Understanding men's grief after a relationship breakup
Supporting men after a relationship breakup:
Part One - Understanding his loss
I write this Blog, about understanding a man's grief after a relationship breakup, intimately knowing the pain of losing a lover, partner, mother of my daughter and best friend to cancer. I’ve had my heart broken as a young man, but have not personally experienced the pain, and complexities of separation and divorce. However after over 20 years as a counsellor in private practice, specialising in Mojo Recovery for Men, I believe I have a contribution to make to this space.
The Hello Happiness Mojo Recovery for Men essay series:
How, as a friend or family member, can you support a man who has separated? Well step one, don’t tell him “there are plenty of other fish in the sea.”
Step two - make contact, phone him, visit him, even txt him, invite him to your place, to events, for a coffee, a beer (rather than 10). But don’t leave him alone, hoping he will come right on his own. He may not answer the phone, reply or come out, but he needs to know that he matters and belongs. That his family and friends care about him. He will get down, but one does not really want his new best friends, to be bitterness, resentment and depression.
Remember it isn’t about you. Let go of your own ego, if he doesn’t respond, or reply, it is about him and his struggles and not about him liking or not liking you. Don’t emotionally chase him or stalk him, but let him know (even by text) that you are thinking of him.
The idea of making contact, seems simple enough, all you, need to do, is pick up the phone, but for maybe multiple reasons, it often doesn’t happen, leaving the bereaved isolated and bewildered.
“He’d contact me if he needed help” – No he won’t.
“What do I say?, I could make it worse.” - what makes it worse is not contacting at all.
Don’t be chicken shit, be prepared to get it wrong, to not say the right thing, experiment, be present, monitor his reactions, tell him that you care. It isn’t really the words that count. The bereaved, do get that it is hard and that you are trying, it is your actions that count.
If we understand what he might be going through we can meet him where he is at:
We often have little experience, training or guidance on how to best support a man who has recently separated. One of my greatest learnings was after I completely failed. When I was in my mid twenties my friend, Peter Saunders was diagnosed with Leukaemia. I couldn’t face it, I just avoided it, I got into a form of 'magic thinking' - that he would go into remission, that I’d see him at Christmas. He died, without my saying goodbye, or telling him what he had meant to me, how in lots of ways I owed my life to him. Some thirty years later I still carry the guilt, for my lack of action, but have also forgiven myself, after keeping the promise, I made to myself, that I would from then on, face up to these difficult and distressing life events.
Remember when you make contact, this isn’t a rescue mission, where you are riding in on your white horse to save the day. This is not about seeing him as a problem to be fixed, but as a person to be met, with all that is going on his life. We are sort of programmed to make it better, to fix it, to stop him suffering, but you can’t fix this. But you can meet him with empathy as he grieves and begins to navigate a Plan B life.
Supporting either party after a relationship breakup is made more complex, by who is assigned, as the person at fault. Relationship breakups can actually be very complex, with multiple contributing factors, that have influenced the way the parties, either connect or sabotage their relationship, over the years. We like simple analysis, that takes away uncertainty, he is to blame or vice versa. In a weird way we seem compelled to take sides, to get caught up in the drama, to support the "good guy” and possibly reject or disown the "bad guy.” This has a big impact on the level of support, caring and connection the parties can have after they separate.
A relationship breakup can also trigger fears in ourselves - about us suffering the same fate, with our own relationship breaking up. To disconnect, from feeling like we could be a 'victim' of such an event, we don't want to explore what has happened to the couple. Instead of identifying with the them, we think, this will not happen to me, because our relationship, is fundamentally different to theirs, by assigning them as being dysfunctional - "she's a bitch" or he's "a bastard." This simplification impacts both how we offer support and our ability to reflect on our own lives.
Look he may have at times acted like a real 'dickhead' and brought the breakup on himself, but this doesn’t mean that he won’t be suffering. In fact his suffering maybe even more extreme, as he is facing the double whammy of loss, overlaid with shame. One has to always remember that to live with loving kindness and show compassion, one has to practice non judgement, even in the most trying circumstances.
Dealing with a broken heart is one of life’s biggest challenges. It throws us into disarray, as we try and navigate, the whys, the how’s, and the what comes next’s. I think it is best to remember, that for most people, the process of separating, is a real knock, people feel like they have failed and have become some sort of 'loser.' Then there are all the ongoing consequences and issues to be faced, before people can even contemplate living to a Plan B. Men who talk to me, describe how they have just had their arse kicked, and they feel like they are face down in the mud, floundering around, with people laughing at them. No matter the cause, it is at these times, that men need to have family and friends help pick them up and wipe them off.
I think it is important to remember failure is ubiquitous. As Sheldon Kopp stated we are all trembling souls when dealing with life and as Albert Ellis the maverick psychotherapist stated “We are all out of our fuckin minds.” We have all made mistakes, been idiots, lied, got angry, cheated and failed. It is how we humanise this failure, that can really make a difference, building empathy rather than sympathy. If managed well, talking about failure can be a relief, for now you can really say what you think, how you truly feel and declare how difficult things have been and become.
For a lot of men, vulnerability is to be avoided at all costs, that it is a sign of weakness, that one will be laughed at and preyed upon. But truly, vulnerability is a natural and normal state, that actually builds relationships as it opens up the space for nurturance and communality. Downfall writes the American Zen Buddhist Natalie Goldberg, "brings us to the ground, facing the nitty-gritty, things as they are with no glitter. Success cannot last forever. Everyone’s time runs out."
When we contemplate supporting a man with a broken heart, we can trivialise and simplify what has happened in his life. We can sometimes forget the multiple losses he maybe experiencing, when a relationship ends. It is not just losing their best friend, lover and partner, but is also about letting go of a future story, of a life they thought they would have lived together.
Sometimes he’s lost the only confidant he’s ever had, the person, he’s shared his life story with, who has seen, been with and loved him, when he he has struggled, been down and when he has been vulnerable.
If a man has linked his identity and status to being, a successfully married man, the impact can be more difficult to bounce back from. Failing then becomes not just sad but catastrophic for him.
We also need to contemplate and reflect on what it would be like to be a “Dad”, who is also going to be facing, significant changes in his relationship with his children. From having effortless connections, father’s can end up, experiencing significant ‘missing’ of their children, losing the ease of the relationship as they readjust, to not living with them on a daily basis. Now this can also have significant potential, as the relationship moves from one of 'taken for granted,' to one that is highly valued and appreciated.
Then there is the need for him to grieve and readjust to all the secondary losses, all the areas where he has put his energies and passions. The loss of his home, house, garden, hobbies and projects. Plus all the relationships with his ex partners family, friends and the local community that will now never be the same.
Then we need to consider all the practical things that his partner, used to do to make life run smoothly for him and his family. All the things he avoided, was too lazy to do, justified as being womens work, are now his alone to do. I remember my grandmother, knowing that my grandfather couldn't cook, cooking and freezing all these meals for him, as she was approaching her own death. A relationship breakup isn't the ideal time to learn new skills due to the high level of stress he is facing. One has to also consider, how much of the parenting of their children, was actually done by his partner. Now he has to rebuild and reconnect his relationship with his children, whilst also learning practical parenting skills.
Finally this won't be all he is facing, he will also miss the man he used to be, as he grieves, adapts and rebuilds his life. In my next Blog "Supporting men after a relationship breakup", I will outline practical ways of being there for him.