“I’m relieved, angry, sad and hopeful. I often think I should have ended the relationship sooner, but when I found out he was using drugs behind my back, after all we had been through, with the affair, I knew I was done. I’m not sure why I’m sad. I guess after putting so much work and time into this, I feel like I’ve wasted years of my life. That’s also why I’m angry. I’m hopeful that life will get easier now but fearful that I could fall into the same trap again in any future relationship.”
Most of us have experienced the end of a relationship at some point in our lives, be it divorce or a break up after a short term dating relationship. It is rarely without a wide mix of emotions spanning from devastation to elation, sometimes at the same time. The statistics regarding relationship endings are extremely high. As a society we don’t do all that well with endings. When it comes to relationships we put a whole lot of time, effort and resources into the start of relationships.
I won’t say that we don’t put effort and resources into the ending of relationships, but all too often, this has less to do with honouring the ending, and more to do with getting even.
This is particularly damaging when children are involved.
A few years ago, I heard about a celebrity couple who announced the end of their relationship, publically, as a “conscious uncoupling.” I was intrigued. I recently came across a book by Katherine Woodward Thomas called “Conscious Uncoupling.” I picked it up, remembering conversations I’d had with various individuals about their relationship endings, where they’d faced harassment, threats, loss of home and fear of losing contact with their children. I couldn’t quite imagine how I would go about encouraging good will, generosity and forgiveness in some situations where restraining orders seemed more appropriate. As I read the book I was impressed with the realistic approach that the author took to the complexity of relationship endings.
Katherine starts by describing the research regarding attachment wounds and how the end of a primary relationship is interpreted by our brains as a threat to our survival. She goes on to note that
…anger and revenge fantasies actually serve to keep our attachment intact with the person who has harmed us.
Our amygdala doesn’t actually care if our attachments are positive or negative, but seeks to keep any kind of attachment alive.
Katherine outlines 5 steps to healing attachment wounding and to honouring the end of a relationship in a way that can prepare you for the rest of your life.
She argues that a new relationship begins where the last relationship ended.
Katherine speaks about the steps needed to heal and to develop a healthy environment for the children and all those involved in the relationship, post relationship break up.
The author starts by describing the attention that is needed to be given to ones’ own wounds in order to find emotional freedom. She advised the reader to…
- Examine all the feelings you are experiencing, name them as specifically as possible, and allow yourself to experience them fully.
- Find out what you need in the midst of those feelings, and care for yourself, as if you were your own child or best friend, and asking yourself gently, “What do you need right now?”
Katherine strongly encourages readers to imagine themselves, and others whom they care about, looking back from the future. Imagining how you might if were to carry out the actions that you might be considering. Will you be proud of yourself? Will these actions build the future that you are hoping for? Will others see you as admirable or desirable, as a partner, based on these actions?
The second step is related to taking a really hard look at the aspects of the relationship that were within your own control and where you might have responsibility for the direction that things went. The intention is to reclaim your emotional life. This is a difficult one. I was imagining several scenarios where people were taken advantage of financially, or abused and wondered what this step would look like for those people. The author was not unaware of these scenarios and was clear about the fact that there are things outside the readers control but encourage the reader to deeply consider of one’s own participation in the relationship problems, giving examples such as, the tendency to ignore one’s own needs, too many times or, believing that “I deserve this kind of treatment,” or acknowledging that you were pre-occupied with other things and were unable to prioritize the relationship until things became urgent.
Obviously, every scenario is different and you are never responsible for the ways others have harmed you.
This is not about shame. If you feel overwhelmed by shame in this step, reach out to a counselor or trusted, supportive person.
Katherine Woodward Thomas speaks about considering when, in the past, you may been hurt in a similar way. She speaks about a “source fracture” a situation that happened earlier in life that led to a distorted belief about yourself, or others. For example, a previous experience of rejection that you decided meant that you would always be rejected. Or, a breach of trust that led you to decide to never trust again. Katherine speaks about the need for healing from this source fracture and challenge the distortion in your thinking that has led you to experience repeated pain in this area.
The next step has to do with honouring the positive aspects of your relationships and making reparations for the things you are responsible for. It is important to regain perspective and acknowledge what was gained through the relationship and not deny the good parts of it. This is especially important when there are children involved who will likely have questions about why thing are changing and will want to be loyal to both parents. Acknowledging the good shows you what you have going forward and reduces bitterness about ‘wasted time.’
Reparations may be needed towards yourself for the ways in which you may have denied your own needs. In this case, you would work to become more conscious and attentive to your own needs. There may be aspects of the relationship in which you actually are responsible for hurting or neglecting your previous partner. If this is the case, Katherine qualifies the decision to speak to our previous partner or take action to acknowledge our part, stating that this may or may not be appropriate, safe or healthy, depending on the situation.
- If a previous partner was abusive, it would not be advisable to communication this process to them.
- If you are still pining for this person it may be tempting to use this step as a means to get closer to them with a hope for reconciliation. In this case it might be best to do this work alone, at least until you are sufficiently healed from the loss, in order to be able to communicate without any ulterior motivation.
Katherine gives examples of cases where individuals have been able to find healing for the initial “attachment wounds,” discover their own “source fractures” and find healing for this, taking responsibility for their part in the ending of the relationship and then find that they are able to acknowledge and honour the positive aspects of the relationship, to themselves and to others. In some cases, individuals were able to share with their previous partners their gratitude for the good things that the relationship brought.
Katherine speaks about working to build the future you want for yourself and for any children involved. She speaks about involving others in your family and community and coaching those people in ways to develop an atmosphere of respect, goodwill, and even generosity towards your previous partner. When children are involved, experiencing this type of atmosphere surrounding their family serves as a protective measure for their emotional and mental health. It protects children from having to take sides or experience negative attitudes towards an adult they may love, care about and even identify with. It also demonstrates the type of respectful behavior we would want our children to show towards others and expect from others towards themselves.
The decision to honour the end of a relationship is by no means an easy one but, if the goal is healing from relationship wounds and the ability to build a positive, healthy future for oneself, for future relationships, and for one’s children, it may be worth considering.
Katherine Woodward Thomas notes that ‘conscious uncoupling’ can happen when both individuals are interested in it AND when only one is. It can also be beneficial for relationships which ended a long time ago but that are still playing a role in current pain or conflicts.
This process clearly goes against the grain of the expectations many have about relationship endings. Society and media, and many of our own friends and family encourage anger and vindictiveness at the end of a relationship.
“Conscious uncoupling,” is, in fact, fairly revolutionary, and requires an individual to consider the ending of a relationship as a possibility for growth and new beginnings and not as a failure or as the end of goodness in your life.
If you would like to examine a previous relationship to see if there are aspects that you could find healing from and growth from, I’d strongly encourage you to read this book. I’d also encourage you to find others who can commit to supporting you in this process and encouraging you in it, such as a friend, a family member or a counselor.
Many of us have suffered greatly from the ending of relationships and I think it is time we reconsidered the status quo, and find new ways to heal and move forward in life, for ourselves and our loved ones. There is hope for a better way.
*Please note: I have signed on as an affiliate sales person for McNally Robinson which means that if you click on the above link, and decide to purchase the book I’ve recommended, I will receive an affiliate’s fee. I only recommend books I have read and believe to be worth recommending.
For more on relationships check out 10 Habits of Highly Successful Couples
See also Mating in Captivity
For more on emotional healing/processing see An Emotionally Conscious Resolution