Time for the pain ILLUSTRATION: Tim Furey

Time for the pain

Much like with a death, grieving is needed after a breakup

By Patti Carmalt-Vener 09/29/2011

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­­Dear Patti,
Andrew, my boyfriend of three years, recently broke up with me and the pain is unbearable. In other aspects of my life I feel normal (I’m 29) but each of the three times I’ve had a romantic relationship end, I haven’t been able to handle it. With my prior breakups it took  over two years before I could get serious about anyone again. I go to work, see my family and visit friends, but it’s like I’m only going through the motions and always missing him. I have no energy, but I know that if he called I’d immediately feel terrific and happy and start cleaning my place, finding sexy outfits to wear and cooking his favorite foods. As long as I’m in a loving, secure relationship, I function well and am normally very independent. 
I’m pretty attractive and have no difficulty attracting men, but it’s rare that I’m interested in any of them. Andrew was my best friend, and I was intensely attracted to him, both intellectually and physically. It feels like I’ll never again find someone I click so well with. He tried to make it work, but he’s just not ready to settle down. 
Is there something wrong with me that I can’t be happy as a single woman and am always looking for a man? And why does it take me so long to get over a broken relationship? I’ve never been in counseling before because I see myself as a well-adjusted person, but I’m now open to the possibility. ~Ella 

Dear Ella,
I want to be careful here not to over-pathologize you. Painful grieving over the loss of someone you truly 
love is not uncommon, and the depth of the pain — as well as the amount of time it takes to grieve — is often underestimated. 
When you lose someone you love, one aspect of that loss is the belief that they can never be replaced, and it can take time to have any inclination to do so. It’s also not abnormal to deeply desire a mate in your life or to feel at your best and happiest when you’re in a healthy relationship. 
While it’s normal to feel passionate and sad about a breakup, it could be extremely beneficial to explore this issue psychotherapeutically if you believe the pain is overly intense and impossible to cope with. Professional therapy might open up a whole world of clarity for you about past and present relationships. Emotional health is not an exact label or an absolute but, rather, flows on a continuum that varies at different times in your life and fluctuates in response to diverse aspects of your personality. 
If, for example, you only feel happy in a relationship, feel empty, lonely and depressed following a breakup and have difficulty reattaching, there may be noteworthy traumatic events from your past contributing to your present challenges and mood swings. It’s also probably a good idea to have a complete consultation to rule out any other issues, such as mood or personality disorders. 
It’s a good sign that you’ve been able to open up, love and significantly attach to three men in your life. This means that you were probably deeply loved by someone as a child and also were able to give love back in return. Did any of these historic relationships end in abandonment or loss? Did you ever experience neglect and abuse or periods of loneliness and intense and unfulfilled longing? If so, there’s the possibility that in addition to grieving for the loss, of your recent relationship you may also be tapping into unfinished sorrow from your childhood.  
Once aware of such history, you can revisit these emotional memories and, accordingly, lessen their power over you so that in the future your losses will only be tied to present circumstances. This will then allow them to be appropriately proportional in their intensity. 
I think it’s a positive step that you’re open to the possibility of therapy. I also want you to keep in mind that well-adjusted people attend therapy all the time as a way to embrace the opportunity of making their lives even better and more fulfilling. 

Patti Carmalt-Vener, a faculty member with the Southern California Society for Intensive Short Term Psychotherapy, has been a psychotherapist in private practice for 23 years and has offices in Pasadena, Santa Monica and Canoga Park. Contact her at (626) 584-8582 or email pcarmalt@aol.com. Visit her Web site: patticarmalt-vener.com

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