Couples therapist Dorothea Behrmann: Learning to let go: How we leave the old behind to make room for the new

Letting go is a topic that not only plays a major role in romantic relationships.

Couples therapist Dorothea Behrmann: Learning to let go: How we leave the old behind to make room for the new

Letting go is a topic that not only plays a major role in romantic relationships. Why do we have so much trouble with this?

Dorothea Behrmann: We humans are naturally wired for togetherness. We draw a lot of energy from interpersonal relationships and are to some extent dependent on receiving appreciation and love from others. So you can say that we are not designed to separate ourselves from other people. This is why we are reluctant to let go of other people.

Despite this – or precisely because of this – you have written an entire book about letting go. Why is the topic so important?

Nowadays it is rarely the reality that lovers stay together forever or friendships last a lifetime. Letting go is part of our everyday lives, whether we want it or not. Life is about change, so we have to regularly say goodbye to the old in order to be able to accept the new. Nevertheless, we still associate letting go with failure and are only too happy to hold on to people and ways of life, even if they no longer make us happy.

In your book you write about the seven phases of letting go. Where does letting go actually begin?

Just making the decision to break away from someone or something is extremely difficult, but it is the first step in letting go. Once the decision is made, you subconsciously begin to disengage. In a love relationship, this is often a phase that the partner doesn't really notice. This is more of an internal process that most of us prefer to deal with ourselves.

How do I know that I am in such a phase?

This is certainly different for everyone, but if I am unhappy in my relationship, think about breaking up every now and then or no longer feel seen by my partner, these are certainly the first signs. Internal debates often begin about what makes us dissatisfied in the relationship, because we justify to ourselves why we feel this way and have these thoughts, even though we are naturally attached beings who need relationships. This is also the reason why so many people wait so long to separate even though they have already decided to do so.

Sounds pretty unsatisfactory for everyone involved...

Correct. In practice, I always hear stories where the children go to their parents and ask who they will live with if they separate. The children sense what is wrong long before the adults mention it. Of course, you can only see a fraction of a love relationship from the outside - but the gut feeling of friends and acquaintances is often correct in the end.

And how do I get out of the inner conflict between going or staying?

In Gestalt therapy there is a method in which you consciously allow the individual inner parts that are in conflict with each other to have their say on the topic. This may sound suspicious at first, but it can be very helpful. For example, I can then listen to intuition, reason or fear - all of these facets probably have different perspectives on the decision to separate or stay with the partner. Each of these shares has its merits, but if you listen to each of them individually, you often realize which one you should follow. And if it is the voice that speaks for the separation, then I encourage you to quickly follow the decision with action.

So you advise clients to separate?

Exactly. This is not an easy thing, I realize that. The problem is that separations today still have very negative connotations. We always associate them with something bad and feel like we are bad people when we detach from another person. For many it feels like failure.

Well, a separation is also the end of a joint project, if you will…

Yes, but that has nothing to do with failure. I find this approach totally wrong. Regardless of whether a friendship or a romantic relationship ends, it certainly had its place. But people and life paths change over time - and not always in the same direction. Sometimes a separation is just the logical consequence.

And yet many people hold on to their unhappy relationships. Why?

They often want to avoid unpleasant feelings of guilt or are afraid of the separation. Then it's better to keep telling yourself another excuse as to why the separation isn't possible yet. For example, because it's Christmas, the children aren't home yet or your partner's birthday is coming up. Anyone who looks for reasons will find them. Objectively speaking, there is no right time for a separation. It actually happens when you are sure that it is the right decision.

Let's switch sides: What happens to partners of people who slowly distance themselves emotionally but don't separate?

Hope plays a big role here. People often notice that their partner is turning away from them or their behavior is changing. But many people don't want to admit it or think that they just have to try harder to win their partner back. This often results in a kind of limbo within the relationship, which is torturous for both parties.

Let's assume a separation occurs. Who usually suffers more?

It's usually a little easier for the person who takes the initiative to break up. This is because she has already dealt with the scenario mentally and emotionally. The other part is often taken by surprise and is immediately faced with a fait accompli. But it is important to me to mention that both partners suffer, just differently.

In what way?

Anyone who separates from their partner often experiences a phase of euphoria afterwards. After the decision is made and the separation is complete, you feel free and alive. But at some point you might come into the empty apartment and suddenly feel alone and start to miss the other person. These are emotions that are completely normal when you let go.

So there is no letting go without pain?

No. You shouldn't forget that regardless of the length of the relationship, you've gotten used to each other and have often experienced a lot together. And when the initial stress of the separation is over, the feeling of loneliness often arises.

You once said you had a problem with the term "abandonment" in relation to the end of a romantic relationship. Why?

Language is more powerful than we realize. When we talk about abandonment, we automatically associate breakups with failure. That always sounds a bit like a mother abandoning her child. A romantic relationship is about two adults who form a connection with each other - but neither of them is responsible for the other. So no one can leave anyone. If I no longer feel comfortable in the relationship and it is no longer good for me, then I end it. No more and no less.

How we deal with separations varies greatly. While some demonize their ex-partner, others begin to idealize them in retrospect. Why is that?

The idealizing phase always comes at some point. There are even biological reasons for this: love works a bit like a drug. If we no longer have our partner around us as usual, withdrawal symptoms will set in at some point. So our body begins to want more and more of the drug, i.e. the ex-partner. And the longing increases.

Doesn't exactly sound like fun...

Absolutely not. And the only thing that helps here is cold turkey. So a complete break in contact after the breakup. There are a lot of people who try to stay friends. But every time you have contact with your ex-partner, see him or even hear his voice, you are triggered again. This doesn't even happen consciously, but it prevents us from really letting go.

And how do I deal with the phases of resentment?

I think they belong there and are totally human. What helps best is to talk about it with friends or acquaintances. And then to get out of the victim role. A separation is rarely just the fault of one person; in most cases both parties have contributed to it. It's worth looking at what caused the relationship to fail - so that you don't make the same mistakes again next time.

Even when there are no longer any feelings for the other person?

Feelings are always such a thing. Even when love is truly no longer involved, some remnant of familiarity or habit still remains. And if the contact continues, this part will be fed again and again.

In your book you write about letting go as a process. How do I get from the emotional chaos to a new beginning?

After you have felt through the emotions that arise, it is worth reflecting on specific questions. You should find out what you want and what needs may not have been met in the past relationship. And of course also what part you contributed to the separation. And then it’s time to become active and get involved in the new phase of your life.

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