We humans

What to do when a relationship’s over — but your feelings aren’t

May 22, 2019 / +

While clean breaks can and do happen, sometimes we’re left with unresolved feelings. Psychologist Antonio Pascual-Leone shares the 3 steps we should take to work through them.

This post is part of TED’s “How to Be a Better Human” series, each of which contains a piece of helpful advice from someone in the TED community; browse through all the posts here.

Whether it’s with a partner, family member, friend, boss or colleague, ending a relationship is hard. But even harder can be what comes afterward. While clean breaks do happen, sometimes we get stuck — stuck with unresolved feelings, doubts and anxieties that seem to fill up all our empty spaces.

“Let’s call it unfinished business,” says Antonio Pascual-Leone, clinical psychologist and head of the Emotion Change Lab at the University of Windsor in Canada, in a TEDxUniversityofWindsor talk. “Most people think that moving on is just a matter of time … but if you feel devastated, it’s not going to be as simple as sleeping it off like a bad hangover.”

Pascual-Leone has been examining this process. He says, “It turns out people who resolve these issues often go through three distinct steps.” He adds, “It’s sort of a messy, nonlinear, two-steps-forward, one-step-backward process … and you can get stuck anywhere in that pipeline. The good news is we also know a bit about how to get people unstuck from each of those spots.”

Step 1: Untangle and identify your feelings

Pascual-Leone shares the story of a woman who took on a junior partner in her work. She spent significant time mentoring her, and they developed a great collaboration — until the junior partner abruptly left. When speaking to him about it, according to Pascual-Leone, “the businesswoman tells me about industry conventions and things like that, and she says, ‘I’ll just cringe. What if she’s there? It’ll be so awkward. I don’t know!”

Interestingly, that last phrase — “I don’t know” — is the most telling part to Pascual-Leone. Why? It reveals the woman’s “sense of a very global distress,” he says. “It’s like, ‘I’m so upset and I don’t know why it’s so awful.’” If you’ve ever felt like that, you probably pushed those feelings under the rug to deal with later. “It’s like the person thinks they can wait it out as if there was a storm passing overhead. But while you’re avoiding the issue, not too much can change,” explains Pascual-Leone. His solution: “Get in there.”

How to get unstuck:

Often, the most dominant feelings after the end of a relationship are anger and sadness, and these can get fused together into a dense ball — Pascual-Leone likens it to children’s play putty. He says, “You need to take some time to tease these apart, find the right words, and describe what’s so awful, awkward or hard.”

To do that, ask yourself, “Where does it hurt?” and “What’s the worst part of it?” Pascual-Leone says, “If you want to get past feeling upset, empty, lonely in these very general ways, then you have to take the time to focus on the feelings that you have and figure out what hurts the most.”

Step 2: Understand what you really need

After a relationship ends, some people know exactly what hurts them the most but they’re trapped in a cycle of self-blame — often, because the break “stirred up some deeper, older, uglier feelings,” as Pascuale-Leone put it. They might think, “Whatever happened was my fault; maybe I deserve to be mistreated or neglected” or “It’s true — I am incompetent/unlovable/uninteresting/fill in the blank.” These people are, he says, “not avoiding; they’re not bewildered like in the first step. It’s that they get caught beating themselves up about something related to the relationship.”

How can you tell if this is you? “You feel vulnerable and broken, but it’s familiar in a way,” says Pascual-Leone. “It’s the same old story; you’ve been here before.” He adds that some people are able to glide through this step, just as some can travel through any or all of the steps of the process with a minimum of friction and distress.

How to get unstuck:

Ask yourself, “What do I most deeply need?” These aren’t surface needs, such as “I need a partner to go on vacations with,” “I need a boss who likes my ideas,” “I need a sibling who will worry with me about our father,” or “I need a friend who gets my sense of humor.” These needs are also not specific to the person of the ended relationship, like “I need the sense of security that she gave me” or “I need the way he looked at me.”

Instead, you’re considering your deeper, existential needs, “what you need to flourish as a human,” says Pascual-Leone. These might be “I need to feel like I matter,” “I need to feel lovable,” “I need to feel like I have dignity,” or “I need to feel that someone knows the real me.”

There’s a good chance that your need and your relationship’s end are in active conflict with each other — for example, “I need to feel valuable, but our divorce make me feel like I’m disposable.” It’s in this contradiction, says Pascual-Leone, “where change starts to happen.” He adds, “Even if you don’t feel entitled to it, spell it out.”

Step 3: Revisit the relationship’s end and look at what was lost

For the final step in the process, you need to go back to how the relationship ended, look at what stings and at what you lost, and work through these feelings. Frequently, this means tapping into and expressing anger and sadness, and handling the latter can be surprisingly tricky.

“When we work through grief, we usually focus on the good things — ‘we’ll never get together again for a barbecue’ or ‘there will be no more Wednesday family dinners.’ You have to say goodbye to these things and put up little tombstones for them,” says Pascual-Leone. “But one of the reasons that people have trouble finishing the grief process is because there are also so many undeclared losses — the hopes, the dreams that you had together.”

For a couple getting divorced after a brief marriage, the loss might be the children who will never be born; for a business partnership, it’s the big project that will never be launched. Pascual-Leone says, “When I was doing therapy with a man who was an inmate in prison, he knew his partner had already left him while he was serving time. So he was like, ‘We’ll never go on that holiday together, the one we were saving up for and we kept all those brochures for.’”

How to get unstuck:

Ask yourself, “What do I resent?”, “What do I miss?” and “What dreams and hopes do I need to say goodbye to?”

These aren’t easy questions to ask or easy answers to absorb, and exploring them can take effort and time. But it’s a critical part of working through a relationship’s end. “Healthy emotion has a vitality curve,” says Pascual-Leone. “It emerges, you feel it, you express it, and then you’re done.”

Watch his TEDxUniversityofWindsor talk now: