“He came home one day and he said, it’s over, I don’t love you like I used to”. Her heartbreak was tangible, pain pouring out of every pore. She continued saying “I can’t sleep or eat, I don’t know what to do with myself, I’m so confused, I’m a mess!
This woman’s life had been turned upside down. She was disorientated and didn’t know the wood for the trees. She looked at me, directly in my eyes and asked ‘’why does this hurt so much?”
Why are break ups so painful?
As human beings, we are designed for relationships. In fact, we need them just like we need water, food and air. Without relationships we’re dead. So of course it’s going to be painful, if not excruciating when we lose a relationship that means so much to us.
What to expect
Often, when clients describe what they’re feeling after going through a break up, it sounds exactly like the symptoms that people experience when someone they loved has died. That is, people grieve relationships that are lost. This is an absolutely natural reaction but I’m sorry to say, it is a painful process.
Some symptoms people may feel, according to J. William Worden, an expert of how people grieve, include the following:
Feelings: sadness, anger, guilt, anxiety, loneliness, fatigue, helplessness, shock, yearning, emancipation, relief, remorse, numbness.
Thoughts: disbelief, confusion, preoccupation with their ex-partner.
Behaviours: sleep disturbances, absentminded behaviour, social withdrawal, dreams of your ex, avoiding reminders of your ex, sighing, restless, overactivity, crying, visiting places or carrying objects that are reminders of ex, treasuring objects that belonged to them.
Physical sensations: hollowness in the stomach, tightness in the chest, tightness in the throat, oversensitivity to noise, weakness in the muscles, lack of energy, dry mouth, breathlessness, shortness of breath, depersonalisation (nothings seem real).
These are all natural grief reactions to loss and heartbreak.
Phases of grief
Worden also believes, that there is a process we all go through when dealing with loss, and they can be looked at as happening in phases.
Phase 1: Accepting the truth, your ex has gone
Facing the reality that your ex has really gone is a tough truth to face but it’s necessary. This acceptance needs to be not only just in your thoughts but also, in your heart. That is, your emotions need to be able accept this truth too. I vividly recall a client saying “My head would tell me she was gone, but my heart would hurt each time I said it. Now, my heart has made room to accept it as well.’’
Phase 2: Processing the pain of losing your ex
The pain people feel when experiencing a loss is very real. In fact, according to Sue Johnson, an expert in couple therapy, the same part of the brain that lights up when we feel physical pain is the exact same part when feeling psychological pain. Knowing that, who on earth wants to feel psychological pain?
According to Worden, there’s no getting past it. People will often be surprised by the sheer intensity of what they’re feeling, and will often try to shut it down. However, what many don’t realise is, that by going through the pain and processing it helps you get through to the other side. The more that pain is suppressed, made light of it or denied, the greater the likelihood for depression to set it.
Phase 3: Adjusting to life without your ex
Adjustments need to happen in three areas of life which include how you live your life day to day, what you believe about yourself post break up, and how you see the world around you.
Day to day: these adjustments can be anything and everything from the practical to the sentimental. I recall a client saying how every Saturday morning she would have breakfast with her ex at a cafe. After the break up, she would dread Saturdays as she didn’t know what to do with herself without their usual ritual.
Self-identity and self-esteem: A client told me how her partner gave her self-confidence and belief in herself. “When I was with him, he would encourage me to make my own decisions and helped me to believe I could do anything. Without him, I don’t know how to do that for myself.’’ Part of adjusting to life without her ex was learning how to define and encourage herself to live her life without him.
The world around us: clients are often left questioning how they fit in and where they belong after a break up. I recall a client saying her beliefs were rocked after the way she was treated after her divorce. Firstly, she didn’t realise how cruel people could be but also, the world she believed to be fair and just was in fact the opposite to that. She needed to adjust her beliefs to understand and function in the world she now found herself.
Phase 4: Moving on with life
As described, grief can be an intense experience leaving people feeling as if they are stuck and unable to move on with their lives. It’s as if everything in their life has stopped as they try to process and adjust to life without their partner. This makes case in point of why it’s important to go through the stages of grief to increase the chances of moving on with life.
A sign when people are ready to move on is when they are ready to find love again. They no longer have the need to be linked with their ex in some way, and they’re ready to take the plunge into another relationship.
All these adjustments take time to achieve. I have never liked the saying ‘’time heals all wounds’’ because it suggests that time itself is a healer. My work with clients has shown me that this is far from reality. It is the going through stages of acceptance, processing and adjusting that takes energy, attention and time to achieve the healing of a broken heart.
Word of caution: It’s important to note that these phases are never achieved in a precise or linear way. Grief by its nature is raw and messy. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself going back forth from each of the phases. It’s all part of the process.
How to help a friend
If you have a friend going through a break up, I hope you can see how complex the process is. It’s really hard to watch someone in pain, leaving you helpless, not knowing what to do.
The best thing you can do is listen to them and support them. Include them in your social activities, catch up with them, and offer to do practical things they may not feel up to. Don’t try to “fix” them, lecture them or tell them to think positively, this is rubbing salt into an open wound.
When to call a professional
For some, having a counsellor to speak to about coming to terms with, and going through the grief process can be a relief. It can help elevate the intensity of pain by having someone objective to talk. Counsellors will also be able to provide tools and strategies to help process the break up, as well as draw attention to issues they may be avoiding.
Grief and depression can look very similar. Often times, depression can occur as a result of losing a relationship. However the key difference is best described by Freud who believed that a grieving person sees the world poor and empty, while a depressed person feels poor and empty. That is, when self-esteem and self-worth is being questioned, then professional attention becomes highly necessary.