The End of Your Relationship (or Marriage)
Written by Amy Greenleaf Brassert MSW RSW and Judy Grout MSW RSW on July 14, 2014.
Is Not the End of Your World
Relationships have a lifetime, and not all of them are meant to last until the end of time — even those that resulted in marriage. Endings can be seen as a sign that a cycle has been completed. All relationships offer each of us something of value and importance, no matter how painful the ending. The tricky part is allowing ourselves the possibility to see this gift.
When a relationship ends we are in a grieving process; we experience loss and many different emotions including confusion, shock, vulnerability, fear and loneliness. We may have thoughts like: “Who am I?”, “What am I doing?”, “Am I lovable?”, “Will I ever meet someone?” We also experience a sudden shift or loss of context, history and the once familiar choreography of our lives. We lose a sense of who we are, and as a result our self-worth can be shaken.
The world as we knew it has been broken apart and it can seem overwhelming for a period of time. This is a normal and natural part of the process and will not last forever. As we journey through grieving and healing, there is eventually room for a renewed hope — a belief that we can do the next relationship differently and whole-heartedly, once we are ready.
It’s Not a Race Against Time
It is tempting to rush through or skip over the grief process. To be successful as you move into your future, it is vital that you take the time you need to go through the whole process of ending the relationship in a directed and thoughtful way, without avoiding any part of it. When you really dive in and gain this self-awareness, you can go on to establish more satisfying future relationships.
Please don’t view the relationship as a personal failure. Instead, you might ask yourself, “What did I learn about myself and what do I want to do differently next time?”
The emotional process that takes place when a relationship ends usually begins with denial. There are many versions of this, and it all depends on each person as well as the relationship. An example might be, “This is just a trial separation — he will come to his senses and eventually realize his mistake.” Denial is a protection from the intensity of the feelings already present and those yet to come. While it’s normal and important, getting stuck in denial can slow or halt the healing process.
A sense of panic often shows up as the denial gives way, and this is true no matter who ended the relationship. There is a palpable fear, with thoughts of, “Will I ever love or will I ever be loved again?” You may also experience panic and fear about the end of a companionship, a way of life, a social context, a history of being and a “blueprint for the future”. It is scary to let go of all that we have built and defined ourselves through.
The feelings of panic can sometimes activate a stage of bargaining, where you may attempt to rescue or salvage the relationship. Maybe you can “put the genie back in the bottle”. But be careful, because a reconciliation initiated by panic is often an uneasy truce that results (sometimes years later) in an ending that has only been delayed.
The end of a relationship may trigger a deep sorrow, as you become aware of a profound, gigantic loss. You may feel an internal conflict at this time: a feeling of being immobilized by grief, almost non-stop crying, combined with a fear that you shouldn’t cry because the tears make you seem weak and afraid.
But this is an appropriate time to cry, in sorrow. The more you cry, the more your sorrow will subside. You might even fear that if you start crying, you may never stop — but you will. Your tears are essential. Healing occurs through your tears. Welcome them. Respect them. Give them space. Give them time. Honour your tears!
Eventually, you reach a place of clarity where reality sets in and you know it is really over. This is a moment of recognition; it is now possible to explain the ending to yourself, to see the reasons it ended, and the meaning this holds. Now the healing can begin.
As you face the reality though, you may have a tendency to blame yourself: “It’s all my fault”. You list your “crimes and failures” which leads to feeling guilty and beating yourself up. This kind of willingness to take on blame is an extension of the bargaining process. While it is desirable to develop an awareness of our own mistakes, it is equally critical not to get stuck in self-blame.
Describing the ending as a personal failure is dangerous because it can be an assault on your self-esteem. Feeling guilty about your behaviour and limitations is normal, but it is important to identify real guilt or regret, take responsibility for your choices that impacted the relationship and then move forward.
The other side of this coin is blaming your partner, with thoughts of “It’s all his fault.” We do this because it allows us to spread the guilt around!
In order to deal with hurt feelings and an incredible sense of loss, you might go through a stage of wildly inappropriate blaming. This is OK and perfectly natural, but it can be easy to get stuck here and feel victimized by your ex, and you might find yourself wallowing in self-pity.
The challenge is to accept that both you and your ex contributed to the end of the relationship. This affords you the opportunity to look at your own repetitive psychological patterns, which we all play out in our love relationships.
For example, maybe to keep your emotional distance out of fear of being hurt, you chose a partner who was emotionally restricted. Being aware of this allows you to gain insight into the type of partner you have selected in the past, and how you may want to choose differently in the future.
And finally, you now know the kind and quality of relationship you would like to have — and you can go out and claim it!
A relationship is an unfolding process, not a destination. It is a vital entity with its own energy that ebbs and flows. Relationships are made up of high-intensity times such as new exciting love or conflict and discord, and times of lower intensity such as contentment and strength of friendship. All of these aspects are an expected part of the mix no matter how hard we try to manage or control the relationship. Another way of understanding this is to consider the relationship as a “third entity” — there’s you, there’s him and there’s the relationship. As a third entity, the relationship has its own unique “flavour”.