In our modern era of dating and relationships, it can seem like the pool of pickings for finding Mr. or Mrs. Right is very slim. Many of us have been hurt or even devastated by past relationships and, as a result, we have become very hesitant to embrace another. The idea of being vulnerable in a current or future relationship can feel terrifying because we are already anticipating the negative outcomes of letting our walls down and being open to love again. We ask ourselves, “Would he take advantage of my vulnerability?” “Will she abuse my good nature and kind heart?” “If I give him that much access to me and he cheats on me or mistreats me, is there any recovering from that?”
This is unfortunately the mental space that many of us find ourselves in now, no matter how old we are. We may have been cheated on; abused mentally, physically, emotionally or otherwise; or endured such a rollercoaster ride of heartbreaks in various relationships that it has left us asking ourselves “WHY DID I EVEN STAY FOR SO LONG?” for months or years after the relationship is over. We may even start wondering whether we “attract this kind of crazy” or if there is something “wrong with us.” While these are complicated thoughts to deconstruct and process, there is certainly truth to the idea that relationships that did not end well can leave enduring scars that, if not effectively dealt with, can negatively impact our behaviour in dating and future relationships.
The good thing is, all hope is not lost! There are absolutely things you can begin working on that can help you to effectively grieve and heal from these relationships so they no longer loom over you like an ever-present shadow. Whether or not you believe that your relationship(s) ended badly, ended in utter heartbreak, or ended prematurely, here are nine tips to help you get closure from your relationship(s) that simply did not end on good terms.
1. Try to reduce or limit contact with your ex. This includes how much you frequent their social media pages, inquire with mutual friends about them, or go to places you know they may likely be. Of course it is only natural to be curious about how this person who was once a major part of your life is going, but be truthful with yourself – is following up on this person serving your positively or negatively? Is checking in on them making you obsessive, reinforcing your insecurities, reminding you of unpleasant memories, or perpetuating your emotional pain? If the answer to any of these is yes, it is time to set boundaries to preserve your mental and emotional energy. This is also necessary if your ex is the one still contacting you and this is a source of stress or frustration for you. It is understandable if you do not want to be perceived as “mean” by limiting contact but, in this case, your mental wellness is the priority. You may want to consider removing or blocking this person on social media, deleting their number from your phone, or removing other reminders of this person from your life (e.g. untagging yourself from old photos of you together or removing pictures of them from your social media page). While these measures may seem extreme to some, we all have different levels of tolerance for these reminders. And no one but you knows the pain you endured during or coming out of the relationship. If for some reason you need to remain in contact with your ex (e.g. you have a child together), setting boundaries may mean making it clear to your ex as to what are comfortable parameters regarding your ongoing communication and indicate the repercussions if your ex does not respect these boundaries.
2. Remind yourself that despite how challenging the relationship was or ended, you are still grieving the loss of a relationship. This point is usually a hard one for us to admit to ourselves. We ask/tell ourselves, “How am I so depressed over this guy after what he did to me?” “Am I REALLY fretting over this woman after the way she treated me?” “After all she put me through, how could I still be ‘toting’?” The fact of the matter is, no matter how bad the relationship was or ended, it is only natural to go through the motions of grieving the loss of the relationship and everything the relationship meant to you and your future. You may not necessarily be grieving your ex, but rather the intangible things you got from the relationship like feeling wanted, needed, loved, thought about, cared for or accepted. You may also miss the sense of belonging, friendship, support, or comfort that came with being with someone. Not to mention, many of us have dreams about the future we can have with the person we are with; and when the relationship ends, all those dreams die along with it. So be kind to yourself as you consciously (and subconsciously) mourn the loss of these things and remind yourself that going through the motions of your grief is the only successful path to healing. To learn more about the five stages of grief, check out this resource.
3. Have a balanced perspective as you begin to reflect on why the relationship ended or why it was rocky. Too often when we look back on who was right or wrong in the relationship, or who should be blamed for it ending, or who is more responsible for the problems experienced in the relationship, we have a tendency to be biased, primarily heaping blame on one party. This is not to say that there are not situations where it is obvious as to who was the primary aggressor in the relationship, but even in these situations it is important to still ask yourself (if you were not the aggressor) “how may I have been complicit with these behaviours?” The weeks and months that immediately follow your departure from a challenging relationship is a ripe time for you to gain deeper insights about yourself and understand your patterns in a relationship. It is a time to reflect on the things you did and did not do in the relationship that may have created room for ill-treatment, reinforced or exacerbated points of tension, or created further chaos. This sort of self-reflection is particularly helpful for persons who have survived trauma bonds (i.e. relationships in which abused persons develop unhealthy attachments to those abusing them). Processing these issues, especially with the assistance of a qualified therapist, can ensure that you assign responsibility accurately, make peace with what you could have done better or differently, and evolve into a more confident, self-loving and self-empowered person coming out of a tumultuous relationship.
4. Where you notice you could have done better in the relationship, show yourself compassion. In line with the last point, it is important to use this realization as an opportunity to grow rather than allowing yourself to be overwhelmed by the unpleasant feelings that arise. It is expected that, with the recognition that you could have done better, to feel shame, guilt, self-contempt or regret. These emotions are not “bad,” they simply provide you with more information as to how you are perceiving yourself in reference to the past relationship. Use these emotions as fuel to help you identify ways to be a more improved version of yourself. For example, if looking back you realize you do not like the way you treated your ex and you are feeling regret, write down the things you did wrong and how you want to handle these situations differently in the future. If you feel ashamed for staying in an emotionally abusive situation for an extended period, try to identify the insecurities, areas of lack, or strong needs you have (e.g. the need to feel wanted) that caused you to justify staying in the relationship for as long as you did (NB: It would be best to do this type of exploration in a compassionate space with a trained counsellor). If you feel guilty because you realized you ill-treated a loyal, loving and committed partner, forgive yourself for not knowing better at the time, maybe consider apologizing to your ex, begin identifying your problem areas and come up with an action plan to develop yourself in these areas moving forward. Forgiving yourself and loving yourself after you have seen your error is hard, because our go-to thing as human beings is to judge and put ourselves down. Many of us have been socialized to be hard on ourselves and hard on others. However, self-deprecation works in opposition to self-healing. You can be honest with yourself about your flaws and mistakes without allowing yourself to be engulfed and overtaken by the unpleasant feelings and negative thoughts that come up.
5. Do not beat up on yourself for still having lingering feelings for your ex. I have seen many of my loved ones and others I know fall into the trap of fighting with themselves for still having residual feelings for an ex. We forget that we had a significant emotional attachment to this person and that does not fade away immediately. Sometimes it takes months, even years to finally break that emotional attachment. And other times, residual feelings linger for even longer. Each person that comes into our lives that we develop a strong emotional connection with has the ability to trigger us emotionally, even if that person is no longer an active part of our lives. So as you continue on your journey to healing from a past relationship, do not add to your distress by putting yourself down for still being affected by this person.
6. Consider redirecting your distressing feelings over an ex or a relationship ending into positive activities. One of the best approaches to begin your journey of getting over an ex is to find healthy activities which allow you to expel your pent-up anger, sadness, malice, or contempt. Some of these activities may include hitting the gym, starting a new hobby, finding a creative outlet, reinvigorating your spiritual life, or focusing on building your career. Using your unpleasant emotions as motivation to do things to enhance yourself is honestly the best “revenge” you can take coming out of a bad relationship. In this way, you do not need to hurt or spite your ex in order to feel like you are regaining a sense of power in the dynamic between you. Instead, you are giving yourself the gift of glowing up and proving to yourself that you do not need that person to define or validated your existence for you to be successful and happy in your life.
7. Spend more time with the caring others in your life; lean on them for emotional support. I know that when we are sad or grieving it is easy to want to socially withdraw. We often want to just have a pity party for ourselves without interruption. However, sadness in particular is an emotion that says “reach out for support.” When we socially withdraw, we may feel lonely which then reinforces depressive feelings. Spending time with the people who care about us serves as a healthy distraction from our negative thoughts, gives us the reassurance that we are still loved by and are important to our support network, and allows us to ventilate our unpleasant feelings to persons who can help rebuild our self-esteem coming out of a tragic relationship.
8. Try your best to forgive your ex for the damage they have caused you, but do not forget what happened. Perhaps this is the toughest pill to swallow on this list of tips. I can imagine that just the mere thought of forgiving the person who hurt you may activate your gag reflex! If it is one thing I want you to remember though, is that forgiveness is not for the other person – it is for you. Holding on to ill-feelings toward people who hurt us is a venom that will eat away at us, slowly but surely. When we do not forgive the person that has hurt us, we leave room for that person to have the power to anger us, stir up resentment in us, and create a general feeling of discontent within us. Think about it: why give someone who hurt you that sort of power to manipulate your emotions? If you look at it from this standpoint the choice is clear: it is time to take a deep breath and let those feelings of hatred, resentment, anger, and contempt go. However, do not forget what happened. Everything that we experience, both positive and negative, can teach us important lessons for the future. And while we want to be careful not to take away lessons that are more of hasty generalizations (e.g. “he hurt me therefore I can never trust any man again”), we want to take stock of what we have been through in a way that makes us wiser and more well-equipped to deal with similar situations in the future.
9. Stop obsessing about what you think it would be like if you were to come across your ex again. Are you guilty of playing out scenarios in your head of what you would do, what you would say, or how you would feel if you were to see your ex in person again? If so, how do you usually feel after playing out these scenarios? I can bet that you likely do not feel great. Especially because playing out these scenarios is just more time you are spending not getting over your ex. You will never really know how you will feel and react in a future situation until the situation is upon you. You can play out a million scenarios in your head and it still may not happen that way. The reason we usually do this is because we do not like being in a state of uncertainty about the future. In this case, uncertainty about how you or your ex will react if you were to see each other again. So we try to focus on all the possible ways the situation may turn out to give ourselves a greater sense of assurance about the future. In psychology, we call this unhelpful thinking pattern foreclosure. The unfortunate thing about foreclosure is that we often think about more negative than positive outcomes and this reinforces distressing feelings. The scenarios we come up with, whether negative or positive, also do not reflect reality but rather future possibilities, none of which may play out. So save yourself from increasing your mental suffering by focusing more on your own healing than preoccupying yourself with what can possibly happen if you were to see your ex again.
I hope these tips were helpful and gave you something to think about. If you know someone who will benefit from reading this, feel free to share this blogpost with them. Kindly note that all the tips expounded on above have been used successfully by clients and loved ones on their road to recovery from challenging relationships. I am positive if you take similar steps, one day at a time, a state of healing will be yours too.
Love and Regards,
Reycine Mc Kenzie, MSc.
Founder and Clinical Psychotherapist
UPWARD Counselling and Psychological Services