By Joy A. Dryer, Ph.D.
The beginning of a new year is an apt time to talk about “resolution”. You may think at first of those New Year’s resolutions you made: promises to yourself that 2017 will be a ‘new’ year because you will behave in a different manner than the year before. You’ve resolved, or found a solution or a (re)solution to some problem or issue.
SAFE RESTING PLACE. I’d like to talk here about the goal of (re)solution as a safe resting place where you achieve peace of mind. This is a deeper way to think about resolution, especially if you’ve ended something important to you -- particularly ending a relationship. Although, I can see how what I’m about to say could also relate to ending a job, or finishing writing a book, or even graduating from college.
I’m thinking of resolution as it relates to western tonal music theory. When a note or chord moves from dissonance (an unstable sound) to a consonance (a more final or stable sounding one) it is referred to as a resolution. A musical safe resting place.
Peace of mind as your goal is not easy to achieve after breaking-up with a significant other. In my work as a Psychologist and Divorce Mediator, I’ve noticed three phases on the road of most people’s uncoupling journey: Separating, Mourning, Forgiving (in that order).
Phase 1: SEPARATING. Separating has the physical component, like moving out of a house once shared, dividing up bank accounts, other assets, and other shared activities like shared time with friends and family. The “uncoupling” part of this journey is psychological, and happens internally. “Uncouple” means not a couple any longer. No longer a self and another, the self becomes the focus. After uncoupling, reorganizing our self-concept is one of the major psychological adjustments we need to make.
Research shows that romantic break-ups are associated with immediate persistent decreases in “self-concept clarity.” (1). This is because when married, or living together, people understand who they are as a person in relation to their partners. Also, when attached to another person, we co-regulate one another’s emotions. When we co-regulate securely with a partner, the goal is a physiological homeostasis. How we attach, or bond, to a significant other is specific and unique, like our fingerprint. How we separate parallels how we attach (but in reverse!).
And how our brains perceive safety and threat is also unique. For example, those with a more avoidant attachment style down-regulate emotions in an effort to deactivate and minimize distress. And those with attachment anxiety are often emotionally hyperactivated, repeatedly seeking connection or closeness. In fact, those with anxious attachment styles who stay focused on their Ex can heighten their adjustment difficulties after uncoupling. Adding to a more difficult transition will be those who brood, or make over-generalizations or negative self-talk. Research has also shown medical consequences: too much on-going attention to an Ex resulted in impaired immune responses in a significant number of subjects in the study.
In addition, avoid ruminating, or emotional journal writing on every little detail, every he-said/she-said recounting of your relationship with your Ex. Ruminations can increase your risk for mood disturbances. Instead, these researchers suggest you look for find meaning in your experiences. Some basic self-care steps that help are: cultivate self-kindness and self-compassion (2). Remind yourself of your common humanity. Use affirmations if that supports you. That is, others have separated or divorced, just like you, and have survived. Even thrived! And your kids will likely do well, if you do well. So no need to guilt trip here.
Thus, as you reset your internal boundary between you and your Ex, your freed-up brain resources can now be used constructively elsewhere. It takes emotional energy to make internal self-adjustments, such as redefining self-worth, and readjusting roles, maybe as a single parent, with in-laws, with friends, with co-workers.
Research has shown that post-divorcees increase their sense of well-being as they recover their independent sense of self.
Phase 2: MOURNING. As noted, the “uncoupling” part of this journey is psychological, and happens internally. This brings us to Phase 2. Uncoupling from another person, especially someone you once loved, is a sad transition. You are entitled to grieve. To be sad. To mourn. Even if the departure is your choice, even if you’re relieved, it’s still a loss. You’ve lost the person. You’ve lost the love you once shared, no matter how deep or satisfying it was, or wasn’t. You also may has lost numerous tangible items, like a house, money, more time with your kids … And worse, you may feel that you’ve lost internal items, your ideal, your dreams of a certain kind of future. Some people even say they’ve lost “hope” in ever having a satisfying and happy relationship. When you’re in the midst of uncoupling, it certainly feels that way.
Many authors have written about loss, mourning, and grief. The most famous is Freud, whose seminal 1917 paper “Mourning and Melancholia”(3) distinguishes between the normal conscious mourning process, and the less conscious and more disturbing “melancholic” process. It’s a normal process to grieve the loss of someone once close to you. But if you’ve a great deal of ambivalence toward that person, especially if you’re unaware of your conflicted or negative feelings, the mourning process can become deeply troubling. The undoing of a normal attachment process can become self-centered whereby you can identify with the person who is gone, who may have been critical and judgmental toward you. It does not matter who leaves whom, who is left. You can take on the criticisms of the gone person, and treat yourself with low self-regard, even with disgust, and hate. This melancholic process usually needs professional help to recover back to your full self.
Phase 3: FORGIVING your Ex (4) is even deeper work inside you. The dual hallmarks of forgiveness are letting go and accepting reality. It means letting go of your wish for blame, revenge, to win, or to be right. It means accepting that you may not get what you want, what you hoped for, what you expected, or even what you believe you deserve. It’s not happening: that’s reality. Thus, if you can let go, and accept whatever the reality is, then you can land those accusatory ‘planes’: it’s your gas that keeps them flying high.
Psychologists (5) generally define forgiveness as a conscious, deliberate decision to let go of negative feelings, anger, resentment, blame, vengeance, toward a person or group who has harmed you. This letting go is a choice, and a trainable skill. Forgiving is for you, and not a gift to another, regardless of whether the person actually deserves your forgiveness (in your eyes, or in others’ eyes). Forgiveness does not mean forgetting, or condoning, or excusing, or denying the seriousness of an offense against you. Letting go of the negative does not obligate you to reconcile with our Ex, nor release him/her from accountability. Instead, forgiveness brings you peace of mind: it empowers you to recognize the pain you suffered without letting that pain define you, enabling you to heal and move on with your life. You seek peace. Not justice. Or fairness. Peace of mind is for you. Not for anyone else.
Some practical steps toward forgiving include the following: Put yourself in your Ex’s shoes to understand fully how your perspectives differ. Humanize your Ex. Cultivate empathy. It helps to understand your Ex’s background and why s/he may act and feel as s/he did, or does. If your Ex feels some distress or remorse, that may encourage discussion of forgiveness between you.
Apologies foster forgiveness. Not everyone can apologize. But experts agree that it helps the process of forgiveness. Aaron Lazare’s (2005) research (6) concludes that an effective apology has four parts: it a) acknowledges the offense, by making clear who are the offender(s) (you could both be!); b) offers an explanation for the offense(s); c) expresses remorse or shame or humility; and d) involves a reparation of some kind.
There is much written about these processes involved in a healthy uncoupling experience. My hope in this blog was to integrate the basic ideas toward a clear purpose — that of your peace of mind as a safe resting place post-breakup. Do allow yourself to rest here awhile before you move on with your life.
1 Mason, A.E., Law, R.W., Bryan, A.E.B., Portly, R.M., Sbarra, D.A. (2012). Facing a break-up: electromyographic responses moderate self-concept recovery following a romantic separation. Pers Relatsh 19:551-568.
2 Sbarra, D.A., Smith, H.L., & Mehl, M.R. (2012). When leaving your ex love yourself: Observational ratings of self-compassion predict the course of emotional recovery following marital separation. Psych. Science, 23, 261-9.
3 Freud, S. (1917). Mourning and Melancholia. SE Complete Psychological Works, Vol.14; Hogarth Press, London UK
4 Rye, M.S., Folck, C.D., Heim, T.A., Olszewski, B.T., Traina, E. (2004). Forgiveness of an ex-spouse: how does it relate to mental health following a divorce? J. Divorce Remarriage, 41:31-51.
5 Luskin, Fred (2003), Forgive for Good; HarperOne, NY.
6 Lazare, Aaron (2005); On Apology; Oxford Univ. Press, NY