Few days of the year cause as much anguish to single people as February 14, otherwise known as St Valentine's Day – that date when roses are bought by the planeload, chocolate sales go off the charts, and heart-embossed greeting cards professing love and devotion are stripped from the shelves. Shop-bought romance or genuine display of affection? Each of us has our take on it, but for those who are on their own, particularly as the result of a long-term relationship or marriage failing, it can be a dark time.
Jenny Lewis knows all about this. She dreads February 14, knowing how lonely she’ll be feeling, as her ex-husband always made a fuss of her on that day. “He was unfaithful to me,” says the 50-year-old Brit. “And now he’s married to the woman involved. They have a child together and seem to enjoy a nice life. Generally, I’m happy too. I go on dates and I have an active social life, I keep in shape and I do yoga. But on Valentine’s Day, I can’t help but dwell on what I’ve lost. I get upset, but I also get very angry and pick over the bones of where our marriage faltered, and usually, I end up blaming myself.”
She says that her friends have helped a great deal over the past few years. “They keep telling me that I’ll meet someone special when I least expect it. I hope they’re right,” she laughs. “I’m fed up with being on my own now.” It’s easy to advise others on what they should do to alleviate feelings of loneliness but, unless we’ve stood in another’s shoes, we can’t fully appreciate what they have gone – or are continuing to go – through. Yet there are certain constants that, however clichéd, remain true. And one of those is that things really do get better with time – it remains the greatest healer.
Tanya Dharamshi is a counselling psychologist at Priory Wellbeing Centre in Dubai and says that a healthy break-up is when one or both people can see the end of the relationship as an opportunity for growth. "Letting go and accepting change is often difficult," she admits, "but you can let go without making your ex-partner your enemy. A successful break-up may not involve the absence of pain, and getting over loss can take time, but you need to be with someone on the same path as you. The pain of loss can be alleviated."
There’s no ideal age for a relationship break-up – they can be devastating at any point in life, but particularly so when there are children involved, and parents separate and divorce. More and more couples are choosing to start families later in life, which can have unexpected negative effects on their previously strong bonds, bringing to the surface cracks that can turn into irreparable holes. By this stage in life, many couples are settled in their careers, and have property and shared investments, making the severing of ties messy and even more stressful – something that 43-year-old British expat Jimmy, a restaurateur in Dubai, has just been through.
"The divorce happened ten months ago," he confides, "and I'm still piecing my life together again. I only have the kids one day a week, which has been emotionally tougher than I expected. I've had to find a new place to live and make sure it's somewhere they both feel comfortable in – it's been incredibly difficult, but you can't let that have any impact on your children; you need to keep life as relatively normal for them as possible, because they can't fully understand why their mum and dad aren't together any more. The stress has been unbearable at times.
“What most people around you don’t appreciate is the loneliness us men go through in situations like this. I don’t function well on my own, I miss company, and it’s easy to end up spending your free time doing things that are far from constructive. I’m busy running the restaurants, but I have to clear blocks of time to spend with the children – it’s a difficult balance to achieve, but it’s vital for their sakes and mine.”
These are not new problems, and obviously, they affect men just as much as women. But for the 34-year-old Tilman, who’s been based in the UAE for only a few months, there’s another issue that many of us might not have contemplated regarding the difficulties in processing the break-up of a long-term relationship. Social media. He says the ability to effectively “spy” on his ex is seriously harming the healing process.
“All I have to do is check her Instagram account,” he says about his ex-wife, who he had been with since their time in university until their parting in 2016. “And I can do that without anyone knowing because it’s not set to private. I resist as much as I can, but when I’m at a low point – which is more often than I care to admit, especially now I’m living and working here, thousands of miles away from home and on my own – sometimes I give in and go through her photos. And it tears me up. I know it’s stupid of me. I can’t help it; maybe I should take up a hobby or join some social groups here, to occupy my mind more.”
He says that Valentine's Day wasn't something they used to make a big deal of when they were together ("why just once a year? I loved the woman, every day was Valentine's Day for me"), but since the split, it has become a time of year he dreads, much like Christmas, New Year and birthdays or anniversaries. "It's on certain dates and times of the year when I end up missing her the most. And it hurts like hell to see her doing the things we always promised we'd do, or going on holidays we'd talked about taking together once we had more money."
Dharamshi says this is one of a number of classic signs of clinging on to a previous partner. She says that "constantly re-analysing the break-up or following them excessively on social media, such as always checking in on their Instagram or Facebook posts when you should unfriend and unfollow", are all extremely unhelpful when it comes to attempting to get over a failed relationship.
She adds that it’s common to focus too much on “closure” and that people might be being really honest when they say a relationship just wasn’t right for them. “There isn’t always someone at fault or a logical reason. Constantly asking your ex to explain what went wrong can lead to frustration and hurt.”
There are, however, practical ways to recover after a split. "Validate your emotions," advises Dharamshi. "Even if your ex betrayed you, it's okay to be sad as well as angry. You can also be hurt without having to frame them as the baddie."
Balance is key with this, and she advises against ignoring thoughts about an ex completely. “They were a big part of your life. Losing a partner can mean losing your go-to person and, when we try and ignore our thoughts and feelings, they actually intensify and become more distressing,” she adds.
Jeanina Khouri is the founder and CEO of Blue Lights, a wellness clinic in Dubai’s Jumeirah Lakes Towers. She’s also a qualified psychologist and says that keeping a journal of thoughts and emotions following a break-up can be a real help. “Write everything down, with complete honesty,” she advises. “It’s useful for keeping our social media habits in check, too, so we’re more aware of our own behaviour. It’s also good to take opportunities to do things, take up or revisit hobbies and interests that we weren’t able to indulge when we were in
Khouri also notes that, despite the inherent dangers associated with social media, living in these digital times can be a positive, especially for expats who are in need of emotional support. “While our true friend networks might be in other countries,” she continues, “there’s a huge amount of help out there on Facebook groups and other resources where even complete strangers are ready to give us a much-needed boost.”
Our thoughts and behaviours result from the way our brains are wired, our neural pathways settling over many years, which is why it’s difficult to accept change. With a bit of effort, though, we can change this so-called wiring and begin to take charge of our thought patterns. Most failed relationships had their good parts, experiences that helped build us as individuals – so dwell on the positives that you’re taking away from it, rather than the fact you’re no longer with that person.
“Rewrite your narrative,” advises Dharamshi. “Instead of pining for your shared romantic trip to the Caribbean, remember that spot as the place you learnt to surf or when you first embraced a new type of food. Most importantly, you want to be with someone on the same path as you.”
And this really is key when it comes to restoring some happiness to your life after a bad break-up. It’s often difficult to believe that there’s someone out there who’s right for you – that you will click with someone, someone who’ll be good for you. That spring in your step can return, hurt can be overcome and love can enter your life again. An ex might have been a soulmate or an abusive waste of time, but none of us need let them ruin our chances with Mr or Mrs Right, whenever they do turn up.