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Repairing Egos Bent in a Breakup

October 27, 1989|EVAN CUMMINGS | Evan Cummings is a regular contributor to Orange County Life

Greg Sanner, 30, of Costa Mesa and his fiancee had been engaged for a year and had dated for about six years before deciding to marry. The couple had been "levelheaded and logical," postponing marriage until they obtained their respective degrees.

But finally the wedding was planned. Invitations had been mailed, bridal showers given.

And then--less than four weeks before the wedding--she called it off.

Sanner was devastated. "I asked myself all the 'who, what, where, why, how' questions. What is my purpose--why am I here?" he recalls.

It was five weeks before his wedding date when Steve, 27, of Irvine, who asked that his last name not be used, accompanied his fiancee to a family gathering in Seattle. "We had a wonderful day--everyone telling us how much they were looking forward to our wedding. Then that night she said she had something to tell me."

Steve recalls that for days after the breakup he went to bed each night "sure she would call me up the next day to say she had made an awful mistake. I kept thinking I was in a bad dream--this wasn't really happening."

After just 58 days of marriage, Faith Abel, 46, of Santa Ana was stunned when her husband announced that he was leaving because "he was unhappy and didn't know why."

Distraught and confused--he had pleaded with her to marry him for more than a year--Abel was overcome by humiliation, anger and self-doubt. She said she "walked around for two weeks like a robot. I barely knew I was alive."

Kara Cross, a Tustin psychotherapist who helps newly rejected singles work through their pain through workshops and individual "coaching sessions," says experiences such as these are "more than just ego-bruising."

"A rejection can cause a person's identity to be shattered--so many goals and expectations are invested in a partner," she says. "As with any loss, one experiences shock and disbelief, denial, anger, depression--emotions which may be felt in varying degrees and at different times."

Sanner, a systems analyst, says: "Everything I believed about myself was called into question. I have always been good at solving problems, figuring things out. I thought I was a good judge of character, but I began to wonder. Obviously, if I didn't know what was going on with someone so close to me, I had to question my perceptions."

Steve thought he had always been good at sensing his fiancee's thoughts and needs. "I could practically read her mind--when she was upset I would often tell her what was wrong, and I'd be right."

When the breakup hit, he says, he realized suddenly that he had "missed something major" and blamed himself. "I no longer trusted myself to make decisions at work or at home," he says.

Cross says nearly everyone who is rejected thinks that they have done something to make the other person stop loving them. "And that causes him or her to question everything they trusted about themselves before. It becomes a neck-and-neck race between self-doubt and self-worth."

A common emotion, according to the psychologist, is wanting to flee, to bury the pain--something Steve understands well.

"My immediate impulse was to move away--quit my job, travel, work my way around the world, move to another country--in part to try and punish her, to make her feel as bad as I did," he says. "But I decided that, if in two months I still wanted to leave, I would. Needless to say, I'm still here."

Abel remembers taking to her bed. Although she went to work every day, "for about a month I came straight home and went to my bedroom. I spent the rest of the night there--I ate there, I read there, I cried there."

Sanner's depression was masked by anger, bitterness and embarrassment. "We had gone together for seven years--moved here from Denver together after graduate school. We planned everything so carefully. After the breakup, I was completely unmotivated. I stopped socializing. I stopped exercising."

"A certain amount of feeling sorry for oneself is acceptable," Cross says, "but those who get caught up in self-pity are in the depression phase. It is really anger turned inward."

Friends and family can help in the beginning, but she warns against getting "stuck on the pity pot" for too long.

"After a few weeks," she says, "people aren't going to be too sympathetic. They'll listen for just so long and then have to draw the line for their own sake. And the person frequently thinks, 'See, now they are rejecting me too.' "

Cross says: "What these people fear most is future rejection--and also that they will never feel that 'high' again with someone else."

She recommends taking "baby steps": "Don't worry about dating--just start talking to people again. Then begin to socialize."

"I started getting back into life by setting bigger goals for myself," Steve says, "like being accepted into a top MBA program, which I achieved. That made me feel great. I also started looking at the positives in my life instead of all the negatives."

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