Divorce — 04 July 2009
How To deal with grief when a partner leaves

Individuals who have been left by a partner often describe severe emotional and physical pain. Learning to cope with this grief is a daunting, but doable task.

Grief is the emotional and physiological reaction to an involuntary detachment from a loved one. Attachment to a partner feels very rewarding as it provides emotional security, safety, continuity, belonging, being valued and loved. Conversely, detachment from a lover catapults one into the opposite emotions of: insecurity, aloneness, vulnerability, rejection, self-doubt and lovability concerns. The abandoned individual usually struggles with additional emotions such as: guilt, anger, helplessness, self-blame, regret, fear and even panic. The unilateral decision of the mate to leave renders the left party bewildered and disempowered.
In “Ambiguous Loss: Learning to Live with Unresolved Grief”, Pauline Boss states: “ The last and most difficult step in resolving any loss is to make sense of it. In the case of ambiguous loss, gaining meaning is even more difficult than in an ordinary loss, because the grief itself remains unresolved. But if we cannot make sense out of ambiguity, nothing really changes. We merely endure.”

After a relationship break up the grieving mate may engage in regret, self-reprimand and blame. When the option of repair is no longer available, one is often confronted with his/her part in the failure of relating. It feels unfair and even cruel to have new insights with no opportunity for a “re-do”.
Psychologist Martin Seligman, who specializes in understanding happiness, points out that optimists use a more functional approach to unexplainable loss by attributing it to bad luck or misfortune, rather than resorting to self- blame. He also maintains that optimists are not thwarted by defeat. Instead they define it as a challenge and try harder.
In addition to the acute loss of connection, companionship and love of the mate, the grieving partner struggles with the loss of his/her visualized future life plan. The previous images of one’s life expectations are suddenly replaced with a blank screen. A script-less scenario of the future is frightening. Regret and sorrow about “what could have been” in the past and “what might happen in the future” are now drowned by tears.

Elizabeth D. Muller and Charles L. Thompson studied factors influencing the grieving process by interviewing subjects who lost their partners to death. In “The experience of grief after bereavement: a phenomenological study with implications for mental health counseling”, they report, “participants acknowledged that they were only able to feel better after having made behavioral changes in their lives. Such examples included activities that helped them to make adjustments in their daily routines as they worked to restore a sense of equilibrium to their lives.” The principle of restructuring one’s life as a necessary step of easing the loss is recommended to others who face relationship grief.

• Understand that grief is a response to involuntary detachment from a loved one. Though painful – it is a necessary part of regaining emotional balance.
• Accept that the quest to understand, reverse, redo and have more power about the relationship break up is a natural attempt to get clarity and find new meaning to ease the ambiguous loss.
• Realize that though you may not understand all the circumstances and reasons for the break up you are wise to not internalize blame or accuse others as means of achieving clarity.
• Take charge and recreate a new reality, purpose and focus in your life. Trust that you have learned many lessons, grown through your search for understanding and are now free to restructure a purposeful and healthier life for yourself.
• Adopt the optimistic view that this life hardship is a challenge you can recover from and rebuild the happier life you deserve.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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