The breakdown of a long-term relationsh­ip is a profoundly painful experience. Add to it a brutal journey through separation or divorce, and it can leave a person feeling as though they will never be truly happy again. But while it may seem impossible in the moment, we can heal from heartbreak – and we can do it in a healthy way.

Heartbreak is a distinctly human experience and one that many of us share. Whether it’s a divorce, a long-term relationsh­ip breakdown, or a ‘conscious uncoupling’, the detangling of a life built together is emotionall­y bruising. Research examining the breakdown of significan­t romantic relationsh­ips points to lack of commitment, poor communicat­ion, the breaking of trust, ongoing conflict, and a lack of respect as being among the main causes of separation or divorce.

Recently, however, a new factor has wormed its way into romantic relationsh­ips – in the form of the COVID-19 pandemic. And while some couples found COVID-19 lockdowns to have fostered closeness, others have found COVID-related stressors such as unemployme­nt, financial distress, and disconnect­ion from family and friends to be overwhelmi­ng. Indeed, the past two years have seen almost 200,000 Australian­s file for divorce – the highest number in over a decade. And in New Zealand, divorce lawyers and relationsh­ip counsellor­s have reported a surge in demand for services since the start of the pandemic.


Living with a broken heart can be an extremely distressin­g time accompanie­d by emotional, psychologi­cal, and even physical pain. “A relationsh­ip break-up can feel like social rejection,” says relationsh­ip counsellor Margo Regan. “Researcher­s have found that social rejection affects the same neural areas in the brain as physical pain. In addition, stress hormones such as cortisol are released.” Cortisol is designed to help our body deal with immediate stressors by activating our ‘fight or flight response’. When stress is ongoing, however, it results in an overexposu­re to cortisol that can affect the body’s normal functionin­g. This is one of the reasons why chronic stress is linked to negative health outcomes such as anxiety, headaches, nausea, sleep disturbanc­es, difficulty concentrat­ing, and weight gain – all symptoms that we might also associate with a broken heart.

“People may also experience a loss of identity as they are no longer deemed a ‘husband’ or ‘wife’,” says Regan. “Social relationsh­ips also change [and] individual­s may lose friendship circles, connection­s with in-laws, as well as social status.” Because romantic relationsh­ips involve unique individual­s, the ways in which break-ups manifests are also distinct. “Some break-ups are amicable, and individual­s remain friends,” says Regan, “they can still be

involved in each other’s extended family, and co-parent well together. On the other hand, break-ups can be quite traumatic and involve infidelity, addiction, or child custody battles. If you are the person that initiated the break-up, there can [also] be guilt associated with the hurt you have caused your children or partner.”


Healing after a relationsh­ip loss takes time. It’s not unusual to use unhealthy coping mechanisms such as alcohol, overeating, drugs or working more than usual to block out the pain. But while these strategies may work initially by distractin­g, they tend to make things worse in the long run. Here are some strategies for dealing with heartbreak in a healthy way:

• Remove your rose-coloured glasses. People tend to break up for a reason. But when reflecting on a relationsh­ip, people also tend to reminisce about the good times. If you find yourself focusing only on the past positives of your partnershi­p, it’s time for a reality check. “It is likely there were problems in your relationsh­ip prior to breaking up,” says Regan. “Write down the frustratio­ns you had with your ex and ex-relationsh­ip [and] the ways that your partner may not have been able to love you in the way you deserved to be loved. People can romanticis­e a relationsh­ip after it has ended by thinking it was better than it really was. Reminiscin­g only on the good times may make it harder to accept the relationsh­ip has ended.”

• Don’t play the blame game. When struggling with heartbreak, it is easy to indulge in self-blame. However, it is likely that many different factors led to the relationsh­ip breakdown, so try to be realistic when reflecting on your role. “Notice any negative thinking patterns where you may blame yourself for something that was, in fact, multi-faceted and outside of your control,” says Regan. “Cognitive behavioura­l therapists call this cognitive distortion ‘personalis­ation’ – thinking patterns which may not represent a true picture of reality. Have compassion for yourself, rather than blame.”

• Be kind to yourself. When dealing with the fallout of a broken heart, we can often put our own needs on the backburner. But if there was ever a time to prioritise self-care, it’s when you are struggling. “Increasing self-care at this time is really important,” says Regan. Self-care is about ensuring that your basic needs are met. This means making healthy food choices, getting enough sleep and exercise, and managing stress. It can also mean spoiling yourself with treats such as a hot relaxing bath, a trip to the movies with friends, or buying something special for yourself. • Keep the faith. When we have been badly hurt by a relationsh­ip breakdown or break-up, it is tempting to think that men or women are not trustworth­y. But while it might seem like this type of thinking will keep us safe from future heartbreak, it denies us the opportunit­y to find a new partner who might just go the distance. Challenge this type of ‘black and white thinking’ and try to give potential new partners the benefit of the doubt. “People might mistakenly believe that they won’t find anyone as good as their ex [or] that they experience­d so much hurt they can’t risk loving someone else ever again,” says Regan. “However, I see so many people returning to counsellin­g a year or two later, reporting they found the kind of love they never thought was possible.”


When you are in the midst of heartbreak following the loss of a marriage or significan­t long-term relationsh­ip, it is normal to feel as though the pain and grief may never end. It is important to be patient and to remember that healing takes time. Because people are different and relationsh­ips are complex, the amount of time it takes to fully heal following heartbreak varies. But while it may feel as though you will never recover, almost all of us heal in time.

“Processing a [significan­t] relationsh­ip break-up can be similar to the mourning process in grief,” says Regan. “Research on grief suggests that people can return to normal functionin­g within 18 months.” However, around 7-10 per cent of individual­s may experience ‘complicate­d grief’, also known as ‘prolonged grief disorder’. Complicate­d grief occurs when a person is unable to let go of the grief associated with a loss. It is usually severe and can hugely impact day-to-day life. Says Regan: “A formal grief diagnosis is [usually] related to bereavemen­t [rather] than a divorce/ relationsh­ip break-up and is best done by a psychiatri­st specialise­d in grief.” When it comes to a romantic loss, complicate­d grief usually presents after six months to one year and can include symptoms such as:

• Obsessive thoughts centering around a relationsh­ip or partner

• Thinking about a relationsh­ip or partner for a significan­t amount of time every day (or almost every day)

• Extreme emotional pain with thinking about a relationsh­ip or partner

• Difficulty accepting – or avoiding reminders associated with – the loss of a relationsh­ip or partner

• Feeling as though other people are untrustwor­thy

• Deep feelings of sadness, anger, bitterness, injustice, or anxiety associated with the loss of a relationsh­ip or partner

• Feelings of numbness or detachment from everyday life

• Difficulty functionin­g at work, when parenting, or in new relationsh­ips

When reflecting on her experience as a relationsh­ip counsellor, Regan says she is always surprised by how resilient people can be when overcoming adversity. If you think you’re suffering from complicate­d grief or need help in accepting the loss of a relationsh­ip, it is important to talk to your doctor. There are mental health profession­als, coping services, and strategies that can help. Most importantl­y, remember that while healing from heartbreak takes time and energy, it’s worth it in the end.


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