The 7 Stages of Grieving a Breakup
Understanding your emotional response to a breakup can help you feel less alone.
Posted Jun 10, 2014
You fought to hold on to the relationship to the point of being all-consumed. You don’t want to believe it’s actually ending. You can’t believe it. Even if the relationship was awful, even unbearable at times, the idea of living without it is unacceptable. Still, it’s becoming clear that the two of you aren’t going to make it. You are finally starting to compute that it’s over. You’ve gone from, “Don't leave!” to “Okay, I give up.” But you still feel anything but okay. The moment you get off the phone with your ex, or the texting finally stops, or you leave each other’s space, you experience withdrawal, and you are hit relentlessly by the reality of the loss. It can be a brutal process, and it can take a long time until you feel deserving of investing in your own independent, reshaped life path.
You may have known somewhere within you that this breakup was coming, even for months or years, and yet you are still blindsided. No matter how the lead-up has looked, now that the breakup is actually happening, you may be overwhelmed, immobilized and haunted by fear, loss, and despair about life without this person. Following are some of the stages you can anticipate going through—they often occur all at once, or in varying orders at varying times during the process of letting go.
1. Desperate for Answers
The drive to know is consuming and can come at the expense of rational thoughts and behaviors. You must understand why this happened, maybe beyond anyone’s ability to explain it. You fixate on things your ex said at various times that you see as contradicting the breakup, and you hold onto them now as if they are gospel. Yet somewhere within, you have moments of clarity, too. You likely swing back and forth between foggy disbelief, the daily, moment by moment rediscovery of the magnitude of your loss, and flashes of painful clarity that of course it’s over. The pain, disorganization, and confusion can become all you think about, or talk about. But initially, you remain driven to understand what happened, at any cost. The desperation to make sense of something so jarring compels you to debate friends, family, coworkers, even strangers, about why the relationship ended, while you justify to them the reasons it shouldn’t have, as if convincing them it is equal to convincing your ex.
It can’t be true. This isn’t happening! You just cannot be without your ex. It feels like you’ve put everything you are into this relationship. It’s been your world, your life. You cannot accept that it’s over. You funnel every last hope into saving it, even at the expense of your well-being. You postpone your need to grieve its end because it’s just too painful to face. In so doing, you temporarily derail the grieving process by replacing it with unrealistically inflated hope that the relationship can still be salvaged.
You are willing to do anything to avoid accepting it’s over. You’ll be a better, more attentive partner. Everything that’s been wrong, you’ll make right. The thought of being without your ex is so intolerable that you will make your own pain go away by winning him or her back, at any cost. Of course, you’re not logical at this point (and probably shouldn't be operating heavy machinery). You are standing on the edge of what feels like an abyss, trying not to fall into the unknown. You cling to any hope you can, to prevent yourself from losing what you have come to depend on, for better or worse. However, during this phase, when you promise to fix all the problems between you, you are placing the entire burden of repairing, maintaining, and sustaining a relationship onto yourself. It's as if the responsibility is yours and yours alone to make it work this time. Try your hardest during this phase not to lose sight of the fact that both participants in the relationship contributed to its end. You can’t possibly take responsibility for everything. Somewhere inside, you know that.
Bargaining can only briefly distract from the experience of loss. Reality inevitably comes crashing down, over and over again. Further, when you bargain, you are trying to take responsibility for why the relationship doesn't work, which may give you the illusion that you have control over it, perpetuating the belief that it's salvageable as long as you can just keep performing superhuman acts.
Because the pain is so intolerable, you may actually be able to convince your ex to try again (this may not be the first breakup with this partner). You will temporarily relieve the agony of withdrawal. However, despite your best efforts, you will not be able to carry the relationship solo. I'm sorry to say, it probably won’t end well this time, either. Unfortunately, you may need to go through this process of breaking up and reconciling more than once before you're absolutely convinced it's time to let go.
Initially, you may not be able to connect with feelings of anger. Breaking up plummets you into the unknown, which can evoke immobilizing fear and dread. Fear, at that point, trumps anger. Therefore, when anger sets in, it's because you have let go of some of your fear, at least temporarily. When you’re able to access anger, the experience can actually be empowering—because at the very least there are shades of remembering you matter too, of feeling justified in realizing that you deserve more from a relationship. Depending on your specific temperament, life, and family experiences, as well as your unique breakup, your anger may be directed at your partner, the situation, or yourself. The good news is that your anger, no matter where it’s directed, is meant to empower you, whether you choose to see it that way or not. When anger becomes accessible to you, it can provide direction and create a feeling of aliveness in a world that’s become deadened by loss. It can also remind you that you deserve more. Even anger at yourself, as paralyzing and self-defeating as it may be, is still part of the grieving process. The fact that you are on the trajectory of grieving the loss is a sign that you are working through. It indicates that somewhere within, you are creating enough internal discomfort to help shift your perspective about how the relationship has actually been, and it can compel you to make proactive changes if you are ready to let it.
6. Initial Acceptance
This is the kind of acceptance that, when it happens early in the process, can feel more like surrender. You are holding up your end of the breakup because you have to, not because you want to. Either you or your ex has developed enough awareness and control at this point to recognize that you are not meant to be. Over time, this initial, often tenuous acceptance becomes more substantive, as both of you begin to recognize, independently, that there are boundaries that at least one of you must maintain in order for the breakup to stick, because it has to. You are finally grasping that's it’s just not good for you to keep trying anymore.
7. Redirected Hope
You were leveled by the breakup and have had difficulty letting go, in part because it shattered your relationship with hope. As acceptance deepens, moving forward requires redirecting your feelings of hope—from the belief that you can singlehandedly save a failing relationship to the possibility that you just might be okay without your ex. It’s jarring when forced to redirect your hope from the known entity of the relationship into the abyss of the unknown. But this is an opportunity to redirect the life force of hope. Regardless, hope is somewhere in your reserves and you will access it again as you continue to allow some meaningful distance between you and your ex.
The stages of grief that follow any trauma, breakups included, can happen over the course of minutes or even seconds, across days, months, or years, and then switch around without warning, leaving you feeling without foundation, especially in the beginning. You feel alien to yourself or cut off from the world. However, like any emotional amputation, continuing on in life means learning to live without that part of yourself, and finding ways to compensate for its loss. Furthermore, recognize that there is a method and a structure of sorts to this chaotic grieving process. Knowing that you are not alone can help you ride it out. Your grieving is part of the human condition—without it, we would not be wired the way we are to handle the many pains and losses that occur in our lives. As the grieving process progresses you will begin to see your way through to a point at which you can let go in a more proactive and self-protective way—a way that you may eventually come to understand as a new beginning.