Understanding and managing the loss of relationships

Loss is an undeniable aspect of life. It is unpredictable, uncertain and appears in many forms. From an early age, we experience loss in different guises, and it is argued by some that our very entry into the world is the first loss we experience, the loss of the security, warmth and comfort of the womb. It could also be argued that loss on some level continues throughout life, and that life is about adjusting to loss, and managing to find ways to accommodate and integrate it within ourselves.

We all have relationships of varying degrees of emotional closeness, but whatever the nature of our relationships, there is a reality within them all, and that is, as with life, they will at some point come to an end.

Grieving for relationships

However a relationship comes to an end, it will be a difficult process involving a wide array of feelings and emotions, and will no doubt bring forth significant change to all areas of our lives. Our natural human reaction to any sort of loss is to grieve. In fact, there are many similarities between the death of a loved one and the ending of a significant relationship. Our feelings will often wildly oscillate between anger, guilt, regret and sadness to name a few.

The loss we experience will occur on many different levels depending on the individual, and the depth of the relationship. Such as:

  • Loss of companionship and shared experiences, which may or not have been consistently enjoyable.

  • Loss of support, whether financial, intellectual, social or emotional, or all the above.

  • Loss of shared hopes, plans and dreams, which can be even more painful than any practical losses.

When a relationship comes to an end, it is important to allow ourselves to feel all of our emotions, thoughts and feelings. Engaging with the different levels of loss is frightening, and you may fear your emotions will be too intense to bear. However, this process is important, and is part of what we need to experience in order to begin the healing process, allowing you to gradually let go of the old relationship.

Our sense of self and an opportunity for growth

When a relationship ends, whether it is a friendship that has over time become less close, or a romantic relationship that has mutually or for other reasons ended, it can feel as though our world has been turned upside down. We may be led to question the relationship, and ask why or how we got to our current position. Often we find ourselves heavily scrutinising ourselves or beating ourselves up for things we should or should or shouldn’t have said, or for how we behaved. We may decide that we are not worthy of attention or love, or feel as if we will never have a successful or happy relationship again.

In the absence of a relationship, it can feel as if we no longer know who we are. As mentioned above, we are mourning loss on several levels. Where there was once a ‘We’, there is now an ‘I’. We can be left with a sense that a partnership, with shared goals, hopes, dreams and direction, has now been replaced with a sense of feeling directionless, as if we are now lost at sea. Of course, due to the closeness of human relationships, and their importance within our lives, it stands to reason that we would struggle with separating from another. The reason for this is because we can become entangled within romantic relationships, lost within another. Our sense of self was previously weaved closely with another’s, and is therefore hard to prize free or examine objectively.

However, while it doesn’t seem so at first, the breakdown or loss of a relationship can offer an excellent opportunity for us to grow, learn and communicate more freely to ourselves, our own desires, needs and wishes. This is of course, not an easy process, and takes different lengths of time for each of us. But, by beginning the process of lessening the sense of enmeshment we had with our significant other or friend and giving ourselves time to breathe, think and feel, we can begin to discover aspects of ourselves which within the relationship may not have been given as much attention, or parts of ourselves we augmented so as to please another.

How therapy can help

As with the death of a loved one, losses of relationships are rarely smooth, clear cut or easy to manage. When a relationship ends, there can be a sense of feeling distant or ambivalent. There can be a sense within us of something needing resolution, understanding or clarity. We may struggle within our next relationship or wonder what is happening within these relationships that make them end prematurely.

Therapy can offer you the chance to explore your relationship history, from your earliest ones, to your most recent. You can begin to make sense of patterns, and decipher how you function with another, or whether you choosing certain types of people. As well as considering your romantic relationships, you can also explore your friendships, and relationships you have with your family. A therapist will work with you to assist you in unpacking your thoughts, feelings and ideas in a safe environment, and allow you to gain clarity and insight into your difficulties.

In closing

Given the importance of relationships in our lives, and the need we all have for interaction, closeness and warmth that these relationships can bring us, it makes sense that when one ends, it will have a deep and meaningful impact upon us. Our sense of who we are can often become tied up within the mind of another, thus separating from this can be painful. However, over time, we can learn to regrow our minds, tend to the wounds we experience when we lose love, and begin once again, to have a fuller more complete sense of who we are, as individuals.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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London N6 & NW5
Written by Joshua Miles, BA, MSc, BPC, BACP Accredited Psychodynamic Psychotherapist
London N6 & NW5

Joshua's an experienced integrative psychotherapist who's worked with people to explore their past and present relationships at depth. He provides people with a space to be reflective about their own lives & assists them in exploring their feelings & experiences at depth. He works with adults of all ages from his practice in Shoreditch East London

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