The ending of a relationship is like a death. Whether we are the leaver or the left, all of us experience acute grief within the first year after it's over. In the existential void created by loss, many of us seek comfort in life's cosmic layaway plan: the transitional relationship. In Part One of this thee-part series, we explore why so many newly separated individuals run, head-first into new love, while onlookers scratch their heads thinking, “Didn’t your partner leave, like, five minutes ago?"
The siren's call of new romance is often heeded for three, perfectly valid reasons. The first one is fear. Though our former relationship no longer worked, the role of boyfriend, girlfriend, husband or wife was still the reference point upon which we relied for normalcy. When the lighthouse suddenly disappears, we become rudderless in the water. One minute we are confidently rowing toward the shore, the next we are swept out by the current. We are eager to determine the shape of our future, while desperately longing for a past that doesn't fit anymore. We yearn to do what we know (be partnered) but, whether by ours or someone else's choice, we can't do it with the person most familiar. In the insanity of the emotional riptide, who wouldn't want to call in the coast guard? Enter: the transitional lover.
The second reason is the shame. We invested so much in our last relationship, its ending must mean something awful about us. We grapple with regret about what could or should have been done. Worried our former partner will be our last, we feverishly go about proving to ourselves that we are lovable and, by God, we will make something work...even if that something more closely resembles a train wreck than the fairy tale for which we are hoping. It is as if there is some mysterious “sell by” date that requires us to take immediate action, lest we reach it, even when our actions make no logical sense whatsoever. And, usually, they don’t. Because feelings don't have brains.
Biology is the third reason newly bereft individuals careen toward the dating scene. In the wake of grief, our brain chemistry closely resembles that of a depressed person. In the throws of new romance, the brain produces high levels of two neurotransmitters, called dopamine (the body's natural "feel good drug") and oxytocin (the "cuddle hormone"). I like to refer to this powerful little cocktail as "love crack." While under its blissful influence, we are easily duped into believing our shiny, new romance--our "fresh" start--is an antidote for the pain of loss. Sure, drugs are often accompanied by negative long-term side effects but, like the drunkest person at the party who wrangles the host for his car keys, the critically wounded are often oblivious to their impairment. Our brain chemistry enlists us in righting itself, consequences be damned.
The good news is that all of our choices, even the unconscious ones, are necessary for our growth and learning. We will continue to manifest the lessons until we are ready to know them. When we ignore grief's wisdom, grief seeks us, over and over again, until we are ready to hear what it has to say. This is the true spiritual purpose of the transitional relationship.
Just as the pain of a broken limb beckons us to rest in a quiet place until it is healed, so too does a broken heart. It's just that grief's panic incites us to do the opposite of what is needed: nothing. The potential for healing resides in stillness. When the flow of grief's tide ebbs, what's left on the sand are precious insights about who we are, independently of the roles we once relied upon. The clearer we are about what is ours and what is not, the better partner we will be in our next relationship.
If you've recently experienced a breakup or divorce, while you may feel crazy, this instability is actually a normal, necessary part of the grieving process. If you opt for the cosmic layaway plan, that is okay--any residual lessons will find you at precisely the time you are ready to learn them. We cannot rush or force this process.
All of us are all simply choosing what we think we can handle in the moment. As the moment changes, so too might our desire to remain with a person chosen during a time of instability--this is a common transitional relationship phenomenon. Should your healing path require a dip in the waters of transitional dating, in Part Two of this series, we will build a flotation device to help you minimize destruction and maximize meaning. Stay tuned.
Dr. Jill Gross is a licensed psychologist, dating coach, and writer whose therapy practice is located in the Phinney - Greenwood area of Seattle, Washington. She has been providing counseling and dating consultation services since 2000.