Kathryn Vercillo is a San Francisco-based freelance writer and blogger. She writes about relationships, health, food, and nutrition.
When a relationship ends, people go through the same stages of grief that they go through when they experience loss in other forms. The first stage of grief (and one that you might experience again and again throughout the process of grieving) is denial. A big part of healing when a relationship ends is working through the feelings of denial.
What Is Denial?
Denial means very simply that you don't want to believe or acknowledge that what is happening is really happening.
When it comes to the breakup of a relationship, denial can take many forms.
Types of Denial
- Denial that there is a problem. Before the relationship has come to its end, you may deal with the fears and feelings that are going on by denying that there is a problem at all.
- Denial that the problem is serious. You may admit that there is a problem in the relationship but deny the seriousness of the problem. Although the relationship itself may be heading towards a breakup, you may deny that this is going to happen and assume that you're just going through a tough time that will soon pass.
- Denial that the relationship is really over. You may say the words and end the relationship but still deny that the relationship is really over. This can take the form of continuing to see each other (and sleep together) even though you're broken up. It can also mean that you aren't talking anymore but you deny that the breakup is permanent and look forward to a time when you get back together. You may also deny that the relationship really needed to end and try to convince yourself that things were better than they were.
- Denial about the intensity of the feelings that you have regarding the breakup. You may deny to yourself and others that you are as hurt by the breakup as you are. This is a defense mechanism that helps you get through the intense grief of the loss of a relationship.
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Why Do We Experience Denial When Relationships End?
It is important to understand that going through denial is a natural part of the grieving process when a relationship ends. If it goes on for a prolonged period of time or results in serious delusions then it's a problem, but for most people it's just a stage. In fact, it's a very helpful and important stage for a number of reasons.
How Denial Can Be Helpful
- Denial helps us get through the worst of the pain. If we had to feel all of our feelings of loss constantly while a relationship was ending then we would be overcome with sadness. Denial is a defense mechanism that helps us to process the loss slowly so that we can cope with it.
- Denial gives us hope. We need to feel hope when it seems as though our world is crashing down around us. As a relationship comes to an end or as we deal with feelings of loneliness after the end of a relationship, the denial can give us positive feelings of hope. Ultimately this helps us to feel like everything is going to be okay ... which it will be even though the relationship itself may not survive.
- Denial allows us to function. Instead of being crippled by our sadness, we are able to get up and keep going by denying that things are as bad as they seem. This can help us to maintain our normal routines, which is ultimately good for us.
How to Deal With Your Feelings of Denial When a Relationship Ends
It is important to realize that denial is a natural part of the grieving process and to accept it for what it is. However, it's also important to recognize when it's gotten out of control. For example, if you're hanging on to an old relationship for years because you're in denial that it's really over then you're limiting your own life and the denial has become a serious problem. When dealing with your own denial over a relationship ending, keep the following in mind.
How to Process Your Feelings
- Denial is just a feeling and it has its benefits. Be gentle with yourself. Allow yourself to feel some of that hope but also acknowledge that it may not be based in reality but instead in your own denial. Just be with the feelings without making too much out of them.
- Listen to the other person. If you're still talking with your ex or soon-to-be-ex then it's important to listen to what they are telling you. This helps provide you with a reality check about whether they also have hope for the relationship or whether you're just in denial about it.
- Work with a journal to track your feelings. Make sure that you note for yourself what your feelings of denial/hope are about the relationship. Ask yourself what the evidence is for and against those feelings. This helps put things into a more realistic perspective.
- Move forward with your life. You can not get through the stage of denial if you hang on to it forever. Take tentative steps to move forward as if the relationship really is over. If it turns out that it's not, you can enjoy that fact later when it becomes your reality.
- Work with a therapist. If you are having trouble with the end of a relationship, it can definitely help to speak with a counselor. This person can help you process your feelings of grief including the feelings of denial that you have about the relationship ending.
What If Your Ex Is in Denial?
Sometimes what happens is that we process the feelings of grief very quickly and the denial stage doesn't last that long for us but the other person involved stays stuck in denial for much longer. This is often the case when you initiate the breakup (although not always). It can be really tough when the other person is in denial about the relationship ending. You loved this person and it hurts to have to tell them over and over that the relationship really is over. If you're in this situation, keep the following things in mind.
What to Tell Your Ex
- This is just a stage. The other person is dealing with a lot of feelings about the end of this relationship (just like you probably did). Keep in mind that they are going through the stages that they need to go through and that they won't always be this way.
- Be kind but firm. If the relationship really is over, you need to reiterate that in no uncertain terms. If you see a future friendship one day, you can say that but you need to be very clear that the romantic connection is over for good. If you yourself are unsure, you need to say that you're unsure but that at this time the relationship is over.
- Don't let your own feelings lead the other person on. Your feelings may go back and forth during this loss as well. There may be times when you miss the person and want to be with them again. However, if you are committed to the relationship being over then you need to work through these feelings on your own and not confuse the other person with them.
- Working with a counselor can help you. You do need to process your own feelings about the relationship ending and the other person's denial of that. Working with a therapist can help you to do that properly.
- Take action if the other person's denial gets dangerous. In some rare cases, the other person's denial about the relationship ending can lead to stalking and other inappropriate behavior. Make sure that you take appropriate action to protect yourself if this occurs.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.