A recently separated man signed up for therapy: his heart hadn’t just been broken, he said, it’d been smashed on the rocks.
“I’m useless at this stuff,” he said, trawling through a history of unsuccessful relationships with women. “ I need to fix myself before I go back in there.” He made there sound like a beast’s lair; his fear was palpable.
It’s a common story. People who’ve been hurt in relationships often turn on themselves, decide they are utterly flawed and the work is all theirs to do. They’ll come to the first session clutching an iPad or a notebook ready to attack the project that is themselves.
It’s a good idea to explore hurt: it can help us understand why we think, feel and behave the way we do and it’s healthy to be up for learning and change. But it also makes me nervous when people view themselves as a Project. Because personal development doesn’t have a deadline.
There’s no such thing as closing the file on yourself with a grand flourish: that’s it, I’m done, I’m good to go back out into the world as a bright, shiny magnet to all who cross my path.
So what to do?
When relationship breaks up, your confidence takes a hit, even when you were the minor player in all that went wrong. Not everyone wants — or can afford — therapy so, assuming it’s definitely over and you’ve taken all measures to block a return, here’s a guide to unpacking your pain.
Just for a little while. You’re allowed. It hurts.
2. There’s a lot to like.
What did you like about yourself in your relationship? When it’s on the slide easy to lose yourself. And if you’ve been with a discontented partner, you may have spent a lot of time trying to make them happy at the expense of your own needs. So take time to write down all that you brought and gave to the relationship. If your break-up has been drawn out and gruelling, think back to when you first got together.
3. Choose your words carefully.
I recall one young woman who had not been happy with her partner and when they broke up she insisted on saying “I’ve been dumped”. It cast her firmly as the victim — when she wasn’t. While it may be true that you were dumped, cheated on and had your heart broken, using those words will keep you stuck. As soon as you can, say “we split” or refer to it as a “broken relationship” and your partner as your “ex”. It will help you detach from the difficult emotions.
4. Tap into your insecurity.
When a relationship is rocky, all our insecurities rise to the surface and we can behave in ways foreign to us. Sometimes we over-try for a relationship we know is bad or us or we’re not even that into — where’s the logic in that? Ask yourself if your partner gave you reason to feel insecure — or was this something you created out of fear?
5. Feel the Déjà vu.
Be honest — have you been here before with someone else? This is perhaps the biggest clue to any difficulties you have in relationships. Even though we are with different people, we tend to play our relationships the way we always have. If the same behaviours are tripping you up, pay attention.
6. Ask: would you date yourself?
Everyone behaves badly in relationships at some point, and everyone can do things a little better. But a stressed relationship and break-up can lead you to lose a grip of who you are — and what you’re like to be with. So write down your biggest failing (or vulnerability) and how you could do it differently in your next relationship. If you can’t think of anything you did wrong, sit there until you can.
6. It’s not all about you.
Honestly, perhaps your partner was wrong, even bad, for you. Perhaps he/she is not so great for anyone else either (but that’s no longer your problem). Did you ignore the warning signs in your partner for far too long? Sometimes it’s not all about you. The most blame you can shoulder is your choices.
Remember, you’re not a project to be handed in. You’re just a work in progress, like the rest of us. There is no ideal time frame for getting into a new relationship. Just ensure you don’t keep dragging baggage from your previous relationships with you: the load will break your back — and your spirit.