Divorce — 29 October 2006
Recovering from being abruptly left by a partner

Divorce, the outcome of lost connection and hope for change, is a devastating experience for many couples. Commonly, it is preceded by known unhappiness and long discussions at resolving the painful state. Less commonly, there are individuals for whom the parting comes as a complete surprise that compounds their suffering and loss.

In healthy relationships, devoid of abuse, being startled by the firm announcement of a partner’s leaving, without a prior discussion of unhappiness or a need for change, is a horrifying reality. The surprise irrevocable decision leaves the individual unprepared, stunned and thwarted from any further dialogue.

Not having any idea about a mate’s despair about the relationship, calls one to question his/her level of awareness: “How could I have been so blind not to see my partner’s long term misery?” “How could I have been contented with a relationship gone sour?” “What could have been so bad that my partner could not have shared it with me earlier?” The answerless bewilderment is tormenting.

As one questions the process that led to the separation one also ponders about his/her self- worth. The sudden abandonment calls to question the value of the left mate and his/her role in the breakup. The associated fears are that perhaps the partner’s assessment is correct that the left individual is simply not a worthy mate or being.

The left partner is also abruptly blocked from giving or receiving love. For many it produces anxiety about their inherent desirability and lovability or their capacity for loving.

Understanding any experience is usually the first step in the healthy processing of feelings. To understand an interpersonal event we need to be able to listen, talk, question, clarify and respond to the other party. In the absence of this process, the road to healing is most circuitous.

The grief process usually takes the individual through the five phases of adjusting to a loss, as originally described by Dr. Kubler-Ross. It starts with denial followed by anger, bargaining, depression and eventually by acceptance. This process is dramatically delayed for those living with no answers and no opportunity to gain clarity. Not uncommonly, surprised mates experience a long state of bewilderment, confusion and pain that seems unremitting.

For some, the shock of the deep loss, the esteem wounding and loss of love is so severe that they develop a deep situational depression compounded by intense self-loathing.

Others, regrettably label themselves unfit to commit again and deprive themselves of future opportunities to find love again. Yet others feel so victimized that they stay chronically angry with the mate or even with the abandoning partner’s whole gender and also remain uncoupled for life.

Another common reaction to being abandoned without warning is the creation of tender vulnerability that is not supported by healthy judgment. These individuals feel so doubtful about their desirability that they may respond positively to anyone who pays any attention to them. When extreme neediness interferes with good reasoning, some people become temporarily promiscuous for the validation they crave. Others may quickly settle for a less than suitable yet willing mate to secure a commitment that reaffirms their worthiness.

If you were abruptly left by your partner, please consider:

  • Your partner’s leaving without discussion or preparation is a cowardly and indecent behavior. He or she had planned it for a long time and was either not strong enough or motivated enough to undertake the process of change, or was already engaged in another relationship.
  • Your search for answers and feelings of confusion and bewilderment are a normal response to a shocking declaration that irrevocably changes your life.
  • The relationship failure is not exclusively yours, as evidenced in part by your mate’s exiting style.
  • Being left, as painful as it is, is no reflection on your worth, capacity for giving or receiving love or being a desirable person and mate- it only temporarily feels this way.
  • Give yourself some extra time to process your loss. Allow enough time to get to and experience the five stages of grief before you consider another relationship.
  • As tempting as it may be to respond to offered attention – keep your actions in line with your values, prior sense of self-worth and your healthy judgment. If you are not sure, check with loving family and friends.
  • Time and the love of friends and family will help you restore your self-worth and find the worthy partner 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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