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The end of a relationship: how to overcome it

An interesting study conducted by Professor Edward Smith of Columbia University (Kross et al., 2011) showed that grief at the end of a relationship stimulates the same brain areas deputed to the perception of physical pain. Therefore, such an event can generate intense psycho-physical suffering.

The reason for this intensity is probably rooted in the evolution of the human species. Human beings are biologically and psychologically predisposed to build and maintain emotional bonds. Whenever a relationship ends, the consequence is a certain degree of suffering, the intensity of which varies depending on involvement, duration and awareness of the relationship.


End of a love. Why do relationships end?

In Western societies, the reasons why romantic relationships end are numerous. According to research conducted in 2005 (National Fatherhood Initiative, 2005), the most common reasons can be grouped into a few categories:

Lack of commitment to the relationship on the part of a partner

Progressive disagreement in the partners' vision of the future and frequent conflicts

Decreased physical attractiveness between partners

Infidelity

Dependency problems

Communication difficulties

Economic motivations and disagreement over money management

Abusive situations


Although reactions to the end of a romance and the end of a love affair may appear similar, it is important to emphasise how each person reacts in a unique way. Different motivations affect the process differently. A relationship that ends for economic reasons will result in a radically different experience from a relationship that ends as a result of family abuse.

Despite these differences, it is possible to trace some key elements that seem to unite the reactions following the end of the relationship.

What happens when a love affair ends?

When a relationship ends, especially unexpectedly, the person has an initial reaction called shock. Typical feelings are dejection, anxiety, anger and loss of motivation.

Sometimes, given the deep pain experienced, the mind uses a preservation strategy called denial. The person experiences a kind of emptiness and emotional numbing that detaches them from the event. He oscillates between moments of deep suffering and moments in which he acts 'as if' nothing had happened.

The purpose of this strategy, which is often automatic, is to keep the person functioning and operational despite the suffering experienced. This phenomenon, depending on the level of suffering, can generate dissociative and depersonalisation phenomena. These are often transitory and tend to disappear with time.

As days go by, the effectiveness of denial in limiting pain diminishes and feelings of anxiety, sadness and anger emerge more and more clearly; often accompanied by intrusive memories and images of the ex-partner.

Another common experience is the person's difficulty in taking their mind off the relationship that has just ended. Thoughts return repetitively and seemingly uncontrollably to the ex-partner. The mind recursively seeks an explanation in order to solve what it considers a 'problem': the end of the relationship.


Do not avoid the pain of the end of a love affair

The end of a relationship inevitably involves a certain degree of pain. Human beings (like all animal species) try to avoid suffering. As natural as it may be, the effort to avoid suffering at all costs can prove to be a double-edged sword. Indeed, scientific research (Capobianco et al., 2018) has shown that in the attempt to eliminate suffering, the mind actively seeks a solution.

The problem arises when a solution to suffering does not exist, as in the case of the end of a relationship (the processing of which is a slow and gradual process). In these cases, in fact, the mind operates in two ways: the first is to use a form of recursive thinking aimed at reducing suffering. The other is to avoid situations related to the ex-partner and implement behaviours such as food and alcohol intake, physical activity or substance use with the aim of reducing the physical sensations of suffering.

What the person is not aware of, however, is that perpetuating (experiential) avoidance not only does not solve the problem, but also exposes them to waves of pain should these activities fail. In this sense, it is helpful that at the end of a relationship the person is able to adopt an attitude of compassion towards him/herself. Remembering that the first months are the most difficult because of the inevitable moments of discouragement, fear and confusion.

This perspective favours recovery and lays the groundwork for processing the event.

To this end, there are many useful strategies for 'navigating' difficult moments during the shock phase. Some people benefit from grounding techniques (using physical sensations to help the mind find balance). Others use mindfulness meditation exercises (developing a non-judgmental attitude towards one's inner experiences). Still others find it effective to write down what they think and feel during difficult times (writing helps to distance oneself from one's thoughts and promotes awareness that they are, in fact, thoughts).


Interrupting rumination and brooding over the end of the relationship

As mentioned, the mind tends to use a 'hands-on' approach to psychological and relational difficulties. Therefore, at the end of a relationship, the tendency is to examine memories and events of the past. This is either to identify what did not work (rumination) or to project into the future in search of solutions (brooding).

Neither strategy is inherently wrong. The problem emerges when these strategies become involuntary, automatic and recursive; in other words, when they lose their ability to lead to action and become structured in vicious circles that exacerbate suffering (Onayli et al., 2016).

In this sense, the mind gets carried away, not realising that the only thing that would help is to acknowledge that the relationship has ended.

A key step is, therefore, to become aware of the moment when one is caught up in these vicious circles. At that point, it may be helpful to stop focusing on those thoughts and decide to devote a specific and limited amount of time to rumination/remorse at another time of the day.

For example, saying to oneself: 'I will think about what went wrong in the relationship this afternoon from 18:00 to 18:15, now I will concentrate on what I am doing'. Initially, thoughts will return outside of one's will and present themselves as intrusive thoughts or images, however, with training the mind will become more and more capable of interrupting and managing the tendency to ruminate and brood.


Avoidance of contact

One of the most difficult behaviours to implement at the end of a relationship is to avoid contact with the ex-partner. As obvious as it may seem, it is a very difficult step to take. Frequently, the state of suffering leads the human mind to believe that it will end by having contact with the ex-partner.

In reality, following these contacts, there is a worsening of the emotional state and a worsening of mood.

If in the short term, contact with the ex-partner produces momentary relief from suffering, what the mind does not realise is that in the long term, each contact reinforces the emergence of intrusive thoughts, rumination and brooding.

We could say that what the person really misses in the most difficult moments is not so much the ex-partner as the feelings experienced within the relationship. For example, a sense of security, warmth or affection.

However, if a relationship comes to an end, it is likely that these elements were absent long before the relationship officially ended.

On the contrary, resisting the impulse to contact the ex-partner makes the person stronger and more capable of autonomy each time.

When it is possible...

Clearly there are situations in which not having contact with the ex-partner is impossible, for example when there are children present or when the same work space is shared. In these cases it is better to keep the relationship at a level of mere exchange of information without giving in to the temptation to address (again) the reasons that led to the end of the relationship.

The same applies to the use of social networks. Today, it is very difficult not to have involuntary contact with the ex-partner as social network algorithms favour the maintenance of relationships that are considered more intimate. This is why, at the end of a relationship, much attention must be paid to the management of social networks by learning to discriminate actions that have a negative impact on mood in the long term.

Taking care of oneself

The end of a relationship is an event that subjects the mind and body to an intense degree of stress. In itself, the stress response is not harmful to the organism, but rather allows it to mobilise the energy needed to cope with the situation.

The problem arises if this stress response persists over time and does not tend to subside. It is important to provide one's body and mind with moments and activities that can deactivate, even momentarily, the stress response.


Processing the end of the relationship

The end of a relationship is an event that profoundly alters a person's life, expectations, securities and dreams are lost. What has been said so far has focused on the management of the acute phase following the end of the relationship, but it would be reductive and simplistic to limit recovery to these aspects.

The end of a relationship necessitates a reshaping of one's entire life and, therefore, the term processing is used. This term identifies the process that leads the person to integrate the new aspects of his or her life with what remains of the past, both on a practical and psychological level.

Usually this process occurs naturally and automatically, but sometimes it gets stuck and does not allow the person to build the life they want.

In these cases, elements of the past, even the distant past, and beliefs about relationships are likely to impede processing. A therapeutic process can facilitate the unblocking of the situation and, by understanding the internal and external dynamics that block the process, support the person in building a new and fulfilling love life.

Among the various therapeutic approaches available, recent developments in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy focused on attachment experiences and the analysis of relational dynamics, make it possible to deal with the end of a relationship and find practical strategies for overcoming suffering.


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