Coping With Relationship Breakdowns

The breakdown of a relationship can be devastating. Unfortunately, it is an experience that most people go through at some point. And any therapist will tell you that the pain involved can be horrific.

Understanding the Pain

The emotional turmoil involved in relationship breakdowns is often poorly understood. Most assume that people feel bad because they were in love with the other person and now miss them. Of course, this may be true. But there are often other, deeper reasons.

First, there is a sense of failure. You may wonder what you did wrong, tormenting yourself with the thought of your faults (real or imaginary). You have been rejected and humiliated. No one knows you better than your partner, which makes it all so much worse: they have taken a long, close look and decided they do not like what they see.

Perhaps the deepest and most fundamental emotion of all, however, is simple fear. This is especially true when relationships break down in mid or later life and people suddenly find themselves alone. But what really disturbs people is the reminder that no human relationship is permanent – that at any moment the person you are closest to, the one you hope will stand by you should you become frightened or ill, can leave.

In his autobiography, the British philosopher Bertrand Russell provides an excellent description of such fear. He writes that throughout his life he had been driven by the search for love because it “relieves that terrible loneliness in which one shivering consciousness looks over the rim of the world into the cold, lifeless abyss.” Russell’s point is that love and intimacy free you from your narrow, isolated little ego. You are part of a larger unit and feel stronger and safer for it. When this unit breaks apart, people begin to doubt that any relationship is meant to last.

Learning to Love Yourself

Many people simply expect too much from their relationships. Never again, they think, will I be scared or alone. Their new partner will make up for all the years of isolation and self-doubt, bringing them the happiness, fulfilment, and self-esteem they have always craved. But no single human being, no matter how wonderful they may be, is going to fulfil you in every way.

When relationships end, especially ones that endured a long time, people often feel as if they are emerging back into the light. Whether the relationship was happy or miserable, they must now learn to be on their own once again. And you can choose how to approach this fact. Initially, many feel tremendous fear, then, to their surprise, often cope a great deal better than they expected. This is particularly true of women who leave domineering husbands after long and miserable marriages. Suddenly, they must earn all the money, pay all the bills, and make all the decisions. Once they have adjusted, however, many find this new independence exhilarating.

Remembering the Bad Times

Unfortunately, people who have been through a painful breakup often become their own worst enemies. They forget their partner’s faults and the bad times they went through and convince themselves that they have lost something precious and irreplaceable. Be wary of mawkish nonsense about “soulmates”. You were not destined to be with your ex. Of course love is a beautiful and precious thing, but the idea that of all the human beings on the planet only one could inspire your love is absurd.

Begin with your partner’s faults. It may help to actually write them down. Take a sheet of paper and put ‘irritating habits’ at the top. Underneath, list every unpleasant habit you can remember, from leaving dirty socks on the floor to hogging the remote control. Next, list the personality traits you most disliked. Be ruthless. Maybe he or she was loyal and supportive, but were they also a little dull and unadventurous? Could they be selfish and cowardly? Were they weak? Maybe they had no sense of humor.

Recognizing such faults can be difficult. During relationships, most people make a superhuman effort to overlook the things they dislike. In part this is because they know that if they did acknowledge such faults it would be like opening a floodgate. You could try asking friends and family what they disliked about your ex. During the relationship itself they may have bitten their tongue. Ask them to be frank and you may be shocked by their reply!

Finally, take another sheet of paper and write down every bad incident you can think of. Try and recall those moments in the relationship when you felt lonely, depressed, or humiliated. Maybe he was callous and selfish when your father died. Or maybe you once took the trip of a lifetime to London, Paris, or Rome and he did nothing but moan about the prices. Do everything you can to jog your memory. You could try re-reading old diaries, for example, or scrolling back through old photos. These may trigger the repressed memory of some awful day trip or meal that left you fighting back the tears.


In his book A Grief Observed, C. S. Lewis recorded the storm of emotions following his wife’s death. At one point, he writes with astonishment that “no one ever told me grief felt so much like fear.” And this is an important point because the emotions involved in a relationship breakdown are very similar to grief. In both cases people feel lonely and frightened. And both need to reconnect with others as soon as possible.

One of the best ways of doing this is by volunteering to work with those in distress – the homeless, the elderly, the sick etc. Try this and you may be surprised by the results. People who are suffering, and those who are trying to help them, have no time for silly games. Pain creates a sort of immediate, raw intimacy.

Make no mistake, coping with a relationship breakdown is tough. Not only is there the dreadful emotional fallout, you must also put up with endless questions from friends and family and, on top of all that, cope with practical matters like money, mortgages, and access to the children. But the experience is common. Every day marriages and relationships end, yet people find a way through – and so will you.

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Mark Goddard, Ph.D.

Mark Goddard, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist and a consultant specializing in the social-personality psychology. His publications include magazine chapters, articles and self-improvement books on CBT for anxiety, stress and depression. In his spare time, he enjoys reading about political and social history.

*The views expressed by Mr. Goddard in this column are his own, are not made in any official capacity, and do not represent the opinions of his employers.

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