Supporting a man after a relationship breakup
How do you support a man after his relationship breaks up? Well step 1 - make contact with him, show up, let him know that you care. He could be avoiding, numbing, running and have possibly become bitter and angry, but he needs you to walk with him, to the edge of his pain, if he is to recover and love again. But be careful about being drawn into the "good guy" versus the "bad guy" drama. Understand what he is going through, the complexities of grief and recovery. Understand oxytocin and the stress response, HUG HIM .....
The Hello Happiness Mojo Recovery for Men Blog series:
This is Part 2 in a Blog series on how to support a man after a relationship breakup. See Part 1 "Understanding men's grief after a relationship breakup"
How do men grieve in a society that views sad emotions in a man as a weakness? How can men creatively grieve, when they have been recruited into seeing their value in life, as being about their status, rather than the relationships they have built? In a world that idolises individual identity and independence, how practiced will he be at opening up? What close friends does he have who really know him? What happens if his ex partner was the only one, he trusted and confided in?
I'd argue that grief itself has become pathologised, when in fact it is a natural part of life, that we all experience, multiple times. Becoming vulnerable and struggling to cope, is incredibly risky in a society, that measures success by what we produce or consume. If we are seen to be struggling or failing, we can be assigned 'loser status', meaning it is better to cover up and hide rather than be honest. Grief therefore leaves us susceptible to being ostracised and devalued, rather than supported and loved. Instead of connecting we are encouraged to consume to feel better, to buy a remedy or seek treatment from an expert, when what is really required is love from people that are already close to us.
After Karen died, I was initially showered with support and care, but over time, as this dropped away, I began to struggle. Coping with a terminal diagnosis, the downs of failed treatments and the caring for someone dying, had already taken it’s toll. I was exhausted, struggling to sleep, flooded by emotions and had no real idea on how to navigate a new life. Instead of building relationships and reaching out, bitterness began to hook me into reactions that further isolated me, as I wrote people out of my life, who had failed the 'Brent Cherry' support test.
Although I’d been counselling, for over 20 years, I was shocked at how tough it was to reach out and seek help. In a perverse way, I began to believe that opening up and sharing how bad I felt, would make it worse, that sharing my true feelings would actually be debilitating rather than healing. Talking about it made it real. It was best to pretend, hide, numb and avoid.
As I now write this Blog on 'Supporting a Man after a Relationship Breakup', what I get from my own story is; when my friends and family did reach out to me, it helped. I could then slowly navigate my way forward and maybe most importantly, I could reveal my inner turmoil, whilst being loved.
Recently, I watched an Emily McDowell TED talk called the "Oxytocin Stress Story." It clearly demonstrated, that disconnecting from human relationships, escalates the stress response, when one is facing major hurdles. You may have heard of the love/connection hormone, oxytocin, which is released when you cuddle and hug someone. A bonding hormone, released between mothers and new borns to reinforce their attachment. It is released to prime you to strengthen close relationships via physical contact.
I had thought that oxytocin was solely released to reinforce connection and bonding. In fact, oxytocin could be considered one of the primary stress hormones; the pituitary gland pumps it out, as much as adrenalin, when you are facing difficult times. Your stress management system wants you to, seek support and share your struggles whilst being surrounded by people that care about you. Interestingly, when we openly express sadness, people who care about us, are triggered to respond by increasing their connection.
Not only does oxytocin encourage us to seek help, but it also counters some of the negative health consequences of stress. We have all heard how damaging stress can be for our health, but it has not been made clear to us, that love, connection and closeness are physically healing. Oxytocin protects the cardiovascular system from the harms of stress, it is a natural anti-inflammatory and makes blood vessels stay relaxed. Your heart has oxytocin receptors that help heart cells repair, regenerate and replenish. I had no idea that being hugged, not only mends a broken heart but actually strengthens your heart.
How to support him a practical guide:
Step 1.1: HUG HIM for at least 20 seconds - without freaking him out.
Before you hug him, you need to reach out, make contact, and meet him - Step 1.
The aim is to meet him rather than see him as a problem to be fixed. Grief is natural, it is part of life, we do it because to lose someone we love is immensely painful. Grief is not a disorder to be fixed, a thing to get over, but it is something to be with. There is no magic solution, there is not an answer, but a process to go through.
Reflect on your own grief, ask yourself how you cope, will his grief trigger a response in you, will you try and fix it, give him advice, tell him to look on the bright side, because you are the one who struggles to cope with your emotions. Being with him, hanging in there, may actually benefit you.
Normalise grief, share your own struggles and experiences, to stand with him. However it is important to remember this isn't a worse life competition, where you out trump his story with your even worse tail. It is his time, for you to support him. It can be useful to imagine yourself in his situation, how would you cope with your relationship ending. Think about what you would need.
Don't have a face to face, in depth interview of him, where you try and crow bar his distress out of him. Why we men, will talk in the car whilst you sit beside us, or why we will talk whilst on a bush walk, or sitting at the beach looking out to sea, or whilst painting the house, gardening together, is still a bit of a mystery to me. Maybe we don’t have to reveal our vulnerability front on and in full view and it might be about being able to sort of, move into the pain and then move out again.
Be present with him, show him you care, go at his pace. Dealing with heart break is one of life’s biggest challenges. To heal, we have to walk into the pool of pain and loss, to swim in it while our loved ones (who have walked with us to the edge) are there to rescue us if needed. But most of us as we approach the edge, run like crazy, into our addictions and habits, as we just can't stand it. But at its essence, healing allows us to move on with our lives, to again choose to live life and take the risk to connect again, even though we may get our heart broken. In the end we are there supporting him so he will love again. For without our support he could choose a 'little life' rather than a wholehearted one, as C.S. Lewis wrote:
To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung, and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no-one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with your hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket – safe, dark, motionless, airless – it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.
Remember in grieving, we oscillate backwards and forwards, at times confronting and other times avoiding our grief, a sort of waxing and waning process. Let him tell his story but know that he is also in an internal battle to avoid his pain, by blaming, avoiding, running, and numbing. Look at times, he’ll get stuck, ruminate, blame her for it all and become resentful and bitter. This is not surprising as this sort of stress and loss, leads to an impairment of the imagination, where one only looks back rather than forward and to move on, one needs to begin to imagine a life without his ex-partner. He’ll struggle, flounder around, often making it worse for himself, until his mental flexibility returns. Allow room for grief, for escape, for depression and for joy. It is all normal.
Allow him to reminisce, to share the positive times, to acknowledge the love story, that was theirs. How much he misses her, how he had thought they would be together for the rest of their lives. How he dreams about her, thinks about her, wonders what she is up to. He may also acknowledge, where it all started going wrong, his sadness now at their not intervening. Just be with him.
Listening to him tell his story can be a tricky one, as you will also know his ex partner well, and hopefully you will have read Part 1 of this Blog series, about not getting caught up in the drama of the "good guy" versus the "bad guy". When one faces heart break, it seems compelling to become the 'victim', as if, we will only get support if we have been the wronged party. Your supporting him, notwithstanding his behaviour, in itself counters this. You need to acknowledge the loss that he is suffering without playing into the blame game. Talk about your own reactions to the loss, to all the changes, how you will miss them as a couple. But also acknowledge what you have witnessed, the worries you had for them. Wait for a window of opportunity before you challenge him, look instead to join with him when he reveals his insights into his own attitudes and behaviour.
Clearly at times he could be the victim, she may have been cheating on him, or even have fallen in love with someone else. This is often a crazy making time, when his intuition has been discredited. He may have suspected something was happening but had been reassured all is fine between them, or she has defended herself by challenging him about his being jealous. Now its all out, his trust will be shattered, he will be angry and wanting to talk it all out. But she may have psychologically and emotionally gone as she is now planning a new life with her new person. This is extremely tough for him as one day he thought he had a partner and the next she is not even available to discuss anything about their relationship, for her it is over. He does not get a chance to redeem himself or try and reconnect their relationship. It's like he's missed a step in the process, even though he may acknowledge that they had problems, he has to move straight into goodbye. He has had no preparation for their breakup, compared to a couple who have over time tried but in the end failed to make it work. He suddenly has to come to terms with losing the future he had thought they would have had together.
Men come to me for counselling when all their loss has transformed into anger and hostility. They are stuck blaming their ex partner for wrecking their life. It is in this state of mind that they accidentally push everyone away. This is tough for friends and family who want to be their for them, but find it very difficult to remain close as he vents and becomes angry at the world. Anger it is essentially about trying to make a hurt go away.
I think it is sometimes valuable to think of life, like the Pixar Movie – 'Inside Out' – where there are sort of multiple roles and emotions that are all there to work together to help us get through. But in men, they’ve got this 'dickhead' part, that is normally kept in check, but when the others are all confused and distressed, it will attempt a coup, by trying to overthrow the others and run the show for a while. During my Mojo Recovery counselling sessions, I'm interested in engaging men where they are stuck, to assist to find alternative ways forward, as it is from this stuck place that he can be a risk either to himself or his ex partner.
Bitterness if not kept in check can become the sort of default position, that informs all future actions, it can move from a being like a cold that you will recover from to cancer that will eventually destroy you. Your mission if you should choose to accept it, is to not let this part of him win, by strengthening the other roles and emotions. Reframe the bitterness - by exploring the feelings and emotions that underlie it. Questioning with him, is it a cunning way for him to run away from the edge and not face his loss? Or is he armouring up against the world so that he will never get hurt again? In a worse case scenario you may have to make a stand and even consider seeking professional help and guidance.
It is important to acknowledge that his whole life can be thrown upside down. As a father, he not only loses his partner but has to also come to terms with a fundamentally different relationship with his children, a difficult task. Whilst also facing all the other losses associated with a break up. This can include, his home, his projects, all the work he's put in; the garden, his hobbies, her family, community etc. It is not surprising that he wants to avoid and run away from the edge. Or that he's a tad angry.
Grief can be exhausting, he'll want a break from it, don't push him to talk. Instead of seeing his not opening up, as avoidance, trust him that this could be exactly what he needs. At times men just want some time, to be distracted from it, to have a bit of respite, to recharge their batteries. Talking about it can make it real. I kept on playing tennis, without ever really sharing with my tennis mates, but they’d see it when I’d duff a shot and overreact. As my poor shot came to symbolise everything that had gone wrong in my life. To their credit, I think they got, that I had lost any tolerance for life’s small frustrations. Their still welcoming me, at my worst, was in itself incredibly supportive. Remember he is living life, like he is perpetually sunburnt and in this hypersensitive place, he will at times be a pain in the neck. Hang in there.
If you are part of his routines, continue them with him and encourage him to maintain his own. If you run together, meet for a beer on a Friday, help together at the School, keep doing these things. Keeping up with routines, sort of tricks our brain, that we are safe, that some stability is returning, that the initial crisis is over. Stress and anxiety can be so debilitating and routines can be soothing and comforting.
There is an added benefit, in encouraging him to maintain activities, habits, passions and pursuits, these can inspire him to choose life, to remember all is not lost, that although his relationship has ended, a lot of his life will carry on as usual.
There is also considerable research on the benefits of physical exercise, when one is facing both grief and depression. Encouraging him to maintain his fitness and to even take up new challenges, will give him positive things to focus on whilst boosting his mental wellbeing.
An important thing to remember is, ordinary little things, can trigger grief to sort of unexpectedly ambush him, where everything seemed to be going fine and then suddenly, a song comes on the radio, or he walks into his office and sees his daughter's art and he suddenly feels like he is back to square one.
Give him things to look forward to, an event you will go to, a function, a beer, a meal out. I remember after Karen died, being depressed, down, lost, but then I’d think, well I do have that beer with Kevin, or that family dinner, or the movie with Jane, to look forward to.
Help him reconnect with his larrikin energy. After Karen died, it was the part of me, that was the hardest to reconnect with again. Life had become extremely serious and depressing, and I think others and I thought, that it would be inappropriate to laugh in the face of grief. But it was the part of me that I missed the most. I had loved being with friends, having a laugh, ribbing each other, being irreverent and at times even laughing at my problems. I believe, this is an under estimated part of healing. Having a laugh, sort of diminishes grief's influence, knocks it back down into a more manageable size. I think of this as the M.A.S.H (TV programme) affect, where even in the most stressful and appalling situations, laughter can be the best medicine. I’ll put a slight advisory here, don’t be crass and insensitive, observe him, watch his reactions, be present with him, continue if it is working, but stop and apologise if its inappropriate. At times it was hard for my friends to read me, as I would initially enjoy the joke, but then wasn't resilient enough for it to continue on.
This larrikin energy is linked to adolescent risk taking, although we need to nurse our wounds, there is also a need to begin taking risks again, if we are to kick the shit out of a 'Plan B' life. We will need to date again and find a new life, having learnt from our mistakes.
It was not until my brother invited me on 'Boys Weekend', that I truly re-engaged with that part of myself again. When I realised I could laugh, even at my own misery, cook for mates, chat by the barbie, win at table tennis and feel lightened by the whole experience, I knew I was on the mend. It would be really easy to think we won’t invite him, because he’ll just be sad, but I’d recommend inviting him - you should be, assisting him to choose life. Having a look at my Blog on Celebrating the Larrikin.
Help him with the practical stuff, now he has to do it all, he might be bloody useless at some of it, be disorganised, overwhelmed and be in a bit of a shambles. Whilst he is also trying to cope with grief, loss and all his anger and bitterness. When you visit, you’ll know what he’s missing, what’s not getting done; the fridge could be empty, the lawns 2 feet high, the house a mess or the washing all over the place. Help him.
Most importantly assist him, in whatever way you can, to let him maintain and develop his relationship with his children. Help him be a Dad. Offer your place for visits, pick up the children from his ex's place, invite him and the children to your place, look after his children when he needs to attend appointments, offer him advice and guidance, let him debrief, allow him to make mistakes and then reconnect.
There will also be visits to professionals, like lawyers, real estate agents, teachers etc, offer to go with him.
If you can, dissuade him from making major life decisions, especially dating (having sex) after 24 hours with her best friend (well now ex), or moving in with some women he barely knows after two weeks, or selling up and moving to New York, where he knows no one, you will be doing him great service.
A random idea - encourage him to journal, just putting it down on paper can make it look more manageable. It also creates a separation from the problem, where one can look at things more mindfully. While we are promoting good ideas, encourage him to go to mindfulness meditation classes, to assist him move out of all the excessive thinking and out of the egoic mind into his aware mind. Go with him.
In the end each man will be different, trust your judgement, remember what he has been like over the years. Has he been able to take feedback? Does he get angry when he is down? Or does he withdraw? What does he love, what are his passions? Use your joint history to nudge him along. It can be a rocky road, hang in there, stay a friend, but maybe most importantly make the effort to reach out to him, don't wait for him to contact you.
Love him through thick and thin.
Brent Cherry Counsellor
027 511 3555