This article was written with a friend in mind. Hopefully anyone else may find it helpful.
Most of us have gone through a painful separation from someone with which we once shared a loving relationship. Few of us have married and lived happily ever after with our first love, or first significant other, or even our first marriage, which means heartbreak is a very common experience. Relationships deteriorate and fail for reasons as multiplicitous as the relationships themselves. I’m focusing here on what to do after the end has come and how to successfully move past the pain of the separation and achieve emotional peace and growth in the wake of a relationship failure. I’m not a psychologist or therapist; I’m just a man that has, like many others, suffered the arrows of love and pain of loss.
1. Accept Responsibility for the Outcome.
This is the most emotionally difficult thing to ask someone to do after a break-up, but is foundational to all the other steps that must take place in order to grow and find peace with the conclusion of things. Accepting responsibility means owning your actions- good or bad- and is important to all aspects of life, but seem especially difficult at the end of a relationship, especially if things ended as a result of betrayal or some other immutable flaw in the other partner. We don’t wish to accept that our actions helped bring about the conclusion of things, because that is to admit fault, to be the guilty party, and to be humbled when we are in a state of feeling destroyed. This, however, is the most important step for growth after the end of the relationship, and is an opportunity you should not pass up, since it is rare that we are permitted to grow in life for ourselves and not for the benefit of the other person in our central relationship.
You must own the way you operated with the other person. Perhaps your expectations were too high for them, or you were unable or unwilling to live up to theirs. Maybe you were over-concerned with your own life and not your partner’s. You could have failed to communicate your needs properly, or failed to understand fully the other person’s needs and wants. You could have let the relationship go on longer than was healthy, long after the cracks of deep incompatibility appeared, and that is part of your responsibility, too.
Whatever the day-to-day operation of that relationship was, take some time to reflect on it, and understand what you did to help move things to their conclusion. If you are on speaking terms with your ex, ask them questions about what made them unhappy. If you’re not, do some soul searching. Even if you feel like you did everything right, were a perfectly decent human being, and treated the other person like a king or queen, you still may have failed on some level.
If your partner totally and completely rejected, betrayed, or abandoned you, despite all of your actions being moral, you should still take responsibility for your choice of partners. If you chose a sociopath, or someone with borderline personality disorder, that was your choice, not anyone else’s, and at the least you should take responsibility for a bad choice of personality.
Lastly, taking responsibility is important to give yourself a sense of agency- the feeling that your actions matter- even if they have had poor outcomes, which will be an invaluable feeling for all aspects of your life.
2. Seek to Know Why.
Socrates’s first command was to “know thyself,” and the next step is to do just that. Everything we do and every choice we make is made to serve some need we have, either conscious or unconscious. If you do not like the outcomes of your decisions, understanding the deep emotional reasons behind them will help you be more self-aware and lead to healthier decisions in the future.
Look to understand why you operated in the way you did within the relationship, why you made the choices you did during your time with the other person, or why you were attracted to someone who was incompatible with you. Often the answers to these questions are buried deep down, and take a great deal of time or effort to fully uncover, and if you choose to seek therapy, a great deal of your time may be spent uncovering the “why.” Sometimes people make bad choices in a relationship, such as cheating, manipulation, or dishonest behavior, but don’t seek to understand the “why” within them, or why they chose to be with someone who makes those kinds of poor decisions. Sometimes people are rejected, and they may need to ask why they allowed the relationship to get bad enough that the other person had to reject them. Often the failures we allow in our relationships serve some psychic need within ourselves.
If you spend a lot of time with yourself discovering the answers to why you act a certain way, you will have at least a good chance of avoiding making the poor choices you made in the past and therefore achieving different, if not better, outcomes in your future relationships.
2. Forgive Yourself.
Once you have an understanding of why, along with ownership of your actions, you can forgive yourself. Just like going to confession, self-forgiveness requires the admission of guilt- the ownership of outcomes. Understanding why you act the way you do will help you to move past the guilt into a state of growth.
Tell yourself that it’s okay that things turned out badly, that they couldn’t turn out any other way, because both you and the other person needed the relationship to end for growth. If you picked a bad partner, forgive yourself of that choice, knowing that you had to learn the lesson about having high standards in a relationship. If you were rejected, forgive yourself the things that might have lead up to that rejection. You can change your patterns in the future, and you can also make sure your next partner is more willing to accept your preferred modes of operation; accept you for you.
Most often in life, we learn lessons the hard way, through trial and error, pain and separation. Forgive yourself for making mistakes in behavior and choice, and be happy for the lesson which allows you to grow.
3. Forgive the Other Person.
After betrayal or rejection this step is most difficult, as we often have a psychic need to externalize conflict, to make the locus of responsibility rest in the other person. If you have owned your actions in the relationship, you will be able to correctly assign other responsibilities in the other member of your partnership. They may have made much worse decisions than you in the relationship, or failed in more ways, or more profound ways. As you reflect, you can also begin to understand the “why” in all the other person’s actions, good or bad.
From there, you can begin to finally forgive the other person, for ending the relationship, breaking trust, treating you poorly, manipulating you, or choosing a person that was deeply incompatible with them. They too make decisions intended to serve some need, and they may not be aware of it. Moreover, you should forgive them for their faults because you know how bad continuing the relationship might have been for both of you, and that through their faults you have learned lessons about dealing with other imperfect people in imperfect relationships.
4. Allow Yourself to Grieve
The end of a relationship is a lot like a death. You are losing a person, either someone you loved or still love, who has had a deeply intimate knowledge of you, and that is painful. I need not go through the seven stages of grief here, but will say that you should allow yourself to feel them. It’s alright to feel sad, angry, or desperate. You don’t need to put those emotions to the side or “just get over it.” If you don’t take the time to resolve your feelings now, they will return to haunt you.
We grieve not just the loss of the other person, but all that the relationship represented to us: the promise of family, future plans and happiness, companionship, stability, and intimacy. A relationship takes a large emotional investment and its termination represents a total loss of that investment. It’s okay to feel like you’ve lost something, because you have. Ultimately nothing but time, work and growth will help you resolve your feelings of loss, so don’t expect to ever find a magic bullet to end your pain. Drugs, even those prescribed by a psychiatrist, will not help you resolve your pain, only time and effort will.
5. Let Your Rational Mind Take Over.
Most of the fallout from the end of a relationship is emotional, but there might be plenty of practical considerations to take into account. Finances, living arrangements, and property division are all parts of many break-ups, particularly divorce. It’s important to be able to settle your emotions quickly, or learn to put them to the side temporarily. When you need to make practical decisions about your life’s directions, your reasoning skills are vital.
Beyond that, is important to let your rational mind take over to avoid making the same emotional mistakes twice, or to become emotionally vulnerable too quickly after ending the relationship. Make a list of the changes you want to make in your life, preferably based on personal outcomes and real arrangements rather than intangible ideas such as “be happy.” Decide on your personal and career goals. Decide how you want to organize your time and personal life in the absence of the relationship. Now might be a good time to make the big change you always wanted to, but be careful not to make big changes because you are trying to escape the limitations of your current reality. Make changes that you know will serve your goals, not serve your current emotional state.
Plan the steps between where you are and the life arrangements you have imagined, including work, housing, and other expenses. You can also begin thinking about your next relationship: how it will begin, how it will progress, what your goals are (family, adventure, etc.) and what qualities you will look for in the other person before you begin a relationship, as well as what warning signs to look for. This will put in your mind a different sort of plan, one which will present itself next time you are attracted to another or are thinking of beginning a relationship, allowing you to avoid the bad outcomes of your last relationship. If you know yourself and have thought about such particulars in advance, it will be easier to resist the pull of emotion in a relationship that is not healthy for you.
6. Enjoy the Present.
Your life may not be put together the way you want it following a break-up or divorce, but is important to enjoy the particulars of the present. Absent the relationship you are now able to do things that might not have been possible before, such as enjoy activities in which your partner was uninterested, or eat things your partner disliked. Maybe you can finally have a weekend to sit around and play videogames, or go drinking with your friends. Whatever it is, take the time to enjoy it. Revel in it.
The focus on the present, or on a series of steps that take you from the present to the future, will help you to keep your mind form focusing on the pain brought on by the past, and help you to realize the resolution of your painful feelings. Be sure to take time for self-examination, but don’t spend all your time in contemplation. Part of getting on with your life is getting out of bed every day and walking out the front door.
All of this is just advice, given by a man who has had a little bit of experience, but is by no means an expert. Avoid doing things during the grieving process that you will regret later. One-night stands and drug habits will not help you get over the break-up. Time and patience will. You should also feel good about yourself if you choose to seek out therapy from a professional (which I am not). They may help guide you to self-understanding, show you the path to healing, and equip you with tools for making your choices have the outcomes you desire.