In this podcast (episode #346) and blog, I talk about how to manage your mental health when a relationship changes or ends.
Relationships can take all sorts of forms and have many different functions. We may have people in our lives for just a season and then move on, we may have friends who we just like to hang out with and have a good time, or we may have friends or family we can trust more and share what is going on in our lives. It is so important to understand that one person can’t be everything for us, and if we try to fit one person in that mold, it can lead to a lot of codependency and anxiety. It’s okay if people come in and out of your life or their roles change!
In one study, researchers found that “having many sources of support or performing many roles in terms of both the family and the surrounding community appears to be best for mental health”. What this means is that the more kinds of relationships we are a part of, or the more diverse our social circle is, the more it seems that our mental health benefits.
This is particularly the case with friendships. In the study above, they also found that, “although family relationships are also important, they are generally obligatory. Friendships, in contrast, are optional…and may therefore be important for feelings of autonomy. Friends may provide emotional intimacy and companionship, integration into the community and broader society, and reaffirmation of self-worth”. Our ability to choose to have many kinds of friendships can potentially improve our mental wellbeing. Another study supports these findings, indicating that “people with a varied personal network may generally have more success with fulfilling their needs for sociability, companionship and support compared with people with a homogenous personal network, who may be more likely to experience feelings of social isolation or a lack of social support or companionship from time to time…”. As humans, we live and thrive in a social community. It is necessary for our own survival and for maintaining our mental health. Indeed, as I have mentioned before, our psychoneurobiology (mind-brain-body connection) thrives on diverse and quality-filled relationships!
But our need for relationships doesn’t always make maintaining or developing a relationship any easier. One of the hardest things that we constantly need to manage as we go through life is our relationships with other people, especially as we ourselves change and grow. As we go through life, we are constantly exposed to new people, places, and ideas. We also experience major life changes, such as finishing school, going to university, dating, marriage, having kids, changing jobs and so on. When something big happens in our lives, our relationships with certain people may change, or we may lose some friends and gain other friends.
As one of the studies above notes, “social contacts are not only capable of fulfilling several needs, such as love, comfort, companionship and information, but also cost several resources, such as time, energy, and cognitive and emotional investments”. There is a cost involved in any relationship, and occasionally, that cost doesn’t measure up to where we are in our life. Since it takes a lot of effort to maintain and cultivate relationships with people around us, we should learn how to distinguish what relationships are worth putting that energy into, and which ones we may be better off ending.
We also need to understand that some people are in our life for different reasons and will fulfill different roles. We are all unique, and our lived experiences are incredibly diverse. We are constantly growing, and as we change, so will our relationships. This means that losing contact with someone is not always a bad thing. They may be going through their own changes. This person may have met a significant other, moved states or countries, started a new job or family, or may be going through a hard time and need to isolate for a bit—all of these things will become new priorities for them.
It is important to understand that it is not always a bad thing or your fault when a relationship changes or ends. Yes, when this happens it can make us feel lonely, sad or excluded—this is not a bad thing either! It is okay and in fact NORMAL when this happens—grieving over the end of a relationship is a part of life.
But how do we cope or manage this pain or discomfort? Here are a few tips:
1. Give yourself the time and space you need to adjust to this new reality.
The relationship may just need some “room to breathe”—this may be a boundary you or the other person need for a bit. If your relationship ended because you were fighting a lot, this break could give you both space and time for any negative feelings to settle down.
2. Self-regulate and get to the root of how you feel now that the relationship has changed, and what you may do differently in the future.
I recommend doing a Neurocycle when you are in the midst of a relationship crisis. This is the scientific mind-management process I have developed and researched over the past three decades, and is based on the way the mind and brain functions, builds thoughts and memories, and processes life experiences, which I discuss in my book Cleaning Up Your Mental Mess and app Neurocycle.
The 5 steps of this process are designed to help you process your feelings and experiences, and can be done either individually or together.
Before you begin this process, it is important that you are in the right mental state, because dealing with relationship issues can be emotionally and physically draining. To this end, I recommend that you take steps to calm your mind and body and gain clarity, especially if you just had a major argument. Some great ways to do this are:
- Deep breathing
- Doing a physical activity, such as an exercise class, yoga, jumping jacks, cleaning or a nature walk
Then, when you are ready, go through the 5 mind management steps of the Neurocycle:
- Gather awareness: In this gather step, you are gathering awareness of your emotional and physical warning signals, behaviors and perspective/attitude. It’s a bit like gathering apples into a basket versus letting them all fall on your head and knock you out. In this analogy, the apples represent all of these warning signals. In this step, allow yourself time to feel. Validate your feelings, don’t run away from them!
- Reflect: Put your thoughts and feelings on the witness stand in your mind. Ask yourself questions like: Why do you think you feel the way you do? What has happened recently? What has happened in the past? Have you been suppressing or ignoring anything? Are you trying to avoid anything? What triggered you? Be as specific as possible. You can do this in a minute or less because you don't need too much information—you don’t need to find all the answers right now! Allow yourself to be curious with your emotions and feelings. What you are feeling is valid, but may not be true, so question everything.
- Write: Pour you mind and brain on paper. This doesn’t have to be organized or even make sense—just get it out! You can organize in step 4. This type of “pouring your mind out” writing will pull what’s in the depths of your being up and will help you both organize and clarify your thoughts and feelings. It also increases brain health, so that you can think more clearly, be less impulsive and have more wisdom and cognitive flexibility!
- Recheck: In this recheck step, you are making more sense of what you have gathered, written and reflected on. So, I want you to go back over what you discussed, wrote down and thought about more deeply, reflecting and analyzing your thoughts and feelings. Do a mental autopsy; become a detective and look for patterns, triggers and activators. Write whatever you discover into your journal in another color so you can track what you are reconceptualizing. Some questions to ask in this step could be: What truths are hidden in your writing? What patterns? What are you noticing about your thoughts and reactions? Has anything changed? How are you planning to proceed? What can you learn from your reactions? What can you learn from what happened in your relationship? How can you reconceptualize this situation? How can you turn the destructive into something constructive
- Active Reach: This step is essentially an action you take to reinforce the new, reconceptualized pattern of thinking you want in your life (which is replacing the old relationship habit). This step will be based off what you rechecked in step 4. If you want something to change, what will this look like? How can you practice this change? If you want to restore the relationship, what will you do?
3. When it comes to restoring a relationship, don’t just say sorry, take action! Acknowledge your own role/responsibility in the argument, and be prepared to give an authentic apology, not just a quick or irritated “I’m sorry!”. Think deeply about ways to change your behavior, so that the other person can see that you are genuinely apologetic. Be what I call “solution-minded”; think of tangible, constructive ways you can improve the situation and your relationship to show that you are willing to change.
4. Talk to someone you trust about the relationship and how you feel. This may provide more perspective and help you learn from the experience. You can do this individually or with the person you have a relationship with. Indeed, when you are struggling with the dynamics of any relationship, it can be extremely beneficial to look to others for help, advice and support, especially people who may be on the “outside” and have a more objective view of the relationship.
5. Practice being graceful. We all need a little grace and compassion at times, because we are all human! It may be important to give people a second and a third and a fourth chance, try to understand why they may be reacting in a certain way, and try to figure out why someone is upset. Maybe they are just having a bad day, or are going through something difficult. Always consider this before you just assume they are acting this way to antagonize you and giving up on the relationship. Try to see the best first—this is what I call a “grace attitude”. This means seeing this person in a compassionate and understanding way, which changes the kind of mental energy you generate towards that person. This can help defuse a potentially traumatic situation.
6. Communicate! Talking is so important, as it helps us gain clarity and understand other people better. You may realize you or the other person have an incorrect perception of what is happening, or you may realize that you or the other person have something else going on and can’t put the same effort in the relationship right now. It is incredibly important to try and approach relationship issues with a willingness and openness to communicate, and the wish to be kind above all things (to both yourself and the other person). Try not to assume you know exactly what is happening as you start the conversation. You could even write the other person a letter or send them a text if it is too hard to talk in person. Communication has many different forms!
7. Create healthy boundaries. It is important to try and figure out what you need and want from other people in your life, both in terms of setting boundaries and setting expectations. You need to clarify what you expect from any relationship. For example, when two people get married, there are expectations that go along with that relationship commitment. When they say their vows, they are setting their expectations for their continued relationship. And this applies to any relationship! What do you want? What do you need? What will this look like in your life? Be as specific and honest with yourself and others as possible!
8. Work on being okay with a relationship ending. One of the scariest things to remember is that, at the end of the day, sometimes you must move on, and that is the best option for your own wellbeing. If you have tried everything you can do to talk with the person and work on the issue, and you find that the relationship is still in a bad place, then acknowledge that moving on is the best thing. This will be hard at first, and you will probably grieve the loss of friendship—give yourself permission to grieve, and remind yourself that this pain will be less traumatic in the long term that the toxic stress the relationship was causing. Remind yourself that now you have more time to focus on the relationships that do add value to your life.
For more on relationships and mental health, listen to my podcast (episode #346). If you enjoy listening to my podcast, please consider leaving a 5-star review and subscribing. And keep sharing episodes with friends and family and on social media. (Don’t forget to tag me so I can see your posts!).
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4:30 Why relationships change
5:15 Some relationships are seasonal
6:30, 18:25 Why it is okay when relationships change or end
7:25, 18:00 Why we shouldn’t just blame ourselves if a relationship changes
7:60 Why we need different kinds of relationships & how this impacts our mental health
12:05 The difference between friendships & family relationships
15:00 Why we all need a community
17:22 Why a relationship may change or end
18:00, 25:40 Tips for managing relationship changes in your life
This podcast and blog is for educational purposes only and is not intended as medical advice. We always encourage each person to make the decision that seems best for their situation with the guidance of a medical professional.