When a relationship ends badly, memories of excitement, enjoyment, or joy are buried beneath a plethora of negative emotional responses. You may be distressed about the loss, experiencing sadness and loneliness. Anger or disgust toward the person who had been the object of your affection distance you and may protect you from re-engaging. Anger toward yourself may disguise humiliation about ignoring your intuition and disregarding warning signs that are now, in retrospect, apparent. When the expectation of excitement or enjoyment is impeded and leaves one crestfallen, shame is activated, and, in the case of defeat, can be felt as discouragement, disengagement, a letdown, or as a frustration (Tomkins, 1963). The disruption of positive emotion triggers a shame response, as do broken interpersonal connections. Responses to the interruption of enjoyment or the loss of connection with another may involve attacking yourself, attacking others, withdrawal— hiding your thoughts and feelings from others—and, avoidance—hiding your feelings from yourself in ways that may involve the use of alcohol, substances, food, casual sex, work, or other ways to disavow shame (Nathanson, 1992). Perhaps you may feel as though you are swimming in an ocean of all of these emotional responses.
When a relationship has ended badly it’s difficult to sit with your negative emotions and consider how they are informing you. You may want to hold on to the lost person, even though every sign is present that you are or should be disconnected from them, that your needs are not being met, or that they are destructive to your sense of yourself. You must guard against experiencing inadequacy just as much as you may have to fight not to overly devalue the person with whom you were involved.
When you do not have the resources to face shame and distress, avoidance or withdrawal may be prudent, according to epistemologist Gary David, Ph.D. (personal communication October 2013). Distancing yourself from the problem may help with your stability, and later allow you to take a look at it and better define the issues you face. He also points out that memories of enjoyable experiences with a former partner may be an antidote to the negative feelings and trigger regret or self-attack that lead you to wonder what you could have done differently. Hence, the “ending” remains alive, rather than being recognized as a destabilizing or disruption of an established order.
A healthy response to a relationship that is over eventually addresses it and decides what to do. If you are able to examine your responses to your emotions you may be able to emerge with insight regarding yourself, your relationships, and the disruption of your positive feelings in your interactions with others. Think about what decisions you would like to make that are not informed by your immediate need to punish the former object of your affection or punish yourself. Take your perspective two years from now; would you be happy that you made decisions that hurt someone or repaired the relationship to the point of friendship? Would you want to have years of a bad relationship with someone from whom you are now romantically disengaged or a good/neutral relationship with them? If you can project into the future, what would you wish you had done at this ending point?
Remaining goal-directed with respect to your work and the rest of your life can strengthen your sense of self at a time when you are fragile. Maintaining connections with others can help you to counterbalance the negative judgments and powerlessness associated with the emotions that threaten to consume you. The interest in you of someone else can be healing, and such interest can interrupt negativity you may feel about yourself. Someone may have told you, or you may have told yourself, that you have to “get over” your failed relationship before starting another. However, a new relationship can provide a contrast to, as well as insight about, the one that ended badly. So much of learning involves loving and endings.
(For information about my books, please see my website: www.marylamia.com)
Nathanson, D. (1992). Shame and Pride: Affect, Sex, and the Birth of the Self. New York: Norton.
Tomkins, S.S. (1963). Affect, Imagery Consciousness, 2: The Negative Affects. New York: Springer.