The science of a break-up
Photo: Camilla Akrans via Vogue Germany
Last month Emma Stone described a past break-up as: ‘Like Someone Has Killed You And You Have To Watch’. Meanwhile a new study shows that she might not be over-exagerating. Research suggests that rejection by a romantic partner during a breakup activates regions of the brain associated with physical pain ie “Rejection literally hurts.” Here, author and relationship counsellor Elly Taylor shares her tips on coping post break-up.
What are the best ways to cope after a break up – the dos and don’ts?
The most important thing is to recognise that a break up is a legitimate loss and needs to be respected like one. The more significant the loss, the greater the mourning of it. That chest crunching pain of losing love can send us into the same stages of grief that other losses, even a death can. So the first do’s: know the stages you will go through: shock and denial, bargaining, anger and depression, and how to manage them. How you manage them will determine how you get through to the final stage of acceptance. And don’ts: don’t pretend that you are fine when you aren’t as people will withdraw vital support because they think you don’t need it. And don’t bury your feelings, they only go deeper. We need to feel to heal.
What behaviour should we avoid?
Don’t try to manipulate the person into taking you back because the pain is unbearable, this will just delay things and lead to a very compromised relationship. Pain and loss, sadly, are a part of life and we need to learn, at some stage, to get through them.
Distracting yourself is great at times to relieve the intensity of grief, but doing it to avoid the pain is counterproductive, so if you find yourself throwing yourself into work, going out every night, keeping so busy you exhaust yourself every day or spending up big to make yourself feel better, you are just delaying the inevitable.
Likewise, don’t jump into a new relationship before you have grieved the old one. Grief gets compounded that way. Unresolved grief from previous relationships builds up and then can hit us like a tonne of bricks down the track. It’s called complicated grief. I have worked with clients who were completely brought undone by fairly short relationships, not because these relationships were so great, but because they hadn’t fully worked through their previous relationships, some involving parents.
How long will the pain last?
Obviously it depends on the relationship, but as a guideline I find with a significant relationship, it takes around 18 months to grieve and then 18 months to heal.
What can speed up the healing process? What should we do if we do or say something we regret (ie a drunken phone call)?
The most important part of the grieving process is the expression of the emotions that come up. Allow yourself to feel whatever it is and find ways of getting it out. Our emotions are fluid unless we block them, and blocked emotions can become problematic (turning into depression and/or anxiety), so expressing them is vital. Give yourself permission to have a good cry. Creativity is great for expression; sing along with a sad song, paint an angry picture and then tear it up into little pieces, punch a pillow, write out how you are feeling, tell the worst of it to a trusted friend and get a big hug afterwards.
Between relationships is the best time to work on our relationship with ourselves, as this, internal model, is the basis for all our other relationships. We compromise so much of ourselves, especially in flailing relationships. Now is the time to reclaim all those bits that we gave away.
How we treat ourselves after we do something we regret is a great indication of our relationship with ourselves. If we are compassionate and forgive ourselves, we begin to re-build the self-esteem that was dented through another’s rejection of us. If we beat ourselves up, we really have some work to do, because it’s a way of rejecting ourselves.
How can we tell the difference between heart break and depression?
Depression (the emotion) is a natural part of grief and loss. Heart break is a process, it’s backwards and forwards with mixed emotions and there are variations in intensity of the highs and lows. There is still the capacity, sometimes unexpectedly, to feel joy or to take your mind off things for a while. Eventually you find that you recover quicker from the periods of depression and there are more good times in between them and then you return to your normal equilibrium. Keeping a journal of the waves is a good idea to track your progress.
Depression (the state) is an unabated heaviness, despair, and lethargy that is there in the morning and lasts throughout the days, weeks and months. It’s a flatline. Emotions are not distinct; they are just all shades of grey. It’s time to get some extra help if this is the case.
Whose advice should you listen to?
Actually, this is a time to steer clear of advice, because it can just make the process more complicated. What we really need is a good listener who can support us to work out what we need to help ourself. This is how we build resilience to cope with future losses.
When should speak to a therapist?
If depression or anger continues unabated, if you start self- harming or drinking too much, if you experience panic attacks (anxiety can often accompany depression) or if the grief seems out of proportion to the relationship, talking to a relationship counsellor can help to facilitate old and new grief to make way for healing. A good place to start is the Australian Association of Relationship Counsellors: www.aarc.org.au.
Should we cut off all contact?
It depends on the stage we are in. We should cut off contact if the contact is likely to lead to desperate and unlikely bargaining attempts to get back together, or to get hurt more, or to hurl abuse, this will just further undermine our self-esteem and leave us more vulnerable. It’s easier to go through the process if we protect ourselves by having no contact while we are still grieving, because it’s more within our control. Once we are into healing, we can have contact again if we wish because it won’t have the same emotional impact. At this stage a little contact for closure can be healing because it might mean leaving things on better terms and those, fresher, memories can reduce the impact of the horrible ones. I know of an ex-couple who arranged to meet recently several years after their really awful break up. They both cried and left as friends and it felt like a weight had lifted but they probably won’t see each other again, they have both moved on. At least they are not afraid of bumping into each other any more.
How should we behave if we run in to them unexpectedly?
Take a deep breath, give yourself a big internal hug, keep it short and sweet and give yourself a pat on the back afterwards.
Elly Taylor is a relationship counsellor and author Becoming Us, Loving, Learning and Growing Together, the Essential Relationship Guide for Parents.