Six Essential Stages for Healing from A Break Up: You Can Heal

divorce recovery

Six Essential Stages for Healing from A Break Up: You Can Heal

by Dr. James E. Walton, Ph.D., LMFT, North Hollywood, California

The person who has decided to end a relationship has probably already passed through the stages of heartache before they announced their decision. Generally, it seems easier for the one who is doing the leaving, although this may not always be the case. Frequently, the one doing the leaving has had to wrestle with a combination of grief and guilt. The decision to call off a relationship is never easy and if there has been a true connection, it is quite painful for the one doing the leaving as well.

If you are the one who was left, this is an agonizing position to be in.  For many people, it is worse than a death, because with death, it’s final and there’s no hope of negotiating a return.

Dr. James Walton, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, member of Family Divorce Solutions of San Fernando Valley

Dr. James Walton, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, member of Family Divorce Solutions of San Fernando Valley

When we are the one left behind, we have to deal with the pain of rejection along with the pain of loss.

There are several stages you can expect yourself to go through in processing your feelings from a broken heart.

They more or less go in this general order:

  • Shock
  • Pleading
  • Anger
  • Sadness
  • Acceptance
  • Forgiveness

The first is shock. When we first hear the news that the relationship is over, we are usually in complete shock. We become vulnerable to our feelings. In shock, we feel as if our world has been turned on its head. We are not capable of making clear decisions. We feel a sense of being vulnerable and lost. It may even be very difficult for us to even make sense of what is happening. We break down, we cry.  Men tend to explode outward in their reaction to shock. Women tend to implode, go internal and blame themselves.

We then proceed to the next stage, which is pleading.  Pleading is our attempt to restore order to our world by attempting to restore the relationship. In pleading, we may beg the other to return so that our world can return to normal. We may make offers to change ourselves or throw out grand gestures of compromise that here-to-for had been withheld, in order to call the other back into the relationship and ease our aching heart. “If you come back, I’ll change.” In reality, these overtures rarely last if they are even made at all.

In most cases, the pleading makes us look desperate and weak in the eyes of the other person and does the exact opposite of the desired effect and pushes them away ever farther. We are left feeling empty, hollow and in agony.

We then proceed to the next stage, which is anger. It is a natural and healthy progression, but the anger is really a defense against the depression and helplessness we feel from the disconnect with our ex. In our anger, we feel like striking out. This is the time when many people will go into some kind of destructive action that ultimately does not serve them. They will tear up photos; destroy the ex’s property, or spread vicious rumors around about them.

The anger comes from a place of helplessness from our loss. We feel we are a victim of our ex and we use anger as a way of trying to recapture some of the power that we feel they’ve taken from us through ending the relationship. It’s a way of desperately trying to balance out our sense of powerlessness. The anger gives us something new to believe in when the belief in the relationship has been taken away. It gives us new strength and new structure at a time when we feel weak and loss of structure.  This is especially true if we derived our sense of identity from our ex. The break up has now taken that identity away so the anger temporarily rushes in to give us a new identity.

We may need to remain in our anger for a while. Anger over the breakup can be helpful in neutralizing any loving feelings that you once felt toward your ex.  You may want to get in touch with the anger you feel towards this person. It’s OK to hold onto those feelings for a while, as long as; you don’t act those feelings out with hostility towards the other person or yourself. Anger can be a part of the letting go process.  Again, you are the one who is in control of your anger.  You create your anger and you are the one who can let it go. No one else is responsible for your anger but yourself.

It’s OK to have fantasies of “acting out” against our ex as long as we don’t actually act it out in real life. Over time, anger helps to break the love feelings we felt towards our ex.

Do not seek revenge. It’s OK to fantasize about it, but it is not OK to act it out.  Angry behavior such as hitting things, yelling or screaming only leads to amping up the drive for more angry behavior. Don’t do it.

Underneath our anger resides sadness and it comes next in the stages of healing heartache. Remember, anger is often an attempt to not feel the sadness of the disconnect with your ex. The experience of sadness moves us into the present and allows us to experience what is. The sadness is a time of reflection and slowing down.  It is the slowing down process of sadness that allows us to adapt to the new reality of our life. The sadness cooks and reshapes us from within.

Experiencing the sadness is an important part of recovering from a breakup.  It causes us to stop and re-examine our lives.  We slow down and process.  The sadness brings a gift.  It allows us to view the world from a different perspective giving us a wider and wiser view of life. It also gives us some perspective on how deeply we loved and are capable of loving.

Acceptance occurs when we’re finally able to release the sadness.  We stop fighting what is and allow it to be. It does not mean that we like the new order of things, but we stop fighting it.  We accept the change. Things will never be the same and we revise ourselves and our future. It is a time when we are able to have a vision of the future with our ex no longer in it. It is the time when we withdraw our energy and expectations from the relationship we had with our ex and are ready to begin opening ourselves up to new relationships and connections with others.  We find ourselves opening back up to life and beginning to live again.

Part of the healing process is learning something from the experience you just went through. We come to acceptance more easily when we realize that along with our loss, we have also gained something, we have gained experience, wisdom and a better understanding of our wants and needs.

To do this, ask yourself:

  • How are you different now from the way you were before you met you ex?
  • What have you learned from your experience with them?
  • What lessons have you learned for living the rest of your life?
  • Have you changed what it is you want out of a relationship?
  • If your best friend just had this experience, what advice would you give him or her?

Search yourself to find out how you’re different now from having known your ex.

When you’re able to see that you have received some gifts from the relationship, it makes it easier to let go of the past moving you significantly closer to a true and authentic experience of forgiveness of yourself and the other.


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