Dr. Kimberly Riley
Have you ever had a relationship end and felt like life and the world around you was ending also, sending you into deep sadness? Did you wonder how you would make it without the person you loved so dearly, leaving you feeling hopeless?Were you confused about how things had gotten so bad when you thought everything was great, and now you are feeling a little nervous? Maybe you were the one to end the relationship and recognized it was no good, but now you feel angry about the time you lost.
All of these emotions may look and feel just like what you experience when you have had a death in your life or a great loss. The emotions you experienced or are experiencing are related to your grief. Yes, grieving the loss of a relationship is a real experience for many people, but they may not recognize it as grief.
Five Stages of Grief After a Breakup
This article will help you see five stages of grief that can be associated with your breakup. Everyone is different, so you may not experience these stages of grief in order and some stages may repeat, but you can use this as a guide to understanding what you might be feeling, and why.
1. Acknowledgement: Is it really over? It is really over.
So, you and your significant other mutually decided to end the relationship. One person said, “this isn’t working”, or you both really wanted to stay together, but your friends and family recognized the relationship should end and you two listened.
Either way, you are no longer together and now you are single. You have given back to each other the items that were maybe left in your cars or homes and have taken the pictures of your fun times together from off of social media.
You have cancelled dates that were placed on your calendar for the future and have answered “no” when people asked if you were still in a relationship with the person you once thought you would share the rest of your life with. You are able to say to yourself and others “I am officially single.” You are able to acknowledge the truth.
The truth is, you are no longer in a relationship, but that truth can leave you curious about what that really means. What does it mean that you are now no longer in a committed relationship? You may want to avoid thinking about this question, but it can be rewarding to acknowledge what you know to be true and begin from there.
As you start to process what your singleness means, you may think about the more technical details about being alone. Maybe your partner helped you every week by cutting your grass, and now you have to hire someone. Possibly they were your security when you felt alone and would reassure your safety, but now you have to get an alarm system.
They might have been the one person who made your favorite dish correctly, and now you have to figure out how to make it yourself. This type of thinking helps you realize that your awareness around the breakup is necessary for the functioning of your everyday life.You have to be real with yourself and say “I am no longer in a relationship with this person” because it helps you pick up the pieces in a way that may be most helpful at first. You are able to look back at the ways that your relationship may have sustained you as an individual within the relationship, but you can look forward to how you can take care of yourself in the future.
Having an understanding of the technical details may not fulfil some of the emotional questions you have, but it does allow you to be proactive and meet some of your own needs.
2. Confusion: How did this happen?
Now that you have acknowledged your current relationship status, you may be curious about all of the things that lead up to the breakup. If you are stuck in the stage of acknowledgement and are not quite able to move to a place of understanding, here are a few questions you can ask yourself to gain some insight.
- How did we meet?
- What were the things that I saw in this person that I liked/disliked?
- What did we have in common, anyway? Anything?
- I felt uncomfortable or comforted every time they did or said this to me. (fill in the blank) What was the thing?
- I felt energized or I felt drained after spending time with them. Which did I feel more?
- People in my life who knew me saw things that I didn’t see; positive or negative. What was the feedback they gave me?
- Were there red flags that I intentionally ignored or unintentionally missed?
- How was this relationship different or the same as ones that I have been in before?
- Did things move too fast or too slow?
- What are the things I wish I would have said or not said?
As you answer some of these questions you may begin to reflect in a way that is helpful for the grieving process or in a way that exposes some of the hurt that you feel that may need more attention. These answers may actually point to a relationship that you wish you still had because it wasn’t as broken as you or your partner thought.
Maybe this is the moment where you reach out and have a conversation about some of the things you discovered. Possibly though, the breakup was necessary and you realize that now, so you are thankful. Either way, you might be experiencing some extreme emotions. Strong emotions are typical in the grieving process, so here are some tips to help you understand the next two stages; sadness and anger.
3. Sadness: I am sad.
You might have noticed by now that things in your life just don’t feel right since the breakup. There is a reason, it is likely because you are experiencing the loss and recognizing the reality that something you had for so long is now gone.
People have different ways of managing their sadness. When your sadness is left unmanaged you are at risk of developing certain disorders. “Adjustment Disorder With Depressed Mood,” F43.21 is seen in people who experience sadness for longer than usual after certain stressful experiences.The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders Fifth Edition (DSM-5) has the listed criteria for Adjustment Disorder With Depressed Mood as follows: you must have developed the emotional behavioral symptoms within three months of the stressor, either have distress that is out of proportion to the severity or intensity of the stressor or significant impairment in social, occupational or other areas of functioning.
Your stress related symptoms cannot meet the criteria for another mental disorder or related to a preexisting mental disorder, your symptoms cannot be typical to normal bereavement, and your symptoms do not last more than an additional 6 months (American Psychiatric Association, 2013).
The DSM-5 also states that you must have “low mood, tearfulness, or feelings of hopelessness are predominant” (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). This may sound like you, especially after a really tough breakup, so here are a few things that can help you recognize, cope with, and manage your sadness before it gets to a place in your life where you are not able to manage it on your own.
- Talk to a trusted friend or family member about how the breakup has affected you.
- Take time to understand your sadness; don’t feel rushed to move through it.
- Journal your feelings (either by drawing or writing).
- Listen to music that brings you joy.
- Watch TV shows or movies that make you laugh.
- Spend time doing things you enjoy with people you love.
- Start a new hobby that is meaningful to you.
- Stay busy within your community; volunteer.
- Get help if you start to feel overwhelmed.
You know yourself better than anyone else, so if you start to feel like your sadness is taking over in a way that is stopping you from doing what you would usually be able to do, it may be time to reach out for help from someone, maybe even from a therapist or someone who can support you emotionally.
4. Anger: I am angry.
Sometimes people believe that they feel anger immediately after a breakup, and that may be true, but often times the first emotion felt is confusion or sadness. Sadness can be misunderstood and expressed as anger. Either way, whenever you experience anger in your grieving process, there are ways to get it out that are healthy and will not lead to consequences that may make the situation worse.
You may want to first think about what is making you angry about your breakup. Is it all of the time you spent with this person, that is now wasted? What would happen if you looked at the relationship differently?
How much do you think your anger could be reduced if you looked at the relationship as training for what you want or do not want in the future? Just shifting your thoughts about the breakup may be helpful in the long run because you can see the value instead of the deficit.
Maybe you are angry and you want to experience whatever your angry feelings bring to your life. This is a good time for you to reflect on why anger exists. Some may say that you should never be angry, but actually, anger is a pretty normal feeling.You do not want to let anger take over your life and cause you to have behavior that is out of control, but you do definitely need to pay attention to what your anger is trying to say to you. In the situation of a breakup, your anger may be trying to warn you for the next relationship about the things that you should stay safe from.
Your anger could be indicating your need to fight for something that you didn’t recognize was important to you until now. Your anger may even be showing you the love that you had for the person that you never expressed; it is never too late to share those feelings, even when it feels like it is.
Anger has a job to do, it is to move you to action for something. What could your anger after your breakup be moving you to do? Use some of the same coping skills listed for sadness and practice really great self-care so that your anger can fulfill its purpose in your life, in the most healthy way possible.
5. Moving on: How do I start over?
Some of these stages of breakup grief do not go in order. It is possible that right after the breakup you felt so angry that you moved on to dating soon, which might have led you to sadness and then confusion.
No matter how or when you arrive at the stage of wanting to date again, there are probably a few things you will experience. It might be helpful to ask yourself a few questions so that you are clearly making choices that are thought out first. Here are some things to think about as you get ready to move on.
- Have I fully disconnected from my last partner?
- Why do I want to enter into a new relationship right now?
- What did I learn about myself from the last relationship that I can remember this time?
- What are my goals for being in a relationship with anyone at this time in my life?
- Am I emotionally prepared to pour into someone else’s life already?
This “moving on” stage may be the one where you feel the most nervous about your choices and decisions. You may question yourself quite a bit, so take your time to really feel confident about the way that you enter into a new relationship.
Breakups can be really hard and unexplainable when it comes to the emotional ups and downs that you feel and it can be compared to what you feel after any type of loss. If you think your grief is something that you cannot work through on your own, there are counselors here at Seattle Christian Counseling who are available to help you process the loss of your relationship. You don’t have to go through the breakup stages of grief alone.
American Psychiatric Association, (2013), Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders, (5th edition) (DSM-5), Washington, DC
“Broken Heart”, Courtesy of Kelly Sikkema, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Embarking on a New Adventure”, Courtesy of Mantas Hesthaven, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Aura”, Courtesy of Karabo Diseko, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Lakeside Proposal”, Courtesy of Brooke Cagle, Unsplash.com, CC0 License