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End of a relationship: the 5 stages of grief

What is love?

A philosopher would explain that it is the pursuit of the good of others without expecting anything in return. That you truly love when you go beyond instincts and drives.

A neuroscientist, on the other hand, would describe love to you in the pragmatic language of chemistry. Do you burn with passion? Something to do with phenylethylamine. Can't sleep? Dopamine. Can't do without your he or she? The attachment hormone is oxytocin.

A psychologist, finally, would define love as a feeling determined by the needs for affection, protection, sex. You fall in love with someone who can satisfy these natural needs of yours. Or of those you wish were able to do so....

But these perspectives, no doubt based on valid reasons, seem to capture only part of the essence of what we call love. Which remains, ultimately, a mystery.

A mystery that we practise from a young age. Remember when you first fell head over heels for someone? The fixed thought, the heartbeat that would take you if you found yourself next to them, the certainty that they were everything you would ever have wanted.

After all, we spend our entire existence searching for love, holding it when we reach it, suffering if we lose it.

If, despite yourself, you have just ended an important relationship, you know how painful an experience this is. In fact, in dealing with it you go through the same five stages of grief.

Stage 1: Denial.

Denial of the loss

Living as a couple you get used to making plans that always include the other, to imagining the future in two. A partner fills your life with his or her gestures and ways of expressing themselves that over time, at least a little, become yours.

But if the bond is broken, suddenly everything vanishes. Your world turns so upside down that, at first, you may not be able to take notice: certain realities are so intolerable that they must be denied.

Rejection is often the first reaction to the breaking of an emotional bond.

how to know if you are in this phase

Do you feel you are living in a bad dream? Do you think he or she is just going through a momentary crisis? That what he or she feels for you is not gone forever? Then you are in the denial phase. Other practical examples? Excessive alcohol consumption, casual sex, overwork, drug or psychotropic drug abuse, these are also behaviours that imply an attempt to remove the loss.

What if you get stuck in this phase?

Denial is a natural response to abandonment and serves to protect you from feelings that you might not otherwise be able to cope with. But if it becomes chronic it can immobilise you in a reality that exists, now, only in your mind. In pathological denial, you may even continue to demand your ex's closeness and fidelity, make scenes and feel jealousy as if the break-up had never happened: this is what, in extreme cases, happens to stalkers.

Stage 2: Bargaining.

The attempt to get your loved one back

Escaping from reality is not something you can do forever: the one you love is no longer with you, no longer makes you a part of his or her day, makes choices in which he or she does not include you. So, in the end, you are forced to 'bargain'.

If the previous phase was underpinned by rejection, the plea bargain is based on the hope that it is possible to get back the one who left you, to revive the past.

Although it is often destined to break against the solid wall of reality, plea bargaining is a step forward in grieving because, at least, it is a condition that no longer presupposes denial of the loss.

how to know if you are at this stage

Would you like to convince the other person that going back is the best option? Are you trying to make him/her jealous by frequenting certain places or people? Have you changed your look on purpose to rekindle his desire? Do you consult the Internet in search of the infallible strategy to win him back or a 'scientific' explanation of what happened? Then you are in the bargaining phase, which is made up of promises: 'If you come back, everything will change'. And of hopes: 'I know you still have feelings for me, I can feel it'.

what if you get stuck in this phase?

Finding out that he keeps an eye on your social profiles, that he has asked mutual friends about you; even a simple phone call to find out how you are: the desire to have him back may lead you to interpret his every gesture as a sign of repentance. But if his feelings have really changed, unfortunately, any step towards a return will prove to be, at best, ephemeral, if not illusory. Like denial, hope can also turn into a trap, holding you in eager anticipation of a future that will not come to pass. Already Plutarch, a philosopher of ancient Greece, argued that, just as one cannot eat a fish caught using poison, one should not trust someone conquered by means of tricks, because his feelings will prove ephemeral.

Stage 3: Anger. From hope to frustration

With admirable patience you wait for things to change and in the meantime, you weave the web. But the results do not come. Then, under the pressure of the obsessive need to know you ask for a confrontation, a chance to talk. You want definitive answers. But you find, on his part, the usual doubts, the same awkward excuses as last time, justifications uttered in half a voice. A substantial unwillingness to try again. And the anger, which you have been hatching for some time after all, wells up inside you.

The anger phase begins after the attempts at plea bargaining fail, when you lose hope that the abandonment is only momentary. Since every intention has proved futile, trust is replaced by anger. Which you vent on the ex, or on the possible third party responsible for the break-up. Or perhaps on you, blaming yourself for not having realised what was happening sooner, or for continuing to feel bad about it.

In spite of everything, compared to the break-up, anger is a further step forward: it is a sign that you have begun to understand the irreparability of the loss.

how to know if you are in this phase

Are your mind invaded by imaginary scenes in which you shout your reasons against the person who left you, coldly hit him with your truths, debunk him by listing his shortcomings? Are you planning to take revenge, for example by dating someone he knows just for the sake of getting back at him? "I wasted years with someone like you!"; "If I had known who you really are earlier, I wouldn't have made the mistake of falling in love!". Do you phone or write to him accusing him of the worst nefarious things, of lying to you, teasing you, betraying your trust and the hopes you placed in the relationship? If you are looking for a culprit or think you have found one, then you are in the anger phase.

What if you get stuck in this phase?

"If you can't get it back, learn to despise it, so you won't want it again". Anger is useful for grieving because it is a means of detaching oneself from the other, devaluing him or her. But if it turns into a chronic way of feeling and behaving, it can immobilise you in an eternal present in which all that matters is getting the better of the one who hurt you. A condition to be avoided, especially where there are children who, in the midst of tormenting separations, end up becoming weapons to hit the other parent.

Or in the case of those who act out anger physically. Many murders by men blinded by rage are committed at the very last meeting, after their umpteenth attempt at a plea bargain has failed.

Stage 4: Depression. Melancholy over the past, distrust of the future

Anger is invigorating: in anger, the yearning for revenge sustains you.

But anger is also a tiring emotion. So, as soon as the energy needed to refresh it fails you, you begin to feel despair.

In the 'depression' phase, for the first time, you face loss face to face. You no longer have any way to reject it or hold on to hopes of remedying it, nor do you have the strength to continue feeling resentment. You feel only deep sadness, a state that, as undesirable as it may seem to you, is actually the way out of grief.

How to know if you are in this stage

'I will never be able to fall in love again'; 'Why should I get to know someone? It would be pointless". If you feel that you can never recover from the beating you have received, then you are in the depression phase. "I did everything wrong," you may say to yourself, bitterly. It may be that you have also lost faith in the opposite sex, all the more so if you have discovered betrayal, lies, deception.

What if you get stuck in this phase?

Certain that you cannot return to being happy, you trap yourself in an idealised past that does not return and that, for this very reason, becomes a source of constant regret. Certain that you have lost everything and forever, you do not act to get back up, making, in fact, this belief a reality.

Stage 5: Acceptance. The story is over, life is not

In the face of great loss, it is not easy to retain the lucidity necessary to continue caring, to imagine tomorrow with a shred of hope.

But a bereavement is overcome precisely by acting in spite of apathy, one day at a time, while doubting that it is all in vain. By surrounding yourself with the affection of those around you, by allowing friends and family to help you. For example, by making an effort not to decline all their invitations. And staying as far away as possible from feelings of revenge and vain hopes of late returns.

Accepting an abandonment means taking note of it, in the knowledge that new happy experiences are possible. It does not necessarily exclude nostalgia, missing those you have lost, or the removal of the pain experienced.

You accept a loss when you can deal with the memory of those who left you without sinking into melancholy or seething with resentment. And when you start making plans again.

How long does a bereavement last?

If you are only now beginning to process the end of a love affair, be aware that a winding path awaits you: after weeks of apathy, renewed anger may visit you again. For no apparent reason, after a period of serenity, the old, unwanted sadness will assail you at certain times. Try, however, not to lose your way. Processing a loss is almost never a linear path but depends, to a large extent, on your actions.

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