A relationship expert with over 25 years experience counselling couples, individuals and families.

Jill Goldson: How to manage a break up

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In the pain of a broken heart, there is a lot to work through and rewards to be gained. Photo / iStock
In the pain of a broken heart, there is a lot to work through and rewards to be gained. Photo / iStock

It's that time of the year when the spotlight is on relationships. Valentine's Day has recently passed, while Leap Years always spark discussion around women proposing marriage.

The topic of love lost and found is amplified through the airwaves, television, and the internet.

Irish folklore says that one St Brigid of Kildare bitterly complained to St Patrick that women had to wait far too long for men to propose. St Patrick responded by making a decree that women could propose on this one day in February, every fourth year.

And it is said that in some upper class European societies, denial of a Leap Year proposal obligated the recipient to buy 12 pairs of gloves to hide her shame at not having a ring to wear.

Chortle we might at such quaint silliness but, even today, despite the radical changes in marriages over 50 years, such as the putative bride likely supporting herself and indeed often living with her partner, there is still a prevalent norm that women must wait to be asked.

Attitudes continue to trend away from the woman being the one to propose. An Associated Press-WETV poll in 2014, showed that young adults are more likely than their elders to consider it unacceptable for a woman to do the asking.

One of my clients tells me that she and her girlfriends all agree that women are often more ready to marry before their partners, and that they worry that a frank discussion could backfire and lead to rejection.

"I don't want to be the sort of woman that says 'put a ring on it'," one client told me. So regardless of who pops the question, proposals seem to be trending. Just look at YouTube: endless footage of proposals made while sky diving, or producing the ring along with the cornflakes, or posing the question etched in the sky with clever pyrotechnics.

So with everywhere seemingly fizzing over all things love and dating, hearts and marriage, the subject inevitably flows on to what to do with the awkwardness of dealing with the newly broken up.

We know about heartache, and the very significant emotional, cognitive and physical distress break ups usher in.

Questions about how to tell your friends, and when to alter your Facebook status and how to act if you bump into your ex, all get plugged and replayed - an endless reinventing of the wheel.

And as if managing a shattered heart is not enough, this is where shame can come slinking onto the stage.

It's all very well that scientists at the University of California, Santa Barbara, believe shame is not maladaptive. "It offers us a defence," they say, "and helps us make the best of a bad situation, minimising the effects of damage when it does happen - such as others viewing us badly".

And of course being viewed as valuable by the tribe is intrinsic to survival. But why one should feel shame at a break up is a whole other question. A question which needs a lot more analysis and care than a manufactured response to a marketing challenge from Cadbury with gold wrapped chocolate hearts and rabbits hopping their opportunistic way over the remnants of Valentine's Day stock.

The shame card is a further assault on the broken heart. If you didn't cheat and lie - in which case one would hope that shame finds you - then stashing away 12 pairs of metaphorical silk gloves to hide your status has no place.

Fragility and vulnerability, on the other hand does have a place. Because if you are healthy enough to understand real attachment, then the breaking of it will likely hurt very, very much.

Becoming our true selves without pressure or coercion is a prerequisite to finding contentment in life. "Something is missing","She doesn't know the real me","I only feel half the man I was", are all phrases I hear from couples in the throes of a break up.

It is painful to be let go of, and it hurts to be the one to do the letting go. But blocking our truest and most unmasked self does the most damage where intimate relationships are concerned.

Shakespeare was not wrong when he had Polonious say, "To thine own self be true". In the shattering agony of the broken heart, there is a lot to work through and rewards to be gained.

What is not needed is the siren call to the tabloid headlines of the social group: "How to treat her", "What to say to him", "How to tell her family". Rather than worry about protocol, it would be most helpful of all if friends honoured the courage it takes to navigate through this transition of separation.

Changing your relationship status is an intrepid voyage as old as time itself - and what it means in terms of a challenge exceeds any protocol about when exactly one should update a relationship status on Facebook.

- nzherald.co.nz

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A relationship expert with over 25 years experience counselling couples, individuals and families.

Jill's fascination for what makes us tick stems from sheer bloody-minded curiosity and a genuine desire to see people live healthy, happy lives. Born in Manchester, the award-winning family and relationship counsellor moved to Auckland when she was nine. Being the middle child of an immigrant family she was neither the oldest nor youngest child, neither a Pom nor a Kiwi. This kicked off a lifelong fascination with how people can make sense of transitions and how uncertainty can be turned into a greater understanding of ourselves and of those who push our buttons. Her career has spanned more than 25 years, and seen her working for the Family Court; in hospitals; universities; aboriginal training programmes, inner London social work practices, and now–her own private practice in Auckland. Whether she's counselling everyday Kiwis, highly paid power couples or the children of Bengali immigrant families, Jill has an inherent ability to tease out what's really going on in people's lives, and strategise to improve the situation, whatever that may be. • Jill Goldson is a Family Dispute Resolution mediator and counsellor, and Director of The Family Matters Centre in Auckland.

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