Riding the Waves of Grief: Moving on From a Relationship
Published on 8th March, 2022
It has been close to a year since Clara broke up. Although she experienced some symptoms of depression and anxiety thereafter, she believes that she has moved on. She has stopped ruminating about the harsh words that he has said to her and blaming herself for being not good enough as a partner.
However, Clara began feeling negative emotions recently. She is increasingly irritable and anxious. She has difficulties falling asleep at night and realises that she has been having recurrent dreams about her painful relationship. Clara worries about these negative feelings but she cannot figure out why she is experiencing them.
Grief after the end of a relationship
Grief and loss may be experienced in different ways. While grief is commonly associated with the death of a loved one, the end of a relationship can lead to the experience of complicated grief, including low mood and the loss of hope. This is because grief is an adjustment from the world that was to the world that is. It involves any loss that results in a fundamental shift of our world.
The end of a relationship can be extremely traumatic and distressing. If you are dealing with a breakup, you are likely to feel many intense emotions, such as anger and guilt. You may spend endless hours engaging in self-blame for the way that the relationship turned out, and even catastrophise that your future relationships will turn out the same way. It is common for psychologists and counsellors in the practice to see clients who are struggling with intrusive thoughts or have adopted maladaptive coping strategies after a painful breakup.
The memories and thoughts associated with your past partner continue to exist when a relationship ends. However, the relationship that you once shared and the person they were during the relationship are no longer the same. Things are not like how they used to be. Your most intimate relationships shape the way you view and relate to the world, as well as how you live your life. Hence, the end of a relationship does not merely encompass the loss of the relationship itself, but involve secondary losses—the loss of a shared life, a shared future, of what could have been.
It is challenging to adapt to a new life without your past partner. You are also forced to change your routines and habits. Your outlook on relationships may also be fundamentally shaken. You are left questioning everything that you knew about relationships, yourself, and the world. For instance, you may have self-critical thoughts such as “Maybe I wasn’t good enough”, or “I’ll never find a partner like this again”. Furthermore, it is common for individuals to adopt similar values, traits and interests in close relationships. Thus, when a relationship ends, you may feel like you have lost yourself. The uncertainty from not knowing who you are can be extremely distressing. In these moments, your safety needs become unmet. There is a sudden disruption to your sense of security and you may feel helpless, overwhelmed and isolated.
The Anniversary Reaction: Why are some dates harder than others after the end of a relationship?
“The mind forgets, but the body remembers.”
Just like Clara, you may have thought that you have moved on from your past relationship. Hence, the sudden negative emotions can be distressing to you. Alternatively, you may have tried to block certain date(s) out of your mind, or find yourself waiting anxiously for the day to pass. You could be experiencing the anniversary reaction. The anniversary date of the breakup, your ex-partner’s birthday, and even your birthday could evoke some feelings in you. These feelings include sadness, irritation, anger, and anxiety. There may be accompanying unexplained bodily sensations such as headaches, difficulties falling asleep, and gastrointestinal discomfort. You may also experience more vivid dreams and memories surrounding the event.
When you experience something traumatic (such as the end of a relationship), your brain stores painful and sad memories in an easily accessible manner. The increased sensitivity to reminders of the end of a relationship (i.e., special dates) seeks to protect you from experiencing similar traumas again or remind you that your emotional needs are unmet currently. When you encounter these cues, the overwhelming emotions resurface. Furthermore, our lives are marked by dates and occasions. We form specific patterns around dates and celebrate the ones that hold special meanings for us. Hence, these dates reminds you of all that you have lost—a relationship and person that once held much importance in your life. Perhaps the both of you used to spend your birthday together as a couple, and you have fond memories of how your partner surprised you at your last birthday. You are forced to grapple with the knowledge that you would not have the chance to experience these happy moments with this person ever again.
What can make it harder for you to cope on these special dates?
1. There has been no proper closure
Some relationships end unexpectedly and without sufficient explanation. In these circumstances, you may feel like you had less control over what occurred. Perhaps you are left wondering “Why did they leave?, “What did I do wrong?” and find yourself stuck in a cycle of constant rumination. Ambiguous loss occurs when the relationship is severed without any prior warning and such a loss usually leaves you in higher degrees of shock. The loss is open-ended and you are uncertain if the person would return. You are unable to fully process your grief and you may experience more difficulties in adapting to life without the person. This could create more intense reactions during special dates as you may be reminded of the closure that you did not receive when your relationship ended. Thus, on these days, you may find yourself wondering “How could the relationship have turned out differently?”. Most importantly, you may want to know why the relationship ended.
2. You were not given the space to grief
It is common to view the end of relationships as a natural part of life and an event that you will heal from in time. You may hear words such as “Just forget about them and move on” or “At least the both of you are still friends” from your loved ones. This is extremely prevalent in younger individuals, where feelings evoked by the end of a relationship tend to be invalidated due to the perceived lack of genuine commitment. Hence, disenfranchised grief, which denotes grief that is commonly disregarded and minimised by societal conventions, may occur. When individuals experience disenfranchised grief, feelings of shame or embarrassment may prevent them from seeking support. This may result in delayed reactions to trauma, where the emotional effects of the end of a relationship are triggered by certain situations months after, such as on special dates.
3. You are undergoing a stressful period
At times, these special dates may coincide with a particularly stressful time in your life. You may be facing external demands such as work stress, issues with interpersonal relationships or simply have inadequate time. This leads to a reduction in your coping resources as you are overwhelmed by the multitude of demands. You may feel like you have less capacity to cope with the emotional reactions elicited during these special dates. Hence, it is likely that you would be less able to cope with these emotions as the emotional demands exceed your perceived coping resources. Furthermore, these special days may also include holidays and the festive seasons. The additional stressors and social expectations surrounding these days could further reduce your capacity to cope.
4. Your emotional needs continue to be unmet
The end of your relationship may have left you with overwhelming feelings. However, you may have not been given a safe space to express these emotions and thoughts. Your loved ones could have failed to provide you with the adequate amount of comfort and support that you desired. This may result in you feeling rejected and abandoned. It is possible that your emotional needs were not met during your past relationship as well. Thus, you may feel alone on these special dates. You are likely to withdraw yourself and downplay your needs in spite of the negative emotions that arise. The lack of social support may amplify the overwhelming feelings that you experience on these dates.
What are some steps that you can take to help you cope better with anniversary reaction?
1. Acknowledge that the end of a relationship is difficult, and there is no timeline for grief.
At one point, this person was a huge part of your life. These dates serve as reminders that the relationship you had no longer exists. You may be compelled to stop yourself from feeling the emotions that arise during this period. After all, you have spent a great deal of energy on this person, the aftermath of the relationship, and even during the relationship. However, deliberately avoiding your feelings tends to result in greater experiences of negative emotions. These feelings do not mean that you are back to square one. Recognise the personal growth and progress that you have made since the end of the relationship, and know that feeling this way on these special dates does not undermine how far you have come.
2. Prepare for the possibility of a dip in your mood by tracking your calendar
You may find yourself becoming more anxious in the days leading up to the special dates, on the date itself, and even in the days after these dates. Knowing that a special date is approaching gives you the time and space to explore the memories associated with the day. Furthermore, it would enable you to plan your schedule around the approaching date and to come up with a plan as you may require additional support and skills to tide through these dates.
3. Redefine the date
It is natural to associate the date with a painful memory, or see it as a reminder of what you have lost. However, what you can do is to redefine this date any way you want. Do something that you enjoy on this day! It can be an activity that you have always enjoyed doing on your own, or with your loved ones. Over time, you will begin to associate these dates with the new activity that you found for yourself and the emotions that you experience during these activities.
4. Break maladaptive coping patterns
When you are not given the closure that you were looking for, it can be more difficult for you to move on. You may not be able to process the loss and these dates may cause you to ruminate about your past relationship. You may engage in self-blame and unhealthy coping mechanisms. For instance, you may find yourself asking questions such as “What went wrong?” and “Am I not good enough?”. These special dates serve as another chance to break the maladaptive coping patterns that you have adopted. For instance, you can consider writing a letter to your ex-partner or friend (and not sending it) on these dates as a form of ‘closure’ for yourself—doing so could allow you to discover a different perspective about the end of your relationship.
5. Practise self-care
It is important for you to take care of your well-being! As mentioned, the additional stress from external demands is likely to impact your ability to cope with the feelings elicited by these special dates. Thus, equipping yourself with self-care skills would enable you to manage your feelings more effectively. For example, avoid scrolling through social media if it induces more intense emotions.
Boss, P., & Yeats, J. R. (2014). Ambiguous loss: A complicated type of grief when loved ones disappear. Bereavement Care, 33(2), 63-69.
Doka, K. J. (Ed.). (1989). Disenfranchised grief: Recognizing hidden sorrow. Lexington Books/D. C. Heath and Com.
Field, T. (2011). Romantic breakups, heartbreak and bereavement. Psychology, 2(4), 382–387.
Field, T., Poling, S., Mines, S., Diego, M., Bendell, D., & Pelaez, M. (2021). Intrusive thoughts, avoiding intrusive thoughts, and hyperarousal predict romantic breakup distress. Journal of Psychology and Clinical Psychiatry, 12(1), 10-13.
Gabriel, M. A. (1992). Anniversary reactions: Trauma revisited. Clinical Social Work Journal, 20(2), 179–192.
Miller, E. T. (2015). The Grieving Process: A Necessary Step Toward Healing. Rehabilitation Nursing, 40(4), 207–208.
Sbarra, D. A. (2006). Predicting the onset of emotional recovery following nonmarital relationship dissolution: Survival analyses of sadness and anger. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 32(3), 298-312.
Sbarra, D. A., & Ferrer, E. (2006). The structure and process of emotional experience following nonmarital relationship dissolution: Dynamic factor analyses of love, anger, and sadness. Emotion, 6(2), 224–238.
Solomon, E. P., & Heide, K. M. (2005). The biology of trauma: implications for treatment. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 20(1), 51-60.
Stroebe, M., & Schut, H. (1999). The dual process model of coping with bereavement: Rationale and description. Death Studies, 23(3), 197–224.