Jared (all names have been changed) came to my office in a depressed state. He had been referred to my clinical psychology practice by his bishop because he had been unable to function in his college classes and had been struggling with doubts about whether his life was worth living. The truth was, Jared was brokenhearted when his fiancée, Christy, ended their relationship because she was interested in another young man.
“Without her, nothing seems worthwhile,” Jared told me. “She was my happiness. The pain feels like it will go on forever. I think about her every day and remember every moment we had together.”
When Christy broke their engagement, Jared thought it meant he was a failure and that no woman would want him with all his deficiencies. Like many who are abandoned in a relationship, he assumed all of the responsibility and blame without considering Christy’s weaknesses too.
Another client, Carla, experienced similar feelings. After a long series of hurtful events, she finally had been able to end a painful and sometimes abusive relationship.
“At first I was relieved, but now I feel depressed,” she said. “I cry, but it doesn’t help. I want to go back to Roy, but everyone says I shouldn’t. No one seems to understand what I’m going through.”
Carla knew Roy had habits that were incompatible with her values, and sometimes he had frightened her with his stormy moods. But she had been confident that he would respond to her love and the strength of her commitment to him. Besides, Roy was so loving and apologetic when he upset her that she believed she needed only to wait patiently for him to change. Instead, as their relationship became more serious, Roy became increasingly critical, angry, and abusive. When Carla at last ended the relationship, she was surprised at the intensity of her sadness.
Why does it hurt so much when a serious relationship is lost? Why is it so hard to get over, even when we know it is really for the best?
To better understand, think for a moment about your experience in the premortal realm. In that world of spirits, it was not possible for you to be sealed to an eternal companion. Eternal marriage requires the union of two souls—and the soul is made up of both a spiritual and a physical body (see D&C 88:15). And so our Heavenly Father, to help fulfill His purpose “to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man” (Moses 1:39), ensured that the earth would be a place where His spirit children, endowed with mortal bodies, could be sealed to a companion in the new and everlasting covenant and continue their eternal progression toward godhood.
Thus, in mortality, each of our Heavenly Father’s sons carries a divinely inspired longing for a bond of attachment to one of His daughters, and likewise, each of His daughters carries within her a yearning for the same fulfillment with one of His sons.
Yet the potential for this great joy also brings with it the potential for pain when the hope of this fulfillment is disappointed. The experience of having a loving relationship with another person is exciting and wonderful, but the loss of that relationship can be devastating.
This loss can be particularly painful when one has relied excessively upon the other person for a sense of identity and worth. Carla said of her experience: “With Roy I felt like I was really somebody, but without him I don’t know what to do or even who I am. When he was good to me I wanted to devote my life just to being there for him. But even when he was mean, I still felt that I was special to him, and that made me feel like I mattered. Now that we’ve broken up, I don’t seem to have any life of my own at all.”
Carla had been absorbed by this unhealthy relationship and had virtually given up her own identity. Without the relationship, she felt worthless and lost. Her resolve wavered, especially when Roy urged her to come back and promised that things would be different. It was hard for her to remember how hurtful the relationship had been, and her friends sometimes had to remind her of the unhappiness and fear that led her to break it off.
How does one survive the loss of a serious relationship? Three factors can help us overcome any painful loss or misfortune:1
The first is a personal commitment to finding meaningful purpose in life. When you are actively engaged in a sincere search for an understanding of the meaning and purpose of life, you are also in the process of developing the strength to cope with stress and disappointment. As members of the Lord’s Church, we are blessed to have the restored gospel of Jesus Christ, which explains the Lord’s plan of happiness and gives direction to our lives, meaning to our experience, and purpose in our struggles. As we commit ourselves to faith in the plans and purposes of God, we learn to endure the pain of life’s disappointments, and we are buoyed up by the eternal perspective of the covenants He has made with us.
The second factor is a belief in one’s ability to influence one’s surroundings and the outcome of events. In a gospel context, this means that we develop emotional strength when we add works to our faith, believing that through our labors we can make a positive difference in our own behalf and in behalf of others. The gospel teaches that our efforts, when coupled with faith in God, can help us overcome trials and afflictions and can bring about much good. “For the power is in them,” says the Lord, “wherein they are agents unto themselves” (D&C 58:28). Thus, as we devote ourselves to the service of God and our fellow beings, we are endowed with “power from on high” (D&C 20:8), we realize that we can accomplish many things of great worth, and we find comfort against the sorrows of mortality. We also develop confidence in our ability to make ourselves happy, and we learn that we do not have to wait for someone else to do so.
The third factor is a belief that one can learn and grow from both positive and negative life experiences. This essential principle is plainly evident in God’s teachings to His children. For example, in a profound statement to the Prophet Joseph Smith, the Lord lists the calamities that had befallen or could befall the Prophet and then emphasizes that even these hardships can benefit him: “Know thou, my son, that all these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good. The Son of Man hath descended below them all. Art thou greater than he?” (D&C 122:7–8).
Here the Lord teaches that our mortal suffering, in some degree like the suffering of the Savior himself, can have significant purpose, meaning, and value that can enhance our growth and our development toward godhood.
One can take positive steps toward recovering from the loss of a serious relationship. The first is to recognize that such a loss can be similar to the bereavement we experience at the death of a loved one. Minimizing the loss—that is, telling yourself, “It’s not that big a deal; I should just get over it”—will not help.
It is also important to realize that the loss of a relationship involves multiple additional losses, such as loss of contact with other valued people and loss of enjoyable activities shared with the other person. Even more painful is the loss of “what might have been”—the loss of the life we expected to have and the plans we hoped would become reality.
Healing from such a loss comes in stages as we work through painful feelings. It would be a comfort, perhaps, to believe that “every day I’ll feel a little better,” but the truth is that grief often comes in great rolling waves of emotion. Just when we thought we were getting over it, a seemingly insignificant reminder of the lost love may trigger painful feelings with unexpected intensity. Over time, the frequency and intensity of these spikes of emotion will diminish, but sharp pangs of grief may still be felt even months afterward. Try to be patient with your own grieving process, and acknowledge that the day will come when you will feel better.
In the meantime, consider the following tips:
If someone says something like, “I don’t want to be tied down,” “I’m not ready for a relationship,” or “I can’t make that commitment,” believe it. Remember that your love alone is not enough to make a good relationship. You can choose to be loving, but you cannot choose to be loved.
Realize that you are not really alone and that isolating yourself won’t help. Instead, look to the supportive relationships in your life for comfort and reassurance.
Seek spiritual guidance and counsel from your bishop. His inspired counsel can help alleviate doubt and distress.
Ask your father, your bishop, or another worthy priesthood holder for a priesthood blessing. A blessing can reassure you of the Lord’s love and concern for you.
Remember that when your feelings are most poignant and tender, you are also likely to be humble and susceptible to the Spirit. This is the time to appeal to the Lord in prayer. “Cast thy burden upon the Lord,” wrote the Psalmist, “and he shall sustain thee” (Ps. 55:22).
If you are endowed, visit the temple seeking to understand the Lord’s perspective on you and your life. Honor the Lord’s house as a place of contemplation, serenity, and inspiration.
Remember that the Lord has known you from the beginning and has a plan for your happiness. Seek to better understand that plan and to allow yourself to accomplish His purposes for you.
Keep a regular schedule during the day, and make plans for evenings, weekends, and holidays. When you are hurting or depressed, unstructured time is usually unproductive.
Stay involved in activities, and don’t be afraid to start something new and interesting. Take a class, join a new group, begin an exercise program, or take up an outdoor activity.
Give yourself some time as an unattached person. Avoid rushing into a new relationship to protect yourself from the pain of the old one.
Let go of your souvenirs of the past relationship. Don’t build a shrine to the memory of what has been lost. And stay away from romantic places you used to visit.
Keep a “feelings journal.” Writing about your experiences obliges you to organize and make sense of your thoughts and feelings instead of repeatedly reexperiencing the same confusion and distress. Writing in this journal can also be a solace at times when you are alone in your mourning.
Share your feelings with a person you trust. Talking to someone helps you avoid acting in ways that can be self-destructive, such as taking excessive or dangerous risks or making unwise decisions.
If you have followed these suggestions but are still not making progress, you may want to consider talking with an experienced professional counselor. Your bishop can help refer you to a counselor with high standards and values consistent with Church teachings.
For Jared, recovery from heartbreak began when he took the risk of sharing his grief with those who had offered their support. It was especially difficult for him to share his feelings with his mother, but he was surprised when she opened up to him and shared the feelings of loneliness and isolation she had experienced as a single parent. In addition, Jared found a “feelings journal” to be particularly useful because it helped him work through his complex emotions and make note of his progress. Eventually he felt ready to risk involving himself in another relationship, and he found that he had more confidence in his relationship skills.
Carla had a more difficult time. Despite her sad experience with Roy, she quickly became involved in a similar relationship with another man in the hope of soothing her distress over the breakup. When this relationship also failed, she was again overwhelmed with painful feelings. Carla’s recovery began when she allowed herself to fully experience these emotions rather than running away from them. She discovered that this experience required her to trust in the Lord’s ability to assist her in bearing the burden of pain she had believed was beyond her capacity to endure. As she did so, she developed a greater testimony of the Atonement and a greater faith in the Savior’s willingness to comfort those in distress.
Carla also learned that much of our deep need for attachment can be fulfilled when we enjoy the companionship of the Holy Ghost. If we live according to our covenants, we are blessed with a feeling of closeness to the Savior and peace with the life He has given us. With His help we are able to overcome feelings of grief, loss, weakness, and failure, and we can again live in blessed harmony with ourselves and those around us.