By Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD
Saying good-bye can be heart-wrenching – whether your separation is temporary or a permanent ending. The reason for this is that people are wired to reach out to – and hold onto – the person they love. Any separation, of course, goes against this desire. As you struggle with the possibility of separation or an actual separation, it can be very helpful to understand that there is a natural, predictable sequence of three reactions:
Protest: While saying good-bye, people often try to also hold onto their partner. They might hug, kiss, and resist parting. If your partner is breaking up with you, you might protest against this by not letting go. For instance, you might desperately try to re-connect by repeatedly calling or texting or “accidentally running into” him or her or even starting fights to engage him or her. If you pay attention to how you’re feeling, you’ll realize that you are doing all this with the hope of remaining connected.
Despair: If your partner still leaves or remains intent on ending the relationship (or you realize that you still need to leave), you will probably feel despair and give up trying to re-connect.
Often, people go from protest and hope to despair and back again to protest and hope. Eventually, though, they finally give up and detach.
Detachment: Detachment is when you give up hope and defensively turn away from your partner (or former partner). Even if your partner returns, you will remain emotionally distant.
Not only is this whole process painful, but it can also be difficult to know the best way to handle your situation. Sometimes it’s best to hold on while your partner takes time to figure out how they feel or while they need to physically go away for a while (e.g. for schooling, or for their job). In these situations, it is best to keep your communication open and very active. Talk about how you are feeling and what your needs are.
At other times, people feel despair because their relationship is unhealthy and cannot meet their need for a reliable emotional connection. For instance, their partner has issues with commitment that they are not working to resolve, or their partner is emotionally abusive, or both. At these times, it is best to nurture yourself through despair, resist renewing hope, and encourage yourself to detach. It takes a lot of effort to do this, but you can help yourself by engaging in other fulfilling relationships and in meaningful or enjoyable activities.
It’s important to remember that the pain of separation only means that it hurts – not that you need to fix things by hanging on. As you decide how to proceed, pay attention to your situation as well as your feelings. If you think it’s healthier to let go, it can help to know that the hurt you feel will eventually subside, especially if you help yourself to heal.
If you would like to join a general discussion about this topic on the Relationships and Coping Community, click here.