Stage 5. Deforming

Stage 5. Deforming

The ‘deforming’ phase occurs when the relationship is about to dissolve. Deforming involves the realisation that one is no longer a member of a ‘couple’ and is moving towards being an individual. You become self rather than couple focused. This phase often involves the ending of significant roles, which may have taken up a lot of time and energy and may have been linked to a sense of identity from which the individual made sense of their daily activities. Some examples of a ‘sense of identity’ include being a husband/wife/partner, being a father/mother, being involved in a business with your partner/significant other. These roles all take up time in daily activities and assume a certain sense of belonging in the other person’s life or jointly engaged in events. There is also a sense of security that comes from having such roles associated with another’s life and life events. It should be noted however, that when a relationship is ending, the deforming process and associated grieving processes, are a natural and healthy way of attaining the required sense of self. That is necessary to manage life again as an individual, rather than as a person in a relationship.

A relationship can dissolve for a number of reasons, however the two categories in which these ‘reasons’ fall are the death of one partner or the decision of one or both partners to leave the relationship. Once the ‘deforming’ phase is over then, if not already started, the mourning phase begins. Mourning is generally associated with grieving the death of a significant other. Consequently, we will deal firstly with the death of a partner and how this event ‘deforms’ a relationship. Then we will describe the events, which occur around the deforming of a relationship in which, for whatever reason, one or both partners decide to leave.

No matter what the cause, there are generally two ways the death of a spouse can occur. The death may be unexpected, or the death may be because of a long illness thus allowing the deforming and grieving processes to begin prior to the actual death of the spouse. Either way, the deforming and grieving processes must occur before the surviving partner can move on with their life, again as an individual and in many cases in a new relationship. However, in some cases, particularly in very long or dependent relationships, the surviving partner may not go through the process of deforming and may remain effectively in a relationship with their deceased partner for the rest of their lives. This is sad, but not uncommon. They are still committed to the relationship, cannot let it go, and have not deformed into becoming an individual again.

If the death is sudden then often the deforming and grieving processes occur simultaneously. At this point, the surviving partner must not only deal with the grief associated with losing their partner unexpectedly, but they must manage their new life as an individual rather than being a member of a couple. This realisation can be quite distressing for reasons over and above the issues associated with the death of their partner.

Often when in a relationship that has successfully ‘normed’ and ‘performed’, particularly if it was a long relationship, the frame of reference is from that of being in a relationship or as a couple. To have to suddenly manage decisions and daily activities from an individual frame of reference takes time, patience, persistence, and on occasion medical or psychological intervention. It is like losing your anchor and feeling lost at sea without any navigation aids. It is a foreign world. However, over time the process of ‘deforming’ generally does occur and the surviving partner, if healthy psychologically and medically, and if able to rely on family and social supports, can eventually move into a lifestyle that is self-focused. In some cases, then, the surviving partner is able to move into a new relationship, thus entering the forming phase again. The potential success of the new relationship for the surviving partner is contingent upon their having successfully managed the deforming and mourning processes after the sudden death of their previous partner.

When the death follows a long and protracted illness or condition, the process is often different to that when the death is sudden. Once aware that there is an impending death in the relationship a number of events may occur. How this translates into the way the two partners manage the death of one, is often associated with how they managed the ‘storming’ phase of their relationship. If the relationship is honest and trust and openness in communication have been the cornerstones of their connection, then each partner will allow the other to follow their respective process, whilst at the same time supporting their own process. Thus, the dying partner will be supported in their endeavour to make sense of their own passing, how they manage the ‘undone’ and unfinished parts of their life, and how they care for their loved ones throughout the process. The surviving partner will be supported in their grieving process – and this does often begin prior to the actual event of death. The dying partner and hopefully others will also support the surviving partner in the family and social circle to commence the deforming phase of the relationship.

Often however, communications will break down and each partner may become either ‘self’ or ‘other’ focused in an attempt to make the process easier for themselves and/or their partner. This will likely result in one or both partners becoming almost ambivalent about the process, and not wish to discuss openly their attitudes and concerns about their grief or that of their partner. This is indeed a difficult time to manage and can be distressing. It can prolong or even stall the deforming and mourning processes for the surviving partner, who needs to deform and often does this when the death is prolonged and not sudden.

Social, cultural, and individual constraints can impose on the deforming and grieving processes. It is often difficult for the individual who is going through these events to be strong enough to follow their own path. This is where psychological and medical intervention may be of benefit. However, it is necessary to remember that ‘this too will pass’, ‘one day/hour/minute at a time’ and if you are able to manage this phase of your life ‘with dignity and poise’, you will get through this and be a stronger person for it. You will have learned a number of coping mechanisms that you know will assist you to get through any future period of difficulty or conflict. As trite as it may sound, the maxim ‘what doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger’ really does apply at this time in your life. Remember, there are few people who do not experience the deforming and mourning processes. Most of us experience the death, sudden or otherwise, of a loved one.

The experience of having to go through the process of ‘deforming’ when in a relationship where your partner has decided to leave is significantly different to that of the death of your partner. It is often said that ‘it’s easier to grieve the loss of someone who is dead rather than someone who has left you; at least you know death is final’. The possibility of experiencing ‘false hope’ when a relationship ends rather than when someone dies is one that causes many people to seek therapy. In many cases, the ‘left’ spouse may enter into behaviours in an attempt to bring their partner back to them. Such behaviours might be a reasonable effort to coax their ex-partner back into the relationship or attempts to reconcile by changing their behaviours. However, in the case of the unhealthy relationships we have seen much more toxic behaviours, which we describe in detail in following chapters. These include manipulation, control, abuse, aggression, threats, and in some cases stalking behaviours, to name but a few. Many of these behaviours are based on a lack of insight and acceptance that the relationship is really over. The former partner may manipulate and  be controlling, in an effort to stay in contact, because her primary fear is that of abandonment, and being left alone.

When the relationship is over, it is necessary for both of you to cut your ties and move on. It is here that the process of deforming is functional, necessary, and one that honours the reality of the situation. To hang on in false hope is destructive to yourself, your partner and if children are involved, your children. When a relationship has moved into the ‘deforming’ phase, it is absolutely necessary to ‘get it, it’s over’, ‘let go’ and ‘move on’. You are now an individual with your own life. You are no longer part of a couple. However, if children are involved, although no longer being a couple, you remain in a relationship with your ex-partner — that of a co-parent. It is important for yourself and your children that you negotiate this new form of relationship with your ex-partner with equanimity and a strict focus on the wellbeing of your children.

At this deforming stage, often after a significant proportion of time was spent attempting to ‘mend’ the relationship and perhaps in therapy, the individuals in relationship move to become individuals again. This often occurs covertly, and both parties may not be at the same stage, at the same time as each other. Once the slippery slide of ‘deforming’ begins, there is little that can be done and generally the outcome is inevitable. It takes a huge amount of energy and commitment to the relationship to turn back from this position. Often people try reconciliation counselling at this point, but in our experience, very few achieve success, as one party has totally deformed and is often even through the ‘mourning phase’. In essence, they are “over it!”

Once there is a realisation by both parties that they are in the phase of ‘deforming’, although distressing, the process of moving on and self-preservation must occur. As one of our men said, “It’s like we both retreated to our respective corners of the ring and I lost my anchor, I didn’t know what was happening or what to do, it was all so distressing”. When you are in an unhealthy relationship, it is in the deforming phase of the relationship that the unhealthy behaviours really come out to play. At this stage, it is of paramount importance that you protect yourself and not become reactive to the events that unfold during this phase. Additionally, taking care of your physical, emotional, social, home, and financial wellbeing is of the utmost importance. If you are to appropriately manage this phase of your relationship you are going to need every form of assistance and comfort, you can lay your hands on. So, it is important to eat regularly, sleep well, have a place to hide and lick your wounds, have close family and friends around you who are positive and supportive, maintain your employment and exercise. Doing this will keep you on track and allow you to get through this very difficult time.

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