5.2
May 8, 2023

Gone yet Everlasting: Why it’s so Hard to Move on after a Breakup.

When someone dies, most people understand the well-known process one goes through.

It has to do with the five stages of grief and the rewiring of the neural mapping in your brain. When a relationship ends, whether it be in one year, six-plus years, or 15 years, the process is similar.

When my last long-term relationship ended, I realized something crucial. In my mind, my partner was gone and yet still pretty much alive. I struggled to make sense of this dichotomy. Though I chose to end the relationship for good reasons, I was still left with the devastation of trying to pick up the pieces of my life and create something new from scratch while processing the loss of love.

I waded through seemingly endless amounts of reading in my search for an answer to what I was feeling. I wanted it to go away—fast. No such luck. What I found, however, was some science, coupled with psychology, that allowed me to at least understand and accept the process I was entangled in. I had an enormous rewiring job ahead of me that explained the seemingly unending grief. I was going to have to gain new lived experience and repetition of that experience to rewire my brain to make sense of his absence and move forward into a new reality.

When a long-term relationship ends, the person gone is still alive in our brains. We’ve encoded the connection as “everlasting” when we initially bonded with them. The more important the bond, the deeper the encoding. It’s this bond or neural map we’ve created that must be rewritten. It takes time, patience, and a whole lot of acceptance of oneself to redraw your “map.” The entire process is 10 times more difficult if the loss changed major aspects of your life such as moving away or finding a new job.

For me, not only I lost the dream of cozy home life with my partner, but I also lost the connections I had created living with his kids and dog, all the shared fun experiences, and the joy in planning the next adventure. I had to literally pack up my entire life and move to another state and create a new existence. In doing so, I lost the home environment I had built with him. It was an enormous undertaking and scary to boot.

We are hardwired to form attachments from birth. It’s been proven in countless studies that humans need to connect with others. When we form a deep attachment to another, our brain keeps that connection solid and safe by creating “neural maps” that allow us to predict things. Predictions can come from the dimension of “here, now, and close.” If our partner goes to work, we know he or she will come home at a certain time. If they go hang out with a friend, we predict that a reunion is in the offing and take unconscious steps to self-soothe in the meantime. Our subconscious knows we will be reunited because we have created this neural map in our head that says so. Our brain says they are “everlasting.”

Bonding with another creates neural maps filled with tons of details about our partner that we’ve acquired through our experiences with them. The longer the relationship, the deeper the intensity and connection and the more comprehensive the neural map is.

Some things that made it so hard to let go were the warm presence of his body in the morning upon awakening, his unique scent, the sound of his car when he would pull into the driveway, our shared “uni-mind,” or his handwriting on cards. I missed being annoyed by the water on the bathroom counter, which I dealt with by saying he was a happy otter splashing away during his morning ablutions. It was one of many annoyances I was intimately familiar with. I missed our shared jokes, our silly play, and the sound of his voice. All these things and more were familiar, habitual, and recognizable. So the loss left me with the massive job of making sense of life without these predictable occurrences.

I would catch myself rubbing my thumb on my ring finger where my engagement ring used to be. It was like a phantom limb, only I called it my phantom ring. I could almost feel it. I’m built for deep, nurturing connection and commitment, so it was no surprise to feel that phantom ring. If I saw lightning from a thunderstorm, my immediate reaction was to reach for my phone to call him and share it with him. If I saw a Smart car, I automatically said in a high voice, “It’s a little baby car, it’s very cutie,” and paused a beat waiting for his laughter that would never come again. I would see the color and make of his car on the road and wonder if magically he was here. There were countless songs, scents, and sights that my subconscious would take in, process as “here, now, close” that made me think of him and yearn for the familiarity of our connection.

Early on, it was overwhelming because my brain was still telling me that he was “everlasting.” I was experiencing deep sorrow at unexpected moments. I was grieving the loss of a dream—a life I had planned with him. It was crazy-making, yet I knew it was not a permanent state of being. Having two opposing pieces of knowledge, he was gone yet everlasting, triggered yearning and painful grief alternately. The part of my brain that created the neural map of “us” over the years together was slowly learning to replace “here, now, close” with new lived experiences. I had to be patient with myself when I caught myself ruminating on our past.

Thus began the process of rewiring.

Like so many others, I relied on a support system to get me through the tough times. The first thing I did was create a new home. I designed it to suit my taste and added new stuff. I needed my own safe, soft place to land. I learned to recognize when I was stuck in the old neural map and how to get unstuck. I embraced a new career and work that was deeply satisfying. Slowly, I began to step out into the world and have new experiences. I reconnected with old friends that I had before I met him and made new friends as well.

Though there were plenty of bad days, as time passed, the gaps between them widened. I was doing the work to create a fresh neural map filled with new predictions that brought me joy and laughter. It became exciting to reinvent my life and easier to resist those moments when I desired a return to the dream, which I now realize was indeed a dream and not reality.

Knowing that the loss of love creates a vast chasm of “gone” on one side and “everlasting” on the other is a painful, yet truthful place to begin healing. This knowledge can allow one to embrace self-compassion, empathy, and patience as the rewiring process is undertaken. Be kind to yourself and know that it’s natural to feel the way you’re feeling. Trust the process and go in peace.

~

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