Transition Through Loss: What You Need to Know When a Significant Relationship Ends

returning to yourself when a significant other is gone

Posted Oct 06, 2011

Passages through loss of a relationship are among the most difficult you may encounter, underscoring the primacy of your bonds to others. It's often through your encounters with others that you most readily access significant parts of yourself. You see yourself mirrored back through the eyes of others. Your relationships inform you about yourself and often shape who you are and who you are to become.

Significant relationships include parents, sibs, friends, bosses, even pets, and especially intimate others. Loss of relationship may result from parting company (you leave someone or they leave you), through a betrayal, or as a natural conclusion of a relationship when people part ways as they move on in their individual lives. Separating and divorcing is the severing of a committed relationship that at the very least involves legal resolution in order to be completed. Departing connotes the ending of a deeply meaningful relationship as a result of death.

Beyond the external events that define the ending of a relationship, your internal responses accompanying loss may unfold in their own time frame. Ending an intimate partnership is often a devastating emotional experience. Even in a seemingly amicable breakup or divorce, life is turned upside down. Aside from the many practical matters involved, issues of identity and self-esteem, feelings of having failed, and anxieties over the loss of commitment and security abound.

When a significant relationship ends, either because of a conscious decision to move away from it or because of circumstances beyond your control, you are left alone, often feeling as if an essential part of yourself has been cut away in the process. It's a good idea, although often frightening, to spend this time alone "finding" yourself once again, discovering who you are without the significant other. Working through this painful form of passage, drawing upon your strengths and resources that can facilitate the process, and bearing in mind that one can gain even from loss is the ultimate challenge.   

Grief is a normal reaction, an appropriate emotional response, to anything felt to be a loss. Other than relationship, the losses we suffer through a lifetime are many including those related to finances, job, health, those as a result of accident, natural disasters, loss due to self-esteem, self-worth, and integrity, spiritual loss, and even the loss of youth or a time of life one found particularly fulfilling. 

Grief, sorrow, hurt, depression, and anger are normal responses to the ending of any significant, committed relationship. In these circumstances, someone you once loved and depended upon (and maybe even still do or want to) disappointed and failed you. They stopped showing up for you the way they always had and in the way you had grown accustomed. The ending of such relationships may actually feel like a death. It may take a long time to process all of the emotions and to sever ties in as healthy a way as possible.

When someone we love dies, we may feel the accompanying grief and loss more profoundly because it is this relationship that has sustained and supported us. The person who is our "other half," who has shared experiences and intimacies with us in a way that no one else ever can, is suddenly no longer there for us. And that is definitely the death of a part of  the life we once knew.

But grief can become pathological when it is not completed. Incomplete grief may cause one to become overly hyper-vigilant and self-protective and to make choices based on fear. This may ultimately limit one's ability to be open enough to allow themselves to trust enough to love again. Bringing unfinished business into a new relationship is a recipe for failure.

Prolonged grief or non-closure of a relationship can lead to the unhealthy syndrome of idealizing, memorializing, and even canonizing (especially one who is deceased), or conversely, demonizing, the one who has left us. Either way, the grieving party may remain stuck, unresolved, and unable to move forward.

At the end of any challenging relationship, it is often tempting to simplify and abbreviate the whole experience as "time wasted" or a "total failure." But oversimplifying the complexities of human relationship is unfair both to the individuals involved and to the process of growth. In fact, summing up the relationship in a negative way may not only leave a sour taste in your mouth about the relationship, but it may carry over into future ones as well. 

The next time you find yourself talking or thinking about that old relationship, pay attention to the words you use to describe it. Make a conscious effort to remember some important features of the relationship that you've discounted. By realistically addressing the issues, you may be able to reframe the entire relationship. Just because some aspects were difficult does not mean that some positive things didn't happen. People learn and gain from almost all relationships, even troubled ones. Every part of the journey with a partner counts—all of it, not just what happens at the end.