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Grief and Bereavement: The End of Romantic Relationships, Divorce & Separation

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By Karen Ann Davis, Ph.D.
What happens when a relationship has ended?  Do divorce, separation, and end of a romantic relationship cause grief and bereavement?   The partners are alive. There is always the possibility that these relationships will be revived, brought back to life, or even transformed into friendships sometime in the future. For now, however, the relationship has died, and the reaction of both partners is grief and bereavement.

Once couples have paired off, they expect to be happy and live happily ever after.  Few couples entertain the idea that a break down in the relationship is a possibility.  They have expectations of perfection and gratification.  They want friendship, love, sexuality, affection, intimacy and warmth.  Early in the relationship, problems that surface are put aside and often denied.  If these problems are not properly addressed, distrust and uncertainty will surface.  At a closer glance, if the participants were honest with themselves, they would understand that these irrational expectations have been with them most of their lives and have occurred repeatedly in relationship after relationship.  A closer inspection will probably reveal that their parents had similar unfulfilled hopes and expectations. All families are intensely emotional social systems.  It is within this highly emotional setting that each of us learns a particular set of rules, regulations, and expectations about our own and other people’s behavior that eventually become taken for granted as obvious matters that everybody knows about. What are learned are assumptions and ideas about what an adult woman and man is like, and how the two relate. Unfortunately, what is learned is often confusing and divisive.  Common knowledge informs us that many relationships end in failure.  Certainly, close to 50% of all marriages end in divorce, and romantic relationships are often tenuous.
At the end of a relationship, even a long-term friendship, the individual may feel as if he or she lives in a surreal world, not planted in reality.  The world has changed and has become unfamiliar and unpredictable.  No longer can the person reach out for that familiar partner.  He/she is no longer there, and feelings of devastation, misery, mental and physical pain, sadness, and loss of vigor and energy ensue.  In the extreme, some feel dead inside and even suicidal. These are certainly the recognized feelings of grief and bereavement.

 In an attempt at being helpful, friends and relatives will appeal to the “griever’s” intellect and, with all good intention, say, he/she is not to blame, it is purely the fault of the other.  You were too good for him/her; you will find a better replacement.  It just takes time; see a psycho pharmacologist for medication. Don’t feel bad, be strong, keep a stiff upper lip, etc.  Although these statements may or may not have validity, they appeal to the griever’s intellect instead of his or her emotions. What the griever simply needs is to be heard and have others empathize with him/her.  However, we live in a society where we have not learned how to deal with grief and bereavement, including death, end of relationships, financial loss, aging, etc.  Hence, the now "uncoupled" person soon learns that he/she must not talk about feelings that are uncomfortable to others, lest he/she will be avoided and even ostracized.  “I am fine,” is the correct response when asked, “How are you?” regardless of whether or not he or she is dying inside.  As the griever attempts to alleviate the painful feelings of loss and create an illusion of recovery, he/she may use STERBs, short-term energy relieving behaviors (James & Friedman, 1998). Some of these behaviors include misusing drugs and alcohol, keeping constantly busy, over-eating, sleeping pills, anti-depressants, etc.  Naturally, these behaviors may work in the short term, but unless the now "uncoupled" individual investigates the true emotional issues, he/she will be unable to recover. 
To recover from the pain and devastation caused by the end of romantic relationships, the griever must continue growing even though it may be painful at times, learn how to communicate effectively, listen openly to what others have to say and care about the feelings that underlie their statements (Pietsch, W., 1974).   Grief and bereavement resolution is about gaining awareness, accepting responsibility, identifying recovery communications, taking action, and moving beyond loss.  (James & Friedman, 1998).
Friedman, R. & James, J.W.   Moving On,   M. Evans, Lanham, Maryland, 2006
James, J.W. & Friedman, R., The Grief Recovery Handbook, Harper Collins, New York, 1998
Pietsch, W.   Human Be-ing    New American Library, New York, 1974
Scarf, M.   Intimate Partners,    Random House, New York, 1984


Last Updated on Monday, 25 October 2010 12:13