together, as well as often having lost some mutual friends or family members.
Hurt and rejected
If you are the one that has been left, you will usually feel hurt and rejected, and maybe humiliated and embarrassed, and then sometimes back to numbness again.
Try not to shut down these feelings. Even though they initially feel hard to sit with, once you get started, it becomes easier to be with, and the more you are with them, the shorter time it takes to work through them. Remember to be gentle with yourself while doing this.
At this stage you might talk yourself into thinking that the relationship separation is only temporary and that down the track you will get back together again. But this too can be a trap, as it keeps you stuck in playing the waiting game and not fully grieving the loss.
So, unless you have both explicitly talked about the possibility of reconciliation, it is far safer to proceed with your emotional letting go process.
Stage 2 – Great emotion, review and relinquishment
Once the shock wears off, you are usually left with the big emotions of grief and devastation. If it has ended because your partner has been unfaithful or lied or abused you in some way, it is even more devastating for you. You may feel worse than you have ever felt before in your life.
The pain of heartbreak can come in unpredictable spasms and can feel surreal while you are experiencing it, as you disconnect from everyone else and find even the smallest of tasks difficult.
The intensity of your emotions may feel scary, but this is the normal process of grieving a great loss.
There may be really difficult periods here, but thankfully your grief won’t last forever.
It is normal for you to ruminate endlessly about your relationship and your ex-partner at this stage and this is actually healthy for your healing. Your mind can switch to overdrive, randomly remembering both the good and the bad times and trying to make sense of it.
Disorganised and confused
You may feel disorganised and confused which is also very normal, and may be unable to sleep, or alternatively sleep too much, and you may also lose your appetite. You may feel mentally scattered and overwhelmed.
At this stage give yourself permission to fall apart. If your memory is suffering, don’t give yourself a hard time about it. Be gentle with yourself. You are grieving and it’s time to be kind to yourself.
Anger and rage
You may also start to feel anger and even rage, and this is very appropriate for you to feel, as something has been taken away from you. It’s very important to know how to handle your anger though.
Suppressing it is not healthy. I am sure you will know people who are almost always in a bad mood, or irritated all the time. This is what happens to those who try to suppress their genuine anger in their life.
Neither is acting out and lashing out a healthy option.
The best way to handle your angry feelings is to express them in ways that get it out, but don’t harm others, like writing in your journal, sharing with a friend or Psychologist (link), thrashing into a pillow, or having a “conscious rant” where you spend a few minutes in private yelling your anger out.
Guilt is also a normal part of the grieving process. No matter how well you might have behaved in your relationship, none of us are perfect and there will be things you remember that you think you might have been able to do better. Be careful though to accept what has been done. We can’t go back and change the past.
However, if you are realising that there are things you could have done better, perhaps you could apologise to your ex-partner, which usually helps the healing process for both of you.
Often the feeling of being in a void now that many of your normal supports and structures have disappeared or changed can have you feeling anxious about what may become of you. Where is my safe place? How will I get through this? What will I do next?
You can help manage your anxiety by some self- soothing activities, like creating a sanctuary in your bedroom or lounge using candle light and relaxing music to help settle you, and continue allowing you to feel your feelings, and try and keep open to what new things may now be available to you that you never contemplated before.
It is very true that when one door closes, another one opens. You may not be able to see any other doors just yet, but be aware that being in a void does allow you many options for the future.
It is very normal to have a mixture of any feelings, or even none, at any one time. Don’t worry about going crazy if your feelings are all over the place. Just be kind to yourself and be in allowance of what is there, or is not there for you at any particular time.
Pining and searching
Because when we lose something, our mind automatically goes looking for it, you can find yourself pining and searching for your lost love, and you can find that you often want them back when you are feeling the weakest. This is extremely uncomfortable when you are going through it, with often strong urges to contact your former partner.
While the urge is very natural for you to have, it is definitely not a good idea to contact them when this urge comes over you. This is a low point in your grieving process and you don’t want to be showing yourself at your weakest point, as there will be no good that comes from contact at this time. Instead try writing in your journal, perhaps even write a letter to your ex, but don’t send it, call a friend or talk to your Psychologist.
Emotionally, you will have good days and bad days. Some days you won’t feel like getting out of bed, and others you might be strangely detached from everyone. You may start to feel better, then find something will trigger you into another bout of sadness and/or anger.
Try as much a humanly possible to find something positive at the end of every day, even if it is reminding yourself that you are one day closer to being healed. So remember to write a positive note in your journal or share something positive with someone you love.
If you are getting depressed
All of the above emotions are a very natural part of the grieving and healing process, and can feel severe and debilitating for days.
However, if you start feeling intense despair, no hope at all, or suicidal thoughts then you may be entering the area of depression and should visit a Psychologist for help.
If you are doing your grief work you may need to take a couple of mental health days off work for yourself, but if you are having trouble functioning for weeks, then you need to reach out to a Psychologist.
If you have suffered more than this loss, and haven’t had the opportunity to do the grieving work before, this may create a proneness to depression.
Everyone going through a break-up can benefit from seeing a Psychologist, but if you have plunged into a deep depression, or are having suicidal thoughts, then get help immediately. It is okay to ask for help, especially when you are in emotional pain.
Stage 3 – Acceptance, integration and reorganisation
Once you have lived through the painful feelings, you will then feel a glimpse of acceptance and this is a turning point in your healing process.
You will not really be happy yet, but will understand what has happened and accept that things cannot be changed, and will have the beginning of some peace about it.
While you still might cycle through the difficult feelings again, even a few times, they are becoming less and less, and you are feeling more at peace with where you are at now.
Having thoroughly reviewed all of your relationship, and both yours and your partner’s contributions, you are also starting gain a deeper understanding about what really happened and are integrating this new understanding into your life story.
In this final phase, you will experience a profound reorganisation of your life based on your learnings about your loss and your experiences. You will most likely have developed new values and perspectives on life, and you will naturally be beginning to think of new horizons that you may never have thought about before.
This is the stage of major positive changes. Many people start to get fit, take up a new hobby, change jobs, start a new work direction or have a variety of other new goals.
Often you will begin to feel a new sense of courage and strength, so give yourself permission to live life and love fully with an open heart again.
And you will be feeling more at peace again too.
A new era in your life is beginning that will take you to realms and arenas you couldn’t have dreamed about before you started this process, and you will start to feel deep gratitude for the journey you have been on. It has all been worth it.
(Adapted by Julie Hart from Susan Elliott’s “Getting past your breakup”)