Loss is an inevitable part of life. We all suffer a loss at some point, whether it be a relative, a friendship, or even merely a significant item. Most of us will also experience the dissipation of many romantic relationships at some point in our lifetime.
Although breakups are common, they’re never easy.
The end of a romantic relationship, can be the beginning of a lot of emotional distress and unwanted feelings such as anger, despair, or uncertainty. After any loss, you can go through multiple stages of grief – relationship break-ups are no different.
The grieving process is a complex experience; however, knowing its basic outline can help us make sense of our post-breakup life.
In this article, we’ll talk about the stages of grief and how they can manifest after the dissolution of a relationship.
What Are the Stages of Grief Relationships?
While the grieving process is different for each individual, there are specific patterns that we all tend to follow.
Psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross initially identified this concept in her book “On Death and Dying.”
In her work, Kubler-Ross elaborated on grief as a process made up of five distinct stages. Even though Kubler-Ross’ research involved patients who were dying of an illness, her theory can also be applied to relationship break-ups.
When a relationship ends, partners can go through all the stages of grief. Since the recognition of these stages back in 1969, the theory has been revisited, and the 5-stage model has been revised into a 7-stage model.
Both models, however, can be used to effectively discuss the emotions one experiences following a loss.
The 5 Stages of Grief
Arguably, this is the most well-known exploration of grief and far more popular than the 7-stage model. The 5 stages of grief include denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.
How exactly one navigates, each stage can depend a lot on that individual and the specific circumstances.
However, the stages share a lot of similarities among grieving people.
The first stage is typically our response to unfortunate or unwanted news – denial. After a breakup, you may go about your daily life as if nothing has changed, refusing to face reality and acknowledge that the relationship is over.
This can mean avoiding reminders of the break-up and refusing to process any new memories or emotions.
In the denial phase, you may also hold out hope that things will still work out and fantasize about your ex partner somehow coming back to you and mending the relationship.
Denial can protect you from becoming emotionally overwhelmed. All of our emotions are normal, and denial can serve as a useful coping mechanism for many. It is the stepping stone from which you can move forward onto the next stage and is only an issue when people get stuck and struggle to leave the denial stage.
Anger is another emotion that can manifest during the grieving process. You may be angry with:
Your former partner;
God, the universe, or any higher power;
The circumstances seemingly associated with your breakup;
The inability to repair the relationship;
Others who refuse to validate your anger.
Regardless of who we direct our anger toward, it’s important to practice useful coping mechanisms and process them healthily. Avoid making any rash decisions due to anger and try to work through it with activities such as exercising or artistic projects.
The bargaining stage can share similarities with denial, and they may often go hand-in-hand. In this phase, we can try to reconnect and reconstruct a relationship with our former partner, either by restoring a romantic partnership or by staying friends.
We try to avoid the burden of emotionally processing the break-up by negotiating any possible way to make the new relationship work out. This can include promises of change or attempts at manipulation and even threats.
Sometimes we take our negotiations somewhere other than our ex and try making some deal with God or higher powers.
This stage is what we usually associate most with grief – sadness, and this is where the finality of the situation starts to sink in.
While a feeling of deep sorrow mostly characterizes the depression stage, it can be a time when we experience many other emotions such as fatigue, detachment, and hopelessness. Depression can make it seem as though things will never get better.
However, for most people going through a breakup, the depression stage is only temporary and will pass, making way for the final stage.
The last stage of grief is acceptance. You’ve gone through all the emotions and ended up on the complete opposite side. Now you can acknowledge the relationship has ended and perhaps even recognize your role in the break-up.
Feelings such as sadness and anger can still linger; however, they are more manageable and don’t prevent you from moving forward with your life. Over time these feelings are likely to fade.
Acceptance comes gradually and can seem impossible while we’re stuck in the previous stages of grief, however, you will succeed in reaching this phase and begin moving forward eventually.
When we experience a loss of any sort, we will experience grief over that loss and go through various emotions associated with the stages of grief.
Most people cycle through these painful feelings and move on to acceptance in some time, although timeframes will vary from person to person. However, sometimes the grief we feel doesn’t seem to be gravitating towards acceptance for a long time, and we can feel stuck grieving for years, experiencing severe emotional distress.
These intense and lengthy reactions to a loss can develop into a grief disorder such as complicated or prolonged grief.
What Is Complicated Grief?
Complicated grief is an extreme reaction to loss that tends to last a lot longer than is typical. This is a serious condition that can influence and disrupt your life to a great extent.
Everyone who grieves will experience pain at the reminder of their loss.
However, when looking at those who suffer from complicated grief, the same reminders also activated reward pathways.
This brain activity can indicate that those suffering from complicated grief can become, in a certain way, addicted to the feeling of longing. The obsessive yearning for a person or a relationship can cause grief to persist. Complicated grief is characterized by intense longing and preoccupation with the other person. This disorder can be similar to depression, anxiety, or PTSD.
Signs of Grief Disorders
Grief in general can last a long time on many occasions, so longevity alone isn’t indicative that you’re dealing with complicated grief.
Other than prolonged grieving, signs of complicated grief may include:
Obsessive thoughts about your relationship or former partner;
Intense longing for the relationship;
Heightened emotional distress;
Lost interest in activities you once found pleasurable;
Either searching for or extremely avoiding reminders of the relationship;
Isolation and trouble trusting others;
Difficulty finding acceptance.
Symptoms can make it difficult to function at our best and impact our lives, from our jobs to our relationships with other people and our ability to form new romantic and platonic relationships.
As we mentioned, complicated and prolonged grief disorders can be similar in their symptoms to other conditions.
However, a therapist needs to know the root of the issue as different methods will help more depending on which condition is being treated.
While just about anyone can suffer from complicated grief, certain factors may put people at a greater risk of developing the disorder. These include:
Having a dependent relationship with the partner;
Absence of a support system;
Having a past of abuse or neglect;
Other life hardships and stressors.
Our primary attachment bond will change throughout life, starting with our primary caregivers or parents and eventually moving on to close friendships and intimate partners. Break-ups can disrupt our attachment systems. Because of this, the impact of a break-up can also depend on your attachment style.
How to Deal With Complicated Grief?
Dealing with grief is never easy. No matter how many times we may have gone through breakups before, each situation is unique and different. It’s crucial to get professional help for conditions such as complicated grief.
However, there are certain practices we can put in place to make the road to acceptance easier for everyone.
1. Try Online Therapy
Handling grief is difficult at the best of times. However, when it turns into a disorder such as complicated grief, it can severely negatively impact your life in many aspects. This is why seeking out counseling can be a good thing.
Therapy certainly helps treat complicated grief that has affected people for a prolonged time, but it’s also effective in prevention. Talking to a therapist early on may help you reach the acceptance phase faster and avoid the development of complicated grief in the first place.
Online therapy services are an accessible and affordable way to talk through your feelings in a judgment-free environment, develop healthy coping skills, and prevent negative thoughts and behaviors from taking hold.
2. Rely on Support Systems
When an attachment bond is broken, such as the one we have with our romantic partner, most people tend to revert to other attachments, such as close friends and other family members.
Thus it’s important to have a support network in place that can help us in difficult times. Post-breakup, you should feel safe reaching out to those closest. These can be relatives, close friends, family therapists or community members. Talking about your loss and feelings regarding it can help you work through the ordeal, and this is best done with those you love and trust.
3. Socialize and Stay Busy
Engaging with friends and activities, we once enjoyed can feel like a draining task to those grieving. Yet, as difficult as participation can feel, socialization can help you better your emotional state. You get to connect or reconnect with friends who you can lean on for support by socializing.
You also keep yourself occupied and distracted. Engaging in any form of activity can help keep your mind off of the past relationship. It might be a good time to pick up new hobbies and look into any niche interests you have.
4. Practice Self-care
Oftentimes, a struggle with our mental health can lead to poor physical health. It’s crucial to keep up our hygiene and self-care routines and do something extra if needed.
Eat regularly maintain a healthy diet, exercise, do yoga, and get sufficient rest. Most importantly, practice mindfulness and treat yourself with grace. You should avoid the use of alcohol, drugs, or food to relieve stress and manage emotions in alternative, healthier ways.
How Can Online Therapy Help to Cope With Grief?
A break-up isn’t the only way a relationship can end. If a family member of your partner has passed away, you may be grieving the loss of that person as well as the partnership. You can speak to a therapist regarding your grief regardless of whether you’ve split up or experienced the death of a loved one.
Online therapy services give you a way to easily connect with a certified counselor and get professional help. Grief can be complicated and even crippling in some cases, and online counseling is a good way to handle your post-relationship breakup grief.
Online therapy is not only convenient but more affordable. You get a lower price point than traditional counseling, easy access, and a far greater number of options. When treating grief following the end of a relationship, counselors can implement various methods.
Therapists can seek to help you in different ways; however, in almost all cases, expect to:
Work on emotional regulation;
Develop coping skills;
Gain insight into cognitive processes;
This all will depend on the therapist’s preference, expertise, and personal treatment plan. A few different forms of therapy are often used when treating patients after a break-up.
1. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT)
Cognitive-behavioral therapy is a short-term and highly structured form of therapy.
It’s based on Beck’s cognitive triad that relates our thoughts to our emotions and behaviors. This form of therapy has become increasingly popular throughout the years and is now one of the most common ways to treat many psychological disorders.
CBT can be used for depression, and anxiety, but also in the treatment of grief. In this case, CBT will emphasize a person’s thought process regarding the loss.
This form of therapy encourages you to restructure your cognition and, instead of thinking, “I’ll never get over this pain,” think, “It hurts that the relationship is over; however, this pain is temporary.”
This change in cognition hopes to eventually translate to a change in emotional state and well-being.
Your therapist will teach you other similar skills during your sessions that you can implement outside of therapy to deal with your grief and may even assign “homework,” i.e., practices that you do outside of your sessions.
2. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)
When it comes to dealing with grief, ACT is yet another popular method that therapists commonly implement.
This form of counseling has roots in Eastern and Western religious traditions and places suffering and all other emotions, both positive and negative, as an essential part of the human experience.
ACT has six core principles:
Self as context;
Using ACT can help patients during the grieving of a loss of any sort.
It aims to help you accept the situation, experience your emotions, change how you interact with unwanted thoughts and feelings, and restructure maladaptive language. Furthermore, ACT’s core principles are used to define your values and develop patterns for future action.
3. Interpersonal Psychotherapy (IPT)
Interpersonal therapy is influenced by psychodynamic therapy but also by CBT and attachment theory. It’s another short-term method for treating a variety of mood disorders. IPT believes that life events impact our emotions and moods.
It usually focuses on recent hardships and seeing how they’ve impacted our ability to relate and connect with others. By improving these abilities to bond, IPT seeks to improve your overall well-being.
Because of its close examination of recent life events causing the issues, IPT can successfully examine the role of a break-up on your emotional state and help with processing the grief that follows.
4. Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT)
Dialectical behavioral therapy was developed to treat people with BPD (borderline personality disorder). It can be used to treat many other conditions, and due to its origins, it’s usually implemented when treating patients with more than one diagnosis.
DBT helps patients practice mindfulness and develop emotional regulation and distress tolerance. These core skills taught during sessions can be a huge helping hand in healing from a break-up.
Does Online Therapy for Relationship Break-ups Work?
While counseling is perhaps by far the best way to deal with the end of a relationship, many remain skeptical.
This isn’t only due to therapy methods and the online format. Yet, in both cases, there have been many positive outcomes recorded. Both interned-delivered CBTACT have been shown to be effective in treating mental disorders in adults.
Many other methods can be used to help with a break-up besides these two, and online platforms provide easy access to a variety of techniques and professionals. Online therapy reviews can be a great insight for potential patients.
While personal anecdotes cannot speak fully to the effectiveness of a method, these are good indicators of the quality of an online therapy platform.
So, when looking for the right counseling for you, reviews can be a huge help.
How to Know if You Need Online Therapy?
Many people can handle the grieving process and not let it affect their lives to any great extent.
However, you should seek out a professional if you experience:
Frequent emotional outbursts;
Lost sense of self;
Disturbed sleeping and eating patterns;
Trouble trusting and bonding;
Loss of interest;
Your well-being is a top priority, and online therapy services can offer you close to immediate help with serious issues.
No issue is too small – if you need support, look into online counseling.
How Long Does it Take to Recover From a Break-up?
Even with all the coping skills and therapy techniques, recovering from a failed relationship can take a while.
Each individual and every situation is different, so it’s impossible to put a timeframe on the healing process or an expiration date on emotions. Break-ups can take months to years to recover fully from.
However, diagnosis for grief disorders can usually be done post the 6-month mark. Meaning, that if you’ve struggled to reach acceptance of a break-up for over half a year, therapy is an option well worth looking into.
Redefining Closure and Starting Over
Acceptance is the final stage of the grief process but not the final step you take after a relationship has ended.
When all’s been said and done, it’s most likely not wrapped up as neatly as we want it. However, you need to let go of the idea that closure is a clean ending.
We all tend to have some imagined idea of “closure” in our heads, but this is hardly ever something we can achieve in real life. Therefore, the goal isn’t to reach this supposed perfect resolution but to heal and move past your breakup.
With some care and the necessary assistance, we can all overcome life’s difficulties and one day move on. Regardless of what stage you’re currently in, you will be able to date, love, and trust again.