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Breaking Up is Hard to Do: Ending a Bad Relationship

by Monica A. Frank, Ph.D.
"...imagine if someone ignores the pain and therefore couldn't learn that lesson. They would repeatedly touch the hot stove thinking that 'This time it will be different.' As a result, they experience the pain again and again while wondering how unfortunate they are to keep touching hot stoves: 'I'm so unlucky--I keep getting burned!'"

Frequently over the years of my practice I've had new clients who recently left bad relationships and want to prevent a recurrence of the same scenario. However, two common obstacles too often occur, both of which are related to difficulty handling grief and loss.

The first obstacle is related to finalizing the relationship. Often, although the relationship is over, there is a period of returning to the former partner and leaving the relationship again and again until they are finally convinced that the partner won't change.

The second obstacle is when meeting a new person and seeing the "red flags" they are in denial of the message of those red flags. They ignore the warning signals due to a desperate need to be in a relationship. More important to them is the need to be wanted that the need to be in a healthy relationship.

Breaking Up

How Are These Obstacles Related to Problems in the Grief Process?

As I see it, both of these situations are due to an avoidance of the pain of grief. Grief feels horrible! It is NOT something anyone WANTS to experience. However, it is a necessary process for healing, learning, and making better choices in life. The avoidance of the pain of grief thwarts this process and interferes with becoming involved in healthier relationships in the future.

Emotions contain important information about the world and our experience with it. Paying attention to emotions allows us to process an experience and make better decisions in the future. Avoidance of those emotions prevents us from learning from the event. For instance, what is a "red flag" anyway? Typically, it is an emotional warning system. When a person ignores the emotional warning and creates excuses, this blocks awareness of the message and prevents healthy and accurate decision-making.

Why Do People Ignore This Warning System?

People don't want to feel bad. It is uncomfortable, if not downright painful, to examine previous decisions especially those that turned out to be serious mistakes. Therefore, people tend to avoid that emotional process.

Yet, it is similar to learning not to touch a hot stove. When you touch a hot stove and burn your hand, it not only is an immediate warning to remove your hand, but is is also a lesson to be more careful around stoves. Not only that but the lesson can generalize so that you learn it is wise to be careful around any hot object or fire. Heat, flame, or red coils become "red flags" to avoid. See how processing the pain signals allow for better choices in the future?

However, imagine if someone ignores the pain and therefore couldn't learn that lesson. They would repeatedly touch the hot stove thinking that "This time it will be different." As a result, they experience the pain again and again while wondering how unfortunate they are to keep touching hot stoves: "I'm so unlucky--I keep getting burned!"

Emotional pain is protective just as physical pain is a warning signal. We need to learn to listen to the message of the emotional pain to aid in future situations. However, if we avoid emotional pain, we can never receive the protective message and we are likely to be doomed to repeat the same mistakes. Either that or people develop extreme avoidance of situations so they don't have to feel bad: "I'll never fall in love again!"

What Does This Have to Do With Returning Repeatedly to a Bad Relationship?

The process I have observed in my practice is that the individual will initially be buoyed by the grief process. An early stage of grief is the anger stage. So at first, the individual will be angry about how they were treated. Anger can feel good because the pain and blame is focused outwardly on the other person and their misbehavior.

However, after awhile the grieving person will move into the sadness stage of grief in which they will be more likely to question their decision. Sadness is more personally directed and the sadness of grief feels never-ending. From my experience, this is the stage in which the person is likely to return to a bad situation or relationship due to their belief that they are unable to tolerate the overwhelming sadness.

In fact, frequently they will convince themselves "I must not really want to leave because I should be happy rather than sad.” In other words, they misinterpret the message of sadness when grieving the loss of a relationship. They believe the sadness is a sign of the intensity of their emotions and that they should remain in the relationship.

What they don't recognize is that feeling sad is a normal part of the grieving process even when leaving a bad relationship. Just because someone feels sad when ending a relationship doesn't mean that the relationship was good. For instance, the grief can be due to the loss of the ILLUSION of the perfect relationship. People frequently create in their minds the relationship they desire to perceive and ignore all the information to the contrary until they can no longer avoid the reality. In these circumstances, when they end the relationship, they are actually grieving the loss of the illusion they had created, not the loss of the actual relationship.

In addition, most relationships are not all bad, so even if the partner's behavior is no longer tolerable, the good qualities may still be missed. In such cases, the grief is due to the loss of the good aspects of the relationship. Sometimes people find it hard to let go because these good qualities remind them of what "could" be and they are drawn back into an attempt to change the relationship to be what they fantasize it could be.

How Does the Avoidance of Grief Cause Repeated Bad Relationships?

As stated previously, the purpose of grief is to not only help us heal but to help us recognize emotional warning signs. When a person so desperately wants to feel good that they suppress the negative emotions, they prevent the warning system from operating properly.

I repeatedly hear in my practice "I'm sure this is a red flag, but..." The "but" is their method of ignoring the red flag and is deceptive because it appears they are recognizing the red flag and evaluating it when, in fact, they are readily dismissing it. Some of the common ways of ignoring or dismissing the red flag are:

1) "It will be different this time."

2) "How can I be sure? Maybe I'm not giving him/her a chance."

3) "Maybe I'm just being overly sensitive because of my last experience."

4) "We talked about it and he/she assured me it wouldn't be the same."

One thing I see in particular when someone dismisses a red flag is the tendency to look only at the surface behavior and not at the underlying dynamics. For instance, someone who had been married to a controlling, jealous alcoholic may believe the new relationship will be different because the new person doesn't drink. However, by attributing everything to the alcoholism they ignore the red flags regarding the dynamics of controlling, jealous behavior that also exists in the new relationship.

If the individual fully understands this dynamic, he/she may be able to recognize it in a new relationship and not dismiss it so easily. However, to fully understand and recognize the signs, it is necessary to fully explore the dynamics. Such exploration requires having to examine and assess the unpleasant, or even traumatic, events that occurred and such a process can often be painful. As stated earlier, people generally want to avoid this process.

How Can I Make Better Choices?

The more you allow yourself to fully process the emotions that occur with your grief, you are likely to make better decisions. Processing the emotions may vary depending upon the stage of grief you are in.

1) Denial Stage. During this stage a person is likely to believe that the partner will change. As a result, they will be swayed by promises. However, promises aren't likely to result in behavior change. Therefore, it is important to wait for a sign of TRUE behavior change. However, surface behavior change is not enough. For instance, the partner may stop drinking but that doesn't necessarily indicate true change. They may still not be addressing the underlying problems, in which case the problems are likely to eventually resurface.

True behavior change usually requires some in-depth examination of the self and addressing some uncomfortable emotions. This may need to be done with a therapist or a self-help group, but you need to be assured that the partner has changed at a deeper level. Otherwise, the same problems will occur in the relationship.

2) Anger Stage. When you are in the anger stage of grief, it is often helpful to write down your emotions and why you are feeling them. This gives you a record of your decision to leave the relationship. Later on during the sadness stage it can help remind you of why you left the relationship and why it is not healthy for you.

During this stage do not send angry emails or texts to the ex. The problem with this method of releasing anger is that it is likely to backfire making you look like the "crazy one" which could make you question your decision later on.

However, you do need ways to release the anger. Writing in a journal can be a release. Although talking to a friend can be a release, it can also create problems especially if you do return to the relationship. Sometimes you may need a physical release. This is perfectly okay but find a release that doesn't hurt you such as punching a bag, hitting a pillow with a bat, or running.

3) Sadness Stage. This stage is particularly difficult because you need to let yourself fully feel the sadness. Even though this stage feels bad, keep in mind that it WILL end--you won't feel this way forever. However, you do want to challenge any irrational beliefs you may have at this stage or else you are likely to return to the relationship for the purpose of avoiding the emotions.

For instance, recognize that the sadness is due to the relationship not working out rather than meaning that you desire to stay in the relationship. Use the writing that you did in the anger stage to remind you of why you don't want to return to the relationship.

The grief process tends to be time-limited if you fully allow the emotions. However, every time you return to the relationship and leave again, the grief process starts over. In other words, you are making it more difficult for yourself if you avoid the sadness by returning to the relationship. If you are leaving a relationship that is truly bad, the eventual outcome is likely to be that you will leave. The best way to shorten the pain of breaking up is to not return to the relationship. However, I always tell clients that and have yet to see someone do that.

I have come to believe that the leaving and returning is the way that people who are in dysfunctional relationships and are fearful of the grief process are eventually able to leave a bad relationship. However, this does not bode well for developing a future healthy relationship because it is an avoidance of the protective emotional messages contained in the grief process.

How do you make better choices and create better relationships? Let yourself fully feel no matter how painful it is and listen to the message. As stated previously, pain is protective—it is meant to warn you and help you. Don't avoid the message it contains.


Kindle Books by
Dr. Monica Frank

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