BY Matt W. Sandford, LMHC
When a marriage or relationship is over there is of course a lot of heartache, upheaval, and a strong longing for normalcy. The longing to not be in pain and to have stability again can lead anyone towards some poor choices. Let’s look us some of those decisions that can turn out to be detrimental or damaging, and then I’ll offer some suggestions for healthier alternatives.
- Using Substances
Putting something in one’s body to alter their mood and enable them to go numb or avoid pain is an approach that has been around for thousands of years. And although it provides absolutely nothing productive in the long term, it continues to be the go-to coping strategy for many. Look, if you have say one or two bad nights in which you cope by getting buzzed, it isn’t the end of the world (as long as you don’t drive or do something stupid, I guess I mean do something else stupid or dangerous). The problem is that when this approach seems to help ward off those sad or painful feelings, and you don’t have a better idea, then you may find yourself using it more than those one or two times. And that’s bad. Coming to rely on substances to cope or get through a day is not the way to live and not the way to overcome or grow or move on or get normalcy back.
It is not uncommon to be in an uncomfortable place with one’s friends and family. Maybe they have judged you or been unsupportive through the process? Maybe they have been supportive ‘in their way’, but it feels trite or more about lectures and lots of advice giving? Or maybe it feels like they are now patronizing in their support? Maybe it’s none of those, but it just doesn’t feel like it used to? But whatever it is, you find yourself retreating from social interaction. Again, having a couple of times in which you chose to be alone is not really a big deal. It’s when you’ve gone weeks and you’re state of mind and mood is drawing more inward and more down in the dumps. The issue is that isolation can feed itself and cause you to drift farther and farther away from the support and resources that could help you.
- Emotional Flooding
This is about getting sucked into the heartache and loss and fear and being overwhelmed with negative thoughts. It often piggy-backs on isolation, doesn’t it? So, this is another reason that isolation is unproductive – it often leads to depressing places – and we can get flooded with the pain.
- Revenge Seeking
Whether in isolation or with those friends who join us in “hating” on the ex, we can be drawn into our hurt and anger in such a way that it feels satisfying to contemplate the other’s downfall. We relish them hurting the way they have hurt us. It feels right. We may even begin to think of ways to actively make it happen. But even if it goes not farther than cooking up scenarios in our heads, it is unhealthy and won’t help us to move on or heal. This kind of rumination feeds our hurt and anger rather than leading to resolution.
- Find Someone New
Another tried and true method is the “rebound relationship”. Maybe the thinking is that I will fill the void, or maybe one believes that they have moved on and they are ready for someone else? Or sometimes, there is a piece in there that wants to send the message to the person who ended things that I am fine without you – and the thought is that the best way to send that message is to be with someone else (along with maybe just a little revenge motivation). Often it is simply motivated by the thought that I deserve to be happy.
But there’s the problem. The notion that jumping into another relationship will fill the void or make me happy is unfortunately misguided. I am not trying to rain on your parade. Just the opposite. I want to prevent you from more heartache. Most of these relationships do not last and do not turn out to be satisfying. One reason for that is because when you have these types of motivations, your ability to choose a partner is skewed. Because you are looking for gratification you are more likely to seek out someone who makes you feel good. And selfishness and being emotionally needy are a lousy basis for relationship building. Besides, the only people who would be willing to be used by someone in this way are probably driven by their own self serving motivations, or they are conditioned for being taken advantage of or rescuing lost puppies.
Now that I have popped your balloon and taken away all your regular coping – let me suggest some alternatives that I believe will be more productive and healthier and help you to truly move on.
- Develop Your Self Care
Learn to take care of yourself. You heart has been through the ringer. Tune in to what you need to reestablish equilibrium in your life. Elsewhere I have written about the Four Legs of The Stool of Self Care. Check it out here:
- Focus on Building Healthy Relationship
Yes, there is this depressive pull towards isolation and self pity. You’ve got o fight it. One way is through supportive, healthy relationships. Some of this requires you to have some safe people in your life. Some of that means people who won’t judge or lecture or give trite advice. They have decent listening skills and you trust that they won’t gossip. They believe in you and they don’t try to “fix” you.
We don’t do grief very well in our culture. But grieving is the healthy way to process through our losses and come out the other side, able to move on. Grieving means to not stuff or deny or avoid our feelings, but to feel them, to acknowledged the hurt and its impact on us, without becoming lost in it. You see, avoiding our pain keeps us trapped in it, but feeling it and processing it (with those safe people) is how we can move through it and come out the other side. This takes time and can be draining. That is another reason we need that support. Grieve work is hard; don’t do it on your own.
- Get Involved
Something else we need is to stay connected to the world and to people; the opposite of isolation. Support is vital. But we will also really benefit from engaging in something bigger or beyond ourselves. Find a place to help others, serve, give, encourage, etc. It will keep us grounded and remind us that life is more than our problems, and will keep our pain in perspective.
At some point, we will greatly benefit from reflecting on the relationship and what I can learn and grow from it. What went well and what went badly? In what ways did I contribute to what went well and what did not go well (without beating yourself up)? We can grow through our hurts and losses. My encouragement on this is that you don’t need to jump to this point in the process too quickly. Get the others going first. Growth often follows a good grieving process (or in conjunction with it). But growth can also be emotionally taxing, so you’ll want these healthy elements in place to be able to hold up under it.
Relationships can be hard, even when they are going pretty well. We are relational beings; made for relationships. But the end of a relationship, although difficult, can lead to a process that is healing and helps us to grow and become better people; better for ourselves and better for all our relationships.
For more resources visit www.LifeWorksGroup.org
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Matt Sandford is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor and has been counseling for 8 years. Previously he worked in student ministry for 14 years, including two years in China. He has been married for 21 years and he and his wife are raising twins.