Recovering from the Breakup:
Confusion in the World of Dating
Published in Metrowest Magazine - August 2003
By Jennifer Ferrell-Hanington, Psy.D., Licensed Psychologist
How does one “get over” the ending of a relationship and return to the uncertainty of dating? Unfortunately, a universal answer does not exist. Some help can be found in understanding the nuts and bolts of the common grieving experience as well as applying some helpful guidelines for broadening our social environment. Keep in mind that some of the most valuable answers may be revealed in exploring the history and depth of understanding oneself.
When any relationship ends, the reaction may be no different than our response to the death of a loved one. The grief response captures us not only emotionally, but also affects our bodies, our thoughts and our behaviors. The emotions are varied: shock, numbness, sorrow, despair, anger, resentment, regret, anxiety, yearning, loneliness, etc. With the presence of so many different feelings, most individuals describe themselves as moving in and out of different combinations of emotion. The body may react to the loss though fatigue and muscular pain or headaches. The mind becomes more distracted. There may be disbelief or even denial. It is common to review the events over and over again in an attempt to make sense of the breakup. It’s no wonder that one would have difficulty with memory, concentration and decision-making. Behavioral changes include sleep disturbance, appetite changes, tearfulness, and social withdrawal.
It is essential to acknowledge the fact that each person grieves in his or her own way. The person’s internal experience, outward expression, and the duration of grief over a breakup is unique. With so much individuality, are there any common steps in moving through the grief process? Fortunately, there are, but first consider some contemporary ideas in the field of bereavement and grief.
The movement through grief is no longer viewed as consecutive stages. Instead, picture the grief experience as being a spiral with the individual moving through the various stages:
However, the individual may reenter the cycle again when confronted with the reality of the loss, such as reminders of the former partner as one experiences activities and events without him or her. Ultimately the goal is acceptance of the loss and adjustment to the absence of the partner.
First, we must recognize that we are entitled to grieve and to grieve in our own way. Be aware of the common signs of grief and expect any combination of these symptoms. Initially, we may be unable to manage our regular responsibilities and it is often best to avoid making any major decisions or life changes until there is more emotional stability. There may be a desire to withdraw from social functions, but support from friends and family can be beneficial. Expression of thoughts and feelings can help move towards acceptance of the loss, whether this is verbal or written. No matter how strong we think we are, the grieving process cannot be avoided.
At some point, the desire for another relationship looms over the horizon. Even though a timeframe may be difficult to determine, it may be best to discourage oneself from seeking another relationship too quickly after a breakup. Since there is no magic equation, it becomes necessary to be honest with oneself and heighten one’s personal awareness.
If it has been a long time since one has dated, it may seem like a difficult and unfamiliar task. Although it may be tempting, bars and nightclubs are usually not the most effective means of meeting a potential partner. Instead, take a personal inventory of all present, past or potential interest areas. Make a list. Brainstorm. Add all ideas, regardless of how remote or unlikely they seem. This list will become vital to your efforts to meet new people. We establish relationships with those who hold common interests and values. Look at your list and consider how you can involve yourself in these areas. Art lessons, sports leagues, various clubs (e.g. travel, collectibles, biking), worship groups, volunteer organizations…. there is something out there for everyone. Nowadays there are new and trendy ways to meet people, such as Internet personals or Eight-Minute Dating. Consider the pros and cons of these strategies and avoid using only one method to meet people.
Pacing oneself in a new relationship becomes important, especially when someone finds it difficult being alone and may rush a relationship. Instead, if something does not feel right, trust your instincts and pay attention to any red flags. If a difficult breakup damaged one’s ability to trust, it may take more time to feel comfortable with the vulnerability of opening up that is necessary in a relationship. Allow your partner to earn your trust through consistent words and actions. In addition, it is not expected to open up completely in the beginning. Share a little at a time about yourself and vary how much to share as the comfort level grows. Finally, be realistic about expectations. No one is perfect. The best partners are those who can give and take or compromise on issues less important.
There are certain cases in which a mental health professional may be of assistance. For example, is the grieving process lasting longer than expected, leading to difficulty returning to daily responsibilities? Is the individual unable to care for him or herself or behaving in a manner that is self-destructive and injurious? It is possible that previous unresolved losses are complicating the grief process. Sometimes the dating process becomes troublesome if one repetitively establishes unhealthy relationships, or prematurely ends relationships due to a fear of trust or commitment. Counseling may be beneficial in moving past these obstacles.
Relationships are either the source of tremendous joy or despair and pain through loss. If we learn to navigate carefully, we can grow from these experiences of confusion and unfamiliarity. By taking the risks involved, we can develop a greater awareness in order to increase the likelihood of future happiness.