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Grieving the End of a Relationship

Thinking is bad, feeling is good.

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The emotional responses to a thorny breakup can resemble the responses to the death of a loved one. You feel weighed down by the memories, the longing, the wistful tears, the chest pain, and the aching throughout the whole body. Or you are so outraged that you could lash out. Or you are ready to go on a secret mission aimed at reversing the terrible outcome.

It’s no coincidence that breakups can resemble the death of a loved one. When a loved one dies, you grieve. But death is not the only trigger of grief. Grief can occur after any kind of loss — the loss of a job, a limb, a breast, a home, a relationship.

According to the Kübler-Ross model of grief, also known as “The Five Stages of Grief," grief involves five stages — denial, anger, bargaining, sadness, and acceptance. After the loss of a loved one, you may deny that the person is gone, simply refuse to believe it. Once the truth dawns on you, you may feel outraged and attempt to convince the beloved to come back, or beg God or the universe to reverse their decision. Once you realize things are not going to change, sadness sets in. Over time, you may finally accept what happened.

These stages need not occur in this order, and one stage may occur several times, or not at all. The different emotions can also overlap. You may be angry and in a bargaining mode at the same time, or deny what happened and still feel sad.

While losing a loved one can cause intense grief, for some it may be even harder to get through the grief following a breakup. The beloved is still out there, after all, which makes it easy to get stuck in denial: It can be tempting to think that the breakup didn’t really happen and that it is just a matter of time before you will be back together again.

This is a dangerous thought process. It may feel comforting at first, but will likely leave you stuck in denial, preventing you from healing. It may even launch you on a long, futile bargaining process, in which you unsuccessfully try to convince your beloved that the breakup was a mistake.

After a breakup, it is best not even visualizing the possibility that it could be reversed. In fact, it is best not to spend too much time thinking about the relationship and the breakup at all. Avoid overthinking what went wrong, or how you might be able to make your ex fall in love with you again. Leave all thoughts about the relationship and the breakup for some time in the future when you can truly say that you have healed emotionally.

Meanwhile, allow yourself to recover by truly feeling the pain, anger, and sadness inside you. Pay full attention to the gradual fading of these emotions as the days go by. Allot certain periods of time each day where you can concentrate on your sorrowful emotions. Cry, scream, kick, or punch a pillow in the comfort of your own home after work, for example.

Much later — once you can truly say that you have accepted the situation — you can devote some thoughts to what went wrong in the relationship, but only in order to avoid making the same mistakes in future relationships, or to avoid ending up with a partner with the same flaws as your ex might have had.

More from Berit Brogaard D.M.Sci., Ph.D
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