Giving Ourselves Space to Grieve a Breakup: The Case of the Invisible Boyfriend
2 min read
After losing someone we love, it can be easy to fall into a pattern of avoiding reminders of the other person.
When done in moderation, that may be a perfectly healthy coping mechanism. But when done habitually to protect oneself from painful emotions, it can become counterproductive and interfere with the grieving process.
Here is an example of one woman that I treated who was having just these sorts of difficulties after breaking up with her boyfriend.
At her first session, Sharon talked at length about problems with men and relationships in vague generalities. The words came out rehearsed and rigid, as though protecting some dark, invisible secret that might break loose.
When I asked about any specific person she might be referring to, Sharon’s eyes welled with tears before she could even utter her ex-boyfriend’s name. For her, to even acknowledge his existence in her emotional life and the pain she felt over the breakup, brought up feelings of shame and embarrassment. “I should be over this by now,” she explained.
As I came to learn, it was this reasoning—that I should be able to just get over this—that led Sharon into a perpetual cycle of intrusive thoughts and feelings about the relationship followed by active attempts to avoid them, which only seemed to make matters worse.
I asked Sharon to consider scheduling three 15-minute sessions each day that could be safely devoted to nothing but experiencing all of her thoughts and feelings about her ex. And if she had trouble getting into it, I suggested she write it down in as much detail as she could, imagining that it was perhaps the last letter she’d ever write him.
Such an assignment may sound cruel, and indeed, as Sharon told me at the next session, the first couple of times were quite difficult. But by the second or third day, something strange happened. The exercise had lost its magic—or at least it didn’t conjure up the same intensity of emotions as it had the day before.
So, what changed? It turned out that all of that mental energy she had been spending on avoiding unwanted thoughts and feelings about her ex made them even more salient and pervasive in her life.
As soon as Sharon was able to give her grief some space, she found that her feelings (though uncomfortable at first) were tolerable. And over time they no longer seemed quite so dangerous or taboo. She could have a thought about her ex at work and not have to worry about “losing it.”
Hopko, D. R., Lejuez, C. W., Ruggiero, K. J., & Eifert, G. H. (2003). Contemporary behavioral activation treatments for depression: Procedures, principles, and progress. Clinical Psychology Review, 23, 699-717.
Schut, M. S. H. (1999). The dual process model of coping with bereavement: Rationale and description. Death Studies, 23, 197-224.
Tashiro, T. Y., & Frazier, P. (2003). “I’ll never be in a relationship like that again”: Personal growth following romantic relationship breakups. Personal Relationships, 10, 113-128.