Stay in the dating scene long enough, and you’re likely to have your heart broken. It’s just a fact of romantic life. Dating and relationships are the way we go through the process of finding a long-term partner or mate. As unromantic as it sounds, it really is trial and error. There will be break-ups. And some of those break-ups, even when it’s the right thing to happen, will be harder than others.
Break-ups, in general, are difficult, sometimes messy, and almost always unpleasant. Even when a relationship hasn’t been working, and you know the end is coming, the loss can still sting.
Sometimes, a break-up is excruciatingly painful. It can turn your world upside down and leave you reeling. In fact, for young adults, break-ups are one of the most common risk factors for depression.
So, why are break-ups so hard? And, more importantly, what can you do when it happens?
Let’s take a closer look.
Relationships Change Us
Every experience you have, even romantic experiences, changes you in some way. Whether it is a change of behavior, a lesson learned, or a change of perspective, each experience we have leaves us slightly different by virtue of that experience. Relationships are no different. They are life experiences.
As you meet and get to know someone, you find common interests. You learn about each other. You discover and begin to share interests and activities. And you start to invest in being with your partner. You start making plans and thinking about the future. Not necessarily about marriage but about the things you might like to do together.
Some interesting things happen psychologically when we enter into a relationship. It is quite common for couples to take on various behaviors, emotions, mannerisms and characteristics of each other. This is especially true for couples who have been together for a long time. How does that happen? Blame it on how we as humans communicate and operate in the world.
Our communication is so much a product of non-verbal, sometimes unconscious responses to others around us. It helps us to gain familiarity and build connections with others.
- Through a process known as language style matching, people naturally tend to match their language to others. So, it makes sense that couples would adapt to and match their partner’s communication style. It’s a common behavior seen in all kinds of relationships but is especially powerful in the stability of couples relationships over time.
- Emotional contagion (no, it’s not a virus) is a factor in the development of similar emotional responses. Emotional contagion is a process by which one person’s emotions behaviors directly trigger similar emotions and behaviors in others. It isn’t exclusive to couples but the frequwnt and emotionally intimate contact between couples creates a prime environment for this process to emerge.
- We even take on some behaviors of our partners without even realizing we did it. Our brains have these cool neurons called mirror neurons that are key players in communication. It is their job to recognize and then “mimic” or mirror the other person’s actions. Things like eye contact, body language and voice tone can all be affected by this process.
- Proximity breeds familiarity. When we are familiar with someone, we are comfortable. We want to spend time with them and can envision future activities. We start to become a “we”.
Some interesting physical changes happen too. Partners tend to have a powerful influence on our physiology too, helping to keep us in balance. Every relationship has a vibe and your partner’s very presence very much becomes a part of the rhythm of your life. They are there to comfort us when we’re upset, motivate us when we’re not feeling it and even help to set the pattern of what we do each day. You probably eat at certain times, sleep at certain times, even walk the dog at certain times.
As you can imagine, disruption can lead to increased stress and research has found that prolonged, painful losses are associated with a number of physical ailments including insomnia, poor appetite, high blood pressure and more.
So, when the break-up comes, you’re shook. Your balance has been disrupted and it tosses you into a state of emotional and even physical dysregulation. You come to the abrupt realization that you are no longer a “we”. How can that be? What just happened? The reality of the loss is jarring and can leave you struggling to regain control.
Endings Are Losses
The end of a relationship signals the end of something: a plan or dream of what could have been or might have been. If you’ve been together a long time, that loss can be especially painful and deeply felt. There was a commitment to each other.
The way we grieve the death of a loved one is not that dissimilar to how we grieve the loss of a relationship. It doesn’t much matter if you or your partner initiated the break-up. It still hurts and leaves a heavy sense of loss.
You’re probably familiar with the five stages of grieving identified by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, M.D., in her book On Death and Dying:
Researchers have found that people experience similar stages of grieving following the loss of relationships, albeit in different ways. However, grieving is a highly personal experience.
You’re going to feel all kinds of feelings. Some of them will be rather unpleasant and maybe even unexpected. You may not experience all of the typical grief stages. You may move back and forth between them. Sometimes you might skip some.
When the loss is really painful, you can get stuck. You’re not “crazy” and there is nothing “wrong” with you. You’ve simply gotten into a place where your emotions so intense you can’t move forward.
The good news is, you can get unstuck, you can heal and you can move towards a place of peace and acceptance. It takes time. And it takes some intentional effort.
The Way Forward – 5 Strategies for Surviving the Break-Up
First, let’s be clear. There is no one perfect way to work through a break-up. There are many paths you can take to healing. The important thing is to acknowledge your feelings. They are yours and they are real. And, they’re ok to have. Feeling that intense emotion is part of the letting-go process.
- Give yourself permission to feel what you feel. It might be anger or intense sadness or something else. Intense feelings can sometimes be scary and overwhelming. There are no right or wrong feelings to have.
- Give yourself permission to think about it and talk about it. You might think that the opposite is true but keeping it all in does not help. Relationship researchers have actually found that when people have the chance to talk about their lost love in a healthy way, their sense of identity improved and they reported feeling less lonely and less distressed about the breakup. If talking about it is uncomfortable, try keeping a journal. The important thing here is to have a place to allow the feelings to flow.
- Avoid your ex – or at least unnecessary contact. True, sometimes total avoidance isn’t possible especially if you’ve shared a circle of friends or frequent the same places. Immediately following a break-up, it is not uncommon to want to “keep tabs” or “stay friends” or even “lurk” on their social media. Resist the urge! Trying to stay connected with your ex comes at a very high emotional cost.
- Stay connected. When you’re hurting, it’s tempting to stay in bed with the covers over your head. That only gives you time to ruminate on what happened. Spending time with people, getting out and doing things helps you to get reacquainted with the people and things that bring you happiness and joy. Being busy is a distraction from having the breakup replay over and over in your head. And, it’s a reminder that you can and will be happy again.
- Give it time. The old saying, “Time heals all wounds” is quite true and applies here. In the beginning, the pain will be intense and you will replay the good times and the breakup in your head a thousand times. Once you start to resume a routine and start to have other experiences, the memories will start to become less intrusive and less intense. You may never forget but you will be able to move on and experience happiness again. It really does take time.
If you find you’re struggling to move on and affecting your functioning and well-being, it might be time to talk to a therapist. You will have someone supportive but objective with whom you can explore your experience. In counseling, you can learn more about yourself and how you can better manage this difficult time. You’ll learn new skills that you’ll carry a lifetime.
A Therapy24x7 therapist is ready to help you grow past your breakup and embrace life to the fullest. For more information, contact us today to schedule a consultation with one of our Therapy24x7 therapists.