A relationship ending can often feel like a death, and while nobody has died, it is the death of the relationship, the death of the dreams and plans you had together, and sometimes the death of who you thought you were.
So grief is a natural and necessary part of a relationship ending, and it is important to work through it in order to be able to move on.
As in grieving the death of a loved one, there are five stages to grieving a relationship loss. Introduced by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, thestages are denial, anger, bargaining, sadness, and acceptance. So how do they reply to a relationship breakdown?
This is a state of shock, because you don’t want to believe the relationship is over. Despite noticing problems, you may pretend they don’t exist or are only temporary, and you may distance yourself from your spouse because you don’t want to hear what they have to say.
You may feel numb, lonely, and as though you can’t move forward. You may have arguments with your spouse, as you don’t want to talk or listen to them. This can be a frustrating stage for the other partner, as they may feel you’re trying to stop things moving forward. Asking for some time will be helpful to both of you.
Anger is an emotion that can be positive, if handled in the right way. In a way, it is a step forward and can mobilise you from your feeling of being stuck and not moving forward. This stage can dictate how the separation will continue, so it’s important to deal with it in a healthy way.
It can be useful to seek support from a counsellor or another third party to help this stage go well. You and your partner may blame each other for the breakup, may argue, shout, and vent your frustrations, which are all necessary. But make sure this doesn’t take place in front of your children, and that you don’t make any big decision while angry. In the long run, you’ll regret it.
This stage can be a pivotal step either forward or backwards. Many times people make offers of change or a different future in the hopes of stopping the relationship from ending. If the offers are genuine, with the help of a counsellor, the relationship may survive. But in many cases, people are just avoiding the inevitable.
This is not a good stage to start negotiations, so emotions can go either way and could potentially lead to adversarial action.
The new sense of reality sinks in, and sadness for the loss of the relationship affects both spouses and those around them. Wider family, and children in particular, will also grieve the relationship and how it impacts their relationship with you.
Keep an eye out that sadness doesn’t tip into clinical depression. For signs of clinical depression, check this list at Beyond Blue. If you are experiencing any of these, see you GP.
This is the completion of a journey that has been not been an easy one. It is a gradual process, but one that brings relief. You’ll start to focus more on the future, and making the best of your situation. You may still experience feelings of sadness and anger, but your main focus will be building your new life. This is when you’ll be ready to start negotiations.
It’s important to note that the grieving process is not a clear cut, organised cycle. The different stages can last for different amounts of time, and move backwards and forwards as you work your way through them. It is not going to necessarily be clear when you reach acceptance, but you will gradually feel better.
It is also likely that different spouses will be at different stages. The spouse who initiated the separation may have had more time to process their feelings and be closer to acceptance than their partner. You need to be understanding and patient of this, and working with a psychologist can be good for both of you. Once you’re both at the acceptance and detachment stage, that is a good time for negotiations.
If you’d like to find out more on this topic, read Breaking Up Without Breaking Down.