The end of a relationship

Breaking up in a relationship is a life event that we have all experienced. It is a ‘common’ experience like moving house, leaving school, growing up and yet it can be one of the most devastating and destructive experiences one has. In particular, the breakup of a long term relationship can be traumatic and give rise to a range of very strong (conflicting) feelings including rage, despair, resentment, relief, pain and an overwhelming sense of sadness. Each partner’s future feels very delicate and uncertain.

The end of a relationship has frequently been described in similar terms to those losing a loved person to death. This is often true for the partner who initiated the break up as much as for the partner who was left behind. When losing a partner – particularly a long term partner - you go through various stages of grief and through a cycle of very intense emotions. In her ground breaking book on Death and Dying (1969), Elizabeth Kübler-Ross describes the stages a grieving partner goes through in their experience of losing a person they loved. Kübler-Ross’ description closely matches the emotions experienced when losing a partner:

1. Denial - there is a sense of disbelief that the breakup is actually happening. You are still postponing your grief as you still hold out hope that things will work out eventually.

2. Anger - the reality of what is happening has now set in. You may ask yourself why this terrible thing is happening to you. You are angry with your ex-partner for having ruined the relationship and you are angry with yourself for letting this pain happen to you. You may also be angry with others for not helping enough.

3. Bargaining - at this point you may negotiate a different kind of relationship with your ex-partner, e.g. being friends from now on. Bargaining in the grief model referred to negotiating with a higher power for the situation to be different.

4. Depression - you have now begun to acknowledge the reality of the situation. Feelings of sadness, regret or fear of the future may arise.

5. Acceptance - at this stage there is more of an emotional detachment from the initial rawness; there is less of a sense of shock. You may slowly start to move forward in your life.

The length of each these stages varies as does the order of each. Grief is not a linear process. Acceptance may be the predominant feeling, but there can still be days filled with anger or depressive feelings.

While both long term partners are likely to experience grief, it is likely to be felt more intensely by the partner who did not make the decision to end the relationship. Loss of control, helplessness, paralysis and shame may be some of the emotions felt in the early stages of the grieving process.

Most relationships do not end overnight; mostly there is a slow process of separation taking place, consciously and unconsciously. Counselling may be helpful in supporting you in your grief and in helping you understand which patterns and behaviours may have led to the ending of your relationship. Having a new awareness and understanding of yourself in relationships will be helpful in future relationships. 

Recommended reading:

Cullington. Denise (2008). Breaking up blues. A guide to survival and growth. London: Routledge

Hayman, Suzy (2001). Breaking up without breaking down. London: Vermillion

Hendrix, Harville (2005). Getting the love you want. A guide for couples. Pocket Books

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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Written by Angela Dierks, BA (Hons), MStud (Oxon), MA Integrative Counselling, MBACP (Acc)

I am a dedicated therapist and work with individual clients as well as couples on a range of issues. I hold an MA integrative counselling (with distinction) and a diploma in couple counselling and psychotherapy am BACP accredited. I completed a BACP accredited diploma in clinical supervision (CPPD) and offer supervision to other therapists.… Read more

Written by Angela Dierks, BA (Hons), MStud (Oxon), MA Integrative Counselling, MBACP (Acc)

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