No matter how painful the relationship was, we may mourn its end.
Sometimes, the people closest to us cause the most pain and lose the right to be part of our lives. In these cases, ending a relationship, be it an unhappy marriage, a one-sided friendship, or a toxic family relationship is the healthiest choice. But the decision to end a relationship and the process of extricating ourselves can bring up all kinds of difficult feelings.
What Happens When We End a Relationship
When we decide to end a relationship, we may feel doubt and dismay. We may feel like we are abandoning or deserting the relationship. We may worry that we failed to “save” it—maybe we should have “just tried harder” to fix it. It may feel like the time invested in that relationship was wasted, even if it held a meaningful place in your life for months, years, or even decades. The vacuum left by the relationship can bring loneliness, even if you already felt lonely in the relationship. It may feel devastating to realize the relationship is over, even if the relationship had felt challenging and draining for years.
These feelings, symptoms of a grief response, can feel confusing. Shouldn’t the fact that it was our choice to end a relationship mean it shouldn’t hurt so much? Unfortunately, no.
When we end a relationship, even a difficult, toxic, exhausting, frustrating one, we will likely grieve. Why? Well, at one time, the relationship likely felt mutual, and we grieve the loss of that mutuality. We may mourn the way a long-term relationship can sour. The relationship may never have been a good one, so we grieve for what could have been or should have been or even what we had put up with for so long. We may grieve the loss of how it felt to be in a relationship with that person—perhaps we felt more worthy or prestigious or glamorous or wanted. We may also grieve for the lost future we imagined building together. And so we grieve what was, we grieve what never was, we grieve what is no more, and we grieve what cannot be.
Making room for this grief means deciding that it is both OK to feel all of these feelings and still feel confident that moving on was the right choice. The two can coexist.
When Isolation Compounds Grief
Sometimes, others may compound the grief by expressing happiness at the relationship ending. Well-meaning family members may cheer or breathe a sigh of relief when an unhappy romantic relationship ends. Friends may congratulate you for cutting off your toxic uncle. A romantic partner may rant about that childhood friend that always left you feeling anxious.
But these gestures may leave you feeling more alone or ashamed of your sadness. To keep space for moving through the pain, we need room not only to feel angry at the person we left behind, but also sad that the relationship has ended. For that, we need loved ones willing to listen and validate the sadness. What can it sound like to support somebody who just ended an important relationship?
- “Wow, that must have been a really hard decision. How are you doing?”
- “That can’t have been easy. I’m here if you want to talk about it.”
- “How are you feeling about it?”
- “What do you need right now?”
What We Can Offer Ourselves and Others
As we mourn, we can offer ourselves compassion and grace to feel whatever it is we’re feeling. We can remind ourselves that we can feel anger toward the person we’ve ended a relationship with and grateful for what was and sad that it won’t carry into the future. And when others come to us about their own loss, we can offer them the same gift by not assuming they’re delighted and instead checking in with them. We can let them know that it is ok to feel sad and that we are there for them through it.
Sarah Epstein, MFT is a Marriage and Family Therapist in Philadelphia, PA and the Amazon bestselling author of the book Love in the Time of Medical School.Online:Sarah’s Professional Site, Facebook, LinkedIn