Separation and Divorce Recovery

The loss of a partner through death is an obvious source of grief, but relationships end for many other reasons, and there is often a great deal of pain involved when:

* couples have grown apart
* a partner has an affair
* one person relocates for work
* a friend moves to another state
* one partner wants to marry or live together while the other does not
* one has a problem (medical, financial, addiction, etc.) that the other will not abide
* one person feels betrayed or is deserted by the other
* the relationship has become physically or emotionally abusive

Whatever the story behind the end of the relationship, as the once-popular song says, “Breaking up is hard to do.” Even when the relationship has gone sour, and even for the person initiating the breakup, the loss is often still a tangible and painful experience.
Why does a breakup hurt so much, even when the relationship is no longer good?

“You’re better off without him.” “She’s a real heartbreaker.”

When you lose a close friend or love relationship, you are likely to feel great sorrow and heartache. But even in the end of a bad relationship, there can be deep pain and grief. There might be the sense of failure, hopelessness, loss, despair, fear, or desperation.

In many cases, the length of the relationship compounds the pain of loss – a divorce after half a lifetime together can seem like the end of the world. Partly, it depends on how much you had vested, spiritually, emotionally and financially. But even short-term relationships can involve an investment in fantasy and in hopes for the future, and their loss can be similarly heart-wrenching.

Sometimes the end of a love relationship can bring up powerful, even frightening memories of earlier separation or loss. Whatever the trigger—from the childhood experience of a last hug and kiss before Mommy or Daddy left for work, to first-hand recovery from a painful divorce—the current crisis you are experiencing can prove more difficult as that earlier fear surfaces. To read more about early life developmental trauma, see Helpguide’s Emotional and Psychological Trauma: Causes, Symptoms, Effects, and Treatment.
Types of childhood wounding that can complicate the pain of a breakup are:

* Abandonment
o Death of a loved one early in one’s life
o Absentee or alcoholic parent(s)
o Being deserted somewhere when you were supposed to picked up
* Rejection
o Adoption or other separation at birth
o Conception was an ‘accident’ or frowned upon by others
o Not being the gender wanted by one or both parents
* Shaming
o Being told you were too fat, too skinny, etc.
o Being teased or made fun of mercilessly by other kids or siblings
o Getting blamed for others’ mistakes
* Abuse
o Physical: bruises, welts, isolation or starvation
o Sexual: exposed to sexually explicit material or touched inappropriately
o Mental: lies and mind games; no personal privacy

For more about the impact of earlier life experiences on current relationships, see Helpguide’s Relationship Help: Exploring the Deeper Issues Behind Success or Failure in a Love Relationship.
How can I turn my breakup or divorce into an opportunity for growth?

Everyone has a different way of handling the heartache of a breakup. Healing after the loss of love may happen—and usually does in time—but usually not by seeking it. A painful breakup offers an opportunity for you to heal this and other wounds, becoming stronger and healthier in the midst of your suffering. However, not everyone makes use of this opportunity for self-transformation, but instead may carry painful baggage into the next relationship, or simply retreat from relationships altogether. What matters in the healing process is your ability to make sense of what has happened to you. You might find Helpguide's series on building strong intimate love relationships, Relationship Help: Communication Skills to Find and Keep a Healthy Exciting Love Relationship, a source of help and hope for the future.

Admittedly, some breakups are easier than others. You only took her out on a few dates, perhaps. Maybe he wasn’t really your type and you knew it. But then there are the splits that bring excruciating heartache:

* you got dumped on your birthday
* your partner cheated on you with your best friend
* you worked two jobs while doing all the domestic chores and to add insult to injury, your ex ended up with the house and the dog in your divorce settlement!

Life is not always as dramatic as these examples, but it can hurt just as much. Those recovering from a breakup often experience a common trajectory of healing. Similar to the stages of grief articulated by Dr. Elisabeth K├╝bler-Ross (and featured in Helpguide’s Coping with Loss: Guide to Grieving and Bereavement), these are the different phases you can expect:

* Numbness and shock: The body's natural defense system insulates us in the initial stages of a threatening situation. We may run on "automatic pilot," and later not even remember what happened when we first encountered the bad news of the loss. Right after a breakup, you may continue everyday life as if nothing has happened. Or you may feel so numb so that you function on auto-pilot, a shell of the person you were before the relationship ended. Thoughts like, I’m sure he’ll call soon or she was just in one of her moods…she’ll change her mind about breaking up, might go through your head.
* Pain and anguish: There is a reason for the oft-described heart “aching” after the end of a relationship. As the truth sinks in, as the numbness fades, you may get stomach cramps, shortness of breath, a raw knot in the center of your being, a sense that you will die or never be whole again. Perhaps you lose your appetite and have difficulty focusing on all the things you have to do. You may even pass out. Or you might feel anger at your former partner, whether you found yourself on the receiving end or even if you were the person who initiated the separation. If only that _____ hadn’t done this to me, you might rage. You might find yourself rehearsing your ex’s faults and bad habits, wondering why you were even together in the first place.
* Loneliness and despair: After your initial anger peters out, you might desperately miss what is gone and wish things could go back to the way they were. Instead of demonizing your ex, you idealize the past: the times he surprised you with flowers or the way her eyes lit up when you made her laugh. People tend to think that they have to fix depression—often by taking a pill or rushing into a new relationship—but the cure for loneliness is the support of friends, family (and faith community if you belong to one), along with constructive outlets for your energy and personal interests. For more information, refer to Helpguide’s Depression Self-Help: Living with Depression in Yourself and Others.
* Coming back to life: As time passes you discover more and more meaningful moments that make you appreciate life again. The time spent alone in thoughtful reflection or perhaps in a recovery group begins to bear fruit. You open up the possibility that you may be partly responsible for the breakup of the relationship and resolve to improve your character or life outlook. The work of grief is to let the emotions that you feel in your body (heart and gut) flow, not to attempt to block any of them or judge them whatever they are. When you do that “work,” appreciation for life can creep back into your veins and that life can be vibrant and full of growth, joy and discovery.

The process of grieving the loss of a relationship can be relatively smooth, or may take years —certain calendar dates may haunt you for a long time to come. Acceptance of the reality of current circumstances can lead to a renewed hope for a future, even though it is different from the one you used to imagine. Through this opportunity, you are free to focus on other pursuits:

* Your friendships (and children if you have them),
* Helping others in need,
* Doing the things you've always wanted to but didn’t because your partner did not support you.

Even those facing a terrible breakup can learn to accept their future without their partner. And with true healing comes the potential for finding a new love.
What about parenting, mutual friends, property, and other practical matters?

Whether you were married, co-habiting, or just dating, breaking up involves practical matters that require your attention. Many people think this is the case only for people going through a divorce. Even those who weren’t married might own property or have children together. Perhaps you and your ex work at the same office or belong to the same gym. You might still have friends in common, or own pets. So who gets what in the aftermath of your breakup?

* Belongings: Two common mistakes in dealing with the physical reminders of your past relationship are hoarding and disputing. After a certain amount of time has passed, you will have to deal with each other’s physical belongings. Interestingly, that lingering clutter says that you might have some unfinished business. If so, let yourself fully grieve the relationship and let go—of both the person and the symbolic reminders of your shared past. (An exception might be mementos that would be meaningful to someone else, like love letters or wedding pictures for your children to view once they’re grown.)

As a part of their divorce proceedings, one couple battled over who would get to keep the Christmas ornaments they had bought together in Germany. How sad: for what they spent on legal bills, each party could easily have financed another trip to Europe!

* Legal matters: Take action legally once your mind has cleared and you are better able to think straight. If you try to make important decisions when your emotions are flaring up, you might end up having regrets later on. Instead, explore alternatives to costly and emotionally draining litigation, such as conflict mediation or self-help legal materials. (One notable exception: if your ex-partner is a controller/abuser, peaceful means are usually non-productive and you will likely need a professional ally.)

* Parenting: When you are grieving, it is important to express any anger, frustration or deep sadness with a trusted adult or a support group, instead of confiding in your child. Also, try to stick to children’s normal routines as much as possible. Strive to use constructive language about your ex (not put-downs or complaints) in front of them. Communicate directly with your ex, without passing messages through children. Using a child as a pawn to get back at your ex will damage your son or daughter, who is a part of both parents, after all. Refer to Helpguide’s Children and Separation/Divorce and Parenting: Attachment, Bonding and Reactive Attachment Disorder for more helpful information.

* Friends: Friends who were “his” or “hers” to begin with will probably lean toward their first loyalty. But when a couple has friends in common, those people are often put in the difficult position of “choosing sides.” It is awkward for them to decide, for example, which one to invite to an upcoming family event. You can make it easier on yourself and everyone else if you can try to be understanding of the problem. If possible, talk to your friends about the problem. Don’t pressure them to go against your former partner, and don’t hold it against them if they attempt to maintain friendships with both of you. After all, if forced to choose, they could just as easily reject you as your ex.

What if I still want to keep in touch with my ex?

Some people are able to remain on friendly terms with past partners, although typically there has to be a period of non-involvement for this to occur. More often, if the relationship is over, then accept the fact it really is over. Calling your ex in attempt to try to patch things up will likely only serve to increase your misery in the long run. Before clicking the button to send that innocent ‘How have things been going?’ e-mail, think twice. What are you gaining by hanging on? What you are losing is the chance to move on with your life and find happiness in other ways. Unless you have legitimate joint business, like shared parenting, you may find it less painful in the long run to resist the urge to maintain that connection. Instead, break it off.
How can others help?

Friends and family can remind you that you have promised to heal. Let them hold you accountable to your commitment to break free from the relationship, which might mean cutting off all avoidable contact with your ex. Here are some other ways you can take good care of yourself:

* Eat regular, balanced meals.
* Exercise daily, even if you have to force yourself to do it.
* Avoid alcohol and other mind-altering chemicals.
* Get emotional support for yourself and your children.
* Consider having a divorce ceremony or other ritual to help you create a meaningful symbolic end to the relationship.

Your family members and friends are often willing to listen as you share your pain. At the same time, they are human and have their limits. When you want to vent your feelings more frequently, it might be a sign that it’s time to find a good therapist or join a support group. This could take the form of a divorce recovery group or a twelve-step group. For example, many people who are co-dependent start attending meetings when they are healing from a breakup (see references and resources for more information). They get in touch with destructive patterns in their relationships and find the courage and hope needed to change for the better.
How can I tell if I need to consult a professional?

You are trying to cope with the breakup as best as you can. You are getting helpful information and support from others. Yet the feelings of isolation and loneliness remain. Then what? If the intensity of your grief seems not to be diminishing (for example, if you continue to have trouble with eating, sleeping, feelings of guilt, or impairment of ordinary life functioning), you need professional assistance.

Physically speaking, here are some other red flags:

* Chest pain or heart palpitations
* Sweating or shortness of breath
* Nausea or lightheadedness
* Dramatic changes in weight or physical appearance
* Inability to sleep, or sleeping too much

In the aftermath of your breakup, it may seem like you are reliving the same personal tragedy over and over, with no relief in sight. And yet, here is an opportunity for you to work through those old hurts and emerge as a stronger, healthier person. It is possible to find healing as you look inward and outward for support from those who are dear to you, as well as caring, experienced professionals.


Wolfleg Counseling has been providing psychotherapy and mindfulness based cognitive therapy to clients for more than twenty years in the Iowa City, Coralville and surrounding area. We have helped many people who suffer from depression, anxiety and stress. We believe all people can learn to calm themselves to the degree that they can hear a deeper, clearer voice of knowing within themselves that will lead them to solutions for and insights into their own challenges. We see our job as supporting and encouraging this self discovery.