Relationships and the grief cycle. Disconnection, healing and moving on or restoring the bond
Relationships of all kinds are discussed frequently in counselling sessions and consist of complex dynamics which can be difficult to understand. When the bond or attachment between two people breaks down, it can incite a number of different responses. More often than not, at least one party involved in the relationship breakdown is experiencing a complex mix of emotions which can feel overwhelming and hard to understand. The grieving/healing process can be experienced as painful, frustrating, confusing and complicated. It is common for this process to be protracted, and often people are left wondering just how long it will take to ‘move on’ or heal from the loss.
In this article, we will be focusing on the challenging impact of a relationship breakdown and the comparison to ‘the grief cycle’ which Kübler-Ross describes in her book, On Death and Dying (1969). This is a common comparison, however, we will discuss the potential barriers experienced throughout the cycle in relation to a breakdown in a relationship, whilst considering steps towards healing.
For the purpose of this article, a ‘relationship’ is a bond between two people, where ‘partner’ refers to the connected party in the relationship. This is not exclusive to an intimate relationship.
Loss of connection
The grief cycle (shown below) is predominantly used to describe the interchangeable stages experienced during bereavement. As a relationship breakdown involves a loss or disconnect between people, the common cycles experienced in both instances are similar.
Denial: Initial shock and disbelief of the situation presented.
Anger: As disbelief and denial subside, angry responses emerge as the reality of the situation sinks in. Often we ask ‘why?’ in this stage. Feelings of injustice and unfairness can be experienced which incite anger.
Bargaining: Trying to compromise to reduce the impact of the situation. Exploring ways the situation might have been prevented. ‘what if?’ and ‘if only’ statements occur frequently when in this stage.
Depression: Complex combinations of fear, sadness, guilt, hopelessness, shame and blame can frequent the depression stage. The disconnection from a significant other and mourning what they offered and/or represented; what could have potentially been. People often feel numb and disconnected, sometimes feeling like they want to give up.
Acceptance: Accepting the circumstances. Not necessarily agreeing, or feeling content, but accepting that this has happened, and the person you felt you knew has gone.
Often when travelling through this cycle, we hit stumbling points, go back and forth in our thinking and can find it challenging to navigate in a direction which feels certain. Whether you have decided to rebuild the connection or part ways, a certain level of mourning and/or acceptance of the loss may help solidify the next steps you choose to take.
Loss of an ideal – who is this person?
When entering relationships, we often enter with expectations and form future hopes or goals which we attach to our partner. These contribute to an ideal which we have created for them, and the unique bond we share. These ideas and expectations could be relatively simple and singular such as ‘a monogamous relationship’ or ‘a friendship where we do not gossip about one another’. Alternatively, expectations might be more specific such as ‘a monogamous intimate relationship, with the view of having multiple children and buying a house together in the future’.
Irrespective of the details, we often enter into a relationship with a set of expectations and believe our chosen partner can fulfil the hopes and desires we hold, or will be able to at some point in the future. Difficulties often surface when the person entrusted to meet these specific ideals conducts themselves in a way which is perceived as detrimental to the end goal.
Mourning the loss of a relationship often involves mourning the version of your partner you thought you knew; the partner you made plans with or saw as an integral part of your future. If you have been disappointed in the process of the loss, you may feel you no longer know the person you once connected to. You feel this ‘ideal’ person is no longer here. They are gone. This is the loss that needs to be processed.
On occasions, relationships are formed with people who do not quite fit the ideals of a partner or meet expectations, but hope remains that one day they will, or they have the potential to change. Often, partners wait under these circumstances. In this instance, the ‘loss’ is the realisation that this partner may never be able to fit the ideal and meet the expectations set.
This stage can feel threatening; traumatic for some. Particularly if the loss of connection has come as a shock. For instance, an unexpected break up or disconnect, a sudden realisation or abrupt change in circumstances. Any event which significantly alters the bond shared can feel like a significant loss in a relationship.
Linda gave birth to a child who required medical attention for a liver complication shortly after she was born. This was a difficult period of time for the family, and Linda sought support from a postnatal counsellor. The counsellor discussed the notion that Linda was mourning the loss of a healthy child.
Although Linda still physically had her daughter, she agreed she was experiencing a disconnect which was painful to sit with. Linda described a large part of her therapeutic process as understanding the ideals she had for her second child; bringing her home to her sister and experiencing the joy she would bring to the family. Medical complications were not something she had planned for or envisioned. Mourning the loss of this ideal, ‘the healthy child’, was something Linda acknowledged needed to happen in order for her to move forward, feel less distressed and accept that her child was unwell.
A thread of hope – will they come back?
In Kübler-Ross’ cycle, a thread of hope is often present throughout the stages. Although ‘hope’ is not a stage on its own, it can exist in all stages. Hope often provides the belief that the situation can be rectified, resolved or change. That a lesson can be learned, or things will turn around for the better. When considering the loss of a relationship, this thread of hope is important to reflect on.
During initial stages of disconnection, hope is often attached directly to the partner; ‘maybe they can change, maybe this was a mistake or isn’t true, and the person I knew will return’. The absence of our ideal partner is too much to bear sometimes, and the thread of hope is held onto as a way to manage some of these distressing feelings. Remaining hopeful can feel like a protective factor in the process; acting as a shield from some of the painful information which could be uncovered.
Hope is important, and in some instances, it is this same hope which helps to support the restoration of relationships and bring partners back together to renew healthy connections. However, there are some instances, where the ideal version of a partner has truly gone, or a realisation has set in that this ideal version never existed. Uncovering where this sits is fundamental. This can be a challenging and uncomfortable process, but understanding whether you still hold hope in this situation or not is important for the next stage of moving on and healing from a loss of connection.
Psychological flexibility – can my narrative change?
Psychological flexibility is an important human function. It is thought this skill is essential for sustaining a good quality of life as it allows us to rationalise and think in the present moment. When people suffer from anxiety and/or depression, inflexible thinking is commonplace and can be detrimental to their health.
Psychological flexibility is discussed heavily in cognitive behavioural therapy and acceptance commitment therapy. Both therapeutic modalities focus on the way we think and the manner in which altering our thoughts can support us to achieve a healthier level of psychological functioning.
So far, we have highlighted the initial feelings linked to the loss of a connection, the emotions experienced when realising our ideals may no longer exist, and the idea that our ideal partner does not exist in the form we believed. Now we must consider what that means, how it feels and understand what acceptance means on a personal level considering the circumstances.
Is there an opportunity for psychological flexibility here? Now that the ideal partner has gone, can an altered version of our ideal exist or not?
This is where the idea of psychological flexibility presents itself. The following questions are useful to consider when trying to understand how you feel and determine your levels of flexibility concerning the loss:
- What does the lack of an ideal version of your partner mean for you?
- Did the ideal version ever exist? If not, can you accept this?
- How would it feel to reconnect with the same partner, but with a shifted ideal?
At first glance, these questions may sound as if your own needs are being discounted. However, these questions are less about settling, unhealthy dynamics or ignoring your needs, and more about making sense of, and connecting to your own personal boundaries and limitations.
There are instances in life when our personal beliefs, values and principles are crossed. This is when we may feel connections are unable to be restored and are firm in our boundaries about how we feel about this. If this is the case, you may be certain that the loss experienced cannot be remedied with a re-connection. This does not mean you cannot accept the fact that your ideal partner has gone, but means you refuse to reconnect with a different version of them under the current circumstances.
Alternatively, you may be in a position where you feel you have processed the initial loss, moved through some of the grief cycle stages and welcome the idea of psychological flexibility as you move towards acceptance. In this case, you may be choosing to acknowledge that the ideal version of your partner is no longer here, but are willing to explore the possibilities with the partner who is now present. This does not mean accepting dynamics which feel toxic or unhealthy but challenging your own thinking if it feels rigid and inflexible.
Gabriel was close to marrying his long term girlfriend. He acknowledged that he had strong personal beliefs surrounding sex before marriage, and this was something which he felt was non-negotiable when considering a long-term partner.
During counselling, he reflected on a break in his relationship, which had come about after discovering his girlfriend had previously had a sexual encounter. This encounter was prior to meeting Gabriel, however, this was difficult for him to process given the ideal he had entered the relationship with.
Gabriel described the process of having to work through the difficult feelings attached to this discovery; asking himself challenging questions in relation to his own values, needs, wants and priorities. Gabriel’s process included reflecting on the loss of the ideal he held for his partner, accepting that this version of her does not exist, but being flexible in committing to an ‘alternative version’ of his ideal.
What can often inhibit healthy healing, is the inability to let go of the former version of the partner who is no longer here, whilst trying to reconnect at the same time. If we are unable to acknowledge that our initial ideal is no longer here, and the re-connection is altered, this is where resentment and extended feelings of discomfort can manifest. This is a common drawback, often present in the counselling room and actively playing out in many relationships.
The thread of hope has remained through the stages, and instead of mourning the loss, the ideal has been carried over into the reconnected relationship. Often meaning partners feel they have healed and are ready to try again, but in reality, they have healed the disappointment and not the actual loss of their ideal partner.
To provide the best chance of moving forward and sustaining the healing process, it is important to understand and reflect on a few key areas:
- Can an alternative version of my ideal exist?
- Can my needs still be met with this new ideal?
- What does this new ideal look like?
- Am I willing to think flexibly about this connection and let go of the ideal I once had?
If these questions are difficult to consider and provoke feelings of hostility or discomfort, it is likely that reconnecting with your partner may not feel like the most comfortable option under the current circumstances. Understanding where these responses come from may be important in your process of mourning the loss of your ideal, acceptance and moving forward.
However, if these questions feel comfortable to consider, and were met with receptiveness, then you may have reached a point where acceptance of the loss and reparation of the bond is feasible.
In any case, mourning the loss of an ideal is fundamental to harness movement and healing. Whether it is moving forward without your partner, or restoring the bond with an alternative version of your previous relationship, mourning loss and acceptance are pivotal to the healing process. Without this, resentment and hostility can reside as a co-morbidity of the loss experienced. These feelings can fester and often hold people captive; withholding them from their own healing journey and preventing them from moving forward.