At 15, Merissa* met the boy who would eventually become her husband. They lasted through a long-distance relationship and then marriage, but that all ended when Merissa was 36. Their divorce took six years to finalize, prolonging the closure that Merissa desperately needed. After the relationship ended, Merissa rode a roller coaster of emotions, alternately feeling hopeful about a new life and then plummeting into guilt and self-loathing. Merissa’s parents also were heartbroken; they had been devoted to their son-in-law and invested a great deal emotionally in their daughter’s relationship. This broken bond further intensified Merissa’s grief.
In the midst of heartbreak, we’re often consumed with guilt, self-criticism and doubt — all of which are devastating on their own, and are only compounded by the loss of a committed relationship. We obsess over our mistakes, the “could haves” and “should haves.” While time truly is required for the heart to heal, practicing self-compassion, creating new routines and surrounding yourself with a community can help you emerge from the heartache with new strength and insight.
Breaking up as a family affair
One of the added complexities of a breakup, particularly of a marriage or a serious dating relationship, is the disappointment and shame from parents in the aftermath. We often see this in Asian American families, which tend to be collective by nature. In a culture so deeply focused on family, a relationship — and, conversely, a breakup — becomes a reflection on the entire family.
“Culture influences all aspects of our thoughts and emotions, but particularly when it comes to relationships,” said Dr. Saunia Ahmad, director and clinical psychologist at Toronto Psychology Clinic. She added that people of Asian descent typically face cultural and parental expectations to be in a long-term relationship by a certain age.
“If something doesn’t work out, it could feel very traumatic that the developmental milestone of finding someone and settling down hasn’t happened yet,” Dr. Ahmad said. “That disappointment can be another added layer to an existing pain of the meaning of the breakup.”
Dr. Ahmad points to the parental involvement in relationships among her own South Asian community and clients, where parents are integral in making sure their children are married by a certain stage of life. Single individuals face pressure to find someone on their own or opt for a marriage arranged by their parents. The pressures and expectations are particularly prevalent among second-generation immigrants, whose parents made sacrifices to give their children a better life and, in return, expect them to achieve the success that they could not attain. That success could mean pursuing a career in medicine or law, or marrying a partner who checks all the boxes.
Dr. Ann Tran, a San Francisco-based clinical psychologist specializing in psychotherapy, dating and relationship coaching, walks clients through relationship issues, but recently had to follow her own advice when she went through a divorce. The hardest part of the process for her was staying confident in her decision to end the marriage and convincing her family that it made sense. Her family members were surprised to hear about some of the issues Tran and her ex-husband struggled with.
“That’s sort of the double-edged sword. We protect our loved ones from some of the things that we’re going through because we don’t want to bother them, don’t want them to worry, or we don’t want them to look at our partner in a certain way,” Dr. Tran said. “My family had to grieve that for themselves, too, because they took in my partner almost like a child of theirs.”
Above all, practice self-compassion
After a breakup, and especially when carrying the weight of family expectations and shame, self-compassion and self-care need to take top priority. Acknowledge and accept your feelings, because failing to do so could lead to your emotions manifesting as irritability, low self-esteem, frustration or depression.
“It’s very important to acknowledge all the feelings and to share them with people as well, because that’s the process of grieving,” Dr. Ahmad emphasized. “When a relationship ends, it’s a loss that needs to be grieved for there to be growth.”
Self-compassion also means being acutely mindful of self-criticism, particularly blaming ourselves for the breakup. A common, but unhealthy, response is to obsess over personal weaknesses, the inability to stay in a relationship and to second-guess our past decisions and actions.
Dr. Tran tells her clients, “Would you say that kind of garbage to your friend? If your friend was going through a breakup, would you say, ‘Remember that time you texted him three times in a row? That’s probably why [he broke up with you].’ It would be preposterous to even think about that.”
In the moment, the experience feels almost unbearable, but we cannot forget our own resilience, Dr. Tran explains, whether that means remembering how we recovered from a past breakup, a layoff or some other loss. She suggested journaling to observe and track our emotions and, over time, recognize the growth we’ve made in our grief. Our journals, then, become a record of our resilience.
During the separation process, Merissa’s self-care included seeking various forms of therapy, including hypnosis, seeing a Jungian psychologist and pranic healing. “There is definitely a trend with my alternative therapies that really helped me through these times,” Merissa said. “Mostly, I needed reflection from someone I trusted to help me realize how I truly felt and identify what was my past, present and future self.”
On a practical, tangible level, take care of your body. Ask yourself, what does my body need today? Do I have enough groceries to make sure that I can make healthy meals? Am I drinking enough water? Have I gone on a walk today or left my apartment recently?
Create new routines and habits
Clinging to the past or dwelling on memories (whether good or bad) block the healing process and prolong closure, whether we’re grieving the death of a loved one, struggling with a life transition or ending a relationship. To combat this, create new habits and routines.
Dr. Tran said tasks as mundane as planning a meal can be triggering. For years, the habit may have been to think about dinner for two. Then, overnight, you find yourself planning meals for one. Building new habits and routines into your life minimizes those trigger points for grief, which will wax and wane.
To understand the grieving process, Dr. Tran used the analogy of a box with a button inside, representing grief. In the early stages of grief, a huge ball is rolling around inside the box, constantly hitting the grief button. Everything around you — routine tasks, songs, restaurants, holidays, smells — reminds you of your ex. There’s little you can see or do that doesn’t push that grief button. But over time, as your routine changes, the ball might shrink, but it will still periodically tap up against the button.
“Sometimes people will say, ‘I thought I was feeling so much better,’ but suddenly have a really sad day,” said Dr. Tran. “That’s just how grief works. That’s a really normal part of the process.”
Creating new routines and habits looks different for everyone, but it could encompass finding new friends and activities that aren’t associated with your ex. Dr. Ahmad suggested pursuing a hobby that you didn’t have time for while you were spending time with your partner.
“Take the time to focus on yourself,” Dr. Ahmad suggested. “[In a relationship, we] make compromises on how much time we spend on ourselves. … Decisions about what things you did, where you traveled, had revolved around you and your partner. Now, you have time to do things in your own free time.”
Seek a trusted community
As you rebuild your life, surround yourself with a positive and trusted community. Dr. Tran said some of her clients try to deal with their grief first, before telling anyone else or seeking support, but that can be emotionally harmful.
“We’re not meant to do things alone,” Dr. Tran said. “When we do that, our brain tells us all sorts of garbage that isn’t helpful. Sometimes, we need to hear things reflected back from others. Lean into your support system.”
We all have those friends who make well-intentioned comments that are, in fact, hurtful. So make sure that you surround yourself with the right people. Dr. Ahmad described these as people who are trustworthy, nonjudgmental, compassionate and good listeners. If you’re concerned about overburdening someone else, try putting out feelers with several friends. Let them know you’re having a hard time and want to talk about what you’re going through, and see if anyone is particularly willing and receptive to listen.
If being vulnerable is uncomfortable for you, find at least one person whom you can trust and share with. Doing so may also give your chosen confidant a chance to share about their own experiences. Sometimes, it takes just one person to break the cycle of silence and open a space for safe, open conversation. If even sharing with one friend is too uncomfortable, consider finding a therapist or other professional to talk to. For Merissa, her confidant was a spiritual healer who identified Merissa’s innermost feelings and desires before she dared to admit them to herself.
While the separation and divorce were painful for Merissa, she recognizes the lessons and growth that emerged as a result. “I think the most important thing I learned about myself is that I have the answers, and I don’t have to rush the process,” she reflected. “It wasn’t about making the decision [to get a divorce]…but [about] what I needed to learn during the process.”
* Name changed for privacy.
Thank you to Dr. Saunia Ahmad and Dr. Ann Tran for contributing their time and expertise to this article. For an Asian, Pacific Islander, or South Asian American therapist, check out the Asian Mental Health Collective’s directory.
Photo credit: Henri Pham//Unsplash
Last modified: March 3, 2021