Even before our birth and until the moment of our death, we spend a lifetime establishing and undoing bonds with the people in our daily environment. However, some of these relationships are so intense that their fading has strong psychological repercussions. What is the emotional impact of a break-up?

Establishing emotional bonds

As gregarious beings, people relate and interact with others to communicate what they feel or what they convey to us at a given time, to make requests, to debate, to share activities, etc. In any case, some of the relationships we establish imply a greater emotional intensity than others , as is the case with our parents, our closest friends, or our partner.

This type of bond is characterized by the fact that it provides (or hopefully will provide) a high degree of emotional security. In other words, there is a high level of trust in the other person , which means that we feel more able to share with him or her not only our strengths, but also our weaknesses. This is especially significant when we find a romantic partner, since this person will have the possibility of knowing us in multiple facets of our lives, with the “pros” and “cons” of our way of being. For this reason, Robert Sternberg spoke of three elements that he considered crucial for a couple to be able to speak of full love: intimacy, passion and commitment.

Intimacy refers to communication in the relationship, what is said, the handling of conflicts, and the activities that are shared, that is, the intention to spend quality time with the other person. Passion, on the other hand, refers to the more strictly sexual component, to the physical contact that takes place in the couple due to the attraction that exists between them, and to the search for this contact with the other person as a moment of union not only physically, but also psychologically.

Finally, the commitment is a determining factor insofar as it relates to the willingness of both members to maintain the relationship over time. It is the joint life project, in which one is present for the other in any medium and long term planning.

The Wear and Tear of Relationships

We have mentioned which three elements are key to the optimal functioning of a relationship, but we often find that one (or more) of them is not working properly in a couple.

Absent or unassertive communication, poor conflict management , little or no respect between the parties, lack of sexual activity, or a dubious commitment to the relationship are some of the most frequent problems in relationships. In fact, there is often a “cascade effect” which means that when one element fails, the others are very likely to be affected by it. For example, if communication has been inadequate for some time in the relationship, it is very likely that this will affect the sexual environment and, therefore, the intention to continue as a couple in the medium or long term.

When difficulties arise in the relationship, the members of the couple or marriage can try to solve them with their own resources and strategies or, seeing themselves as being far beyond their means, with the help of a couple’s psychologist who can serve as a guide and offer guidelines to improve those aspects that are indicated as deficient. In those cases in which both members are willing to collaborate with what the psychologist can propose, the therapy process is very fast and effective .

However, there are situations in which the resources of the relationship are exhausted, the search for help is too one-sided (by only one of the parties) or it comes when the couple has been so engrossed in their problem that it has come to wear one or both members down emotionally. In these cases, the most common thing is that the couple or marriage (or one of them) agrees or proposes a break/separation, so that each one can continue with their lives independently and overcome individually some of the difficulties experienced while they were together.

The emotional impact of the breakup

In those situations where the existing bond has not been sufficient to solve the problems of the relationship, the feeling of loss will lead to a process similar to a duel , until the person reaches acceptance of the break-up.

Feelings of frustration, helplessness and anger are very likely to arise when the situation has not been resolved, especially when a significant effort has been made. Likewise, the rupture implies a modification of habits and routines since, most probably, there was a “habit” of functioning in relation to the other, so an adaptation to the change is required that not only involves emotional aspects, but also those of thought and behaviour.

Furthermore, when children are involved, the separation or break-up extends the need to adapt to change to them as well, which often fluctuates weekly between one parent and another and is often also “swept away” by whatever power games may be established.

How can we psychologists work with these cases?

Although it is not frequent, it is possible for a former partner to seek advice from a psychologist to better manage her separation, that is, to facilitate the process for both of them. With an attitude of both, again the intervention becomes a much more agile process with good results.

However, the ex-partner/ex-marriage partner will most likely seek psychological help when minors are involved, because of the need for external guidelines that will allow them to handle the situation in the least conflictive way possible. In these cases, it is fundamental that the psychologist explores with the ex-partner how they functioned in aspects of communication, interaction, coexistence and care of the minors when they were together, and what their objective is in being separated.

It is important to delimit with both what they intend to achieve with the therapy process, since they will work to be a team of caregivers, even if they are separated. Listening and empathy should be encouraged, providing a safe environment in which respect for both parties prevails and the main goal is to achieve an emotionally healthy environment for the children. When we achieve this, we are ensuring a very favourable evolution in parenting styles, and a higher level of well-being for both adults and their children.