The books and magazine articles are clear. Let it go, move on and start again. Erase his number from your phone, don’t read any letters, throw away all those poems and the presents he gave you, avoid the places you used to go to, the films you enjoyed together, don’t meet again, not even for old times sake. And don’t look back; tomorrow is another life.
Except it’s not. You are the same person, you can’t just erase what has happened by avoiding all those things that remind you of him. Despite your best intentions, you have been changed. Maybe the headaches and constipation, that have continued to plague you since he left, are telling you that there is something more you need to think about. You may not have the stomach to waste time revisiting the pain of it all, but if you just motor on without a backward glance, find another partner, start another life, the risk is that the same thing will happen again. The question is: can you use what has happened as an opportunity to learn and grow? After all, there is still a lot of life left to live.
In the last few posts, I have argued that the break down of a love relationship can represent a major trauma that can scar and even wreck people’s lives. You may think you have forgotten and moved on, but the memory of unresolved trauma does not disappear; it goes underground, ready to re-emerge when something happens to remind you of the context. Freud described it as an internal saboteur or fifth columnist, that undermines the mind and body. Carolyn Spring, a survivor of trauma herself, advises that avoiding all the factors that trigger the mental and bodily symptoms of trauma, can restrict life, but it also keeps the trauma alive. In the same way, strenuously avoiding anything associated with your lost love allows him to prowl around the fringes of your consciousness, poised and ready to pounce when your resistance is low. For some people, just the mere mention of their past lover evokes a spasm of intense anger indicating that the hurt is still very much alive. It seems so much easier if you can just blame the other, but unless you also interrogate yourself, you will never move on.
In her work with survivors of trauma, Spring advisors her clients to recognise what triggers their symptoms, and to realise that if they can understand their triggers, the symptoms will soon pass. She also says they should be kind to themselves and not add to the trauma by beating themselves up for being stupid. She uses breathing techniques, muscular relaxation, mantras and other mindfulness techniques to bring the brain’s safety mechanisms back on line in order to reframe the traumatic associations – ‘it happened then and is not happening now’, ‘it was those men and not all men’, – and she recommends finding a safe haven and a person they trust to talk to. In these ways, victims of trauma can learn to manage and defuse their symptoms so they no longer upset them.
I never fail to ask my patients with IBS what situations bring their symptoms on. For many, this reveals some context linked to previous relational trauma, such as a failed love affair, a serious marital argument, betrayal or loss. If they can identify their triggers and can understand why, then the situation can be disarmed and the symptoms abolished, allowing them to think about and reframe what has happened and see it in a more hopeful perspective. This also applies to people with food intolerance, who often find that avoiding certain foods does not necessarily provide a long term solution for symptoms of IBS. The idea that food can be a contextual trigger for gastrointestinal symptoms of trauma was illustrated by one of my patients who developed severe food intolerance after she was rejected by her lover during the course of a ‘romantic’ meal. Understanding the meaning of her symptoms allowed her to expand her diet so that within a year she had regained her weight and her life.
The rupture of a relationship is an opportunity to pause, take stock and face some hard facts. You may have been unlucky to have met the wrong person, but it was your choice. In the cool light of dawn after another sultry night of passion, with your brain back on line, you knew what you were getting into. There must have been many times you could have walked away, but you didn’t. So why not? Were you lonely? Did you need somebody to love you? Was you self esteem so low that anybody who looked kind and would look after you would do? Did you miss your mum? Did you just love being in love?
There is never one person for any of us out there. Life is too long a time to spend with a person with pretty hair and a few good dance moves. There are plenty of interesting people, who given the chance, will make good life partners. But you need to feel secure in yourself to contemplate such a long term commitment. It might be said that we don’t fall in love with another person, we fall in love with the idea of them and the way they make us feel. In essence, we fall in love with our new-found selves, but that can only work if we have already sorted out our personal needs and insecurities.
If we have been fortunate enough to enjoy a relationship with our parents that was consistent and supportive, yet allowed us sufficient space and safety to explore the world ourselves, then we will approach adult relationships, independent and confident in our own sense of self. This will allow us to enjoy a partnership of equal individuals, able to respect one another, engage with the community and bring up children without compromising the people we are. Neither of us need be totally dependent on the other for our well-being, yet each is able to support the other when needed. If we have learnt to trust our parents, then we will trust ourselves and others and can withstand separation with confidence knowing that our partner is always there. Of course, we can never be responsible for our partner’s behaviour, but even if they transgress, it will not destroy us.
Unfortunately, not all couples have had the benefit of such an empowering relationship with their parents. Those who have experienced rejection or neglect, may cling together, threatened by their partners independence, wary of betrayal and terrified of separation. They may become possessive as they struggle to reassure themselves, while their partner tries to keep the peace by compliance and appeasement. Those who have experienced a more intrusive relationship with their parents can find the closeness of a relationship uncomfortable and need to establish space within the relationship to be themselves.
Relationships can be seen as an exercise in managing distance. If insecure partners can acknowledge their fears of impingement or rejection, they may be able to establish a distance that seems comfortable for both. Then despite a difficult start, there is no reason why the relationship cannot succeed in allowing each partner to become the person they always could be.
But if the relationship has become ‘critical’ and you can no longer think clearly, try to find space to look after yourself. Go away if you can, preferably to a place where you feel safe and among people who can offer non-judgemental support, use mindful activities or techniques to help you think and when you feel relaxed and ready, try to get things into perspective. Think about your role in the breakdown, but also use the time alone to build the strength to try to manage the relationship better and also the resilience to cope by yourself if necessary. Always seek counselling and/or mediation before throwing in the towel.
And above all, don’t beat yourself up. That helps nobody, least of all you.
Ever tried? ever failed? No matter.
Try again. Fail again, Fail better.