Ace* started therapy when his girlfriend of three years moved out of their home. He was depressed, lonely, and sad. At times, he said, he felt like letting go. “Life just doesn’t have meaning for me anymore,” he said. “I don’t understand what happened. How could she just stop loving me? What went wrong?”
Noreen* suffered some of the same feelings when her college boyfriend ended their relationship. “He said he just didn’t want to be tied down. But I think he found someone else. I wasn’t good enough for him.”
What Ace and Noreen were struggling with is not unusual. According to many studies, the end of a marriage or a romantic relationship is high on the list of life stressors at any age. One study found that many individuals who are not normally depressed can experience symptoms of depression after a breakup. In her research into the stress of breakups, psychologist Kristen Gillen of Kalamazoo, Michigan, found that “romantic relationship issues are among the most common presenting concerns in university counseling center settings.”
It might seem like a no-brainer to understand why the end of a loving connection with someone, especially someone you thought you might spend the rest of your life with is not only stressful, but also painful.
But here’s something that we don’t always think about in connection with a breakup: the end of an intimate relationship can also damage the way that you think about yourself. In other words, you can lose your sense of who you are in the world, what psychotherapists call your “self” or your identity. Understanding this loss of identity can help you figure out how to recover.
When Jules* left her boyfriend of five years, she expected to feel nothing but relief. “We were angry at each other all the time,” she said. “But I didn’t realize how much I took it for granted that he would be there when I came home. It’s lonely in the apartment without him. But there’s something else. We had a lot of mutual friends. We’d gone to college together, and we worked together, so our friendships were all woven together. Some of our friends have stayed connected to both of us. Some have chosen sides. But that’s not the problem. What’s really bad is that I don’t feel like myself with them anymore. I’m…I don’t know…they don’t treat me the same, and I don’t feel the same. It’s subtle. I can’t always pinpoint what’s happening. But it’s there…”
Popular literature is full of examples. Robert B. Parker, author of the well-loved Spencer mysteries, describes the loss of self in his book Early Autumn:
You’ve been through a lousy divorce. For sixteen years or more you’ve been a housewife, and now all of sudden there’s no man in the house. You’re a little lost.
Author Lauren Layne describes a similar experience in one of her popular romance novels. A thirty-five-year-old woman who discovered that her now-dead husband cheated on her says:
“I’m just so aware that my only identity these days is widow. And even more alarming, even before Brayden died, my only identity was wife. Before that it was girlfriend. I just have the weird sense that I’ve lost sight of who I am. If I ever even knew.”
That loss of identity can happen after almost any breakup, even if the relationship was short and there was no marriage involved. The truth is, it isn’t a simple loss of identity, but a loss of a feeling of continuity as well. We often feel defined not just by a relationship, but within it. Some, or many of our friendships may be tied to that partnership. We often feel that people only see us as part of the relationship, so it’s not surprising that when it ends, we might feel that we’ve lost the essence of who we are – our self.
Psychotherapists today are very much aware that our sense of self is normally somewhat fluid. In other words, we don’t have one single way of being, but rather what the psychoanalyst Phillip Bromberg calls “a multiplicity of self-states,” all living under an umbrella of an overarching sense of coherence and “me-ness.” It is this mixture of “me’s” that leads to a feeling of becoming a childhood self when we go home to visit our parents, or allows us to feel pleased with ourselves one minute and self-critical in the next. It’s a sense of being able to contain all of the different selves in a cohesive and coherent, if loosely woven whole that helps keeps us resilient.
Interestingly, according to studies in the fields of attachment and neuroscience, our sense of identity is often framed within the context of others. That’s why we say things like “he brought out the best in me,” or “she brought out a side of me I’ve never seen.” It’s not that someone else can actually “make us” feel a certain way, but that we interact with different parts of ourselves to different people. In the best of circumstances, a love partner can support and know a wide range of our “selves” and help us feel an overall sense of well-being and self-satisfaction, even while recognizing and accepting some of our less likeable “selves.”
When a relationship falls apart, it’s often because a partner isn’t serving that function, and we feel more like our worst selves in interaction with them. But even when that’s the case, the end of a relationship can leave us feeling lost, disorganized, and without a coherent sense of who we are.
Dr. Gillen studied a particular aspect of this loss of self at the end of a relationship, in order to see if she could understand something about the ways that we recover from a breakup. She looked at a specific dynamic, called Sense of Coherence (SOC), a concept was first described in the late 1970’s by Aaron Antonovsky, who was trying to understand what made some people more resilient than others. SOC is, in general, a feeling that things make sense and will work out (albeit not necessarily as planned) in the end. In other words, as Dr. Gillen explains, SOC consists of three basic components: a sense that things are comprehensible, manageable, and meaningful.
When a relationship ends, we can lose that sense of comprehensibility, manageability, and meaningfulness, and along with it, we can lose a sense of our own cohesive self. That self can, and usually does, return over time, although frequently with some new components added as a result of both the old relationship and the breakup.
But Dr. Gillen found that a Sense of Coherence offers an extra factor in healing from a breakup. She writes that individuals with a strong SOC managed their pain in part by looking at some of the ways in which they had grown from the experience. Sometimes they saw the relationship itself as having been a learning experience, and sometimes they saw the breakup as an opportunity for personal growth, and sometimes a little of each.
Being able to see the ways in which you grew after a breakup doesn’t take away the sadness, pain, or feelings of loss. But it can help increase your resilience and make it easier to bounce back from the experience. Some of us have more difficulty looking for these signs of growth than others, and for some of us it takes longer to get there. But if you start looking, you’ll very likely start to see some ways that you have grown in the process. And that growth is going to be part of the self that you move forward with into the rest of your life.
*Names and identifying information changed to protect privacy
Please note – although I love to read your comments, I can’t always respond to individual inquiries and requests for advice. My apologies if I am not able to get back to you about your questions.
Antonovsky A. Unraveling the mystery of health. How people manage stress and stay well. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1987.
Philip M. Bromberg, Ph.D. (1996) Standing in the Spaces: The Multiplicity of Self And The Psychoanalytic Relationship. Contemporary Psychoanalysis 32:509-535