They were barely a year into their marriage when Carl and Jessica (not their real names) contemplated getting a divorce. Carl wondered where he went wrong. He looked back over the last several years, remembering the devastating demise of his first marriage and how he met Jessica soon after. She was divorced too, and they found comfort (and distraction) in each other. Now, he wonders if he moved on too soon and if he ever properly healed from his last relationship before diving into the next.
He asks the critical question: “Do you have to heal completely before you can start a new relationship?”
Grief and Healing
First, let’s go deeper into the question. What do we mean by healing? Does anyone ever “completely” heal? How can you know when you are ready to start again?
Grief is a constellation of emotions you experience when you lose someone with whom you had emotional attachments. The feelings you have when grieving are normal, but most of the time, they are unpleasant. People tend to want them to go away. What you need to realize though is that these feelings have a purpose. Sadness helps you to step away from others and to look inward. It gives you time to assess yourself and come to terms with your own failures and mistakes. It gives you time to think about the future you want and to slowly take steps forward.
There are other feelings when you grieve. Anger is a powerful emotion that helps you make changes, but it often becomes a source of bonding that can cause problems. Grieving people can join with one another in a relationship based on their anger at their ex-partners and quickly bond over that commonality. These relationships can grow fast and feel very powerful, but they need much more than shared anger as a basis.
William Worden in his book “Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy” discusses recovery as a four-step process. First, you must accept the reality of the loss and begin to see the opportunities for a new future. Second, you need to feel the feelings of loss. This is the step most avoided but it’s necessary. Third, you must adjust to the realities of life without the other. The fourth step is letting go of the lost partner and finding new, meaningful relationships. These new relationships might be romantic or they might be something else.
How long does it take? People try to put a time frame on this process, but it’s hard to measure things that way. You may never feel “completely healed.” If you wait for that, you may never move forward. How do you know you are healed enough? When are you really ready? When the feelings of sadness and loss begin to lift when you are alone with your thoughts, and your imagination starts accepting thoughts of a brighter future… you are starting to get there.
Donald L. Cole, D.Min., is the Clinical Director of The Gottman Institute. He is a Licensed Professional Counselor and a Licensed Marriage & Family Counselor in the state of Texas and an approved LPC & LMFT Supervisor. He is also a Licensed Mental Health Counselor in Washington and sees clients both in Seattle and the Houston area. He received his doctorate in ministry with a specialization in psychotherapy from Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in 1993. He has 30 years of experience working with individuals and couples in various capacities including marital therapy, affair recovery, depression, anxiety, trauma recovery, parenting, and personality disorders.
Dr. Cole is the Clinical Director for The Gottman Institute. He is a Certified Gottman Method Couples’ Therapist and a Master Trainer for the Gottman Institute. He is also a Clinical Member of the American Association of Marital and Family Therapists.
Dr. Cole is an experienced public speaker and has trained therapists in all levels of the Gottman method nationally and internationally. He is also an ordained Lutheran Pastor through the ELCA.