We all have “baggage.” It comes with being human — and with having relationships.
By age 18, most of us have discovered that relationships can be a source of great joy, satisfaction and meaning when our needs for love, affection and companionship are met. Or a source of heartache and sorrow when they’re not.
Few things in life are as uplifting as being in a loving relationship. Or as painful as losing someone we love. Whether we lose them as the result of death or a “living loss” like separation, divorce, infidelity, alcohol, drug addiction, illness, injury or something else, moving on can present some daunting challenges. Facing these challenges, taking the necessary time to get our footing and opening the doors to finding love again is best achieved when we balance patience with courage.
Having coached countless hundreds of clients seeking to find love after a loss, there are some proven steps for regaining your strength, trust, faith, confidence and moving forward:
1. Take Small Steps
Above all else, be patient. Trying to get back into “the game” by jumping back into a relationship before your mind is clear and heart is sufficiently healed is a formula for disaster. Some of us can barely stand on our own two feet and yet, we’re looking for love (in all the wrong places) to fill the void. Men and women who are lonely, impatient and desperately afraid of being alone will often take a leap of faith before they’re ready. They fall flat on their faces when a “rebound” relationship fails. Getting back into “game shape” for life and love begins with putting your emotional house in order. One small step at a time.
This means facing our fears, rather than letting them run us, fending off feelings of desperation and panic, allowing ourselves ample time to heal, finding constructive ways to express the anger and sorrow we may feel and keeping the faith that we’ll someday find love again. At the heart of all forward movement is good self-care.
2. Practice Self-Care
Learning to feel whole again, without a partner, means getting back to basics. This requires taking exceptionally good care of and loving yourself. Your heart may have been shattered by a breakup, death – or some other kind of loss. You may even blame yourself. Now is a time to do those things that help settle and soothe your distressed heart. And to show up big…for yourself.
Start by listing all the things you can do to take good care of yourself. Get out a blank sheet of paper and write them down. This might include simplifying your daily schedule, enrolling the support of trusted family and friends, pampering yourself, lightening your work load and social schedule, exercising regularly, eating well, postponing or cancelling stressful meetings, getting into counseling, taking some time off, etc.. Learning to love and care for yourself and lightening your stress load are at the core of everything good that is to come.
3. Enroll the Support of “Energy Givers”
None of us get through tough times alone. We all need and deserve support of trusted family and friends. And yet, there’s a temptation to crawl into a cave with a stockpile of dark chocolate and hide after a loss. Isolation is never an effective strategy for moving forward. You need to be with good people. Hanging out with energy suckers, breakup groupies or even well-intending family members and/or friends who try to convince you the glass is “half full” and to “get out there!” is the last thing you want to do. Pressure tactics, guilt and unsolicited advice are as unhelpful as they are unwelcome. Learn to gently tell others you’re doing the best that you can and choose only energy givers for your support team. Explain in precise terms exactly what kind of support you need. And when. This will save you and your team a lot of unnecessary stress, wasted effort and aggravation down the road.
4. Go to Baggage Claim: Take Inventory of What’s Yours
Despite our most sincere and ambitious efforts to make a “fresh start” when we meet someone, we bring bits and pieces of the past into new relationships. Unless, that is, we take full responsibility for our part in past failures. And work on making ourselves more relationship proficient.
Clearing the path for a new relationship means claiming your baggage. “This is my pattern” is an honest declaration of those things you say/do that will inhibit or even kill intimacy if allowed to prevail. Owning up to the “young,” overly-sensitive, insecure, possessive parts of yourself – and working on them is your best insurance for future success. Openly admitting there’s a shy, fearful, awkward and vulnerable side to you allows you to break bad habits and shed old baggage. Acknowledging that your “Chooser” is making poor selections and recalibrating yourself for smarter, better choices is also a powerful step in the right direction. Rededicate yourself to healthy, new behavior and relationships. And make it a priority to cultivate them.
5. Get an “Upgrade” on Your Coping Skills
It takes hard work, courage, faith, dedication and humility to move forward after a loss. And to set the table for finding love again. Grief can be resistant to everyday coping mechanisms like denial, avoidance, self-deception and self-medicating. Getting ready to put your heart back on the line and try your hand at love again may require an upgrade in your psychological software. Learning to process (i.e. recognize, express and convert to positive action) complex emotions like anger and sorrow, acquiring the tools for clear communication and letting go of the painful past all clear the path for new — or a renewed sense of — intimacy, connection and companionship. Don’t let antiquated defense mechanisms like withdrawing, avoiding, pouting, holding grudges, emotional dishonesty, the silent treatment or using sarcasm block you from finding love again. Develop the healthy, proactive coping and communication skills that make relationships into the equivalent of an open book test.
6. Cultivate Humility and Self-Compassion
Finding ourselves on our knees after a loss is a humbling experience. We may feel lost, broken, fearful, helpless or like damaged merchandise. Or ashamed that we’re feeling so down in the dumps. Those of us who tend to self-manage with criticism when we’re down may be tempted to discredit, devalue, judge and even bully ourselves. The more effective approach is clearly to speak to yourself in a patient, kind, gentle, loving, encouraging tone. Choosing the voice of patience, support and encouragement over that of shame, blame and harsh criticism may take some practice. But it will be worth it. Moving forward is not something we can map out by reading a book on resilience, forcing, pressuring or fooling ourselves in to believing we’re ready for love — when we’re not. Or by snapping our fingers.
We must learn how to breathe, relax and slow down: It takes as long as it takes to heal. And to love again. Rediscovering the path to love occurs one breath, one step and one day at a time. We are all a “work in progress.” Leading with kindness and humility instead of fear accelerates both the healing and learning process. And gets us ready to write new and exciting chapters in our lives.
7. Healing An Existing Relationship After a Loss
Some of us are struggling to keep our heads above water in a relationship that has suffered a betrayal, debilitating illness, injury, personal or financial crisis or a death. We may feel like we’re dying, and battling terrible, insurmountable sorrow and despair, but we’re valiantly fighting to keep our hopes and relationships alive.
Summoning the strength, forgiveness, trust, courage and humility to love again can be a long and uneven road. We may struggle to summon and gather the strength to reopen our hearts for business. To keep the faith. And fight our way back into love. Some days are better than others. We do the small things that we think will help. But healing a struggling relationship can be like being on a roller coaster. Up one day and down the next. Two steps forward and one back.
Getting in game shape to love again after a loss, providing the kind of care and feeding that a new or existing relationship needs to survive and/or thrive requires great hope, patience and hard work. It also helps to have a good sense of humor. Finding love again may be an uneven path, with moments of helplessness, frustration and despair. Sadness, anger, fear, confusion and grief may present themselves as part of the healing process. But it is a path worth taking. The return to love is a return to life. To the beauty, mystery and mastery of being in a loving relationship. And to reaching for the highest and best in ourselves.
Ken Druck, Ph.D., founder of The Jenna Druck Center in San Diego, is a renowned resilience expert, organizational consultant, and award-winning author of several books including, The Real Rules of Life (Hay House). Follow Ken’s blog or find him on Facebook.