Alec Wilson, PsyD, Individual and Couples Therapist - Portland Oregon

Therapist Portland Oregon Individual Couples

Breakup & Divorce Recovery

Break Ups and Divorce Therapist Portland OregonRecovering From a Breakup or Divorce

In an ideal world, relationships end with open communication by both partners. Both people are invested in sharing their disappointments, unmet needs, anger, fear, and sorrow. They can acknowledge the loss that is taking place and grieve together. They can talk about the love they shared, and recognize some ways they helped each other to grow.

A healthy breakup is not always pretty—it takes hard work and a willingness by both partners to express and tolerate a range of feelings. It is a process that takes time as both people come to terms with what they want and what they are losing. Above all, it is an honest process that may be quite painful in the short run, but preserves the most important bond—trust—in the long run. When a healthy breakup is allowed to run its natural course, both members of the couple may eventually experience a sense of relief in addition to their other feelings—because despite their pain, they know they have made the right decision.

Needless to say, many relationships do not end on ideal terms. Couples must often contend with significant unresolved feelings in the wake of a breakup. Frequently, breakups are initiated by one member of the couple and come as a painful surprise to the other member. Communication gets shut down and the partners may begin to create distance and blame each other. They may show each other only their anger or other self-protective feelings. Even worse, they may try to move on without showing each other any feelings at all. This sets the couple up for significant pain, guilt, and unresolved grief. It will also impair the partners’ abilities to enter into healthy, fulfilling relationships in the future.

People respond to the loss of important relationships in different ways, but here are some common reactions:

  • An initial period of shock or numbness.
  • The physical sensations of heartbreak, usually accompanied by acute psychological pain.
  • Attempts to deny what happened.
  • Sadness, feelings of isolation, and hopelessness about the future.
  • Anger.
  • Difficulty sleeping.
  • Obsessive thoughts about your partner.
  • Increased sense of vulnerability.

Recovery from a loss is not a steady incline toward happiness—it is more like a trail with many dips and valleys that makes a gradual ascent to the summit. People can (and often do) get stuck at any stage of healing, usually because they try to avoid their pain by shutting down emotionally or by starting another relationship too quickly. Others get stuck in a state of constant longing, and are unable to release their attachment to the lost relationship.

Counseling can be helpful for support, for moving beyond stuck points, for expressing the feelings that will help you heal, for identifying your patterns in relationships, and for clarifying your values. I can help you come to terms with what has happened, deal with your pain, understand the breakup process, and commit to a plan for your recovery. Healing from the loss of an important relationship is a painful experience, but it is also a time with incredible potential for growth. If you’d like help moving on from your breakup or divorce, email me or give me a call. I can help you develop a plan that leads to personal growth and keeps you moving forward. I’ve helped many people through this painful time with support, education, and concrete game planning.

Alec Wilson, PsyD | Licensed Psychologist | Therapist Portland Oregon


Phone: (503) 757-6259

Office:  3050 SE Division, Suite 260, Portland, OR  (In the ‘D Street’ building.)

FAQs about the loss of relationships:

Why does it hurt so bad?

In a word, attachment. People are social beings and we are wired to give and receive affection. Before you knew your partner your natural ability to give and receive love was free floating. When you fell in love with your partner your need for love became specific to that person—no one else would do. You got used to having your needs met by your partner and began to associate your good feelings with them. This is normal, and your ability to fall in love—to share tender feelings with another person—is a sign of health. When your partner is lost to you, a tear in attachment occurs that leaves many people feeling like they’ve been stranded in cold water far from the warm shore—their source of good feelings is gone and they may feel scared, sad, and hopeless. Recovery from the pain of relationship loss involves learning to re-center the focus of your love within yourself. Rather than swimming endlessly toward shore, you learn to recreate your own shore right under your feet. Once you have taken the time to properly grieve and let go, you will find that your natural ability to give and receive love will return. This will allow you to enter your next relationship without significant unresolved baggage.

Why am I having these obsessive thoughts about my ex-partner?

The loss of an important relationship is often experienced as an emotional trauma. Your mind and body react in many ways to protect you from additional harm, just as they would had you experienced another kind of trauma such as crashing your car or witnessing a horrific event. Obsessive thoughts, difficulty sleeping, early awakening, and loss of appetite are all physical symptoms triggered by a flood of stress-induced neurotransmitters in the brain. Your mind and body struggle to maintain a state of constant mental vigilance and physical readiness in the wake of a trauma. Subjectively, you experience this as obsessive thinking, an increased sense of vulnerability, feeling ‘keyed up’, a sensitive startle response, and changes in your eating and sleeping patterns.

I’m having some suicidal thoughts, is this normal?

Suicidal thoughts can be common during the initial agonizing pain of a difficult breakup or divorce. It is important to remember that these feelings will pass—you are currently at a dip in the road, but the road will not stay low forever. If you are confused or scared because of suicidal thoughts, it is important to remind yourself that you probably don’t really want to die—you probably want to escape this terrible pain and you imagine suicide as a way out. There is a big difference between passing suicidal thoughts and developing a plan with the intent to kill yourself. Suicidal thoughts of any intensity indicate that you are under significant stress and would benefit from as much social support as you can get from your friends, family, and counselor. Serious or persistent suicidal thoughts, especially when accompanied by a suicide plan and intent to die warrant immediate action. Please call 911 or the Multnomah Crisis line at (503) 988-4888 for immediate help if you are feeling acutely suicidal. If you aren’t in Multnomah county, here is a link to a website with numbers for crisis lines in Oregon, and nationwide:

Why do I keep repeating the same painful pattern in my relationships?

There are many reasons, and I’ll explain some of the major ones. People tend to seek out the same patterns in relationships that they experienced in their family of origin. There are several theoretical reasons for this. Here are two of my favorites: 1) People are drawn to try and heal in their relationships any emotional damage they sustained in their families. For example, if you had a distant parent who never quite gave you the love you deserved, you may find yourself drawn to emotionally distant partners. Your (often unconscious) hope is that you will finally be able to get the love you deserve from a familiar-feeling source. Unfortunately, this is often like trying to squeeze a lump of coal into a diamond. 2) During childhood, people learn protective patterns they use to keep themselves safe in the world. We are drawn to people and situations that allow us to use our familiar defenses. Continuing with the example above, even if you know that your parent was distant and that you want more intimacy in your life, the fact is you may feel more comfortable with some distance, because this is a familiar way of interacting for you. It may be less threatening to feel the familiar disappointment of distance than it is to connect with a partner who is emotionally available and who appears to be “luring you” toward the unfamiliar, emotionally vulnerable terrain of intimacy.

What can I do to change my patterns in relationships?

First, explore your patterns and connect them to your history. Next, clearly identify why you would want to change them. No one ever changes embedded patterns without first weighing their pros and cons and deciding that change will legitimately result in more happiness. This is because change causes anxiety and it takes hard work. If you really want to change your patterns in relationships, here are a few places to start: 1) Recognize that you should focus your energy on changing yourself, not your partners. (If you change yourself you will automatically attract a different kind of partner.) It will be helpful for you to explore in counseling what kinds of people you are typically attracted to and how your relationships typically begin. There are often many warning signs at the onset of a new relationship that people with established patterns do not notice or have trained themselves to ignore. Developing and listening more closely to your internal warning system can give you much more decision-making power in your choice of relationships. 2) Many people bounce from one relationship to the next without ever taking the time to grieve, explore what went wrong, and re-center their energy and love within themselves. If this describes you, your work is to slow down, face your pain and fear, and work through it. It is only when we are standing with both feet on the ground that we can make clear decisions and good choices about who we want to date, love, or partner with.

If you have additional questions, feel free to email me at