Handling the end of a relationship

Autumn comes in all relationships. People come and go. Learning to handle separations gracefully is an art. Photo by Greg Shield on Unsplash

Relationships don’t actually end.  They simply continue in our mind.  They were only ever there anyway.  In our mind is the only way we experience anything.

However, friendships and relationships, in a basic, practical sense, do break up, temporarily or permanently.  The reasons are endless: bereavement, offence, infidelity, the need for space, incompatibility, growth, the wish to move on, the imposition of defensive boundaries, the end of a current arrangement, or the beginning of a new arrangement.

How we handle the end of a relationship says a lot about us.  It says a lot about how we manage separations.  Some people become helpless, and wander about, unable to do anything.  For them, the object of separation was an object of dependence.  Other people become angry, and set about producing negative information about the object of separation.  For them, separation is a threat to the ego.

All separations are in some sense a bereavement.  We are confronted with the existential fact that things change – that no one whom we rely on is there for ever.  Like clouds in the sky, people come and people go.  We are grateful for the water they bring, but we know that the wind moves everyone in the end.

Separations can bring out the best, or the worst, in us.  We can become angry, bitter and isolated, as we seek to recalibrate ourselves to unfamiliar terrain without the help we used to have.  Or we can accept the change, still cherishing the memory, but ready to move on.

There is a possessive side of us that endings can bring out.  If we secretly aim to control others, then separation is the ultimate indignity.  ‘How dare they?’ we think.  ‘How dare they leave us to mop up our own problems, to be our own company?’  But other people are not ours to control, and we are best to adjust, and wish them well.

There will always be unexplained elements in any separation.  We are not the other person, and cannot know precisely what they have been through, and what their experience has been.  We therefore need to accept the uncertainty.

Equally, there is always something to learn from any separation.  If we liked the person, then we can celebrate their best character traits, and even seek to incorporate them in our own behaviour, in their honour.  If we fell out, then we can review our character and see if there is anything we can improve.

A word of warning: separations sometimes involve a lot of raw feelings and vulnerability.  After all, with the other person, we created a safe world.  Now we are thrown back into uncertainty.  We may be tempted to lash out, to become angry or defensive.

We may end up giving or receiving long justifications for one side, and long accusations towards the other side.  Sometimes we may behave like a lawyer in court, intent upon ‘proving’ our own innocence, and the other person’s guilt.  At other times we may behave like a martyr, collapsing in a mire of guilt and low self-esteem, and insisting that the other was the best thing that ever happened to us.

If we become unstable, then we may vacillate between accusation and guilt, sometimes damning the other, sometimes ourselves, depending on whether we feel defensive or vulnerable. To be more stable, it is best to accept that there are no saints or sinners, just two people who are not together. If we can learn to appreciate, and wish well, someone we used to be with, then we have learned a great deal of tolerance. We will spend less time arguing in the invisible court of our daydreams, and will have more time for the future.

Here are six tips for handling separations:

  1. Don’t be helpless – get doing something active
  2. Don’t hate the other or yourself – it’s a waste of time
  3. Accept that everything changes
  4. Don’t try to control the other
  5. Accept that not everything has an explanation
  6. Celebrate the best of what the other person brought