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When It's All Over, There Are Good Goodbys and Bad Goodbys


"I can't believe I stayed so long. Why did I put up with it?"

"I knew from the start it would never work. What's wrong with me?"

"I feel like such a fool. How do I manage to always choose such losers?"

If you've ever found yourself asking such questions--and at some point, who hasn't?--you know the emptiness that often accompanies the end of a relationship.

But those feelings of loss, sadness and anger can be converted into a "good goodby," experts say, if one is willing to invest as much time answering the questions as asking them.

"Relationships--even failed ones--can yield incredible life lessons if we devote the time and energy to exploring what went wrong," says Laguna Beach psychologist Michelle Barker. "As painful and intimidating as it can sometimes be, it's critical. If you don't learn from past mistakes, you're bound to repeat them."

A good goodby, Barker says, isn't an event as much as a process.

"It's more than sending your ex-husband a letter or reflecting on the good times you shared with a girlfriend," she says. "It's an exercise in self-discovery in which a person examines why the relationship failed and what patterns he or she might want to avoid repeating in future relationships.

"It's not only about completion and closure, but cleaning the emotional slate and setting the stage for the future. It takes time and effort, and whether we're willing to do it tells us a lot about ourselves. How we end a relationship can be every bit at least as revealing as how we function while we're in one."

An essential step in the process of saying goodby, says Beverly Hills psychologist Stuart Fischoff, is accepting responsibility for your participation in the disintegration of the relationship.

"It's always easier to blame the other person than to accept appropriate responsibility," says Fischoff, a professor at Cal State L.A. "But real growth occurs when a person can honesty answer questions like 'Why did I stay when I knew it wouldn't work?' or 'What could I have done differently?' Sometimes what we discover is that we were feeling so desperate or needy or just didn't want to be alone. Having the courage to recognize how we set ourselves up for failure in relationships is a huge step toward growth."


Barker says that when letting go of a relationship it's important to focus on what was gained from it as well as what was lost.

"It's easy to dwell on the losses," she says, "but there's a greater value in focusing on the good that resulted from the relationship--the children you had together, the people you may have met through the other person and the experiences you shared that made you who you are today."

Fischoff agrees, but warns that getting too invested in nostalgia can cloud one's perspective.

"It's common to romanticize the past and focus on the good times," he says. "The danger is that, in doing so, it's easy to discount or even overlook the underlying issues that destroyed the relationship in the first place."

Putting pen to paper, Fischoff says, can help avoid that trap.

"Before you can truly let something go, you have to grasp why it's necessary to do so. You have to understand what happened," Fischoff says. "I encourage clients to write about their relationship chronologically, from the day they first met the other person through the last time they saw one another. It provides a valuable overview. It also offers an opportunity to close the relationship in a concrete way. When you put that last period after the last word in the last sentence, you can finally be free."


When reflecting on a lost relationship, Barker says, many of us tend to get mired in sadness or anger.

"It's common to get stuck in the 'What happened?' phase," she explains. "People often have trouble letting go because they're so invested in being right. Others are haunted by the feeling of having been cheated, that they gave too much to something that didn't pay off."

But rarely, Barker points out, is there much to be gained by being the victim.

"There comes a point where you have to get on with it, or the bitterness and resentment will consume you," she says. "When my first husband and I divorced, I volleyed for a while between anger and despair. I finally reached a point where I got fed up and asked, 'Am I going to let this experience ruin my life?' I realized that by dwelling on the past, I was still surrendering power to my ex-husband."

It was only then, Barker says, that she became proactive.

"I shifted my focus toward the future and what I wanted to accomplish. They say that the best revenge is living well, and I think there's a lot of truth to that."

Barker urges clients to view the loss of a relationship as a catalyst for change and growth.

"Most people resist change because it's risky, unpredictable and frightening. It feels safer to remain stuck in the status quo. But when we're forced to change, such as when a partner leaves us, we have little choice," she says.

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