Relationship Breakups: The Grief Stages of Couple Separation

Couple separation is a painful and devastating experience. It can be extremely distressing especially when a long time has been spent with the person. The end of any long-term relationship such as that shared by a married couple or de facto relationship can be traumatising and stressful. In fact, people mourn and grieve over the lost love.

Couples who have experienced a painful relationship breakup will often go through several stages as they cope with their loss. As the acclaimed psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross puts it, the stages of grieving chronicles how a person feels and copes during a relationship breakup.

As you read these stages, it’s important to remember that this is not a linear process where a person will go through one stage at a time. Human beings are complex and can experience many feelings at the same time or not feel some of these things at all. Think of these stages as possible feelings that may come up for you when you end a relationship.

First Stage: Denial

The feeling:

At this point, you may block unwanted feelings or turn off their emotions.  There is a strong feeling of refutation that the relationship has ended, and you unwillingly hold on to the thought that the separation is just a phase. You may do everything possible to bring the relationship back to the way it was.

How to cope:

Denial is a stage that may or may not come again even after being able to move on to the succeeding stages. It is important that there is a mutual acknowledgement between both parties about the separation. After all, acknowledging that a problem exists is the first helpful step to properly cope with the breakup. As such, it is important to convince yourself that in spite of the relationship breakup, there are other things that you need to prioritise like school, work or leisure.

Second Stage: Anger

The feeling:

This occurs when you finally understand that the breakup is real. Whether you are angry with yourself or furious at your ex-partner for not keeping the relationship strong, anger is a normal feeling in emotionally stressful experiences. Although sometimes people refuse to acknowledge their anger, it is necessary to release all angry emotions.

How to deal:

It is important to let all your emotions go, rather than keeping all negative feelings inside. Bottling them up will make you burst into rage at any time when there is a trigger. Channel your anger through different recreational activities, such as exercising, painting and singing. Counselling or therapy is another anger management strategy that you can employ. By doing counselling, you are able to truly recognise your feelings and maybe even trace the roots of your anger.

Third Stage: Bargaining

The feeling:

Feelings of bargaining are easily assessed during a relationship breakup. This happens when compromises are made for the benefit of rebuilding the relationship. The affected person may think about making a deal with a supernatural being, or may consider talking with the ex-partner to make promises so that things can go back to how they were before. There is a strong tendency to converse with the ex-partner about working out the many issues and concerns that led to the breakup. Oftentimes, bargaining gives a reassuring feeling that the relationship can still be mended.

How to deal:

Find new activities to keep yourself busy. Being preoccupied with other things will keep your mind from the breakup. Instead of bargaining, try to rationalise the situation and explore why the relationship did not work out in some aspects. Recognising the reality of the problem is the key to proper coping.

Fourth Stage: Depression

The feeling:

Oftentimes when the bargaining does not work, you can fall into despair with the realisation that the relationship cannot be fixed. This stage sets in when there is a clear understanding that the relationship is indeed “over”. Extreme feelings of sadness and loneliness consume the affected person, as well as a general loss of interest in many activities of daily living.

How to deal:

Depression is the best time to use all the effective coping mechanisms, as it is during this time that you may feel extremely down. It is important to reflect on why the breakup has happened, and noting the aspects that led to the separation.

Doing something new and continuing usual activities are recommended to maintain a normal living. Withdrawing yourself from the world is generally not advised, as it’s important to spend time with your loved ones to reinforce social coping. Counselling or therapy is also an effective way to express your depressed feelings.

Fifth Stage: Acceptance

The feeling:

In this final stage, there is a willingness to finally let go and move on with life. You have fully comprehended that it is normal to feel hurt, and that the relationship breakup brings a whole new meaning for you.

How to deal:

By finally accepting the whole experience, you can now be the best person you can be. This is the best time to meet new friends and to mingle with a new crowd. Nevertheless, it’s wise to know your limits and enjoy new experiences one step at a time. After all, one painful relationship breakup should not stop you to feel happy with the next.

Couple separation happens all the time to many people. Learning the stages of grief and how they apply during a relationship breakup will indeed help any person cope with a painful experience.

Are you experiencing a relationship breakup and need help? Contact the counsellors at the Centre for Relationship Development for support with your separation or breakup.