Busting the Break-Up Blues

I was recently interviewed by reporter Elizabeth Bernstein for her column in the Wall Street Journal. Below is the full interview.  WSJ: How do you take your mind off of someone and not text them?

LM: People often call, text, or email their ex because they feel lonely, anxious, or in response to replaying happy memories of the relationship over and over in their head. In the aftermath of a break up, people often screen out the bad stuff, and focus on the good parts of the relationship—even if the happy times had disappeared months or years before the break up.

In an unconscious attempt to alleviate loneliness or anxiety, people reach out to their ex to keep the connection alive, since they associate the person or relationship with feeling loved, happy, or safe. Instead of ruminating on the memories that trigger loneliness or anxiety, bring yourself back into the reality of why the relationship didn’t work. Write down what didn’t work or that caused you pain in the relationship. Focus on the reality of today, instead of the story you’re telling yourself about the past.

WSJ: Are there stages of breakup emotions? What are they?

LM: Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s 5 stages of grief—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance—apply to all kinds of major loss, including a significant break up. People experience the stages differently, depending on their personality traits and resiliency, past experiences, and overall mental and emotional health. For example, someone who tends to respond to life challenges with anger will have more difficulty feeling the sadness of the depression stage and can remain stuck in the anger stage for months or even years. People more prone to depression may bypass the anger stage and spend more time in the depression stage before moving into acceptance.

If you find yourself stuck in any of the stages, seek professional help. While these stages are normal in a break up, being unable to move through them is a sign that there may be deeper issues at play. Break ups often trigger the pain of childhood trauma and experiences (divorce, death of a parent, abandonment, or physical, verbal, or sexual abuse). Because these wounds are often buried in the subconscious, people think it’s the break up that’s making them feel so bad, when the break up may be the trigger of those feelings, not the root cause.

WSJ: Do men and women handle breakups differently?

LM: Based on my work with clients over the past 20 years, I’d say that the more dependent someone is on a partner for their sense of self-worth, identity, and/or financial security, the more devastated they are by the break up. Although much has changed over the past 40 years—and there are certainly many exceptions—comparatively, more women rely on men for their self-worth, identity, or financial security than the other way around. But there are other forms of dependency, like emotional dependence (needing someone else to make you happy) and domestic dependence (relying on another person for cooking, cleaning, grocery shopping, laundry, etc.).

Based on what I’ve seen in my practice, I’d say that generally, more men are emotionally and domestically dependent on women than the other way around. But regardless of the form of the dependency, the more one relies on another human being for their emotional, financial, or day-to-day well-being the harder it is when that person goes out of their life. Because men are more conditioned not to express their feelings, women tend to have an easier time talking about the painful feelings of a break up. But men can be just as devastated by a break up as women, even if they have a harder time expressing it.

WSJ: What are bad ways to handle a breakup?

LM: No matter what happened to cause the final break up, every relationship is a co-creation of the couple’s interpersonal dynamics, including those that can lead to an infidelity. While anger is a normal emotion, continuously blaming your partner keeps you stuck in a victim role and unable to move forward. As hard as it can be, exploring your role in the relationship and its demise allows you to move out of the victim role and gain valuable lessons about what to do—or not to do—in a relationship going forward.

Instead of blaming their partner, many people use the break up against themselves—being self-critical, judging what they did or didn’t do, or bombarding themselves with guilt and regret. Understand that you both did the best you could do with the knowledge and skills you had at the time. It’s important to take responsibility for your part in the relationship and break up, but this doesn’t mean berating yourself. Instead, have compassion for yourself because you really did do the best you could at the time.

Another common mistake people make is delving right into another relationship. Recovering from a break up takes time, so getting immediately involved with someone new will only postpone your healing.

WSJ: How can people work through all the feelings of a break-up?

LM: When I’m working with a client, I encourage them to look deeper than the “symptoms” of the situation—who said or did what—to the underlying, repetitive patterns that deteriorated the relationship. Since you can’t change the other person, the work should be focused on you—not on the other person. Explore the patterns and feelings you experienced in the relationship and ask yourself, “Which of these are familiar to me from other times in my life and in other relationships?” These are what I call people’s “core wounds.” Understanding what they are and from where they originate—and then implementing action steps to address and heal them—is a far more effective response to a break up than keeping yourself stuck in blame, anger, or guilt, and repeating the same patterns and outcomes relationship after relationship.

WSJ: How much time does it take to get over someone?

Recovery time varies, depending on the length of the relationship, the availability of a support system, the person’s personality traits and coping skills, the nature of the relationship and break up, whether or not children are involved, and the person’s overall mental and emotional health. The longer and more meaningful the relationship, the greater the loss and the longer it takes to heal. Recovery can take as little as a few months for a shorter-term relationship to several years for a long-term partnership or marriage. However, I’ve known people who never did the work to recover from their break up and spent the rest of their lives angry, bitter, and miserable.

WSJ: How do you help people face their feelings and understand what they did wrong or what to do differently next time to grow and learn from the experience? Can you share an example?

LM: “Bridget” attended my Moving Beyond a Break-Up or Divorce workshop and went on to work with me individually in my Illumineering coaching program. Her husband had left her for another woman and she was alone with 2 small children. When I met her, she felt abandoned, scared, and very bad about herself, believing that her husband had left because she wasn’t attractive, interesting, and intelligent enough.

To uncover the roots of her low self-esteem, we examined the family system she grew up in and her childhood experiences. Growing up with an emotionally aloof, critical father and a passive, self-deprecating mother, Bridget recognized that her feelings of not being good enough had plagued her since she was a little girl. She spent her life seeking others’ approval by saying and doing what others wanted—a pattern she continued in her marriage.

Recognizing how she had unconsciously replicated the dynamics played out in her parents’ relationship in her own marriage dramatically shifted her perspective. She realized that her negative beliefs about herself were ones she had adopted growing up, and how she continually reinforced them by making others’ needs more important than her own and allowing others—including her husband—to treat her like a doormat. This realization helped her move out of the role of the helpless victim and take responsibility for her part in the marriage and its demise.

The next part of the work involved developing an action plan to reclaim what I call her “lost parts”—the parts of her that feel empowered, strong, intelligent, and good about herself. Bridget was a chronic “People Pleaser” who always said what she thought others expected, so she had no idea how to express her real thoughts and feelings to others. We spent 2 sessions on effective communication coaching to help her learn how to communicate in ways that would strengthen versus weaken her relationships with others.

Another way her feelings of unworthiness had affected her throughout her life was that she always felt ashamed of her body and physical appearance. She hid beneath baggy clothes, didn’t wear make up, and tried to diminish her height by slouching her shoulders. We focused on helping her celebrate her physical appearance versus trying to hide it. She bought clothes that no longer hid her body, she began to experiment with make up, and she took a six-week belly dancing class to experience having fun in her body and override old feelings of shame.

Another action step we devised to reclaim her self-worth was to ask her boss for a raise. For a long time, she felt undercompensated and undervalued at work but was too afraid to ask for more money. To prepare for her meeting with her boss, I had Bridget make a list of her contributions, including the revenue she had generated over the past year for the company. When she reviewed her list, she realized how much she had accomplished, strengthening her confidence to ask for—and receive—the raise.