I work with college students. Therefore, at any given time I work with people who are in the uncomfortable throes of a breakup. I have become something of a breakup expert at this point, whether I’ve wanted to or not, and I think that the least I could do with all of that knowledge is to pass a little bit of it along.
Everyone is different, of course, and when you combine two (or more) different people into an intimate relationship the complexity increases exponentially. At the core of just about every breakup, however, there are a few basic forces at work. I hope that everyone reading this has nothing but perfect, intact relationships from here on out. Just in case, though, here are a few ideas that may help you get through that next breakup.
Let it hurt: As humans, we do everything we can to avoid pain. In my job, I see this in the form of complicated defense systems, and a roomful of denial. Because we are generally rewarded for “seeing the bright side,” and often shunned when we appear hurt, we think that things will be better if we can somehow find the magic formula for stopping the pain. We think that if we say the right combination of words, find the right way to distract ourselves, that we’ll make it through a breakup unscathed. The problem with this is that the hurt doesn’t go away, it just hides from view and finds ways to pop up at the most inopportune moments. What psychologists call “complicated grief” is the end result of that unsuccessful avoidance of the pain. You can tolerate the feelings. Trust me on this one. And, letting that wave of grief wash over you will give you the deep knowledge that you are ready for what’s next.
Your heart is a lover, not a lawyer: I had a conversation this morning with a friend who is suffering the aftermath of a painful divorce. The end of the relationship had caught him by surprise, and even after the papers have been signed he continues to learn of new transgressions. His sense of justice is offended. He has been done wrong, and he wants to straighten it out. The problem is that the breakup zone is not a court of law, and all the hard evidence in the world doesn’t mean anything. That “sense of justice” thing often results in an ugly desire to hurt back when we’ve been hurt. I asked my friend whether he wanted to put more hate and pain in the world or more love and forgiveness. The answer to that question is entirely up to him—and to you.
Shut things down for a while: When I was dating, back when you had to swerve to avoid dinosaurs on your way to the movies, there weren’t that many ways to contact your ex after a breakup. If you were in pitiful mode, your heart would jump painfully when she drove by. That was it, though. There was no texting, no Facebook, no G-Chat. What was done, was done. It hurt more at the beginning, probably, but it was over. Now students tell me about extended late night chats and secret wall-stalking sessions on Facebook. How do you grieve that? Are they gone? Do you still have a relationship? To grieve a loss, there needs to be a loss. Break the connection, at least for a while. I think post-breakup chat sessions are often held by two people who are covertly helping each other avoid the painful truth. There’s a reason that the truth hurts and there’s an equally important reason to feel that pain
Coming to the end of anything, good or bad, means that it’s time to deal with loss. The key words there are deal with it. Approach, rather than avoid, and in the long run you’ll be more ready for the healthier, happier relationship that awaits you.
Jeff Guardalabene is a psychologist at Pacific’s counseling center on Cedar Street.