Alex O'Brien

Breaking up doesn’t have to break you

Breaking up doesn’t have to break you

Susan Krauss Whitbourne is a professor of Psychology and Brain Sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She writes the Fulfillment at Any Age blog for Psychology Today.

There’s no question that the ending of a close relationship can be wrenching. Whether through breakup, divorce, or the death of your partner, you will inevitably go through a period of great sadness. Common wisdom is that the best way to recover is to “work through” the loss and rid yourself of all memories of your absent partner. Friends may tell you that as long as you give it time, you’ll eventually forget about the person and be able truly to move on with your life. Psychological wisdom traditionally agreed with this viewpoint.

The trouble with this approach when it comes to a close relationship’s ending is that it’s wrong.

The closer the relationship, the greater the chances that it’s burrowed deep into your psyche.  Although you are changed by all the relationships you have, even some that may be brief and seemingly insignificant at the time, it’s the ones that have persisted that are most likely to have changed you in fundamental ways.

This view of close relationships is based on the general principles of attachment theory, which proposes that we carry remnants of our earliest relationships with caregivers into our adult years. These are the most fundamental influences on our so-called “working models” of ourselves, but not the last ones. According to bereavement researcher Margaret Stroebe, it’s not unhealthy for our attachment bonds to live on even after our loved ones have departed. At the root of this is the underlying truth that this person was once a part of your own identity, and that your ex’s view of you was vitally important to your own self-definition. You saw yourself as he or she did, and indeed may have found it difficult to imagine yourself in any other way. (In other words, you “completed” each other.)

Your ex also most likely affected your life in thousands of less profound ways. Your choice of vegetables may have been predicated on your partner’s preferences, and even your decisions about wearing your hair probably reflected the look your partner favoured. Now that the partner isn’t with you, it may take you a minute or two while at the grocery store to realise that you can go ahead and buy the broccoli your partner couldn't tolerate but which you love.

Clearly, we can’t easily erase people either from our self-definitions or our routines. However, other than making those minor adaptations to our daily lives, is there any reason we should have to wipe the slate clean? What if your partner taught you valuable life lessons you’d never have learned on your own? How about the way he or she made you feel better about yourself when your self-esteem took a beating from disappointments you faced at work? You don’t need to unlearn those valuable insights or purge the positive impact your partner had on you. These have now become a part of you.

While you’re in the midst of the pain of a relationship’s ending, it may be hard to see how you will emotionally survive. By using this dual-process model of restoration and loss, you will adapt to the change a break up of a relationships brings:

  • Restoration. To ease the burden of dealing with the changes the breakup will require, start by making a list of what needs to be done to rework your daily life. Depending on how you distributed household responsibilities, you may have to take on more childcare, driving, or bill-paying—or become more handy. This may require a trip to the hardware store, or a laundry-room refresher. As you make the many practical adaptations in your life the breakup will require, consider using some positive reframing as a coping method. Instead of seeing these responsibilities as problems, view them as opportunities to develop new parts of yourself. You might find that you’re actually pretty good with a hammer and nails.
  • Loss. The loss function means that you psychologically come to terms with the relationship’s ending. Of the two processes, this is definitely the tougher one. Adjusting to the absence of a person who was so much a part of your life will not happen easily, but the burden may be reduced somewhat when you realise that you don’t have to rid yourself of all of the relationship's remnants. You can hold onto the parts that provide you with inner sustenance. As with the restoration process, there will be times when you might need to rely on positive reframing. It’s important to avoid the temptation to label everything about your ex as “bad,” even though when the wounds are freshest, you’ll find it hard to acknowledge any of his or her redeeming qualities. After that immediate pain subsides, you can start to look back and find positive meanings from both your ex and that part of your own identity that was wrapped up in his or hers.

The work of Stroebe and her collaborators makes us realise that continued bonds of attachment to our exes in our lives can be healthy and growth-promoting. Even if it's a relationship that ended decades ago, it's a part of the narrative that has become your own personal life story, for now and in the years to come.

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