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There’s a reason why a breakup often feels like a death. Whether you’ve initiated the breakup or on the receiving end of one, there is a definite mourning period that comes at the end of a relationship.
“When a relationship is truly treasured, a breakup can be incredibly stressful mentally, emotionally, and physically,” says Dr. Carla Marie Manly, a clinical psychologist and author of Date Smart: Transform Your Relationships and Love Fearlessly. “It’s natural to grieve the loss of the person, the relationship, and the relationship routines that felt precious and familiar. When a person is highly invested in a love relationship, the breakup can be as devastating as the actual death of a loved one. When we grieve, we are giving the psyche a chance to move through—and come to terms with—the heavyweight feelings that arise from a significant loss.”
It’s no surprise that the five stages of grief, first outlined by psychologist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, can also be applied to a breakup.
“The five stages of grief—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance—are not linear in nature. A person suffering from grief can cycle through the first four stages before ultimately—if ever—reaching the stage of acceptance,” Manly says. “Some rapidly cycle through the various stages (for example, shifting from denial to anger and then quickly back to denial) whereas others may stay in a stage such as depression for a protracted time period. Whether grief results from the ending of a relationship, termination of a much-loved job, or loss of a loved one, the stages are the same.”
With that in mind, here are the five stages of grief after a breakup, and tips for navigating each one.
“When a breakup occurs, the first stage of denial generally manifests as disbelief,” Manly says. “It’s common for people in this stage to say, ‘I can’t believe this has happened to me’ or ‘This has to be a bad dream.’” Even if there were problems before the breakup, you might convince yourself that therapy or time could help solve your problems, or that your partner will soon change their mind.
While Manly emphasizes it’s key to be self-compassionate and patient when moving through each stage of grief, she says if a sense of denial arises, “it’s important to acknowledge that denial—the wishing things could be different—is part of the letting-go process.” In other words, take stock of what happened and try to understand the breakup was for the best—even if you don’t see it right now.
“The anger stage often involves fuming, raging about the former partner, or even projecting anger onto friends, society, or family,” Manly says. “During this stage, those who are prone to dysregulation may display deeply angry behaviors at the former partner or at material items related to the partner (for example, throwing away personal belongings associated with the ex-partner).”
But being angry is not always a bad thing, according to Manly. “When we pause to feel our sadness, anger, and frustration, we are giving our feelings a chance to breathe,” she says.
However, people are prone to stay at this stage for a while, especially if they feel victimized. To channel your fury wisely, consider talking it out with a close friend or family member or joining a new workout class. (Boxing, perhaps?)
“Bargaining often arises in the form of wishful thinking or actually reaching out to the former partner to reconnect,” Manly says. “For example, a person might call an ex and say, ‘We should give things another try. I promise I’ll do better this time around. I’ll even go to therapy if you think that will help.’”
Bargaining is typically used as some sort of negotiation to avoid the pain that you’re feeling and get back to feeling better (even if that means completely ignoring your previous issues within the relationship). You might even try to get your mutual friends and family involved to try to convince your partner to come back. Instead, connect a trusted friend or family member who can help remind you of your worth and value—and why the breakup was the right choice for you. Immersing yourself in hobbies and activities that boost your self-confidence is another great option.
“Depression is often the most-lasting stage, especially if the former partner was truly beloved,” Manly says. “Depression results from the realization that a person is largely powerless to effect any real change and that the loss is real. This stage involves deep sadness about the loss of a partner, the relationship, and the loss of other factors, such as shared friends, family, and familiar activities.”
Here you might experience trouble sleeping or eating, and/or indulge in habits that can numb your feelings like drugs and alcohol, shopping, casual sex, or overeating. This is the best stage to reach out to a therapist or medical professional for assistance. “It’s important to seek support of a psychotherapist if the grief process feels unmanageable or is affecting your ability to function,” Manly says. “Breakups can be incredibly stressful and disheartening; reach out to others so that you don’t have to bear the pain alone.”
Here is where you finally have accepted the breakup and are ready to move on. It doesn’t always mean you’ve completely let go of your partner and that you don’t experience any residual emotion; it just means you have found some peace with your situation and are ready for the next phase in your life.
“Ideally, we allow each stage to wash through us and then move forward,” Manly says. “In this way, we realize that grief is our psyche’s way of allowing us to slowly let go in preparing for moving forward.”