When a serious relationship ends, falling in love with someone new can feel impossible. Kate Hollowood speaks to different women about navigating love after loss.
Throwing her wedding magazines in the bin turned out to be liberating. So did handing back her engagement ring and settling up the joint account she had shared with her ex. After 10 years with her abusive fiancé Adam*, Ruth walked away from the relationship. But despite feeling relief with the heartbreak, she had anxieties about finding love again.
“It was very difficult to think about what the future might look like, because I didn’t feel great about myself,” says Ruth, now 34 and based in Newcastle. “I was worried that people might not like me because of my experiences. It took me a while to feel like I was a good person again.”
Feeling like ‘damaged goods’ after the end of a serious relationship is common, even if you haven’t suffered a serious trauma. As model Miranda Kerr tells Marie Claire UK in a recent cover interview, she felt cynical at the prospect of finding love after heartbreak. “I couldn’t see myself meeting someone I wanted to settle down and have a family with,” says Miranda, reflecting on her 2013 divorce from actor Orlando Bloom. “At the time, I was dating here and there, and wasn’t taking anything seriously at all. Then I met Evan [Spiegel, who she’s now married to] and he really wanted to be in a serious, committed relationship. It was incredible to meet someone who was so committed in every way — to me, to his work, to his family.”
Dating coach and relationship expert Jo Barnett believes it’s possible to find a soulmate connection with three to five different people over the course of our lifetimes. “People can’t be ‘damaged goods’, they just have a past,” she says. “They’ve had a failed relationship and may have been through some trauma. To open yourself back up to love, you need to do the work on yourself and have some time on your own. Then you can start completely afresh.”
Before meeting her now-husband, Matthew*, Ruth worked hard to rebuild her self esteem. She moved closer to family, started yoga classes and, for the first time, focused on herself and what she wanted out of life. When she met Matthew online, she was upfront about the trauma she’d experienced in her previous relationship. “There was never any fear of judgement with him,” says Ruth. “Rather than feeling like someone with baggage, it was more that there were things from my past that he needed to be aware of.”
In Sex and the City, Charlotte York memorably states that it takes half the duration of the entire relationship to get over someone — but perhaps there is no failsafe formula after all. Ruth met Matthew just a few months after her split with Adam. “Because I’d found my self worth, moving on from Adam was an easier process in some ways. It wasn’t like we were going to get back together,” she says.
But moving on doesn’t necessarily mean meeting someone new. Stacey McCrear, 28 from London, has been single for almost two years after a two-year relationship with her ex, Luke*. Even though she’s had other relationships that have lasted twice as long, her breakup with Luke was the hardest. She believes it’s because the decision to end it was out of her control.
During a rough patch, Luke told Stacey that he wanted them to split. “Then he told me he’d been having doubts for six months — that was super out of the blue for me,” says Stacey. “He’d been talking about saving up for an engagement ring. It felt like a rug had been pulled from underneath me.”
Stacey has tried dating since for fun, but has decided she’s more focused on building a life that she loves. Keen to have a family one day, Stacey has decided that she’ll have a baby on her own at 35 if she is still single. “For a long time, I didn’t want to meet anybody because I didn’t want to go through it all again,” says Stacey. “If I meet someone eventually then great, but I know that I don’t need to find someone to be happy.”
It seems Stacey is not alone in the idea of self-love and staying single for the long term, following the breakdown of a serious relationship. Lucy Smith, 39 from Devon, doesn’t plan on falling in love again – and she feels the happiest she’s ever been. After two incredibly traumatic relationships – the first ending with her partner’s suicide – Lucy has been single for 10 years.
For a long time after her last serious relationship, Lucy struggled to imagine a positive future. Deep down, she felt that she was not worthy of love. She ended up going for men that would hurt her as it reflected this core belief. “I thought, will anybody ever love me again?” says Lucy. “I live in a very small town where everybody knows everybody else’s business. I thought people would say, ‘watch out for her, her partner committed suicide — you might do the same’.”
When Lucy finally started confronting her past through massage therapy and daily meditation, she was able to transform her mindset. “It’s just been… comfortable,” she says, reflecting on her more recent single years. “I know some people get anxious about spending a night in alone, but I’m different. I’m happy in my own company. I make myself laugh! I’ve got my own house, a good job and really good friends and family around me. I’m finally in a great place and I know that I’m worthy.”
When navigating dating after bereavement, it’s often not just your own heart that you have to think about. Clare Schoch lost her husband to cancer nearly five years ago after 16 years of marriage. “I still do all of my dating covertly,” says the 44-year-old from Gloucester. “I am in a relationship at the moment and my children are aware of it, but it’s been incredibly difficult. Out of respect for my in-laws, I don’t post on social media or talk about my partner.”
From Clare’s experience, bereavement can make you hyper aware of other people’s opinions. “If you wake up the day after your husband has died and think, ‘I don’t want to be by myself tonight’, then do it,” she says. “If even after three thousand mornings you still don’t feel like dating, then that’s fine too. Just do what you feel is right for yourself, rather than what you think other people expect.”
*Some names have been changed.