Sometimes, the end of a relationship can be personally very destabilising. I certainly remember the turmoil that followed the ending of my first significant relationship.
At first came the expected feelings, but as the tears receded, in place of what I hoped would be the old me stood a more insecure, guarded, angrier person. The dangerous part was that at first I seemed alright; after a brief hibernation I was back to excelling in my studies, functioning well at work, and seeing my usual friends and family. But, I knew something wasn’t right; it’s not so much that something felt missing, more like in the rush to feel better again, I’d put the pieces of myself back together in any jumbled order I could. I was busy, I was even having fun, but I was far from feeling like myself again.
I’ve noticed that many of the gay guys that come to see me can trace the decline of their mental health back to a major break-up. These clients don’t usually come to therapy seeking to process a relationship ending; they come in talking about symptoms of depression, describing a general numb feeling, or trying to make sense of a puzzling increase in risky behaviours (increased drug use, unprotected anonymous sex, etc). They, too, got reassembled out of shape. One guy I worked with put it like this, “after he cheated on me, it’s like this shutter just came down, and since then my motto’s been ‘fuck them, then fuck them off’.” That motto was working great at keeping people too far away to do any more damage, but it also left him pretty isolated.
This got me thinking about how we deal with our hurts in life. When we are physically injured, the natural response is to recoil from the source of pain, and our whole posture changes to guard the affected area during healing. However, this change in posture is meant to be temporary, as sustaining it long-term would create other problems (think about how we limp to take the weight off a freshly-sprained ankle, and now imagine the inconvenience and strain of walking like that permanently). Our emotional injuries work in much the same way; the sting is usually important feedback not to be ignored. Retracting from the source of pain is an understandable protective reflex, but to close up shop and keep permanent guard against future suffering is not living!
Looking back, I can recognise now that I had responded to my break-up by trying not to be vulnerable again. The drinking and keeping my interactions with boys exclusively superficial was designed to keep me safe, but something didn’t feel right, and these strategies would have caused me significant problems over time.
This topic is too complex to offer some hollow cliché as advice. So, instead I’d like to invite you to reflect on how you’ve responded to past significant losses in your own life, and ask: has your posture changed? If you’re uncomfortable with the answer, it might be time to ask for help.