There’s no question that the ending of a close relationship can be wrenching. Whether through breakup, divorce, or the death of your partner, you will inevitably go through a period of great sadness. Common wisdom is that the best way to recover is to “work through” the loss and rid yourself of all memories of your absent partner. Friends may tell you that as long as you give it time, you’ll eventually forget about the person and be able truly to move on with your life. Psychological wisdom traditionally agreed with this viewpoint (particularly if you believed in the Freudian view of grief).
The trouble with this approach when it comes to a close relationship’s ending is that it’s wrong.
The closer the relationship, the greater the chances that it’s burrowed deep into your psyche. Although you are changed by all the relationships you have, even some that may be brief and seemingly insignificant at the time, it’s the ones that have persisted that are most likely to have changed you in fundamental ways.
This view of close relationships is based on the general principles of attachment theory, which proposes that we carry remnants of our earliest relationships with caregivers into our adult years. These are the most fundamental influences on our so-called “working models” of ourselves, but not the last ones. According to a summary article led by bereavement researcher Margaret Stroebe (2010), it’s not unhealthy for our attachment bonds to live on even after our loved ones have departed.
Stroebe and her long-time collaborator Wolfgang Stroebe proposed some years ago the so-called dual-process model of bereavement, specifically referring to the processes of adapting to widowhood. One of these processes is the restoration function, in which the bereaved cope with the practical ramifications of the loss. They sort through the deceased person’s possessions, rework their own living situation, and figure out how to manage life on their own. Through the loss function, they cope with the emotional ramifications of their loss. According to this model, there’s no one best way to cope with grief, though the best adapted tend to alternate between loss and restoration functions.
Applying the dual-process model to the ending of a relationship through break-up rather than death, you can see how similar processes may occur. Through restoration, partners reorganize their lives, go on to meet new people, and eventually form new bonds as close, if not closer, than the one that was broken. Through the more difficult loss function, they try to adapt emotionally to the relationship’s ending. Even if they were the initiator of the break-up, there are likely still moments of regret and perhaps rumination as they begin to reminisce about the former partner.
At the root of the adaptation process is the underlying truth that this person was once a part of your own identity, and that your ex’s view of you was vitally important to your own self-definition. You saw yourself as he or she did, and indeed may have found it difficult to imagine yourself in any other way. (In the vernacular, you “completed” each other.)
Your ex also most likely affected your life in thousands of less profound ways. Your choice of vegetables may have been predicated on your partner’s preferences, and even your decisions about wearing your hair probably reflected the look your partner favored. Now that the partner isn’t with you, it may take you a minute or two while at the grocery store to realize that you can go ahead and buy the broccoli your partner couldn't tolerate but which you love.
Clearly, we can’t easily erase people either from our self-definitions or our routines. However, other than making those minor adaptations to our daily lives, is there any reason we should have to wipe the slate clean? What if your partner taught you valuable life lessons you’d never have learned on your own? How about the way he or she made you feel better about yourself when your self-esteem took a beating from disappointments you faced at work? You don’t need to unlearn those valuable insights or purge the positive impact your partner had on you. These have now become a part of you..
While you’re in the midst of the pain of a relationship’s ending, it may be hard to see how you will emotionally survive. By using the dual-process model, you can benefit by applying both restoration and loss to your own adaptation to a relationship’s ending:
In summary, the work of Stroebe and her collaborators makes us realize that continued bonds of attachment to our exes in our lives can be healthy and growth-promoting. Even if it's a relationship that ended decades ago, it's a part of the narrative that has become your own personal life story, for now and in the years to come.
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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2014
Stroebe, M., Schut, H., & Boerner, K. (2010). Continuing bonds in adaptation to bereavement: Toward theoretical integration. Clinical Psychology Review, 30, 259-268.