Recovering from the trauma of a broken marriage takes time and support, but most people are optimistic enough to hope that they will have a second chance at happiness and find love again.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapist, Agnieszka Burban, has worked in both areas: looking at recovering from trauma AND now working with people who want to find love again. Lucy from Divorce Club spoke to her to find out what hope there is for all of us!
Lucy: Tell me a bit about yourself and how you got into studying our broken hearts?!
Agnieszka: Having spent the second part of my life in London I moved to Sweden in 2017. Love brought me there however the relationship did not work out! This is how I developed an interest in the psychology of breakup and divorce.
As I was going through the many stages of the post-breakup, I was seeking answers to the many emotional states I was in.
“There are several stages in the healing process.”
There are several stages in the healing process. What I found out from both my own and my interviewees experience is that the initial stages are those of loss and bereavement (in particular, if you were the one who was left).
There are lots of feelings that take time to process, especially those of anger and resentment. What often happens is that if people were left, they might hold on to those feelings for a long time, sometimes for years.
“A heart needs healing as much as a broken arm or leg.”
If they were hurt, and have not processed the feelings and healed their heart, the scar is there. Our hearts need healing as much as a broken arm or a leg. Katherine Woodward Thomas says that the heart “calcifies” if it doesn’t heal. This means that we become mistrustful of other people and fear opening our heart again to someone new.
Sometimes the loss and bereavement experienced after a breakup or divorce also comes with trauma. Trauma occurs particularly if the breakup was carried out in an unkind or abrupt way.
“Trauma can open us up to our childhood vulnerability.”
In a traumatic experience we experience a triggering of the childhood wounding – this means that our core beliefs – the negative subconscious beliefs we carry from the time we were very young, have been confirmed. For example if we have a belief “I am not loveable” or “I am not wanted”, a bad breakup will certainly trigger the wounding.
Lucy: I am fascinated by the idea of divorce causing trauma and reinforcing negative beliefs from childhood. Anyone who has experienced divorce knows how painful it is, but it’s interesting to have some science behind it.
Agnieszka: Yes, the pain can run deep. Any breakup, especially divorce, is psychologically perceived by the brain as a threat not only of safety but our existence.
It is experienced as a life and death matter.
This is why it can lead to traumatic experiences and this is why it is so difficult to deal with emotionally. Our brains are coded for safety and for living with what in the past was a tribe. These days we have our partners and our families. If our partner is leaving, a primal fear is triggered and we experience it emotionally as a threat to our safety, existence and also as a death.
Lucy: So when we experience trauma on top of the normal sadness of a breakup, the pain of divorce is intensified to levels that are much more damaging?
Agnieszka: Yes. When this happens the pain is intensified for sure! I have heard multiple stories (especially from women since I work with women mostly) of the hurt that has been held on for years often.
The situation is often worse when children are involved and the divorce process gets costly and complicated.
Lucy: Is there any advice based on what you have picked up on how to handle these difficult emotions?
Agnieszka: Frankly the best thing I have discovered that exists is a process called “Conscious Uncoupling” which is offered by Katherine Woodward Thomas coaches. Of course therapy can help and I have helped hundreds of people providing therapy for a variety of problems, but Katherine´s method is in my experience, the most effective and the quickest way to healing.
Lucy: We’ve all heard of Conscious Uncoupling! Did she come up with that phrase before Gwyneth?!
Agnieszka: Yes! She became known in the media because of Gwyneth Paltrow´s divorce. She and Chris Martin used her methods to navigate their divorce.
Conscious Uncoupling is a five-week program which is designed to ease individuals through the process of detaching from a relationship and readjusting to single life. The program focuses on breaking up as an opportunity for personal growth.
Conscious uncoupling does not eliminate negative emotions, pain, or heartache. But it can help people better reflect on who they are; engage in self-compassion; acknowledge what the relationship brought to them; and to look forward to new opportunities in the future.
Lucy: At divorce club we believe that it’s only when you feel complete and OK in yourself that you should even contemplate dating, but a lot of our members want to meet someone when they are still hurting from the last relationship. What is your take on that?
Agnieszka: I think it is a delicate and individual process. I agree that when you have just experienced a breakup it would be very difficult to jump into a new relationship straightaway. People sometimes do that to escape painful feelings.
However there are no shortcuts. We do need some healing.
What I would also say however is that contrary to popular belief, time does not heal! I would, of course, allow some time to process feelings but then I would go through the process described in Conscious Uncoupling. This is the best process I have found to deal with anger, resentment, and hurt.
We do not want to hold on to festering resentments and live in the narrative build on a victimised sense of self. Katherine Woodward Thomas´s approach simply snaps us out of that! It is, in a way, a psychological “shortcut” compared to traditional therapies.
Lucy: Aha! the “victimised self”. We see this a lot at DC. Particularly with people who have been left and who blame their partner for being a villain, without stopping to look at the relationship as a whole. How can people snap out of this black and white view?
Agnieszka: If we feel hurt, if we feel betrayed, disrespected, unheard, if we feel that we were not treated fairly, we are usually right!
But the problem with staying in the victimised narrative is that it does not allow for healing or growth and ultimately prevents us from welcoming new love.
“We need to ask ourselves some questions”
The pull toward the victimised narrative is usually very strong. The only approach which allows healing and growth is to ask ourselves:
“What was my role in the outcome of this relationship?”
“How did I contribute to what happened?”
And being able to look into the answers to these questions, we can find the keys to undoing our patterns that keep us from harmonious relationships.
For example, you might avoid conflict in your relationship for fear of a confrontation and a potential rejection or misunderstanding, and always agree with everything your partner suggests. If you conceal your needs, feelings and preferences, you will be not only inauthentic to yourself, but also your partner. And authenticity is a fundamental ingredient of a happy, lasting relationship.
Other examples might include denying our inner feelings, weak boundaries or lack of boundaries, or not even being able identify what we feel and need!
Lucy: It seems that the processes involved in overcoming trauma and those involved in being ready for a relationship overlap hugely. We sometimes meet people who are still in a lot of pain but believe the only way to feel better is to be in a new better relationship. Are there circumstances when this is true?
Agnieszka: It is true that good relationships are healing! So people who believe that they will heal in a new, better relationship are partly right!
However, if we are still in pain, there is work to be done before we enter a new relationship. That work includes firstly allowing ourselves to grieve and feel the pain however then address our role in how the pain was created.
“We can choose to be a victim or own our own part in the relationship”
Maybe we feel we have given up so much for our partner, gave all our love and sacrificed ourselves in return for a rejection? It’s possible to be stuck for years in the victim mode. We can choose either being a victim, or reflect on our role in the dynamics and the outcome of a failed relationship.
Perhaps we have given up so much in a relationship that we lost ourselves in it? Perhaps we stopped noticing what we need, what we feel, or have not asked them for help assuming that we should not even expect it?
All these subtle patterns are “hidden gold”. Once we are able to look at them, we can grow and choose to show up in a completely different way in life. We simply cannot achieve different results being still stuck in the victimised consciousness and repeating the same patterns we have always created in our love life.
“We can change ourselves!”
Being able to uncover and actively change our patterns is the inner work which is key to a change in our love identity – a change in the way we think, feel and act. It’s a change in how we show up with others.
As we show up in a new way, we now longer attract people who are not capable of forming a healthy relationship with us and are able to form healthy, harmonious bonds with the right person.
Lucy: So in a nutshell, how do we find lasting love in the future?
Agnieszka: The keys to finding love are within us, and not within the stories we have been telling ourselves. If we stop living in the victimised self, start taking responsibility for our actions or lack of actions, become clear on our boundaries, needs, feelings and life goals and start living from the consciousness of possibility and love (even if we have not yet experienced the love we desire!), then we open the portal to fulfilling love.
Lucy: How do you help people find love again?
Agnieszka: I focus on working with women who are determined to break down the old patterns and make the necessary shifts to welcome lasting love.
The process is often called miraculous as we see lots of miracles in our Calling in The One community! People breaking through their life long habits, showing up completely differently and attracting true love at the age of 40, 50, 60 or 70!
I work with individuals at the moment however am also creating a group coaching programme starting in a few weeks´ time. I offer an 8-week transformative programme which covers all the tools we need to remove obstacles to love and welcome a new, healthy relationship.
Since my website is under reconstruction it is best to email me on firstname.lastname@example.org or contact me via Welldoing at:
Lucy Davis is a co-founder of divorceclub.com and a TV Producer. She divorced 7 years ago. She is a passionate advocate for exploring the potential for change and creativity that can result from the trauma of divorce.