When a relationship ends, one of the most tormenting aspects of the loss is that you think you’re okay and that you’ve weathered the storm, but then, seemingly out of the blue, you plunge right back into confusion, disgust, and fear. Chances are, the more tumultuous the relationship was while you were in it, the more tumultuous your response will be in the aftermath of its breakup.
When you’re in a tumultuous relationship, your brain is in a perpetual state of stimulation and intensity. This means that when the breakup occurs, you might go through periods of relief, even calmness, and then one day feel like you're hit by a ton of bricks. The trigger might be something you’re consciously aware of, or maybe it just seems random.
Your discomfort about the loss might start right away, or as much as a year later. You might not know what you feel from one minute to the next. You might feel like you are shriveling into nothingness, and at the same time trapped in rage and shame, with no idea how to escape. You might feel that you'll explode if you don’t get away from yourself. It is a toxic, unbalancing experience, which can compel you to isolate yourself.
How is it possible to feel like “nothing” yet be on the verge of “exploding” at the same time? It’s a disorienting, daunting mess when extreme emotional and physiological reactions occur in close proximity to each other. It can be so jarring that you don’t realize just how traumatized you were by being in the relationship in the first place.
By a tumultuous relationship, I mean one in which there was a lot of fighting, bickering, sniping, and baiting and bullying of each other. Its tumultuousness means it may have also been full of intensity, resentment, anxiety, jealousy—and yes, often intense passion. But in order to find any balance, you likely remained ready to do damage control much of the time, or you were trying to calm yourself or your ex. The relationship compelled a heightened state of activity, response, and stimulation in your brain because of its nature.
It's incredibly disorienting to go from a state in which your neurons fire on all cylinders to not having that stimulus anymore; you’re left with the feeling of waiting for the other shoe to drop. Your brain isn’t used to the decrease in stimulation that comes when you begin to disengage from your ex, and the fighting between you lessens. You’re not yet used to the relative calmness of being alone.
Even when the relationship has been over long enough for you to recognize you’re better off, you may still undergo periods when you fixate on the upsetting things that happened in the relationship because they remain unresolved. The discomfort of being flung back into the clutches of a painful relationship you thought you had let go of and made peace with creates frustration, which, when not monitored, can spill out on all of the wrong people, in all of the wrong ways. You can feel so blindsided by getting sucked in again that you can even feel out of control. But you’re not: Your feelings are normal.
The feelings you have about the relationship now can seem even more out of control than they did when you were in it and those feelings had somewhere to be directed. Now, those feelings no longer have a place to go—and because you recognize that the relationship was more disturbing than healthy, you’re feeling and acting out your trauma in a way you couldn’t during the relationship. You couldn’t act out as chaotically as you felt—you were doing your best to manage the tumult.
Now that it’s over, and your brain is figuring out how to decrease all the stimulation it had become used to, it can feel like things in your life that should be familiar seem bottomless, empty, unidentifiable. It’s painfully disorienting and can plunge you into this place of confusion, chaos, frustration, and anger.
Here’s the thing: You have no way of knowing where you are in the process. There's no marker to identify when you’ll come to the end of this disorienting period. Why are you enraged at your ex 18 months later? Why now, and not before? Why are you in suffocating agony over the loss now, when the loss in many ways seems long ago?
It’s hard to know what your triggers may be: Perhaps your ex is with someone new. Perhaps you’re with someone new. Or maybe it’s some unidentifiable reason.
Just know that you’re not alone. This is an extremely common experience. The circumstances within the relationship, the feelings it evoked, and its breakup are not yet resolved for you. It’s OK that you’re not done grieving or processing the loss.
Your reactions, regardless of when you have them, are part of the process. Rather than feeling angry at yourself for falling backward or “regressing,” try to feel compassion for the fact that the aspects of your trauma that are being triggered didn’t have a way of expressing themselves until now, so you’re getting them out.
Keep in mind that even while allowing your process to unfold along its natural, normal path, you need to exercise caution if your plunge takes you into a rage or the urge for the destruction of self or other. When you dig yourself into a hole or back yourself into a corner because you are angry at what remains unresolved, remember that even though your ex is the source of your rage, it’s not up to your ex to make it better—only you can get yourself out.
Do your best to take care of yourself without acting in destructive ways that dig deeper into your trauma. With time, it will pass. With self-knowledge and self-compassion, you will find an end to your confusion. The responsibility is in recognizing your behavior and giving yourself a break about where it came from. Identifying what is happening and why can help you feel more in control. The very act of recognizing the connection empowers you to get through this setback.