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The Waiting is the Hardest Part

When your relationship ends, where there once was a known, there is now an unknown. The void that loss creates can drive you to fill that space with reasons why it had to end – you’re trying to make the unknown, known. Having your relationship ripped away with nothing comparable to put in its place can leave you in such an uncomfortable space, a space that feels so intolerable, so distorted, so empty, so daunting, so disorganizing, so desperate, that it feels like you have no choice but to try to make sense of what’s happening. However, the void is so vast that there are no answers that will ever be enough to fill it. No matter how many distractions you throw yourself into, it still feels like you’re dragging around dead weight. When the outcome is not in your control, waiting for answers, waiting to feel better, or waiting to get back together can feel like life or death. You are waiting for resolution – a way of understanding or defining what is happening or has happened between you so you can feel relief.

In this void, time passes so slowly that you can become preoccupied and even inundate yourself with questions about how you’re going to get through this, and what’s going to happen to you now. You feel an urgency to know if there’s a way to reconnect with your ex. If not, how can you guarantee that you will feel better and love again? Unfortunately, like many aspects of life, there is no way to predict what will happen in the future. It is profoundly painful to accept that there are no answers in your immediate external world – nothing that can soothe you or fill that terribly anxious space within you about what’s going to happen.

The waiting is the hardest part. You’re waiting to feel better from what feels like unbearable angst.

First thing’s first. In reality is there are no answers that will assuage the incredible discomfort you are feeling. The only way to get through is to recognize that you can’t rely on answers from outside yourself – you can’t rely on external sources to make the pain better inside of you. Rather, knowing that you are in a period of incredible discomfort is inevitable when experiencing a loss. Instead of looking for ways out which don’t exist, work on trusting your pain and sadness are supposed to be there. Your feelings are your natural response to loss, therefore, they are part of your grieving process, which is only way to get through the pain.

There is no way around waiting, no way to get answers from any source that will fill the empty space of the unknown. But take comfort in knowing that having no way to fill the void of the unknown during this time is a part of the human condition. Working with the reality that you are in pain, whether or not you believe the breakup deserves the overwhelming angst that accompanies it – that’s reality. Accepting reality that you are in pain and that you must tolerate the unknown in order to feel better is what helps you get through.

I can hear the questions now: “How long will I be waiting? How long will it take to get over this?” The answer: “It as long as it takes.” No matter what you wish were true, you can only go one step at a time. The way that you can ease your anxiety of the unknown is by looking inside yourself and determining whether you feel better today than you did yesterday, or than you did 5 minutes ago. You can only know how you personally feel by comparing it to your personal feelings at other times. You can only be in your own skin having your own experiences, your own pain and your own understanding of your relationship. If not work on trusting that you will. Because trusting that the unknown remains unknown for a reason can help you let go of the expectation that you’re not supposed to feel like this.

Nobody said it better than Tom Petty: “The waiting is the hardest part.” But the answers you are waiting for do not exist outside yourself. Feeling better in the face of the unknown lies within you.

Why Trauma Resurfaces Just as You’re Feeling Better

After a period of devastation, loss, despair–a traumatic experience–as time passes, you may begin to feel better, safer in your own skin. You may even sense that you have grown stronger as the distance between where you are now and the painful experiences you have lived through continues to widen. During times when you feel okay, you may actually be able to allow yourself to relax into certain situations. You might even start to feel that your self-confidence is growing.

Suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, your brain carries you back to a time in your history that evokes great shame and feels painfully unresolved. The images that flash through your mind cause a visceral reaction. Inside, you now feel destabilized, which pollutes the positive experience you were just having.

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The 9 Stages of Grieving a Breakup No. 9: Hope

Here, I’m exploring the 9 Stages of Grieving a Breakup. I encourage you to start at the beginning of the series with the entry describing the first stage, Shock. In previous days, I have also written about the stages of  Denial, Desperate for Answers, External Bargaining, Internal Bargaining, Relapse, Initial Acceptance and Anger. Today we are exploring the final stage of grieving a breakup, Hope.

9. Hope

Hope or lack thereof about yourself, your relationship, and your future is a defining factor of your grieving process. Not only has your relationship been severed, but so has your access to hope about what could have been and what will be. When you lose access to hope, your first inclination is to try to salvage hope by funneling or redirecting it into reviving the relationship any way you can.

Why? Because being without hope is a profoundly desperate feeling. In fact, it is one of the most devastating feelings a human can experience. Hope is a life force, a basic survival need. In reality, the only time you literally lose all the hope in your reserves is when you give in to death. Otherwise, what you are losing is not hope itself, but your access to hopeful feelings. As long as you’re alive and breathing, it remains in your reserves whether you have access to it or not.

As you begin to accept that reconciliation it is not an option, you shift from the hope that the relationship can be saved, to the possibility that you just might be ok without it. For now, hope lies in small accomplishments, all of which lead toward greater hope that you will be okay and there will be new reasons to be hopeful in the future.

Remember that your progression through these stages won’t be linear. You won’t necessarily start with Shock and progress through the stages in order until reaching Hope. Hopefully you now have a better understanding of where you are in your process, which can feel comforting in its own right. And hopefully I have provided you with language and a way of understanding your experience so that you can communicate about it and feel less alone as you go through your grief.

9 Stages of Grieving a Breakup No. 7: Initial Acceptance

Here, I am exploring the 9 Stages of Grieving a Breakup. Please see posts on earlier stages Shock, Denial, Desperate for Answers, External Bargaining, Internal Bargaining and Relapse. Today we are exploring the seventh stage of grieving a breakup, Initial Acceptance.

7. Initial Acceptance

Initial acceptance happens repeatedly during your process of grief. It is a stage you are likely to visit again and again. Between the waves of agonizing rediscovery of your loss, you will experience moments of clarity. During those moments, you may be able or even willing to accept the inevitability of breakup, and will resolve to keep away from your ex to the best of your ability. You will find that you go in and out of having the to recognize that the relationship is no longer viable, and will have the self-control to hold onto that concept, at least briefly.

At these times, no matter how fleeting they are, you will make a conscious effort to exercise restraint when the urge to contact your ex descends on you. Over time, initial acceptance and the strategies you used to sustain it become more substantive and consistent. You will build on it, and continue to put boundaries in place that you make the breakup stick, because you know it has to, you don’t have a choice.

But for now, know that it’s okay when the moments of clarity and the realization that you’ll be okay are submerged more often than experienced. Your shift in perspective will come with time.

9 Stages of Grieving a Breakup No. 5: Internal Bargaining

For nine days, I am exploring the 9 Stages of Grieving a Breakup. Earlier in the week, I wrote about the first four stages, Shock, Denial, Desperate for Answers and External Bargaining. Today we are exploring the fifth stage of grieving a breakup, Internal Bargaining.

5. Internal Bargaining

There’s another insidious form that bargaining takes: the “if onlies”. In this stage, you replay moments, scenarios, decisions, actions and inactions that occurred within the relationship. You obsess about what you should have done differently to prevent the breakup.  If only you had picked him up at the airport that day; if only you didn’t complain about your job so much. Why didn’t you go on that camping trip? Why didn’t you tell her you loved her more often? If only you were a different person who did different things in a different way! You’re bargaining with your past self, hoping to alter how time has already unfolded. It’s a seductive loop to get stuck in, because what you imagine is so much less painful than what you have to face.

Maybe it’s true: maybe you could very well have changed the outcome by altering behaviors in your past. Meanwhile, back in real life, we have no idea if your theories are true. More importantly, the likelihood that you possess the ability to go back in time to redo stuff that went awry is pretty slim. If you actually had that power, there are probably many things you would go back and do differently. So would I.

The 9 Stages of Grieving a Breakup No. 3: Desperate for Answers

For nine days, I am exploring the 9 Stages of Grieving a Breakup. Earlier in the week, I wrote about the first two stages, Shock and Denial. Today we are exploring the third stage of grieving a breakup, being desperate for answers. Here we go.

3. Desperate For Answers

Once you start to get your mind around the reality of the loss, the intensity of your need to understand how, when, and why it happened, can become all-consuming. The need to know why can and often does come at the expense of rational and reasonable thoughts and behaviors. There are two conflicting drives occurring at the same time: the drive to understand why the breakup happened, and the drive to prove that there are better solutions than breaking up. Your urgency to understand your ex’s reasons is because you want to believe that by understanding them you can disprove them. The need to know why your ex ended the relationship extends well beyond anyone’s capacity to explain it to you, including your ex, because no reason is acceptable anyway.

Instead, you’ll look for ways to poke holes in the validity of their conviction that it’s over. Given the opportunity, you’ll fixate on why their reasons are invalid and why the relationship deserves another chance. The tension you feel to get to the bottom of this and “finally” know the “real” reason feels unbearable. So much so, that it can drive you to engage friends, family, coworkers, and strangers in relentless debate about why the relationship shouldn’t end, as if convincing them is the same as convincing your ex.

The reality is you’re not yet ready to understand. There are aspects of shock and denial infused into this stage as well because you’re still doing everything you can to avoid the reality of your loss.

The 9 Stages of Grieving a Breakup: No. 2 – Denial

Yesterday I wrote the first in a series of posts describing the stages of grief that many people experience after an epic breakup. Today I will describe the experience of denial. And in the coming days, we’ll look at seven more stages that I believe are helpful in orienting you to where you are in the grieving process.

2. Denial

Nope. It’s not possible. This did not happen. Your ex doesn’t mean it. He or she couldn’t. Life without your ex is too unfathomable, so you don’t believe it. You just cant. You’ve put everything into your relationship. It’s been your world, your identity. Every last vestige of hope is invested in the viability and durability of your relationship. This must be a stage, it’s temporary, you think. No matter how remote the possibility, you’re continuing to carry on as if you’re still in a viable relationship, because then it hasn’t ended. That’s you postponing your grief because you are not currently equipped to acknowledge that there is anything to grieve about. It’s your primal way of trying to keep yourself regulated. You can’t tolerate the loss and so you don’t.

Denial is complicated to pinpoint, however. Because it can be too scary to face your epic breakup, you may deny its end without even realizing that’s what you’re doing. There’s a critical distinction to be made between overloading, short-circuiting, and just being completely unable to fathom the loss, and knowing you can’t fathom it so intentionally protecting yourself from the reality of breakup.

When you are deliberately denying, that’s no longer denial, that’s avoidance. Avoidance is different. In this stage of shock after an epic breakup, shock is primal and right now there may not be anything you can do about it except exist with your feelings knowing that when you’re ready, a path forward does exist.