Stages of a Break-Up

I wrote this some months ago after I split up with my long term partner, and was struggling to come to terms with my feelings. Three months on, I am definitely not completely there, but feel this is a useful post as part of that process. If he is reading this, I hope he is doing well, and that we will be proper friends in the future.

Some people say that to get over a relationship, there is a scientific formula you apply to calculate how long it will take to be back to normal. Some people seem to throw themselves straight back into the dating game, others need time to retreat. For me, the loss of a relationship is like any significant loss. It has several stages to recovery, and for me these are:

1) The break

The final breaking point; perhaps a heated argument is the last nail in the coffin, perhaps they turned up late just one too many times, or they breached a major rule of your relationship. Perhaps after days, weeks or even months of painstaking thinking, you decided to end the relationship. Perhaps one day, out of the blue, you were dumped by your lover. Maybe they told you what you did wrong, maybe they said it wasn’t working out. Even worse, they were told to end it by another partner. In any case, the actual break of the relationship is the first, awful stage in this process.

2) Shock, numbness and denial

Whether the dumper or the dumpee, as soon as the deed is done, there is a period of shock/numbness, followed by denial. What was fine and normal five minutes before, is now all upturned. You may have questions you want answered, you may not believe it is even happening, and it is all a bad dream. You may believe it was just a bad argument, and things will be patched up soon. Friends and metamours may pick a side and cut the former partner off without a word, in an attempt to protect their friend and loved one.

You may have dreams about your former lover, you may get to your usual date night and find yourself getting ready. You may catch yourself going to text or call them to tell them some news, and realise with a sinking feeling that they don’t want to know anymore. This stage can often feel surreal and difficult to comprehend that what has happened is a reality.

3) Allowing yourself to feel 

There comes a period of rollercoasting emotions. You might swing from relieved its over to devastated by the same fact. You may regret your decision if you ended it, or yearn to change your former lover’s mind if they did. Your friends might tell you that the person you love wasn’t worthy of you, and you are better off without them. You may rage at them in your mind, or even directly, you may never want to see them yet desperately want one last hug or kiss too. Some people throw themselves right back into dating, or have a radical change of image. Some people retreat and need space and time for this period, drawing on the support of friends and family, in private.

At this stage, you have to let yourself feel what you need to feel. Cry if you need to, laugh, scream, punch pillows, kiss other people, get some fresh air, eat chocolate – do whatever it is you need to do. Be raw and in the moment. Allow yourself  a period to just feel, to get those emotions dealt with and into the open. Burying and repressing now is not a good idea. Many people (your author included) find it useful to write a diary or journal about their thoughts and feelings – a great way of being honest and open, but also tracking your progress over time.

Pack all your relationship reminders into a box, cry as you pack by all means but pack those damn things away. You don’t need reminders of what was every time you walk round your house. Put the photos of you together away, hide the present they got you in a box, and keep them hidden until they become less painful to you. Don’t be tempted to look in the box until you’ve reached acceptance.

Bear in mind that whilst you are totally permitted and encouraged to feel all the things you need to feel, don’t use this as an excuse to be a dick. Don’t contact your ex to spout your venom at them, or try and provoke jealousy in them by rubbing a new date or relationship in their face. Act with some integrity and people will notice; not only will it stand you in good stead for future friendship with your former flame, but it will also show you are a responsible, ethical poly person to other poly folks too. No one wants to date someone who turns into a vengeful asshole the minute the relationship ends. Keep your angst and pain behind closed doors as much as you can, try not to let your breakup be today’s popcorn amusement online.

4) Analysis

Whether you ended the relationship or your former lover did, we all need to take stock of what happened, what went wrong, and to consider if we could have done anything to avoid it. Sometimes you can identify mistakes made, opportunities missed, and chances that were not taken. Sometimes even with all the opportunities and chances in the world, it was still right for the relationship to end.

On the other hand, if you analysed and came to the conclusion that the relationship should be given another chance, think carefully before broaching this with your former lover. Do you want them back for the right reasons? Are you just lonely? Or do you genuinely feel things can change to make you both happy? If you do decide to try and negotiate to continue in the relationship, do so calmly and with a level head. Things may have been said in heated arguments that were not intended, and some soothing of hurt feelings may be required.

Often in this time you need to remind yourself of the reasons why it ended. Perhaps your former flame was selfish, or didn’t show you enough love. Perhaps you cheated, and they ended it. Perhaps you just weren’t suited as partners, and things had run their course. Using trusted friends and loved ones to discuss and analyse at this time can be incredibly useful. All too often once a relationship ends your friends will confess they never liked your flame, or that they could see you hadn’t been happy for some time. This can be reassuring that the breakup was justified, and that this time of grief is necessary, but for a better end.

5) Taking space/retreating/radio silence

Whether your relationship ended in a screaming, heated argument, or over a sad, tearful discussion, it’s best to take some time apart, to take stock and have the mental and physical space to get over it. If you can, at the time of ending or soon afterwards, agree to have some space from your ex, whether or not you intend on being friends or not afterwards.

Agreeing mutual space lets you have the time and freedom to feel what you need to feel, to grieve and to get over things without constant reminders of the loss, without checking your phone, twitter, facebook or email for a message from your lover, and lets you take stock with a clear head.

A good thing to do is to suggest some space away from each other, and agree to review it in a set period of time. Unless one or both of you never want to speak again, checking in every now and then is good for healing, and for long term friendship. This contact allows communication lines to stay open if needed, and helps you both navigate post break up socialising as easily as possible.

6) Re-establishing your life without them

There follows a period of reclaimation, and re-establishing routines. Fridays may have been your date night with your lover, but now they need to be used for something else. You may decide to start a new hobby on that night, or use it to go out with friends, or in time, on new dates.

When a relationship exits your life, it’s not only the lover that goes. The gaping hole left by the relationship and it’s associated friendships can be large, and sometimes overwhelming. Try to fill it by rebalancing your life with your own friends, seeing family, other partners, and ensuring you have quality alone time. Be ok with your own company, have your own interests, and make sure you have time just to rest, to recouperate, and to recover. Staying busy and not wallowing is important, but not at the cost of running yourself ragged.

7) Acceptance

Over time you will find yourself thinking of them less and less, not wondering what they are doing today, or who they are dating now. Perhaps now you can think of them without bursting into tears, perhaps you can look at their texts without feeling a pang in your heart.

Hopefully by now you don’t think of them as your lover, but as your ex. You may still dream about them, but when you wake you remember it was just a dream, and you aren’t with them anymore. You know why it ended, and hopefully you know it was the right thing to do. You feel more fond memories of good times than pain at the loss, and you are looking forward and are focussed on your own life than grieving for the loss of them in it.

Ideally this stage involves some level of compersion. Yes, it is hard to see your lover with their existing or new loves after you part, but it is a fact of poly life. Take the time and processing you need to deal with your hurt, but I recommend you don’t run away from this experience. I have loved my partners, had relationships break up, and in time felt genuine happiness for them in their new relationships. That for me, is the keystone of acceptance: when you take pleasure in their happiness, and it doesn’t have to be with you.

8) Evolving into friends

Once you’ve reached acceptance, the final stage for me is the evolution of the relationship. You started as strangers and became friends, lovers and partners. Whether you dated a month, a season or a year, the person was something more than a friend to you. Once you broke up they may have been your enemy, someone you hated and reviled, or someone who caused you pain. With acceptance and a new focus on life, my aim is to evolve into loving friends. If someone involved in the relationship has been a massive douche, this may not be possible, or even feasible to attempt. But barring those circumstances, I prefer to be friends with my former loves, rather than enemies. At the very least I want to be on civil terms with them (and their associated friends and lovers), ideally closer.The kind of friend who I have loved on romantic terms, someone I’ve lost as a lover but not lost completely, someone who thinks I am awesome enough to stay connected with on another basis.