Everyone who has experienced love has, most likely, faced a painful breakup.
Ongoing research is beginning to recognize that the feelings associated with losing a relationship–and the love accompanying it–following a difficult separation are like the grief experienced when someone close dies (Burger et al., 2020).
Therapy can play an essential role in helping clients manage that grief and the associated extreme emotions they struggle to cope with (Field, 2017).
This article explores how breakup therapy can help process the grief associated with failed relationships and introduces tools and techniques that can support clients along their journey.
Before you continue reading, we thought you might like to download our three Grief Exercises [PDF] for free. These science-based tools will help you move yourself or others through grief in a compassionate way.
This Article Contains:
- What is the Relationship Grief Process?
- Grief After Breakups: 5 Stages & Cycles
- How to Provide Grief Counseling & Therapy
- 5 Techniques & Healthy Coping Mechanisms
- Coping With Breakup Grief: 6 Tips for Clients
- 3 Activities for Your Therapy Sessions
- 6 Helpful Workbooks & Worksheets
- Best Resources From PositivePsychology.com
- A Take-Home Message
What is the Relationship Grief Process?
While we typically associate the grieving process with bereavement, it can also accompany unchosen relationship termination and lead to similar emotional upset. Indeed, the loss of love, a relationship, and a partner can cause considerable emotional pain that may require therapeutic support to process (Lopez-Cantero, 2018).
Research has found several factors (physical and psychological) that are associated with breakup distress and the grief process, including (Field, 2017):
- Feelings of betrayal
- Sense of rejection
- Physical pain in the heart or chest (referred to as broken heart syndrome)
- Reduced vagal activity that controls bodily functions
- Compromised immune function
- Physical pain
Whatever the trigger, the grief process is a very real and natural process resulting from any extreme loss, helping our brains adjust to a new (possibly unwanted) reality (Cleveland Clinic, 2019).
Relationship grief & depression
While grief and depression can feel similar, their underlying processes are different. Indeed, grief is a reactive response to an external event, and depression–while difficult to define–is a constant feeling of negativity or anxiety that may result from a chemical imbalance in the brain (Samuel, 2019).
Depression occurs more often in those rejected rather than those ending the relationship and can lead to a slower emotional recovery and a higher incidence of anxiety, emotional upset, and irritability (Field, 2017).
Grief After Breakups: 5 Stages & Cycles
Grief is painful and yet is a process or journey each of us will take–most likely–more than once in our lives (Samuel, 2019).
While terms and descriptions vary across the literature, it typically follows a path similar to the following (DomesticShelters.com, 2022; Cambrell, 2021):
It can be challenging to face the reality that a relationship is over. Clients may logically understand that the breakup has happened, but don’t want to believe it or hope they can still work it out. While denial begins as a powerful coping mechanism, it can ultimately stop the individual from progressing and moving on.
Feeling angry towards an ex-partner (or even at life itself) is common and, whether deserved or not, is part of the grieving process while coming to terms with what has changed. A client’s anger may even be directed at themselves – frustrated and annoyed at what they did, or didn’t do, while the couple was together.
Whether realistic or not, the client may look for ways to save what has already ended, including appealing to a higher power, changing how they treat their partner, attempting to convince them the situation has changed, and even making threats.
Clients may be left with feelings of hopelessness, poor sleep and turn to excessive eating or alcohol consumption. They are most likely at their lowest point and may need support to find a way to see the potential for a new life at the end of this dark tunnel.
The client begins to face up to what has happened and their new situation. While potentially still facing strong and difficult emotions, including regret, they accept their new reality and begin to move forward with their lives.
In time, and possibly with support from others in the client’s life or a therapist, each stage usually passes and moves on to the next. However, individuals may slip back, returning to earlier stages of grief, potentially several times (DomesticShelters.com, 2022; Samuel, 2019).
How to Provide Grief Counseling & Therapy
The American Psychological Association (APA) defines grief counseling as “the provision of advice, information, and psychological support to help individuals whose ability to function has been impaired by someone’s death” (APA Dictionary of Psychology, n.d.).
And yet, as already discussed, grief can arise from relationship disruption and is often associated with feelings of loss, loneliness, and failure (Burger et al., 2020).
Whatever the cause, feelings of grief and heartache for the client are very real and clients will benefit from therapeutic support and learning coping mechanisms to manage painful emotions.
Grief counseling and therapy should provide opportunities for the clients (whether the partner is deceased or separated from them) to (Neimeyer, 2015):
- Talk about the loss of their relationship, partner, and love. To be free to share their feelings of anger, sadness, regret, aloneness, and fear requires a strong therapeutic alliance built upon trust and a lack of judgment.
- Work through any associated trauma to allow the client to continue their grieving process and move forward.
- Be listened to in a supportive manner regarding their present and future concerns. The therapist may introduce self-care, grounding, and calming techniques to manage panic and feelings of being overwhelmed.
- Become more aware and accepting of how they feel, recognizing that this is a time of vulnerability but also opportunity.
- To draw on their strengths, perhaps revisiting successful examples of resilience experienced before having met their partner.
Supporting clients with anxiety & guilt
While it is likely that the client will benefit from talking through the events that led to the breakup, it is vital to find ways to work through feelings of anxiety and guilt and introduce supportive coping mechanisms (Neimeyer, 2015; Field, 2017).
Partners often experience regret regarding their behavior and inability to save the relationship and a sense of concern regarding what an unknown future will bring.
The therapist will use several techniques (such as goal setting) to manage the emotional present and provide a re-focused yet intentional view of the future in line with the client’s goals and values.
5 Techniques & Healthy Coping Mechanisms
Coping strategies can take many forms, so it is vital to work with clients to understand their needs and develop their skills.
Therapists may work with clients to help them (Maertz, n.d.; Forsyth & Eifert, 2016; Neimeyer, 2015):
- Learn not to fight their feelings
Emotional upset and difficult feelings may be unwelcome and even uncomfortable, but should not be ignored or suppressed.
The therapist works with clients to identify their feelings (positive and negative), explaining that these are normal and even healthy and should be experienced fully.
- Talk about feelings
Talking through feelings with supportive friends, family, and a therapist can bring new understandings and additional insights, helping clients come to terms with the broken relationship and readying them for a future one.
Initially, if uncomfortable sharing thoughts verbally, it can be helpful to begin by writing them down in a journal or notebook.
- Recognize that loss is an inevitable part of life
Dating is not straightforward. Help the client realize that sometimes it is vital to let go of relationships that are not healthy or not taking each partner where they want to go, freeing up both parties to find the life and relationship they want.
- Try not to personalize the loss
Inevitably, when things go wrong, we find someone to blame—ourselves or others. Work with the client to help them see that self-blame can last a long time and is ultimately unhelpful. Instead, recognizing that the relationship was not working and that most likely, each person’s needs were not being met.
- Returning to a routine
Life can initially seem chaotic following a breakup. Work with the client to put some order in their lives—planning waking-up, working, looking after children, cooking, eating, and even cleaning to create a routine that brings some peace.
Each of the techniques has a time and a place. The client will only move forward when ready, supported as required by the breakup therapist.
Coping With Breakup Grief: 6 Tips for Clients
While the client may not initially be ready to hear words of advice from the therapist, in time, they may think back when you share the following tips (Cambrell, 2021):
- Don’t date anyone for a while
While well-meaning friends may encourage a person to jump back into dating, take time to grieve, and come to terms with the changes in life.
- Practice self-care
Recognize that, for a time at least, the focus must be on personal needs (and the children’s if there are any). Rather than being selfish, this is necessary to ensure personal wellbeing and provide the time and space to heal.
- Focus on self-growth
Change can be an opportunity to re-evaluate your life, identify what has been missing, and create a more value-driven, meaningful life.
- Remember what you used to enjoy
Sometimes, in a relationship, it is possible to lose sight of what makes a person happy. Revisit activities that used to bring joy and other positive emotions, such as awe, curiosity, and spiritual awakening.
- Let others support you
This is the time to let those who can be trusted remain close. Allow them to provide support, to help regain your self-love, and to increase self-confidence.
- Seek professional help
If not already doing so, seek professional support for psychological and physical wellbeing.
3 Activities for Your Therapy Sessions
Encourage your client to work through activities that form a deeper awareness and understanding of their emotions, thinking, and behavior.
Use the following three activities with clients either in-session or as homework (Maertz, n.d.; Forsyth & Eifert, 2016; Neimeyer, 2015):
Regaining faith in people and relationships
After a relationship has broken down, it would be easy to judge others (especially of the same sex as, or looking similar to, an ex-partner) as having the same faults or as untrustworthy.
Ask the client to create a list of people who have treated them well in the past, particularly those who share similarities with their ex-partner (age, sex, or interests). Encourage them to reconnect with some of these contacts–not with the intention to form new romantic relationships–but to recognize that there are people that can be trusted and relied upon.
Map the influence of loss
A breakup can involve changes to other relationships. Ask your client to use a paper and pencil to sketch out relationships in their life that include their ex-partner. Consider each one (for example, family, friends, and work colleagues) and think about how it will change – if at all.
Working through the relationship map will help the client begin to understand and come to terms with the changes in their life and what they can do going forward to manage them more effectively.
Learning from the past
Breakups involve a degree of loss – while sometimes this may be positive, there are probably some negatives. Ask the client to think about the lessons they have learned from their mistakes and the loss they have experienced. How could they use such learning going forward?
6 Helpful Workbooks & Worksheets
The following six worksheets can be shared with clients either as homework or discussed and completed during sessions. Assure them that there are no wrong answers but that the work will support the grieving process and in creating a new future (Maertz, n.d.; Forsyth & Eifert, 2016; Neimeyer, 2015):
- The Moving Forward worksheet encourages the client to examine what is holding them back and what they have learned that could help them go forward with a stronger sense of self.
- The Met and Unmet Needs worksheet helps the client reflect on what needs were being met and what were left unsatisfied in the broken relationship.
- Fear can stop a person from living a full life; this can be especially true after a breakup when facing a mixture of negative emotions. Use the Understand Your Fear worksheet to disseminate negative emotions and fears, and reflect on how unrealistic they may be.
- Maybe the client was holding back from doing things they loved while in their relationship. There is an opportunity to create the life they have always wished for, and the What To Do Next worksheet helps discover past pleasures, and plan in engaging with them again.
- If your client is clinging to the idea that there is still a chance to get back together with their ex (even when too late or it would put them at risk), then use the Letting Go worksheet to work through the thoughts and move on with life.
- It is common to share tasks and responsibilities within a relationship. However, following a breakup, each partner must learn to own their tasks. For example, the partner used to cook or service the car. The Removing Dependencies worksheet identifies what needs to be done and how to take back ownership.
Best Resources From PositivePsychology.com
Grief can be the mind’s response to loss and is a normal part of coming to terms with a new reality and move forward.
Processing grief can be an essential component of recovering from a breakup. Why not download our free grief tools pack and try out the powerful tools contained within, including:
- Drawing Grief Tool
A helpful drawing exercise to support grieving clients through exploring their thoughts and feelings.
- Objects of Connection
A valuable worksheet for helping clients discern meaning and functionality throughout the grieving process.
We have many other resources available for therapists to help clients understand existing and past relationships.
Other free resources include:
- The Emotional Wellness Quiz helps clients understand how emotions can help us communicate and form a deeper understanding of present and past relationships.
- Relationships can differ in their degree of authenticity. Use the Relationship audit to support clients in scoring theirs.
A Take-Home Message
Breakups can be incredibly painful, leading to many different negative emotions, including a sense of grief. To move forward requires the individual to work through and process that grief.
This grieving process typically differs from bereavement because the individual knows the other person is still out there, and is possibly made worse by their visibility (and their apparent moving on with their life) on social media (Fraga, 2019).
In addition, the client’s inability to see the best and worst of the recently broken relationship can lead to unclear feelings, emotions, and a confusion of guilt, anger, and grief.
And this is where breakup therapy can help.
After all, while painful, breakups are sometimes inevitable. With support, it is possible to end a relationship, come to terms with what has happened, and gain a healthy perspective on those involved.
Breakup therapy helps clients gain clarity over what was wrong and what was right in their relationship while achieving greater emotional awareness and the chance to let go of the past. After all, sometimes relationships end for the right reasons. While it can be hard to accept, therapy can help clients focus on a new, bold, and exciting future.
We hope you benefited from reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Grief Exercises [PDF] for free.
- APA Dictionary of Psychology. (n.d.). Retrieved April 21, 2022, from https://dictionary.apa.org/grief-counseling
- Burger, J., Stroebe, M. S., Perrig-Chiello, P., Schut, H. A., Spahni, S., Eisma, M. C., & Fried, E. I. (2020). Bereavement or breakup: Differences in networks of depression. Journal of Affective Disorders, 267, 1-8.
- Cambrell, A. (2021). Relationship grief – 5 powerful steps to get through it. Retrieved April 21, 2022, from https://www.counsellinginmelbourne.com.au/relationship-grief/
- Cleveland Clinic. (2019). Grieving after a break-up? 6 strategies to help you heal. Retrieved April 21, 2022, from https://health.clevelandclinic.org/grieving-after-a-break-up-6-strategies-to-help-you-heal/
- DomesticShelters.com. (2022). 5 stages of recovery after a breakup. Retrieved April 21, 2022, from https://www.domesticshelters.org/articles/taking-care-of-you/5-stages-of-recovery-after-a-breakup
- Field, T. (2017). Romantic Breakup Distress, Betrayal and Heartbreak: A Review. International Journal of Behavioral Research & Psychology. 5(2):217-225
- Forsyth, J. P., & Eifert, G. H. (2016). The Mindfulness & Acceptance Workbook for Anxiety: A Guide to breaking free from anxiety, Phobias & Worry Using Acceptance & Commitment therapy. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.
- Fraga, J. (2019). Breakup grief: Did your worst breakup change you? Retrieved April 21, 2022, from https://www.healthline.com/health/breakup-grief#In-what-ways-are-breakups-like-grief?
- Lopez-Cantero, P. (2018). The Break-Up Check: Exploring Romantic Love through Relationship Terminations. Philosophia (Ramat-Gan, Israel), 46(3), 689–703.
- Maertz, K. (n.d.). Surviving a relationship break-up – top 20 strategies. Retrieved April 21, 2022, from https://www.mcgill.ca/counselling/files/counselling/surviving_a_break-up_-_20_strategies_0.pdf
- Neimeyer, R. A. (2015). Techniques of grief therapy: Creative practices for counseling the bereaved. New York: Routledge.
- Samuel, J. (2019). Grief works: Stories of life, Death, and surviving. New York: Scribner.
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