The first thing to do is to give up thinking that there is a simple rule book for life or relationships as there isn’t and the desire to have one might suggest anxiety about taking risks.
Life involves taking risks and if you are not taking risks then you are not living, this is especially true in terms of love relationships.
Miss Haversham from Dicken’s Great Expectations serves as a lesson in what in grief therapy we call mummification, this is the process where we try to avoid the process of loss and moving on.
Mummification being what happened to the bodies of the ancient Egyptian Pharos so they would live forever; what it does is stop the natural process of decay, change and growth, this natural process is needed when a relationship ends.
Learning to move on
Another thing to look at is if when people move into a new relationship, they still try to work through the problems of the previous relationship, it’s another way of refusing to accept the loss and move on and this can be a crucial issue.
It’s more than possible to grieve the loss of a relationship that you are already in.
In fact, for many people this is the case and the formal ending through divorce is akin to the funeral rites. Obviously when burying someone they are already dead, and the funeral is there for the living.
Extending the metaphor, the way we respond to that loss, an actual death will depend on what our relationship to the deceased was and how we experienced their death and to some extent how they died.
The level of shock at the loss complicates the grieving process and we may well stay in the denial phase for a long time as we numb to avoid the pain.
Learning to let go
There are similarities to this in intimate relationships that don’t end in death but end in divorce.
So, the answer to the question of when one should start a new relationship is often linked to how the previous relationship ended and the nature of that relationship.
Let’s look at a divorce that happens after a couple have gradually grown apart and ends with mutual understanding and rational split of resources and responsibilities if there are children to co-parent. Clearly both parties will have come to terms will the situation already and can start and in many cases, will have started another relationship.
In a situation where a divorce occurs after one partner was abusive, or carried out secret affairs, there will be a significant amount of emotional baggage to process. This is probably best done in singleton, which is not to suggest you shouldn’t have intimacy, but is to suggest the capacity to have long term stable intimacy with another will follow on from doing the repair work on oneself.
Do engage in dating and having liaisons if you wish, this may be very helpful in retrieving aspects of self-esteem but be very thoughtful about what is known as rebound.
Where there is a lot of stress, fear and anger involved, letting go and moving on is always more difficult.
The odd thing about love is that it confers freedom on all the parties involved psychologically. Stable attachment, which is what therapists rather boringly call love, is designed by nature to allow us the courage to explore.
The less stable the attachment the more we cling on.
Stable attachment in relationships
Stable attachment in adult-adult relationships is a two-way process and both parties need to be in a relatively stable place emotionally to give and receive in this way. This might be a useful rule in thinking about when to start a new relationship aimed at longevity and mutual growth.
As with any loss grieving a marriage takes time but the intensity of the early experience fades and as it fades it’s perfectly reasonable to get involved again. It’s probably though not sensible if the experience is still very intense or still too painful or damaging to even experience.
If that’s the case, you are likely simply to be trying to heal damage rather than love and be loved. My advice would be that healing damage is better done with a therapist rather than a love partner.
It’s best then not to think about timescales for starting new relationships but milestones or markers.
While there is not a direct correlation between loss through death and loss through divorce and whilst every experience of loss is unique, it’s useful to look at the six stages of grief to provide you with a guide to getting back to dating for the longer term:
- Numbness and Denial
- Anxiety and Panic
- Bargaining and Control
- Frustration and Anger
- Depression and Despair
- Acceptance and Peace
This list is a little simplistic and, in some ways, idealised, we never develop in a linear fashion as humans, but it might make a handy checklist. Clearly starting a new relationship once you have achieved acceptance and peace over the ending of the old one is the preference.
About Noel McDermott
Noel McDermott is a Psychotherapist with over 25 years’ experience in health, social care, and education.
He is the founder and CEO of three organisations, Psychotherapy and Consultancy Ltd, Sober Help Ltd and Mental Health Works Ltd.
Noel’s company offers at-home mental health care and will source, identify and co-ordinate personalised care teams for the individual. They have recently launched a range of online therapy resources to help clients access help without leaving home www.noelmcdermott.net