Relationship break-ups are a “pain in the heart.” We all do our best to avoid the experience, or at least to minimize its impact, but we all have been through it in one way or another, for better or worse.
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There are amicable break-ups, mutually agreed upon break-ups, and sometimes people can also frame it as “conscious uncoupling,” but the “pain in the heart” that stays with us is caused by the demise of relationships that we cherished and somehow let slip away.
Individuals have their own coping strategies, of course, and what works for one person may not work for another, but there still are steps that seem to be universal, although when people get to those stages and how they engage in them remains subject to individual differences. It’s important to remember at all times that there isn’t a “typical” response to a break-up, nor is there a “typical” break-up. Our experience of break-ups is as individual as we are.
There are five different stages to a break-up. Each of the stages bears its own gifts, and comes with its own dangers. Here is a metaphysical view on them:
As an instinctive response to perceived pain, it’s normal to deny the occurrence of a break-up, even to contend that it’s an error of judgement or a poorly-thought-out action. We seek to protect ourselves from pain, and denial is our first line of defense. The danger is that we can misperceive or misrepresent the conditions that led to the break-up, almost like we are stupefied by them, thereby anchoring ourselves in the denial. Some people become so invested in this stage that they begin to deny they are in denial.
Anger occurs when an outcome is imposed on us that we don’t want. A relationship break-up, especially when we consider it unjustified by our partner, is often a prompt for “enthusiastic bouts of anger.”
This self-protective mechanism releases intensified energy outward to the source of our anger, and sometimes it serves the useful purpose of delivering deeper grains of truth with aplomb and focused effect. The danger is that we can not only “burn bridges” with the significant other but also “blow them to smithereens” with an emotional carpet bombing.
Another way of looking at the demise of a relationship is that it “breaks up” the conditions that existed leading up to the separation. We may begin bargaining with our ex-partner the terms for a reconciliation, which most often carries with it the request that “certain things have to change.”
We can actually drill down much deeper into the dynamics of a relationship and realize that only certain aspects were unsatisfactory, whereas other aspects were completely fine. Bargaining in good faith can, under positive circumstances, lead to a re-coupling. The danger in this step is that we may begin to bargain with ourselves, thinking that by sacrificing some elements of “who we are or what we do” will be sufficient to mend the broken fences.
Depression is a normal response to emotion pain, often feeling like a necessary retreat into some form of solitude. We intuitively seek to attenuate the hurt in order to pick up the broken pieces and pull ourselves together again. In a safe haven, we “lay low in an emotional crevice” and let aspects of life go by without any desire to participate.
Such a pause can be fertile for personal growth. The danger is in becoming too comfortable in this phase, creating a safety zone around us that is hermetically sealed from any involvement with anyone. Ideally we will allow ourselves to wallow in depression only as long and as deeply as required to come to terms with the breakup.
Acceptance that a break-up occurred is one aspect of this step, and acceptance that a break-up is irrevocable is another that often feels even more difficult to negotiate. It’s when we feel that our life is moving forward that we can say with confidence we have accepted what is now the “new normal” in our life.
The danger in this step is that we might also think we have to accept characteristics of the break-up that are not rightfully ours to accept. Taking responsibility for your role in creating the circumstances that led to the break-up is one thing, but accepting blame as the sole cause of the demise of a relationship is quite another.
All in all, then, relationship break-ups are a “pain in the heart” that elicit normal emotional responses, and that prompt us to rethink our manner of being in order to avert a re-occurrence of the conditions that led to a negative outcome. This is not to say that if we learn all the lessons there are to learn from a break-up that we will never go through that experience again, but it is to say that we can become more resilient and steadfast in how we handle such unwanted episodes. Who’s to say that break-ups are not an exit through a doorway that also serves an as entrance to something better? The choice to interpret it positively is ours to make.