There can be many factors that lead to the breakdown of a relationship, but the process we use to get through a particularly difficult breakup are the same.
Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, MD, in her groundbreaking book on Death and Dying (1969), outlined the five phases of grief experienced by people when they first learn they are dying. We often see similar reactions in people dealing with less serious traumas such as losing a job, forced relocation, disability and yes, you guessed it, relationship breakup.
Letting go of a relationship, even if you’re the one initiating the breakup – and you know it’s the best thing for both of you – is never easy. It can feel like a death as the reality sets in that you’ll no longer have that person in your life.
Understanding the five stages of grief, and the physical and emotional reactions our bodies go through during and after a breakup, can help normalise the process, and give a much greater perspective.
Stage 1: Shock and denial
In the early stages of a breakup, or when the decision to go separate ways is first discussed, the whole body can have a response in the wake of such a massive life change. At this stage, people can experience a range of emotions including denial, indecision, resignation, withdrawal or fatigue.
Sometimes one partner is unaware of the extent of the problems, and the separation can come as a complete shock.
According to world-renowned relationship expert Dr John Gottman, 40% of divorces occur not because of constant bickering, but because of a reluctance to discuss important issues. When one or both partners are avoiding conflict altogether, over time they drift apart, ultimately causing the marriage to end.
Stage 2: Anger
This stage is particularly relevant to the person who didn’t see the breakup coming. An initial sense of shock quickly turns into feelings of anger and thoughts of injustice.
How could he?!
I gave her everything and got nothing in return.
He was only ever after my money.
People in this stage feel rejected and abandoned and may want to blame their ex for the pain their experiencing. At the extreme end of this response are fantasies of getting even or playing the victim. Often when people feel resentful they can find it hard to let go and start to fixate on what their ex did or didn’t do in the breakup.
Stage 3: Bargaining
Some people find being alone daunting and seek comfort. This can mean a frantic search for a new partner or bargaining to get the old relationship back. While going ‘on the rebound’ with someone else can certainly lead to another, even better relationship it’s often an impulsive decision, which can cause unhappiness down the track if that person isn’t suited.
Stage 4: Depression and detachment
Both the anger and bargaining stages of grief are followed by sadness and questioning if it’s going to feel this way forever.
It’s important to allow yourself the time and space to grieve. Recognising the breakup for what it is, an opportunity for self-reflection, can lead to greater self-awareness and personal growth.
Stage 5: Acceptance
The final stage is one of hope, freedom and a new way of life. You’re no longer interested in blaming your ex and you’re comfortable with your own company. It’s time to build new friendships, act with self-confidence and move towards a new purpose in life.
The time it takes to move through the five stages of a relationship breakup is different for everyone, and not every stage may be relevant for you. If you feel stuck at any of the stages, particularly in the anger or depression stage and you’re unable to let go or move on, then discussing this with a trained therapist can help you work through and resolve the issues that are holding you back.
Breakups are hard, and feeling sad is normal, but sooner or later you need to get back out there. You deserve all the freedom and opportunities that life can present, and you certainly deserve to be happy.