I spend a lot of time with clients who are bravely walking through change. The goal of our work is always to promote healing; individually and relationally. Some relationships can be strengthened and improved, while others must end before healing can begin.
Endings, goodbyes, transitions. How many of us think of these words and are filled with eager anticipation and excitement? Easy answer, right? Not many of us would say that our first thought is “Awesome! I can’t wait to plunge headlong into my next farewell!” It’s human nature to have a sense of foreboding when it comes to any ending, whether planned or unexpected. Despite the understanding that the only certainty we have in this life is change, many of us would rather not step into it willingly. We may find that we cling to the familiar, be it in jobs, people, or places because “sameness” provides a sense of predictable security. So what do we do when change is forced upon us or necessary for our individual or collective well being?
One of the most painful changes we will experience is the end of a relationship. When death is not the cause of the ending, we all wrestle with the implication of one word, choice. Choice adds a layer of complexity when contemplating the fate of a relationship. Even if the decision to part ways is mutual, the emotional and logistical implications seldom look like a Hollywood movie ending. We are flooded with questions of whether or not the ending is permanent or temporary. "Should I hold out hope or move on?" Choice creates uncertainty about finality. Our work is about finding a place of acceptance in what today holds, regardless of the pull of the past or the anticipation of the future.
An important consideration for all caring human beings is that endings are painful, no matter what side you find yourself on. People are often surprised that suffering is not rank ordered; the end of a romantic relationship is not necessarily more painful than the end of a close friendship, nor is a cutoff between siblings less painful than the estrangement between a parent and child. Confusion is a common theme we wrestle with. We may bury ourselves in second guessing, rumination, endless questions of “why”, what if, and lots of hurt. We look for a place to put our pain so we can make sense of it in our head when our heart feels such sorrow. We are desperate to cling to anything that helps us eradicate the source of our suffering.
Which Side of the Fence am I on?
Let’s first consider the person who does not choose to end the relationship. When the choice is made for us we can feel rejected, abandoned and not good enough. There are usually layers of feelings, and just when we think we’ve processed through one set of emotions, new ones come knocking. We can vacillate between anger, sadness, betrayal, loneliness, isolation, etc. Our self worth can take a nose dive as we assess our role in the split and imply a direct connection to our personal value. We may want to blame - either ourselves or the person who ended it. We may feel like a victim, fixating on what was done to us. We may question the relationship in its entirety when it feels as if all we are left with is the hurt. There is no way around the fact that it is just plain hard when someone chooses to leave us.
Then there is the person who initiates the break. If we are trapped in resentment or anger, we may find it’s all about blame. Our focus can get stuck and all we see are the actions or behaviors of the other person, "They gave me no choice - I had to leave". On the other hand, if we take full ownership of our decision to step away from a relationship we can feel like the villain. We may find ourselves mired in guilt, remorse, and uncertainty. It can feel as if making a break suddenly means that we are no longer compassionate and we fear being seen as uncaring and unkind. We may save the most hurtful descriptions for ourselves because we struggle to see the rationale beyond the pain induced by the breakup itself. We fail to embrace the grief because we would rather hold the guilt. As the initiator, we withhold permission to experience the impact of the loss since we chose the path. We refuse to let ourselves off the hook, and we can’t properly move on until we acknowledge where we’ve been.
Relationships are an investment; emotionally and mentally. The book Necessary Endings by Dr. Henry Cloud describes the investment as the energy we pour into the relationship. In order to move on, we must take energy out of the relationship, and to do that we must grieve. We must feel the feelings we are experiencing and acknowledge the reality of the ending (Cloud, 2010). Most of us want to skip this process; we want to force fit a fix, offload our hurt externally, or we want to downplay the significance of the situation, swallow the emotions and jump forward past the grief. Unfortunately we can't bypass this process and we will find that unprocessed grief can weigh us down for weeks, months, or years.
This is where we can advocate for our own healing with intentionality and compassion. This is where we have choice to create something different for ourselves, our current relationships and our future. Not an easy prospect when choosing the healing path requires that we look at our pain and hold the reality of our circumstance in the present moment. It is the most authentic response we can choose as it helps us to honor our emotion and our experience with honesty and integrity.
Check back soon for part 2 of this post as we explore the process of grieving and working through.
Henry Cloud. (2011). Necessary Endings: The Employees, Businesses, and Relationships That All of Us Have to Give Up in Order to Move Forward. HarperCollins.
NOTE: This post is not intended to provide the reader with advice about how to handle their specific situation. If a relationship contains any elements of coercion or violence, personal safety should always be the foremost concern. If you or someone you love is in an abusive relationship, talk to someone who can provide help and guidance: http://www.thehotline.org To find a local domestic violence agency near you call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233).
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