Transition – Moving through relationship breakdown

Perhaps only when both parties have reached agreement on the details of the separation, have negotiated who gets what and agreed upon arrangements for any children, do you then begin to consider how your future may look. This can be thought of as the ‘transition’ stage.

Transition can be viewed as having three distinct phases: the difficult process of letting go, the confusing nowhere of in-betweenness and launching forth into a new situation or, more succinctly, an ending, a neutral zone and a new beginning.

At the outset, it is helpful to make the distinction between ‘transition’ and ‘change’ as they are often believed to be one and the same. Change is ‘situational’ – we change jobs, we have a new boss, we move to a new town etc. Transition, on the other hand, is psychological; the reorientation we have to go through in order to integrate the change; essentially ‘getting our head around it’. In his book ‘Transitions, Making Sense of Life’s Changes’, Bridges suggests that ‘without a transition, change is just a rearrangement of the furniture’.

However we define transition, it can be a daunting period, a ‘hovering’ stage that can feel a little like being in limbo, where everything is ‘up in the air’. So how do we move through the first two phases of transition and ensure we are ready for the new beginning? A first step may be to process what has passed. Whatever the relationship looked like, it has now ended and there will inevitably be a mix of emotions. Even those who have experienced an abusive relationship may notice a sense of loss; the loss of a dream, a loss of hope for a happy marriage, the loss of a good life with this person. Having a counsellor alongside will allow you to reflect on the relationship, good times and bad, and think about what its ending means for you.

The neutral zone might be considered with an element of mindfulness – the ‘here and now’ – being with the emotions and acknowledging that you are in transition and this may be uncomfortable. Aspects of mindfulness in counselling will aim to support you through this by encouraging you to ‘sit with’ the discomfort whilst finding ways to hold on to the hope that the difficult feelings will not last forever, that a good future is possible and that the discomfort is an essential part of the overall healing process. There are many mindfulness exercises that a counsellor may introduce to help with this phase, such as visualising the difficult emotions passing by on a slow-moving boat, returning to phrases such as ‘this will pass’, ‘this is a moment of discomfort, I moved through the last one, I will move through this one’. A counsellor will always endeavor to encourage a client to hold on to hope. If a client feels hope-less at this point, or at any stage in this process, the counsellor will hold the hope for them, just as a friend may be able to see that ‘things will get better, you just may not be able to see it yet’.

The new beginning phase may feel daunting and this phase may include a consideration of the client’s ‘new identity’ outside the relationship. At this point, counselling may make use of creative techniques to help you consider your future, for example, by creating a ‘hope board’ using pictures, art materials, sketches and so on; with guidance, a client may be able to ‘map out’ how they hope their future will look. It can be interesting to consider the ‘colour’ of your future, its texture, size, the people you wish to inhabit your future with you and those you may feel you need to ‘set down’. Alternatively, sketching out a window with four panes; each pane representing a different phase – the relationship as it was, where you are now, your fears for the future and your hopes for the future. Clients often find it helps to have a visual representation of the relationship and of future plans in this way.

It is important not to rush the period of transition, to allow yourself the time and space to move through each phase at your own pace, but to also try to recognise when you may be ‘stuck’ and to seek support when it may be needed. Keeping in mind that a new beginning always has to start with an ending may help you keep some perspective and be hopeful for a fresh start.

Nicky Walker
Nicky Walker Counselling