Breaking Up Is Hard to Do

September 19, 2011

When my adult daughter introduced us happily to her significant other, it was practically love at first sight. The two seemed a natural match, not only for one another, but also to my husband and myself. While the two navigated the ups and downs of their budding relationship, we became more and more attached to her boyfriend – maybe, I realized now, a little too attached. Despite my knowing better, I have to admit I nursed a few private fantasies of the two of them, marching down the aisle. All of which was normal enough, but when their relationship faded after two years and love between them didn’t last, we were faced with a tough and painful question: What were my husband and I to do with our lingering feelings of sadness, loss and love?

I’m not alone in this; other friends have shared their ‘break up’ stories with me, and have dealt with it in different ways. For some, it can come with a divorce, where you may have become close with a son or daughter in law who – in some cases – you will never see again after the legal proceedings are closed. Sometimes, in cases where a break up is amicable, it may be possible to work out a separate connection outside the ended marriage or relationship, where the two or three of you can share the occasional dinner or tennis match.

But most of the time, the end is truly the end, and parents can be left with unresolved emotional feelings that can be hard to admit – while your son or daughter are moving on, you might not be ready to. Add into that the understandable anger and confusion of your child that you might remain attached to a person they have left behind, and you have a tough family dynamic and loyalty bind.

Why do we feel this way and where do these feelings come from? As an experienced couple therapist who is quite passionate about helping others maintain intimacy, I’m influenced by experts in neuroscience who tell us that as human beings we’re wired to connect in love and deep friendship and wired to protest in distress if hurt, rejected, alone or abandoned.

So how to deal with this transition? Some tips to keep in mind:

Set your own clear limits and respect boundaries established by the couple about getting too close or overly bonded before it’s really official.
Be patient with yourself and allow time to see how the relationship unfolds while keeping your own hopes and wishes in check.
Stay focused in the present “here and now” that anything can happen in the drama of love and romance.
Listen with a non-judgmental attitude when you hear about the couple’s ups and downs and restrain yourself as much as possible from offering advice and getting in the middle of their conflicts.
Be aware and attentive to your own reactions and face with open-heartedness the inevitable pain that comes from break-ups. It will pass.
Be sensitive to your loved ones’ needs and wants regarding contact with the ex-partner and sharing information about the other after their uncoupling.
Please remember: healing and change, often for the best, happens in a heartbeat.

Lucy S. Raizman, MSW, LCSW, LMFT, with special thanks to Ilene Raymond. Lucy is a Senior Staff Therapist and Director of Council for Relationships’ Doylestown office. She can be reached at 215-345-8454 x 2.