September 7th, 2010

Breaking Up – And Pulling Yourself Together

So your relationship just ended, and you weren’t the one that wanted it to end. What now? How do you sort out the emotions? How do you want to get out of bed? How do you figure out what just happened?

How do you get over it? Or past it? Or through it?

Here’s a few things that helped me get through the emotional turmoil that seems to come in the wake of many relationships.

First, “Let Go.”

I put these two “magnetic poetry” words together on my refrigerator several years ago and they remain there today. “Let go” has become a powerful statement in my life and can apply to a myriad of situations. Being willing to let go of things, especially when there’s no other choice, is a crucial skill. It will help you cope with loss, live with the things you cannot change, find a more compassionate heart when your first instinct is to be hurt or angry and you will have a smoother path toward accepting “what is.”

Because there is no other reality than “what is.” You may as well work toward accepting that.

This is not easily said or done. It’s very likely your emotions are still attached to the person you love(d). And you’ve just discovered that their emotions are not similarly attached to you. That’s painful. It’s not something you can absorb in a moment and be “okay” with it. Yes, it’s “what is” but it’s not what you wanted it to be. And that’s where the pain comes in. You are still wishing for something else and though it’s obvious at this point that’s not going to happen, sometimes our emotions are a large ship and need to be steered slowly and over a distance.

Moving toward accepting “what is” will begin to move you in the right direction.

It’s hardest to “let go” when you are unsure whether it’s the right thing to do if you’re the one making that choice. Here’s a few ways I’ve found to help figure that out:

Take responsibility for the problems you caused.

Write a letter in which you set aside any volatile or negative emotions that led to the relationship’s demise, dig into your core and acknowledge the things you could have done better and the mistakes you made. Be objective – how would another person see your behavior? How does it feel to be on the receiving end of your actions? Consider the unique perspective of the person you know, not just your own.

I’ve written this kind of letter when many significant relationships ended and never regretted it. It’s important to write without an outcome in mind – you are not trying to repair or get this relationship back. You are simply acknowledging your own responsibility which will help you feel better later because that is a key part of your own personal growth. Relationships are always an opportunity to grow. Grab that growth wherever you can.

It’s best to take responsibility by expressing it to the other party when it’s possible and safe to do so. If there’s no way to send the letter, then it remains an “unsent letter” (more about those later) and is solely an exercise for your emotional growth.

Don’t bear responsibility for issues that weren’t your doing.

If the blame game is going on and someone else wants to make their problems yours, it’s possible there’s a lack of maturity or perspective on the other side. Defensiveness usually comes into play after a loss and can make the things that went on difficult to sort out. Even the little things that happened seem to carry more meaning. Listen to complaints, assess for validity (so you can be honest with yourself and grow) but don’t soak up the grievances that you didn’t contribute to. Pay attention to whether or not you’re being intimidated or manipulated into believing you are less than you are.

It doesn’t matter if they learn to take responsibility for the things that are theirs – that’s their life to figure out. It’s not your job to convince them of all their wrongdoing. You don’t have to argue or persuade. What’s most important is listening for anything that’s a valid point for your own growth and “let go” of the rest. You can’t always fix the perception of others. Attempting to be understood is only productive to a point.

Don’t forget what didn’t work because you’re missing what did.

Write down the things that weren’t working. This is a list for you, unless you find yourself in a discussion where there is sincere interest on the other side to hear your perspective on things. (There usually isn’t.) Objectivity is one of the first things to fly out the window post-breakup. It may come back after enough time has passed or it may not. Sometimes people develop complex blaming coping mechanisms to separate from the emotional consequences when things end. Don’t try to break through that, it’s likely a fruitless endeavor.

Even if the breakup was a big surprise and was completely him leaving you – there are things in that action that are signs of what didn’t work for you. Remember those events and differences by cataloguing them. Don’t let the gaps in your present dance card and missing emotional connection tempt you to only remember the positive that used to fill those gaps. There was other stuff in there too.

Don’t forget what did work because you’re angry or hurt.

Keep perspective. There were reasons why you were together and if you haven’t had the time, opportunity or been able to express them thus far, that’s another thing to put in your letter. Telling people what they do well and what you appreciate about them is a way of creating a better world and encouraging better behavior and treatment. Sometimes we don’t think to tell people the things we appreciate about them. Watch those around you and you’ll notice many people do this more easily than others. Don’t be withholding of such a positive, impactful action in this world, no matter what you feel you’re not getting in return. It’s a way of honoring the time we spent with people, the contribution they made to our lives and doing so keeps us grounded in truth. It’s a much better approach than only running the bad feelings and experiences through our heads in order to create emotional distance from the pain of the breakup. Acknowledging the positive keeps us in reality.

Don’t try to put Humpty Dumpty back together again.

Don’t let your letter writing about what was good and where you can take responsibility tempt you back into a situation that doesn’t work. Pay attention to the balance between what works and what doesn’t. Know how you weigh the importance of those things. If you need to get analytical to sort it out, make a spreadsheet, rating the goodness/badness of each factor, and multiply that by a ranking that determines how important to you each of these issues is. If you’re still coming out with a positive number, add in the fact that this person no longer wants to be with you. That should be a deal-breaker, yes?

Does it really merit a second chance?

If you determine it’s all (or most of) your responsibility, or that you really overreacted, perhaps it’s worth trying to mend bridges. Make sure you’re doing this rationally, based on a thorough analysis of taking and giving responsibility, paying attention to core values differences that have (or haven’t) shown growth or change, understanding the potential (or lack thereof) of necessary changes occurring.

Be cognizant that many people rush back into what they just left when experiencing the discomfort of the emotional aftermath. When we lose someone that mattered to us, we’re going to feel that loss. It’s worth weathering the emotional storm to be sure you’re in the right relationship, rather than staying in this relationship just because it seems more comfortable than all this sudden change. Change can be exciting, but it can also be frightening.

Keep your wits about you. Do you want it back mostly because it’s familiar and the unknown is just so…unknown? Is there another way of looking at the uncertain future without trepidation? Of course there is. We need to identify the things that we’re fearing, see if there’s any validity in it and march forward when our fears are unfounded.

Assigning meaning.

What if you’ve lost a relationship for this exact reason before? What if it’s all your fault? What if you can’t stop beating yourself up for it?

What if you’re really really bad/horrible/stupid/lazy/wrong and ever other negative thing your partner or your own brain is telling you?

It’s time to know that acknowledging this will benefit you in the future, even though you wish you made some changes earlier and you’re feeling the crushing weight of regret in all its forms. Learn the lesson now. Use whatever pain you’re feeling to engrain it in you. And then start doing something about it. If it requires some therapy to sort out emotional issues or behavioral patterns, get some. And be honest. If you need to change some habits, get some help doing it. (Zenhabits.net and 6changes.com are great places to start for that.)

I know that in the past, the changes I needed to make were harder to accomplish when I was dumped over those things. What difference does it make if I change now? It was as if I was invalidating all of my own feelings about being left if I suddenly capitulated to all these necessary changes. It’s as if I was saying he was right and I was wrong and it seemed like I couldn’t heap any more of that on myself right then.

So I might as well just wallow in all of it, right? How productive! How unlikely to produce better attitudes, feelings of progress and empowerment!

Instead I let paralyzation set in – if I made that change now it doesn’t change anything – after all I just lost everything that mattered.

Having said that – try not to give this situation more meaning than it deserves. When you’ll look back on this moment in the future, you’ll know it was a fantastic moment for you to learn and grow, even if it’s coming “too late” and you lost something that was important to you in the process. You will get something important to you that you probably couldn’t get any other way. Embrace that thought as soon as you can.

Give it time.

No, really.

Yes, it’s a very old cliché to say that time heals everything. It’s usually not very comforting to hear it from others when you’re hurting. It doesn’t solve the problem right now.

Remember you already have evidence in your own life that time alters the impact of just about everything, even when you’re very young. Think back to an experience that felt unbearable when you were going through it. Now check your emotional response to the memory of that event years later. The feelings are different. Now look at your present emotional state and recognize where you’ll be after enough time has passed and enough of the emotional landscape has been traversed. It can still feel unbearable at the moment, but you’ll be able to formulate some hope that the emotional intensity will fade. The insight will come.

This evidence builds over the course of our lives, and that’s partly what gives us more and more perspective to weather things that felt like the end of the world when we were younger. Even when it seems like you’ll feel this level of intensity forever, you won’t. Even if you want to cultivate this grief and maintain it in its present form to honor the impact of this relationship, it will change.

You will feel it all now and riding the waves of emotion may be painful. Find a friend to talk to, or to distract you from the amount of emotion you’re navigating. Stay productive in your own life by doing something you’ve been meaning to do, but were putting off. Do something – anything – no matter how small it is. It won’t contain the joy and sense of accomplishment that you’d have in a more hopeful time, but it will set you on the path to getting to the more hopeful time.

Dealing with unanswered questions.

The more your partner doesn’t want to talk about the reasons your relationship ended, the more questions you’ll have. The more dishonest your partner was, the more unanswered questions and self-doubt you may deal with in the aftermath.  This may occur whether you can prove his dishonesty or not – it’s just the lingering effect of dealing with someone who wasn’t open and real with us.

When someone tells us our relationship isn’t working for them or that they’re unhappy with our compatibility we get to manage our emotional attachment. We’re dishonest with ourselves if we ignore what someone is telling us. But if they don’t tell us they’re flirting with other people to manage their own lack of satisfaction with the relationship they’re in, we’re caught out of the blue when they run off with someone else.

Dishonesty will likely cause a lot stronger lingering emotions and attachment as your heart and mind try to sort out how to feel. One moment you were allowed to feel for them deeply and the next they’re gone. A person that occupied a lot of time, activities, intimacy, connections and friendship in your life is going to leave a gap in all of those areas. That can’t be avoided. You can fill this gap with other things and it may not go very far in tricking yourself to believe the gap is filled. If you didn’t want the relationship to end, you’re not likely to be satisfied with these gap-filling substitutions at first. But eventually you’ll find things that occupy your mind, social calendar, time and interests. Eventually you’ll find yourself and the pieces you lost by involving yourself with someone that didn’t respect you with complete honesty.

As you’re still suffering with residual emotional pain, write about your emotions as a way of releasing them from your body. Once something is written down, it can function as a way of “letting go.” We put it down “on paper” as a way of getting it out of our head. Share it with a friend you trust who can help you get to the other side of your emotional journey by offering you a perspective outside your own. Write “unsent letters” to your ex as a way of expressing and finding the things that are lingering and causing you pain. Reading these back later will sound dramatic and ridiculous, but don’t worry about that now. You are in pain and you need to clean the wound.

Face starting over again.

From The Between Boyfriends Book:

Relationship Equivalency Exam: A test that would allow you to earn credit for past dating experiences so you could pick up a new relationship where the old one left off. There’s nothing worse than almost marrying someone, breaking it off, and having to start over with a blind date. It’s like failing your senior year of high school and having to go back to kindergarten.

Seventeen Dates: After a break up, the approximate number of bad dates you have to endure before you have a good one.

You may end up feeling this way – like starting over is the worst thing in the world. But it’s not. You will have better and better relationships as you go through life because you’re learning and adapting more and more. It’s just a matter of sorting out the current emotions that have no object to focus on and preparing them for what will come in the future.

Sometimes a relationship will end in very poor form. He’ll do some things in a hurtful way and he’ll feel bad about it, which will sometimes cause him to do more hurtful things. Recognize this likely pattern and don’t take it all to heart.

Find a new way of feeling.

If the time right after a breakup always leaves you feeling down because you don’t feel like dating anyone else (ever again!?), go out on a date this time (be honest about your emotional state, so you’re not unnecessarily hurting someone else). If you usually do the opposite – you don’t allow yourself to feel the sad or negative feelings of a breakup by rushing into a new thing – this time wait and feel. If you become paralyzed and distracted from your goals, focus and do things toward meeting them no matter how unnerved you feel. Don’t rush toward an unnatural happiness to avoid sadness and don’t dwell in sadness to the exclusion of being grateful for all the things you still have. Reconnect with others, fill your time and treat yourself kindly.

Write down how any of this worked for you. This will be your record for the next time you go through heartache. Every time will be an opportunity to change and challenge yourself to grow.

Now, you.

What advice do you give yourself to get through a good or a bad breakup in the best possible way?

Dating . Grow