A couple drives home after a party talking about the people and events they encountered during the evening. It’s one of the unique joys of couple hood, to make some observations and even to gossip [but only a little] about others. Almost all couples do it, even the couples who have problems with each other. Day-to-day, in long-term relationships, we rely on our partners to listen to us and respond with appropriate oohs and ahhs when we have excelled. We often make our daily reports with the anticipatory excitement of a young child, hopping from foot to foot, hoping for a pat on the head, or even greater rewards. The same applies, with differing emotions, when the world outside has treated us harshly. We make our lament to the one set of ears we trust will cluck and comfort, to soothe the hurt we feel. At those times, the pat on the head, real or metaphorical, morphs into a hug to better express the sense that our litany had been heard, loud and clear. No matter how large or small our outside worlds, we often come to use our partner as the primary source and resource - the one we turn to for acknowledgment and comfort. That reality alone does not define a relationship as good or wonderful. There are many couples who bicker and argue for 50+ years. Even so, they still tell all to their life partner, even if what they say is neither acknowledged nor rewarded.
Relationships have as much to do with familiarity as they do with that thing called love.
Those that have both are to be devoutly desired. A conversation with a widow or widower whose life has been overturned by the death of a long-time spouse usually reveals a simple truth. Every bit of news - happy or sad - was shared with their mate. If one of the couple experienced the death of his or her own brother or sister, he or she turned to their mate for comfort. Career and social ups and downs were a staple of nightly debriefing at dinner or during pillow talk. All manner of loss - or gain - was shared. Yes, there are exceptions, those people who don’t talk to each other at all; but we are talking about the most universal and general truth. After even a brief conversation with such a grieving person, there is often only one effective paraphrase of what has just been said. “The person who you turned to every time your heart hurt is no longer here. In fact, their death is now the source of the biggest hurt you’ve ever felt. And now, who do you turn to...?”
While this might be obvious to all who have been and are in long-term relationships, there is a point to be made about what happens when death breeches the connection between two people, and more so, when the two have been a long-time couple. Yes it could happen with friends, and does; yes it could happen between parent and adult child, and does; but for this piece, we want to focus on couples - a bonded pair. Even when our world includes many others, it is different - very different - to share with them rather than our mates.
In talking with more than 50,000 widows and widowers, we can tell you what they have told us. They suggest that the death of their long-term spouse feels as if they have literally lost a piece of their own body. Some say they actually feel as if they have been cut in half. Who’s to argue with them? Not us. We believe them.
If you’re jumping ahead to the probability that a divorce, after a long-term relationship, might provoke a similar range of feelings – you’re right. Long-term relationships are not just measured in years. They are also measured by the emotional intensity they contain, which creates major impact when they end.
The emotions attached to death or divorce are not defined by time but by the feelings they produced within time. Remembering this will help you deal with your own responses to painful events, and will alert you to recognize the same in others who are dealing with the loss of a companion or the end of a relationship.
If you found this article, Saying Goodbye to a Long-Term Relationship, helpful information, we encourage you to read some other articles from our Grief Blog for other useful information: