Katelynn shared during the introduction to one of my classes that she had been struggling to cope emotionally after a recent breakup. I asked her if she could tell us what brought about the dissolution of the relationship. She told us that significant differences in their needs and values were generating a lot of conflict. Her former partner left on short notice when he was offered a job in California. I asked Katelynn if she was making any effort to keep in touch with him. Katelynn told me that she found it too painful to keep in touch and so she stopped returning his calls.
I had Katelynn close her eyes, begin to breathe softly and deeply and bring her former partner to the forefront of her awareness and then tell us how she was feeling. Katelynn said that she was feeling mildly depressed, isolated and numb. Katelynn later shared that she was missing her former partner and that she was experiencing a profound sense of emptiness combined with feelings of sadness and anger. She said that the whole experience left her wondering what she had done wrong.
Katelynn told me that the pain and pressure that she was experiencing within her body let up as she continued to work with the practice of breathing into the feelings and sensations. After some time she began to experience a greater sense of peace, calmness and ease.
The wound that never fully heals
The loss of a love can be especially devastating. The painful emotions that arise while we're in the midst of a breakup can leave us feeling overwhelmed. The intensity of the feelings gradually diminish over time, but that doesn't mean we have thoroughly processed our losses.
The vast majority of us have never learned to work constructively with our feelings. And many of us never fully process these losses. Much of the grief, hurt, sadness and disappointment remains trapped within our bodies. The painful feelings that arise in response to the losses that we experience over the course of our lives form layers of armor as they accumulate within our bodies. In many instances we end up building walls around ourselves. Someone who is well matched for us may come along at some point, but our fears and suspicions create barriers that prevent us from trusting or letting anyone in. The deadening resulting from our leftover emotional baggage also prevents us from being as fully present.
Breakups can be especially complicated. We develop a strong attachment for the person that had been a part of our life and there are qualities about them that we truly love. We often experience a painful sense of longing after the breakup for what is no longer. There are also circumstances that get in the way and aspects of us and our partners that that made one of or both of us feel that the relationship was unworkable.
Letting go can be that much more difficult for those of us who haven't learned to process our feelings. The parts of us that are not processing emotionally cannot let go because they are still living in the past. We do tremendous damage by tearing ourselves apart in the process of separating from our partners.
Deliberately hurtful or just being true to themselves
We all say or do things at times that are hurtful to others. Partners that are especially abusive can leave us with deep emotional wounds. It's important for us to know abuse when it's happening and to sever all ties with those who have an inclination to inflict verbal, emotional or physical harm upon us. We also need to distance, if not sever ties with former partners that are toxic. That can be hard to do in some instances, especially if there are children involved.
We sometimes feel hurt when our partner's feelings and needs do not reciprocate our own. But that doesn't mean they are intentionally doing anything to hurt us. They may just be being true to themselves by doing whatever it is that they need to be doing at this point in their lives. In some instances they may be misguided, confused and making all kinds of mistakes. And yet we need to be able to let go and allow them to live the lives of their own choosing even if that doesn't involve us to the extent we want it to.
The only constant is change
Every now and then someone comes into our lives with whom we share a special bond. We may only know these individuals for a short time or they may remain an active part of our lives for many years to come. Our feelings and needs change over time and so do those of our partners. Differences in values, needs and expectations can create incompatibility. Sometimes the people that we have invested in can no longer live up to the promises they have made or meet our expectations. But that change doesn't necessarily mean that these individuals are no longer an important part of our lives or that we have to completely sever the bond. Doing so can be very damaging to everyone involved.
Change is the only constant. Everyone and everything we know and love is in a continual state of transition. We often experience feelings of hurt, loss, sadness, disappointment and anger when we, our partners and our relationships change. Breathing softly and deeply while fully immersing our awareness in the midst of these feelings helps us to reconcile conflicting feelings and expectations so that we can allow the people in our lives to be who they need to be and our relationships to evolve. Maintaining our connections to the people that have played an important part of our lives as we and they change is an important part of our healing and personal growth.
The feelings that arise when a relationship with someone that we once shared a romantic connection begins to go through a transition can be very uncomfortable. We may feel hurt and angry, but at some level we still love this person. And if they ever experienced feelings of love for us then they probably still do. We're still relating to this person with whom we share a connection and yet the relationship is not what it used to be. It can be an awkward adjustment when we're still interacting with the same person and yet we're no longer physically intimate. We often feel anxious that our former partners will start seeing someone else and it often hurts when they do. It takes some time to adapt to new sets of boundaries, ways of relating to one another and the continuing changes that take place.
Attachment and Loss
Liz was six to eight weeks out of the relationship when she first came to my class. The remainder of this chapter is taken from a series of conversations we’ve had over the past few months.
Liz: At the time came to your class I was in this crazy place where my whole life was changing. Everything that I was most terrified of was happening. I thought I was searching for a partner and going into romantic relationships in a mature way. I was looking for support so I didn't have to go through life alone. Having to do it all for myself was terrifying because for much of my life I felt that I couldn't always rely upon or trust my parents.
Don and I met when I reached out to him on Ok Cupid. I noticed on his profile that he had also traveled to India. We chatted a bit, talking about our experiences in India. Don told me that he had just moved to New Hampshire and that he was teaching himself to cross country ski. We agreed to meet to go cross country skiing for our first date. I started spending a lot of time at Don's condo and after six to eight months he bought a house and I moved in, believing that this was a serious relationship.
I invested so fully and quickly in Don and our relationship once I sensed that he was really interested. We got together four years ago and I never adjusted that image. I was in it for the long haul no matter what. I really stuck with it all the way through despite the fact that a lot of changes were occurring during our final year together. On some level I knew intuitively what was about to happen and that scared the shit out of me.
Don started pulling away from me in September and then we broke up in May. He became more invested in other things, but I didn't adjust my level of commitment to the relationship or my dependence on him. So when Don broke off the relationship in May, it felt like my entire support system was gone.
I couldn't extract my grief from the terror I felt over what was going to happen to me. I was angry with Don. I was having so much difficulty concentrating and my energy was really diffuse. I was desperate to have something move at the point when I came to see you.
I finally got all of my stuff out of Don's place and moved to an apartment. Don was focused on selling his house. Finding new homes for the dogs was really traumatic for both of us. I felt the trauma of it too because one of the dogs was mine, but I had no control in the situation because at the time I didn’t have enough money to take them. There wasn't much communication between us during that time. I don't think we spoke for three to four weeks. I was feeling this big empty hole and felt like I was operating as half a person.
Tour de France
I was doing a lot of biking, working with a physical therapist to address some of the structural issues pertaining to my body over the summer and then I started working with you. I had three weeks of vacation time at the end of summer before starting my new job. I wasn't sure how to fill that time so I was asking all of my friends and trying to come up with ideas. I was thinking of going camping in Maine or taking a road trip to another city, but no one was biting.
Don was leaving in August to go and travel for the next two years. He had been planning to tour Europe by bike for three months and he said to me “Why don't you just meet me over there. We'll do the bike trip and you can spend your three weeks touring with me.”
I wasn't sure if spending my three weeks on a bike tour with my ex-boyfriend was a good idea, but I remember talking with you about it. Everyone else thought that was crazy. And they were asking me “Why would you go on this international bike trip with an ex-boyfriend that had recently broken up with you?” You had said that it would probably help me to work through the loss. I had a feeling that everything was going to be okay and it felt like it was a trip that I wanted to do, so I went ahead and did it.
I did have a contingency plan. I made a concerted effort to plan things so that if it was really horrible and felt awful that I had all the equipment with me to keep doing the bike trip by myself. I would have done the exact same trip on my own, about a day’s worth of biking behind him, because he's a much faster rider than me.
Lovers to friends
The trip was awkward at first. There was a learning curve on what it was going to be like because we were so freshly broken up. We had all kinds of logistical details to deal with from the time we started the trip. Don was really trying to not be such an asshole in the ways that he traditionally was. We had to get the bikes on the train one evening to get to the ocean. I was trying to find something I could eat on the train that wouldn't aggravate my food allergies. I got back close to the time the train was leaving and I could see that Don was clearly frustrated and then he snapped at me.
I went right back into my old pattern of feeling awful but not saying anything about it. I was thinking “This sucks and it's not any fun.” But then he apologized saying “I'm sorry. That whole situation was dumb. I shouldn't have been mad at you.” I could see that he was clearly making an effort.
Then something else happened within a couple of days. I was feeling weepy, sad and lonely. We were staying in this international hostel. All I wanted was to have my pain be seen and acknowledged and maybe have a hug. We were in this room with bunks and I was curled up on a bed crying. Don washed up and then went downstairs to work on his travel blog. I stopped crying after a while, cleaned myself up and went down to work on the blog with him. While we were sitting there alone in this lounge I let him know that I was having a hard time and that I felt bothered by the fact that he acted like I wasn’t even in the room and then left. I didn’t like it that he was ignoring me and that it was making things worse. I told him that I was feeling alone, unseen and that he didn’t care if I was upset.
Don then acknowledged what I was feeling saying “I’m sorry that I just walked out on you. You must have felt so awful when I just walked around you like you weren’t there and then left. I was just trying to give you some space because I didn’t know what to do. I thought that I was doing what I would have wanted, which would have been to be left alone. But that’s not what you wanted at the time and it actually made you feel worse.”
Don then asked me “Well, if it happens again, what should I do?” I responded by saying “Why don’t you give me a hug?” Don said that he wasn’t sure if that would be okay. I felt comforted by the fact that Don actually listened and then relayed back not only what I said, but insight based on it. He was clearly paying attention and putting two and two together. I felt during that conversation that he really understood me very well. He gave me a hug and I felt seen and acknowledged. For once he totally got it.
There were a number of days when I had bad moments. One day I was crying and biking for a full hour. I probably biked ten miles crying. I had my sunglasses on so people couldn't tell I was crying. I said to myself “I'm going to keep going.” And so we did.
On a trip like that you really do have to depend on each other. We had to work as a team. In some ways our dynamic was very similar. We were still the same people, but in other ways it had changed. One of the really nice things that happened is that I was able to separate all the pain I had of being alone and losing the support and being afraid of the future and being angry at him for breaking a promise and not supporting me. There was a separate grief, which was really important for me to get to. The trip gave me the opportunity to gain access to that grief. It made me clearer on the fact that I do love this person and I don't want to not talk to him. I don't want him to be gone. I don't want someone else to be having these conversations with him.
It took me several months for me to realize those were separate sets of feelings. On the one hand I'm feeling “Shit! What am I going to do? How dare you break your promise?” On the other I'm thinking “I really did love you and I wasn't just using you for your support.”
I'm happy that we were able to spend the time together and that we're still in touch. Don is off touring Europe now so we communicate via G-chat and talk on the phone occasionally. I don't know when he will be in the Northeast again.
A huge percentage of my free time was devoted to Don and the life we shared together. After living together in Don's house for a year I moved down to Boston to go to law school and he stayed in New Hampshire. For three years we talked on the phone every night. And then on the weekends I would either travel back up to New Hampshire to see Don or he would come down to Boston to see me.
Before I would go into the weekend thinking to myself “I'll see Don then we'll decide what we're going to do together.” That's all gone now. What I find really disturbing is the feeling of having to get used to doing everything on my own. It’s like “What am I going to do? I have to go find my own friends and make my own plans.”
I feel like I'm becoming more emotionally independent. I'm getting used to the fact that he's not there and I'm finding that there are other people I can talk to when something happens. And I can also process things on my own without having to talk to anyone at all. That's giving me some space to move forward. I feel like I'm doing a relatively good job evaluating my life, what's real, what kind of things I want to invest in now that I have this new single life. I'm figuring out what I want in my job and I've been getting involved in this meditation center. It would have been really hard to do that if I was still feeling as shitty as I was.
Ben: I knew there was some risk involved when I encouraged you to go on the road trip with Don. I didn't exactly know how the road trip was going to turn out, but I had a strong intuitive sense that you needed to go and spend the time with him in order to do the processing needed to heal from the breakup.
Liz: Many of my friends were telling me to not talk to Don for a year saying that it would make me feel better. I felt the absolute worst during the three weeks that we were not talking at all.
Ben: I see other people that follow suggestions such as those given by your friends and not talk to their former partners for a year, if ever again. It has much to do with their lack of emotional-cognitive sophistication. They end up shutting down portions of their body – mind consciousness.
Completely severing such a bond can be very destructive to everyone involved. Abruptly severing ties is very jarring to our body – mind. Cutting off makes it much harder for us to process the hurt, fear, sense of loss, confusion, anger and other feelings that are a normal response to the changes taking place in our relationship. These emotions are more likely to remain trapped within our bodies. We end up hurting ourselves in ways that negatively impact our ability to form healthy attachments with potential companions that we encounter along the way.
We may need periods of time after a breakup where we agree not to see each other, talk on the phone, text or email to help facilitate the transition. This time apart can help us to adjust to the transition taking place by enabling the various parts of us to reconcile or come to terms with the fact that we are now in a different kind of relationship.
Liz: It's been a year since my housemate broke up with his girlfriend. Now he's constantly dating several women at a time, but he isn't actually connecting with any of them. He's only using them to hook up and doesn't take it any further. He doesn't appear to be at all conscious of what he's doing.
Ben: Much of the population is so disconnected from their pain. They never really process emotionally and heal the wounds they suffer in a breakup. They end up doing a lot more damage to themselves and others by acting out. They sort of, but not really connect with others. Sadly, many people continue to operate indefinitely at that level of unconsciousness in their romantic involvements.
I'm seeing lots of change in you over the past few months. I could feel how you were in a very raw and vulnerable space when you first came to my class and that concerned me. You were contracting or closing in around the hurt of the breakup. The healing sessions that we did enabled you to do the deep emotional processing needed to facilitate the healing of the emotional wounds going back to your relationship with you parents and those pertaining to the breakup of your relationship with Don.
You've become more resilient and that's enabled you to make the transition much more gracefully. The sessions helped you to process much of the grief while putting you in a more receptive space that made it possible for you to learn and grow from the experience you had with Don. There's considerably more work to do, but you've made a lot of progress.
Liz: I think that's true. And the work that we have done has also affected me in some ways I didn't anticipate. I've made some progress in my relationship with my parents. My anger and expectations towards them had limited my ability to have a better relationship. I was able to let go of some of the expectations I had of my parents and that made it easier for me to accept them for who they truly are.
One aspect of the real pain I felt with Don was not knowing why he left. I kept asking myself “Why? Why? Why?” I felt this huge need to understand the reason behind his decision to leave and understand that it wasn't my fault.
Going on the road trip gave me the opportunity to reflect on everything that happened between Don and I over the past few years and that gave me a fresh perspective. Don had gone from kindergarten through grad school without a break and then straight into a job. He had been working for five years and always felt lot of pressure from his father. I could see how all the demands and responsibilities were weighing so heavily on him. The house and dogs that other people might have appreciated were very burdensome and he felt like he just couldn't take it anymore. So he extracted himself from all of that in stages.
I could see the things Don was doing such as taking time off and getting rid of all these things that were burdening him was probably the right decision for him. It sucked for me to lose it all after four years of investing in him and yet he was not enjoying his life. I could see that it was very courageous of him to leave his job and live off savings for two years. Seeing Don so unburdened and joyful and realizing that he hadn't been happy made me realize that it wasn't about me. I could see that Don had chosen the wrong lifestyle for himself and he was trying to make a correction that was really in line with his heart.
Ben: I doubt that you would have come to this realization you had if you had not done the healing sessions and gone on the road trip with Don. This whole experience turned out to be a crucial part of your healing after the breakup. By being open and present you have been able to do much of the healing and gain understandings that you probably wouldn't have come to otherwise.
Liz: I've read a number of books by the author Cheryl Stayed. One of the things she says repeatedly in her writing that really got to me is “The fact that someone wants to leave is reason enough to leave.” The reason Don wanted to leave is because he felt like he had to and so he did. I felt some sadness. I wondered why he wanted to leave. I didn't want him to leave, but he did.
So much has happened since we made that road trip in August. I started listening to a podcast one evening called Dear Sugar. A woman that called in that evening was struggling with a recent breakup. She said there was an amazing chemistry with the man she had been seeing for the past year, but he had now distanced himself from her saying that he was discovering that he really liked men and needed time apart to discover if he was bi or gay. He said that he really did care about her and that his ending of the relationship wasn’t about her. Relationship expert Dan Savage who happened to be on the show that evening said “People don’t breakup with someone they truly want to be with. They give you some excuse to try to make you feel better so that you don’t hurt as much. But that excuse becomes the sword that you fall on. You end up getting more deeply hurt because you’re hoping that they will come back. You end up thinking “He’s going to discover that he really does love me.”
Listening to that podcast made me reflect on my own situation. The big reason Don gave me for breaking up is that he was going on this trip, that it would be really long distance and that it didn’t make any sense to continue the relationship. He then said that it wasn’t about me, but about the circumstances. The part of me that was holding on to the hope of Don returning was thinking “Maybe when this trip is over Don will return and we’ll get back together. He really does care about me. It’s not about me. It’s about the trip.” But that’s just not true. If Don really wanted to be together, he wouldn’t have broken up with me and would have maintained the relationship while he was traveling.
Don and I had a conversation over the phone not too long afterwards. I was trying to get him to admit things that he had done that made it easier for me to believe that our relationship was permanent and that he was serious about it even though he had already backed out. I admit that I had a part in not wanting that to be true, but I think he did things to lead me to believe that he was in it for the long haul.
I was really clear that I wanted to be married someday, but there were times when I felt insecure and I would ask Don if he was really committed to the relationship. He would respond by telling me “Well look at my actions. What are my actions telling you?” Don’s actions were telling me that he was a settle down sort of person. He had a job that he took very seriously, bought a house, a car and had two dogs. We also saw each other every weekend. And so I kind of took him at his word. But he never really intended it to last. In his view he feels that he was very clear that marriage was never on the table.
Don also said on many occasions that he didn’t believe in marriage as an institution. He felt that people go through so many changes and that it didn’t make sense to make a promise to stay together, to continue to care about one another and make the relationship work. He said that to him it only made sense for people that had been together for a really long time and then got married for practical reasons like taxes or health insurance.
In my mind I was thinking that Don and I would stay together for a long while and when it made sense we would get married. Don felt like he was saying that marriage was not on the table, so don’t look for it. I took what Don said as meaning that it was definitely a possibility while he felt like he was saying that it was not.
Don didn't make it clear to me that he was not in it for the long haul even though he knew that at some level. In some ways, that deprived me from of the opportunity to leave earlier. Had I done so, I wouldn’t have had to experience that huge loss all at once. We were having this conversation and he wasn’t owning his part of what happened between us. He took no responsibility saying “I have nothing to apologize for. I did a really good job.” I realized that I was never going to get what I wanted out of him on this. I really let go of a lot in that conversation.
Ben: The person doing the breaking up doesn’t always know what they want. They feel uncomfortable and they're afraid to be honest by coming right out and saying “I really don't want to be in the relationship with you anymore.”
Liz: Don and I have talked a lot less since that conversation. I had been holding onto the hope that Don would get tired of traveling and that we would get back together. Holding onto that hope was holding me back. That conversation enabled me to let go of the hope. We'd been catching up once every ten days or so. The conversations felt more generic and the connection had faded a bit having lost some of its intimacy, but that wasn’t as terrifying as it had been before. Things have been moving in a very different direction since that conversation. I’ve been focusing more on my new job and getting more serious about my meditation practice.
Ben: Whether or not we can remain friends depends on our own needs and considerations as well as those of our former partner and the unique chemistry between each pairing of individuals. We may find it difficult to open to or trust a former partner because of the damage that’s been done. We sometimes outgrow former partners or we realize that we didn’t have much in common to begin with. Sometimes it is best to just let go and move on.
Just because the romantic relationship didn’t work doesn’t mean that there isn’t a potential for a meaningful friendship. Couples that were horrible as romantic partners sometimes make the best of friends. The romance can sometimes die out, and yet there’s still a deep love for one another. Some couples need to maintain a cordial if not friendly relationships for the sake of any children involved. And there are those who manage to work out their differences and get back together. It’s up to each of us to tune into our feelings, needs and intuition to determine the extent to which we open ourselves and allow our former partners to be a part of our lives.
Liz: Don visited Boston a week ago and we had lunch. It went fine. We caught up a little about my job and his travels. I felt myself holding myself back from him this time – in my mind I kept wondering “What are looking to get out of this?” I would listen to him talking about how he doesn’t miss the burden of having dogs or owning a home and feel my disappointment that we were just very clearly not on the same page. I didn’t talk to him about that feeling, though, because it’s not that kind of relationship anymore. At this point, in answer to the question of whether I think I can be friends with my ex, I would say this: we can be cordial, I’m curious to know what’s happening with this person who holds an important place in my life story so we’ll stay in touch, but we can’t be close and intimate friends now. My trust in him has been broken, I’m too disappointed, and I need to open up that intimate connection space so it will be available for someone else someday.
A special thank you to Kathleen Lolley for granting me permission to use her painting “Wild Flowers.” Be sure to check out her work at http://www.lolleyland.com and her Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/LolleyArt