Several years ago I went through an incredibly difficult breakup abroad while living in Spain. It felt like my life had fallen off of a shelf and shattered into a million tiny pieces, and I really wasn’t sure how I was going to put it all back together, who I could rely on to help me and where in the world I wanted to work on this reconstructing.
Breakups are difficult no matter where in the world you’re living, but when you’re living abroad there is a new level of complexity that gets added to the mix. You might be far from your support system, and along with the emotional pain, there’s also the looming question of do I even want to stay here?
Following my own breakup, one of the first things I did was to reach out for support from another therapist (yes, even us therapists need therapy sometimes!). The first things she said to me were:
- Try and put the question of “do I want to keep living in Spain?” on the back burner for a couple of months
- You need to see this breakup like a grieving process
These are the words which helped me to define the first steps of my own process of healing, and they’re messages I’ve echoed again and again to my own clients who I’ve supported through a breakup abroad.
When these clients come to me in search of support for coping with the end of a relationship abroad, I typically work on four areas that are largely guided by Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). This type of therapy is designed to help ensure that your difficult thoughts and feelings don’t hold you back from living a fulfilling and meaningful life. The four areas we work on are acceptance of emotions, unhooking from thoughts, identifying values and saying goodbye.
Acceptance of emotions
So often clients come to me following the end of a romantic relationship saying “what I’m feeling can’t be normal, after all, this is ONLY a breakup.” And yes, it’s true, breakups are fairly common and they’re something almost all of us will go through at least once in our lives. However, they also require saying goodbye to people and things that have been important to us, which means they’re going to hurt. And, if we have preconceived notions for how long it should take to get over heal from a breakup, then we’re bound to judge how we experience this hurt.
Most of us did not grow up learning healthy ways to cope with painful feelings. Of course, no one wants to feel painful feelings like sadness, disappointment, anger or fear. However, as Swiss psychologist Carl Jung is known for saying,
“That which we resist, persists.”
The truth is, the more we resist, or judge, the painful feelings that are bound to come up as a part of any grieving process, the more likely these feelings are to end up lasting longer than they need to. They may even hold us back from engaging in activities that can help us to rebuild our lives.
In order to help my clients cope with the grieving process, I teach them new ways to respond to their feelings. Instead of judging, criticizing or running away from what they’re feeling, they learn to label their emotions, to remind themselves that these feelings are normal, and that they won’t last forever. We’ll also look at ways that they can practice self-compassion or self-soothing when these painful feelings come up. Instead, of beating themselves up for not getting over the breakup, they shift their internal dialogue to a kinder, more compassionate one, such as:
“This is sadness, it’s ok, it’s a normal part of loss, I know it won’t last forever. I’m going to take a hot shower/go on a walk/give myself a hug right now to practice self-care.”
Unhooking from thoughts
When we’re “hooked” to our thoughts, we’re like a fish hooked onto a fishing line being pulled this way and that at the mercy of our thoughts. Being able to learn new strategies to unhook from painful thoughts and memories is another important part of navigating the grieving process following a breakup abroad.
Some common thoughts that come to my client’s minds are:
What if I had done _______ differently?
I wonder if doing ______ would help us get back together?
What all of these thoughts share in common is that they are related to the past or the future rather than the present. Being hooked to these thoughts and pulled away from the here and now makes it incredibly hard to practice self-care, engage in other important relationships and make a plan for what you want the next chapter of your life to look like.
Unhooking from these thoughts means helping clients to create space between themselves and their thoughts and to reconnect with the present moment. It’s about learning to notice thoughts rather than immediately reacting to them.
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” –Viktor E. Frankl
For some clients, learning to unhook may involve mindfulness meditation, but for many clients I recommend a more informal mindfulness practice of unhooking from their thoughts in their day-to-day activities. Such as noticing and labeling their thoughts when their mind wanders (for example, “my mind is in worry mode,” “there’s a what if thought,” “here’s my inner critic speaking up,” etc.) and then trying to gently bring their attention back to the here and now. In order to feel even more grounded in the present moment they can also do a 5 senses check in asking themselves: “What can I see/hear/feel/taste/smell right now?”
Connecting with values
Values work is an incredibly important part of grieving the end of a relationship because in order to say goodbye to the previous chapter in our lives, we have to know what we’d like to bring into the next chapter. Following the end of romantic relationship it’s also essential to transition from “we” to “me” and one helpful way to reconnect with yourself can be through identifying your values.
You might be asking yourself what are values anyway? The short answer is that they are the things you want to be guided by in your life—what you want your life to be about, what you want to stand for during your short time here on earth. They’re different from goals in that they can’t be checked off. For instance, if “authenticity” is one of your values, you’re going to continually be working on embodying that value for the rest of your life. However, your values may guide your goals.
Values work is often even more important for clients who live abroad because very often their lives had naturally become very dependent on that of their ex. Maybe it’s because their ex’s job is what brought them to the country they’re living in. Or maybe it’s because they live in the country that their ex called home so their social support system was dependent on their ex. Whatever the reason, the required transition from “we” to “me” may be even more challenging for people living abroad and may require additional time and support.
Committing to saying goodbye
The commitment piece of ACT comes from committing to actions that are aligned with your values, regardless of the difficult thoughts and feelings that come up. One way or another, in order to work towards a fulfilling life that is aligned with their values, my clients will need to commit to saying goodbye to their past relationship. I remind them that this doesn’t mean saying goodbye to any possibility of a future with that partner (I don’t have a crystal ball after all), but it does require them saying goodbye to the connection they had with that person at that time in their life.
When we first start therapy together, the idea of saying goodbye can be incredibly scary. However, once we’ve found strategies for coping with the painful feelings and thoughts that arise, as well as beginning to reconnect with themselves through values work, the idea of saying goodbye usually becomes more manageable. It will always be difficult, but its importance as a step towards healing, becomes more and more apparent.
Ultimately, the goal for this kind of therapy is to help clients be able to turn their heartbreak into a scar—it will never will never cease to be a part of their story, but my hope is that it will no longer hurt when touched.
If you, or someone you know, is struggling with the end to a romantic relationship and would like additional support, please get in touch to schedule a free 15-minute consultation with me to see if I’d be a good fit for you as an online therapist. You can also learn more about online therapy with me here.