COMMITMENTS : After the Big Breakup : It’s over. But denying the pain won’t make it go away. You’ve got to give yourself time to mourn--then move on.
When Lisa Leeman and her boyfriend reached the twilight of their relationship this spring, they took separate paths. As he got on a freeway heading out of Los Angeles for a new life in another state, she drove off to yoga.
“Yoga was great. It saved me,” said Leeman, recalling a period when she also participated in a journal-writing workshop and a storytelling workshop to help her work through the pain of the breakup.
“I went through an entire ‘70s ‘me decade’ in two months,” she said, laughing.
Experts say those involved in a breakup should expect to go through a mourning period filled with emotions such as anger, denial and guilt. The length of mourning may vary, as do methods of coping. Some jump into other romances, others overeat, still others ponder revenge.
One of the ways Leeman, a 36-year-old Venice documentary filmmaker, is coping with two “quite painful” breakups is to make a movie on the subject.
In September, Leeman plans to begin filming a documentary in which she and others discuss their soured relationships.
By advertising in Los Angeles alternative publications and posting flyers, Leeman has been collecting breaking-up stories for about a month from people she hopes to use in her film. Her goal is to produce a whimsical film on the subject.
“I make films about what I want to learn about,” said Leeman, who won the Filmmakers’ Trophy at the 1990 Sundance Film Festival for “Metamorphosis: Man Into Woman,” her documentary about a sex change, which she explored to understand more about femininity. “I want to make sense of my own experience.”
The Mourning Period
“The clock starts ticking when you let go, when you stop hoping you’ll get back together with the other person,” said Stuart Fischoff, a professor at California State University, Los Angeles, who specializes in media and clinical psychology.
During the mourning period, there are good and bad ways to cope. Overall, experts say, the post-breakup period means saying a definitive goodby and finding healthy ways to deal with the trauma, such as evaluating yourself and the relationship.
Hester Nash, 36, of Van Nuys, said she cried for a month once her boyfriend decided to go home to his native Israel.
“We had this big dramatic scene at the airport,” she said. “Then I went back to my car and screamed and wept. From that day on, I haven’t cried. I worked through his leaving beforehand.”
She said facing the breakup head-on helped her come to terms with it.
“I recommend getting 100% involved in how painful it is,” Nash said.
Experts advise the same.
“You have to allow yourself the grief or you won’t be whole again,” said Sheila Forman, a psychological intern who conducts individual and group sessions with California Graduate Institute in Westwood.
“Give it a chance to die and be buried. If you stuff the corpse in the closet, it starts to smell and decay,” Fischoff said.
James Navarrete, 27, a senior at Cal State L.A., tried for months after a breakup with his girlfriend to remain in touch and keep a friendship.
“I was a masochist. It was just awful. Whenever I was around her, it brought back all the old feelings. I realized I needed to start staying away from her,” he said, adding that after an appropriate time period, he and other former girlfriends have become great friends.
Giving yourself time away from your ex may mean turning toward someone new. But, one expert said, while jumping right into another relationship may be a distraction from the pain, it’s not necessarily a solution.
“You’re just avoiding dealing with it by going into the next relationship,” Forman said. “You may find yourself repeating patterns in relationships. You need to step back and look objectively why you chose someone for a relationship.”
Navarrete disagreed with some of his male friends who think going out and having one-night encounters is a cure for a broken heart. “Maybe for one night it will boost your self-esteem,” he said. “But then it will wear off and you’re back to square one.”
And while it may be tempting to bury your face in a bucket of Haagen-Dazs, that’s not a good solution either.
Nash said that for three weeks right after her breakup, she “ate like there was no tomorrow,” gaining 10 pounds. Since then she has changed her habits, cutting fat from her diet and losing 47 pounds.
Charlene Murphy, 46, of Marina del Rey said she had to get out of the house to avoid coping with food after the breakup with her boyfriend.
“I would go out dancing with male friends. I couldn’t stay at home because if I did, I would eat. I’d be going on ice-cream binges,” she said.
The depression from loneliness after a breakup can cause one to fill the void with food, said Forman, who runs a support group for women who use food to cope with emotional traumas.
“They eat to alleviate the bad feelings. It’s like medication or a tranquilizer,” she said.
Another destructive result of a breakup is revenge. Some might be inspired to go on a daytime talk show to dog an old boyfriend or girlfriend, while others consider violence. Leeman said two of eight calls she received in one week were breakup tales that involved guns.
Forman said she counsels those who might be prone to doing physical or emotional harm that such thoughts aren’t dangerous unless they are acted upon. “I suggest writing the fantasy out,” she said. “Acting it out can get you into more trouble.”
Positive Ways to Cope
Ken and Rochelle Fried, psychotherapists who are married and direct the Los Angeles Center for Relationship, which provides private and group counseling, said the time after a breakup should be an evaluative one for both parties, a chance to assess and heal--particularly for women, who traditionally place more of their success on the success of a relationship.
“This is an opportunity for women to find a more internal sense of self-worth,” Rochelle Fried said.
Spending time with those you can trust and talk to, who can provide valuable feedback, is strengthening, the Frieds said.
“For women, going to other women--whether through support groups or friends--can help them regain their navigational system,” Ken Fried said. “Similarly, men can go to other men to validate how difficult relationships can be and help regain their dignity. They can regain confidence in relationship skills.”
Counseling is also recommended for those who find coping after a breakup unbearable.
“In my groups, we focus on improving problem-solving skills, boosting self-esteem, acquiring coping skills,” Forman said.
Overall, you should be nice to yourself. Treating yourself as you would like to be treated by someone else is one way to heal, Forman said.
“I always suggest having a love affair with yourself. Take long walks on the beach, take bubble baths, take time out to read your favorite novel, take a trip or go to the movies by yourself or with friends. Maybe it means having a candlelight dinner by yourself,” she said.
Navarrete has sought solace in splurging on himself--going shopping, going out to a favorite restaurant or to the movies. Writing down feelings and looking back over his emotional progress through those writings is another release, he said.
You can turn your emotions into something constructive as well.
Leeman’s documentary is an example of taking the hurt from the breakup and using it as a foundation for a creative project.
“That is what art is all about, working through all this stuff,” Leeman said.
Forman had worked with a client, a screenwriter, who kept talking about fantasies of emotionally hurting his ex-girlfriend. She said she encouraged him to use his talents to cope with his feelings.
“He did. He’s turning it into a screenplay,” she said.