Sometimes it can feel as if being the one who is left at the end of a relationship is worse than being bereaved. This is not to say that bereavement is easier than being left, far from it, but it certainly evokes less shame. The words we use to describe the two events are very revealing: bereaved has a dignity compared with abandoned, dumped, dropped or left. These words express and also reinforce how damaged we can feel when a partner leaves. You don’t dump something valuable and the experience can leave a huge sense of shame and failure. Yet most of us have been in a doomed relationship at some point in our lives. Clients who have been left by their partners frequently report that friends are initially hugely sympathetic but then get fed up. It is a truism that only people who have gone through the experience can truly understand the pain and madness that can be evoked in a breakup. I have often wondered why there are not more face-to-face support groups to help people through their misery. We have bereavement groups, cancer groups, groups for depression but relatively little for the broken-hearted.
The Internet can be a mixed blessing when a relationship ends. There are chat rooms that can be accessed in the small hours of the night but equally in the small hours of the night one can lethally follow an ex-partner on a variety of social networks. At times like this, Facebook for example, can feel like a form of torture. New posts and pictures seem to say, ‘look, I am getting on with my life without you.’ If someone else is involved in the breakup it can be even more excruciating. Jealousy and unhappiness are an agonising mix.
Experts and friends will tell you that once a relationship is over you should cut contact both on the Internet and in the flesh. It makes sense because the temptation is to seek comfort and reassurance from the person who has hurt you and it can keep hope alive when there is none. But making those final moves to really end contact can be very difficult.
How can counselling help in this situation? It can offer an understanding of the enormous pain that can be felt by someone whose relationship has ended. When couples break up it might look like one person’s unilateral decision but it might well not be and understanding the dynamics of an ending is helpful. Perhaps most importantly, counselling will help in understanding why the person involved feels so damaged, so valueless. Very often feelings of worthlessness have deep roots that pre-date the relationship. When adversity hits, these feelings can be activated in a powerful way. It can be very helpful to understand and challenge these early feelings of worthlessness. It is also important to understand that feeling something does not make it reality. Just because we might feel that life is over, doesn’t make it true. Despite the agony, most people do recover from break-ups. Hopefully, they will have learned something from their experiences and will have a deeper understanding of themselves when they next fall in love.