Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Losing a Relationship Without Losing Yourself

The Key to Recovering from a Bruising Breakup

Pixabay image by darksouls1
Source: Pixabay image by darksouls1

Yes indeed, breaking up is hard to do. Few events are more gut-wrenching than separating from a loved one. The shock of a sudden ending can trigger overwhelming feelings, even trauma. How can we tap into inner resources to help us heal and move forward?

The Buddha’s story of the two arrows offers some psychologically savvy clues to one of life's most painful predicaments. The first arrow of misfortune is the deep loss and sudden sting of being alone again. The comforting connection is no longer there.

If the separation was gradual, with periodic inoculations for our eventual loss, our grief may be similar to losing a loved one after a long illness. There is still the shocking finality of no longer sharing our lives together. We can no longer cling to hope for the relationship.

If the separation was based on a sudden betrayal or unilateral decision by one person, our tender heart may feel especially pierced. The brutal shock of such a pronouncement may be traumatic. Unable to wrap our mind around what happened and having no voice in the matter can leave us feeling disrespected, powerless, and heart-broken.

Grieving is a natural response to loss. It is our organism's way of healing from pain. We need to engage skillfully with our feelings so that we neither avoid them nor get overwhelmed by them. Finding the right distance from feelings is one aspect of the approach called Focusing, which can help us find a way to be gentle and friendly with our emotional life.

The Second Arrow: What’s Wrong with Me?

The first arrow pierces through the soft underbelly of our hopes and longings. Life’s unpredictability bores through our sense of reality. But it is the second arrow that generates the bulk of our suffering. This is the arrow that comes from the inside—the one we direct toward ourselves, usually without noticing it.

We have little control over the unavoidable, haphazard arrows that life unleashes, whether in our love life (separation), work life (losing our job), or family life (the death of a loved one). The good news is that we have more control over whether we aim that second arrow toward ourselves. This is the arrow of self-blame, self-hatred, and shame, which makes our grieving more prolonged and devastating. Suicidal ideation after a serious loss is often the result of this second arrow.

The pain of an unavoidable loss—“necessary losses“, as author Judith Viorst calls it—has a different felt quality than the suffering generated by self-criticism and shame. Beyond our natural grief, we conclude that something must be wrong with us. We’re plagued by troubling thoughts that we’re somehow to blame for the situation. Or we conclude that we shouldn’t be feeling so sad, barraging ourselves with critical self-talk such as:

  • How did I screw up?
  • I should be over this by now! Why can’t I let go?
  • I’ll never recover.
  • What’s wrong with me?
  • I’m a failure.

It may be true that we had some responsibility in the matter. But there’s a huge difference between blaming ourselves and taking responsibility for our possible part. Toxic self-blame can paralyze us from softening into our grief and inquiring calmly into how things got off track.

Perhaps we didn’t listen attentively when our partner voiced grievances. There may have been misattunements or miscommunication that we contributed to. Did we express our needs and wants strongly and skillfully enough—or not extend enough empathy toward their feelings and needs? Did we assume that our partner felt the same way about the relationship that we did?

If the arrow of self-criticism and shame have convinced us that we’re flawed or defective, we’re not inclined to learn from our experience. Sinking into a shame pit, we may succumb to depression and hopelessness. Or we may shoot the arrow at the person we feel has wronged us. Well-meaning friends may reinforce our revenge fantasies and recriminations, which only perpetuate our suffering rather than heal us.

Another unfortunate aspect of self-criticism is that it prevents us from honoring ourselves for having opened our heart and taken the risk to love. Can we honor ourselves for having had the courage to love, even though things didn't work out?

Learning Relationships

Separation, loss, and betrayal are painful enough. If we add self-blame and self-loathing to the mix, our suffering multiplies. Shame is a sticky substance that keeps us stuck—spinning our wheels in unhelpful ruminations.

In her classic book The Couples Journey, Dr. Susan Campbell declares that some partnerships are learning relationships, not mated ones. They prepare us for a better relationship to come. Life is a series of learning experiences. Unfortunately, we usually don't learn much without the pain associated with loss.

Mindfully noticing how we’re aiming the second arrow toward ourselves, we have more control over whether we proceed to shoot it toward ourselves or hold ourselves with dignity as we grieve our loss.

Our challenge is to honor our worth and value regardless of what life brings us. With practice, we can learn to differentiate unavoidable pain from the self-generated suffering created by berating ourselves for what happens to us. As a result, we develop resilience as we recognize that we are not immune to the human condition, which includes loss and betrayal. Holding ourselves with unconditional dignity, we can grieve, learn, and move on with our self-respect intact, even if temporarily bruised or even ravaged.

© John Amodeo

More from John Amodeo Ph.D., MFT
More from Psychology Today
More from John Amodeo Ph.D., MFT
More from Psychology Today