The Gut-Wrenching Aftermath of Breakup

When an epic relationship ends, one of the most tormenting aspects of the loss is that you can think you’re ok, that you’ve weathered the storm. Then, seemingly out of the blue, you plunge right back into confusion, disgust, and fear, all over again. Chances are, the more tumultuous the relationship was while you were in it, the more tumultuous your response in the aftermath of breakup will be.

Why? Because when you’re in a tumultuous relationship, your brain is in a perpetual state of stimulation and intensity. This could mean that when the breakup occurred, you might have gone through periods of relief, even calmness, and then one day, as you’re going along, you are hit with a ton of bricks. The trigger might be something you’re aware of or maybe it just seems random. Post-breakup, your discomfort about the loss might start right away, or a year from now. Either way, when it comes, it won’t be denied.

You may not know what you feel from one minute to the next. You might feel like you are shriveling into nothingness, and then suddenly feel trapped in such rage and shame with no idea how to escape it. It can feel like if you don’t get away from yourself, you’ll explode. It is a toxic, unbalancing experience, which can evoke shame and isolation.

So how is it possible to feel like “nothing” and be on the verge of “exploding” at the same time? When those emotional and physiological reactions happen in close proximity to each other it’s a disorienting, daunting mess. When you were finding ways to survive in the relationship and fighting for your life and your identity, it can be so jarring that you don’t realize, until now, just how traumatized you were by being in the relationship in the first place.

By a “tumultuous” relationship, I mean one in which there was a lot of fighting, bickering, sniping at each other, baiting each other, bullying each other. Its tumultuousness could have also shown in its ability to be full of intensity, resentment, anxiety, jealousy, and yes, often intense passion. But in order to find any balance, you likely remained ready to do damage control much of the time, or were trying to calm yourself or your now ex-partner down. The relationship compelled a heightened state of activity, response, and stimulation in your brain because of the relationship.

Think about it: it’s incredibly disorienting to go from a state in which your neurons fired on all cylinders, to not having that stimulus anymore, as you’re left with that “waiting for the other shoe to drop” feeling. Your brain isn’t used to the decrease in stimulation that comes when you begin to disengage from your ex, and the fighting between you lessens. You’re not yet used to the relative calmness of being alone.

Even when the relationship has been over long enough to recognize you’re better off, you still might undergo periods where you fixate on things that happened in the relationship that upset you, because they continue to remain unresolved. The discomfort of being flung back into the clutches of a painful relationship you thought you had let go of and made peace with creates frustration, which can leak out all over the place, on all the wrong people in all the wrong ways when not monitored. You can feel so blindsided by getting “sucked in” again, that you can even feel out of control. But you’re not. Your feelings are normal!

The feelings you have about the relationship now can feel even more out of control when you were in the relationship. Why? Because in the relationship, those feelings had somewhere to be directed. Now, those feelings no longer have a place to go. And because you recognize that the relationship was more disturbing than healthy, you’re feeling and acting out your trauma, and you’re doing it in a way you couldn’t during the relationship. You couldn’t act out as chaotically as you felt – you were doing your best to manage the tumultuous of it.

Now that it’s over, and your brain is figuring out how to decrease all the stimulation it is used to, it can feel like things in your life that are actually familiar swirl around, bottomless, empty, unidentifiable. It’s painfully disorienting. It is continuing to feel unresolved that plunges you into this place of confusion, chaos, frustration, and anger.

Here’s the thing: You have no way of knowing where you are in the process, no marker to identify when you’ll come to the end of this horrendously disorienting period that feels like a regression. Why are you enraged at your ex 18 months later? Why now, and not before? Why are you hyperventilating while in suffocating agony at the loss now, when the loss in many ways seems long ago?

It’s hard to know what your triggers may be. Perhaps your ex is with someone new. Perhaps you’re with someone new. Or maybe it’s some unidentifiable reason that you feel this all-consuming, completely disorienting response that evokes such shame and destabilization.

Know that you’re not alone. This is an extremely common experience. The circumstances within the relationship, the feelings it evoked in you, and its breakup are not yet resolved for you. It’s ok that you’re not done grieving, that you’re not done processing the loss.

Your reactions, regardless of when you have them, are part of your process. That’s how to understand what you’re going through. Rather than feeling angry at yourself for falling backwards or “regressing”, try to feel compassion for the fact that the aspects of your trauma that are being triggered didn’t have a way of expressing themselves until now, so you’re getting them out.

Keep in mind that while allowing your process to unfold along its natural, normal path, be cautious to exercise caution when your plunge takes you into rage and the urge for destruction of self or other. When you are digging yourself into a hole and backing yourself into a corner because you are so angry at what remains unresolved, remember that even though your ex is the source of your rage, it’s still not up to your ex to make it better. Your ex is still unable to handle your rage, your anxiety, your frustration, your fear. You climbed in, and it’s only you who can get yourself out.

Whether you like it or not, this is your natural progression. Just do your best to take care of yourself without acting in destructive ways that dig deeper into your trauma. With time, it will pass. With self-knowledge and self-compassion you will eventually find an end to your confusion. The responsibility is in first recognizing the connection between your behavior now and giving yourself a break about where it came from. Identifying what is happening and why can help you feel more in control. The very act of recognizing the connection empowers you to get through this setback.

2 replies
  1. Tracey
    Tracey says:

    This is exactly what I needed to know, 2 years after the toxic relationship ended. I felt ashamed and confused. Thank you.


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