Many relationships end for reasons that don’t have anything to do with either partner being abusive. If you’re ending a relationship because of domestic abuse, you may find it helpful to learn about staying safe as you exit. If you’re in immediate danger, call 999.
The end of a primary relationship is very similar to the feelings felt after a bereavement, and the stages we move in and out of as we work through our loss are universally felt. Whether you’re the person who has initiated the breakup and has decided to leave, or you’re the one who hasn’t had a say in the matter, the end of a significant relationship can be a heart breaking and life-changing experience.
Many of us who have been through the end of an intimate relationship have focused on how we feel in the moment. There are a number of other, complex practical issues that might need attention depending on your relationship status, your financial ties to your ex, and any children you share. Overall, it’s a complex and sometimes lengthy process. With the right kind of support, the end of a relationship can mean the start of a new and fulfilling life.
Dealing with your emotions
A helpful way to understand the human response to loss of any kind – including the end of an important relationship is the five stages of grief model, which was developed in 1969 by Swiss-American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. In the case of a breakup, all five stages contribute to coming to terms with the ending. While we might think of the stages as lasting a set period of time, they are responses to feelings that can change rapidly. We do not enter and leave each individual stage in a linear fashion. Instead, we encounter one stage, and then another, only to go back and forth as we recover from our loss.
Stage one - shock and denial
Whether we’re the person deciding to end the relationship or it’s been a mutual agreement, we’re likely to feel a sense of disbelief that the end has come. The urge to deny the loss, either consciously or subconsciously, is normal and is in fact a useful psychological response which helps us to adapt to a new reality in the early days. If we’re the one who has been left, we may dismiss that anything is wrong for days or even weeks after the breakup and assume that it’s all just a bad dream. As confusing as this stage is, it’s part of the healing process, and slowly recedes as we start to come to terms with the loss.
What might someone feel in the shock and denial stage?
- Living in a dream from which they can’t wake up
- Disconnected from their body
- ‘Up and down’
Stage two - anger
Feelings of anger can come and go, and some people may continue to experience anger for an extended period of time. You might be angry with the person for leaving you, or you may be angry at yourself for not being able to save the relationship. Anger is a way to express difficult feelings. It’s important that the anger doesn’t cause you or others any harm.
What might someone feel in the anger stage?
- Out of control
Stage three - bargaining
When an important relationship ends, it’s only natural to want to go back in time and fix what went wrong. We might even beg our ex to reconsider their decision while making promises to change (even if there’s nothing about us that needs to change). With the bargaining stage often comes the feeling of ‘not being good enough’, unlovable, unattractive or ashamed.
What might someone do in the bargaining stage?
- Ruminate on what they could have done to prevent the breakup
- Try and establish conversations with the ex-partner with promises to change
- Ask other people to intercede on their behalf in the hope that the ex-partner returns to the relationship
- Tell their story to other people in the hope of making sense of their loss
Stage four - depression
It’s important to understand that grief-related depression is not a mental health problem, but a natural part of the grieving process. Who wouldn’t feel low, depressed or sad at having lost someone they love? The feelings of low mood during this stage can come and go. Some days might be relatively okay, while other days might find you paralysed by grief. The end of a valued relationship can be life-changing, and to experience a range of feelings is a very normal and appropriate response. Grief is a process, and depression is one of the many necessary steps along the way.
What might someone feel in the depression stage?
- ‘Not good enough’
- Out of control
Stage five - acceptance
When someone physically dies, acceptance is often mistaken as being ‘over’ the death of loved one, or ‘back to normal’. But it’s really about accepting the reality that our loved one is physically gone and understanding that their loss is permanent.
The acceptance of a breakup is slightly different. Arriving at this stage means that you have processed the end of the relationship and have rebuilt a life for yourself. You’re at the stage where you’re no longer angry, perhaps you’re even indifferent. While you might not have many positive feelings about your ex-partner or the way things ended, you’re living life on your terms.
As we move through acceptance, we are finding new strengths within ourselves and developing new interests and relationships which are totally separate to our ex-partner. Acceptance takes its own course however so the old adage of ‘let time take time’ matters. You can’t rush through the stages. With the support of friends, family, and perhaps a counsellor (if you’d like support from someone who is totally outside of the situation), you will go on to live a life where the pain you feel now is just a memory without the power to hurt you.
What might someone do in the acceptance stage?
- Reconnect with old friends and acquaintances
- Establish new friendships
- Build new internal coping mechanisms
- Find new interests, or revisit old ones
- Create new traditions
- Feel new hope about the future
Other commonly felt emotions
In addition to the five stages, many people who have experienced the end of a relationship report feeling:
- Jealous (especially if their ex is in a new relationship)
- Lacking in confidence
- Worried that they’ll be on their own for the rest of their lives
- Ashamed (particularly if separation or divorce are frowned upon in their circle)
- Guilty (especially if they were the one to end the relationship)
- Worried about the wellbeing of any children or pets affected by the breakup.
What can help at the end of a relationship?
Everyone is different but whatever your circumstances, self-care is incredibly important throughout all stages of a relationship ending. You’ll note that we use the term ‘grief’ to describe the feelings at the end of a relationship. Although your ex isn’t dead, the relationship is and it takes time to recover.
- Acknowledge that you’re experiencing normal reactions to a very significant loss. There is nothing unhealthy about the feeling of loss, and loss is not an illness.
- Understand that grieving a breakup can feel very chaotic. Anyone who has been through it will tell you that they moved back and forth between the five stages – sometimes multiple times. Loss isn’t linear. It’s messy.
- Let time take time. There is no schedule for dealing with loss, and everyone is different. Be gentle on yourself and allow yourself the time and space to work through your feelings.
- Try and maintain even a basic routine as early on as possible. Getting out of bed, showering and dressing, or even eating a small meal can feel monumental after a breakup. Do what you can to keep to some semblance of structure. It will help you to feel as if there is at least one thing you have control over.
- Acknowledge that your children might feel angry, hurt, and confused. A parent leaving the family home, even if both parents are committed to healthy co-parenting in the future, is difficult and stressful for children of any age. Agree with your ex-partner how much you will share with your child and how best to tell them. Do always reassure children of any age that they are loved and cherished and that the breakup is not their fault. While this point will be obvious to any adult, children are very literal so be sure to specifically reiterate this to them.
- Avoid numbing the pain. Some people turn to alcohol or drugs in the aftermath of a relationship ending, but it’s only likely to make them feel even more distressed. The pain of loss cannot be medicated. Substances only delay grief and make it harder to see things clearly.
- Make a decision not to start dating someone new until you’ve worked through your loss. It can be really tempting to start a new relationship to avoid the pain you’re feeling but chances are, you’ll choose unwisely when you’re at lowest ebb. Dating can wait. The most important thing is to ensure that you’re working through this loss and processing your grief so that you can truly come to acceptance.
- Practice self-care even when it’s the last thing you want to do. Eating healthily, staying physically active, and getting enough rest will help you to stay as well as possible during this difficult time. Stress management is also particularly important when grieving and you might find these tips helpful.
- Reach out to people who will listen to you and not judge you for your feelings. If you don’t have anyone you think can support you, you might find it helpful to connect with others through online support groups or social media channels. YouTube offers a wide range of videos on breakups, separation, and recovery. You might also want to speak to your GP about what’s happening or contact retailTRUST for confidential, in-the-moment support.
- Accept that some people – even people you care about deeply – may not know how to cope with your feelings. They may avoid you or choose sides between you and your ex-partner. While this can be very hurtful, try and accept that they are doing the best they know how. Consider too that some people believe that breakups are contagious so that they may fear the health of their own relationship and thus avoid you. Focus on the networks of people you know who are actively supportive of you.
- Accept that a breakup can trigger many different and unexpected emotions. It can feel like you’ve been blindsided but it’s important to understand that each loss we bear in life is tied in some ways to previous losses (even if they weren’t related to a physical death). Allow yourself to feel these emotions and share them with people you trust or consider keeping a journal of your thoughts and feelings.
Practicalities at the end of a relationship
Citizens Advice offers trustworthy advice on a range of issues many people face at the end of a relationship.
The legal aspects of the ending
- Deciding what to do when you separate
- Using mediation to help you separate
- Getting a divorce
- Ways to end your marriage
- Ending a civil partnership
Arrangements for your children
- Making child arrangements
- Your child arrangements aren’t working
- Your ex-partner is taking your children without consent
- Arranging financial support after you separate
- Help with legal fees when you separate
- Benefits and help with council tax when you separate
- Dividing up money and belongings when you separate
Assistance from retailTRUST
We can support you through this challenging time with in-the-moment emotional support, counselling, legal guidance and non-repayable grants.
To speak to one of our advisors, please call our confidential helpline on 0808 801 0808 or email the team at [email protected]