Heartbreak, while nearly universal, is personal and unique. A breakup may take you by surprise, leading to many months of private healing. By contrast, the end of a relationship could inspire you to seek external support from your communities. Breakups can alter the way you see yourself and can even have physical effects: disrupted sleep, irregular appetite, agitation.
A person’s emotional reaction following a breakup is contingent on a number of factors, says licensed marriage and family therapist Kiaundra Jackson. For many people, processing heartbreak is similar to the grief brought on by the death of a loved one. A person’s age, relationship experience, and maturity also influence how hard a breakup hits. “If you are a little bit younger or less mature or haven’t had as many relationships, you might not know how to navigate that process in the most healthy manner,” Jackson says. “But once you’re a little bit older, a little bit more mature, you’ve been through relationships and breakups before, you know your strengths and weaknesses. You know what you need to do to navigate that and help yourself feel better.”
The post-breakup emotional fallout is also dependent on whether you were the one on the receiving end. In these situations, the grief is multifaceted, says Amy Chan, the founder and chief “heart hacker” of Renew Breakup Bootcamp: Not only are you losing a person in your life, but you’re grappling with a shifting sense of identity without your ex, mourning the future you once imagined, and, if cheating or another form of betrayal was involved, the sting of infidelity.
The person initiating the breakup also feels a sense of loss. This person’s period of mourning occurs before the relationship officially ends; they’re grieving the slow decline of the partnership. They can also experience guilt for hurting someone they once cared about. “It hurts them to hurt someone that they love,” Chan says.
Just as all partnerships are distinctive, their dissolutions — and the aftermath — are too. Whether you’re the one doing the breaking up, the one who’s been broken up with, or if the split was mutual, there are different coping mechanisms to help you heal and move on. While there’s no one-size-fits-all track for mending a broken heart, experts offer their best advice for finding yourself on the other side of heartbreak. Your path to healing following an abusive relationship will look different from the guidance provided here. The National Domestic Violence Hotline has resources for those experiencing abuse. (Heads up: The following advice is largely catered toward unmarried couples without children.)
If you’ve been broken up with
The way our brains interpret a breakup is a lot like addiction. In an oft-cited study, people who hadn’t recovered from a breakup were shown pictures of the person who rejected them; the parts of their brains that lit up were the same areas associated with cocaine addiction. “The conclusion and assumption that we’ve drawn is that you’re literally in withdrawal,” Chan says. “Because of this withdrawal, it’s going to cause you to want to do something to go get [them] back. And that’s when you might do something you’ll regret, like text them.”
In these moments of longing for connection, seek support from trusted friends and confidantes — not your ex. These are the people who can give you validation and provide a sympathetic ear. However, despite the best of intentions, it’s likely these people may resort to insulting or belittling your ex or offering platitudes in an effort to lift you up.
This may actually be counterproductive when your emotions are still raw and you still have love for your former partner. Be explicit in how your loved ones can best support you, Chan suggests. Try saying, “I’m really grieving this right now. I just need a safe place to vent and to process. I don’t need advice. Can you do that for me?”
The interstitial moments of the day — the time you would previously spend watching a TV show together or texting when something funny happened — will be the times when you most feel the absence of your ex. Have a list of people you can text or call in these instances instead of feeling tempted to reach out to your former partner, says Logan Ury, the author of the dating book How to Not Die Alone: The Surprising Science That Will Help You Find Love. Keep the list varied — your sister is the go-to for memes, your adventurous friend is your date to new restaurants — and don’t lean on one person exclusively. This text support list can also include people you reach out to if you hear a song or pass by a location that reminds you of your ex.
Another coping mechanism is reframing the breakup as something gained, not lost, Ury says. First, train your brain to focus on the positives of the breakup. Get out a pen and paper (or Google doc) and list the reasons you’re benefiting from the split. They can be as trivial as not having to pretend to like their favorite band anymore to more substantial things, like not having to eventually relocate for their job. Then, repeat the exercise, focusing on the negatives of the relationship. What were the aspects of your relationship that weren’t great? Maybe they never cooked dinner, they were frequently unreliable, or they poked fun at your hobbies. “By focusing on this,” says Ury, who is also the director of relationship science at Hinge, “it helps your brain say it wasn’t perfect and you’re reminding yourself of what about the relationship wasn’t working for you.”
To help combat the identity crisis that comes after a breakup, Ury recommends engaging in activities you gave up or put on the back burner during your relationship. What are the projects and pursuits that make you feel more like yourself? If you and your ex didn’t share the same love of the beach, treat yourself to many a beach day. Maybe you put your pottery on the back burner; now is a great time to pick it up again.
If the breakup is mutual
Mutual breakups where both sides agree to split (say, one person has to move for work and the other doesn’t want to uproot or you both acknowledge you grew apart) can make moving on more difficult because you can’t quite vilify your ex, Chan says. You also may have vowed to stay friends with your former partner given that the relationship ended on good terms. However, the two of you need time with no contact, Chan says. “You need a transition period where that dynamic goes from an intimate, romantic one to a platonic one,” she says. “You need that space and time in between because it’s unrealistic to just think you could switch from romantic to platonic immediately. In most cases, it’s very messy.” Evaluate how you feel after 30 days of no contact, Chan says, and then work toward another 30 days. Eventually, the desire to reach out may be nonexistent. Take it one day at a time.
Regardless of who initiated the breakup, Chan advises blocking your ex’s number and their social media accounts for at least the first six to eight weeks after splitting. “You can’t count on willpower,” she says. “The panic and the pain, the withdrawal that happens after a separation is so intense that, if you have the ability, you’re going to look at their social media, check their stories, see who they’re with.”
To gauge whether you’ve healed and are ready to be friends with your ex, Jackson suggests measuring your reaction to seeing them in person, on social media, or anything that reminds you of them. If you don’t feel annoyed, mad, frustrated, or upset, you have healed from the breakup and can resume a platonic relationship. “If I’m triggered and I’m annoyed and I’m mad and I’m frustrated and now I want to go into a downward spiral, that just tells me that I need to take some additional time to process and heal,” Jackson says. (Again, this processing can involve thinking about how the relationship didn’t serve you anymore and what you’d like to do differently in future relationships, according to Ury.)
Boundaries are crucial when spending time together in group settings and with mutual friends. Have a conversation with your ex, Ury says, and determine your comfort levels around seeing each other in a group setting. Again, check in with how you’d react if you saw them in public. And if the agreement you settled on no longer works — seeing your ex with a group of friends is more painful than you thought — renegotiate.
If you’re initiating the breakup
The person putting the split into action is likely to experience an array of emotions, ranging from guilt to relief, regardless of whether the relationship was toxic. Any and all of these emotional reactions are valid, experts say.
For the initiator, the choice to break up with a significant other hardly ever comes suddenly and without attempts to fix the relationship. (If you’re considering dumping your partner without first working toward a fix, give the person a chance and tell them what’s not working, Ury says.) It’s during this period that the breakup-er is mourning the partnership, Ury says, opposed to after the breakup for the recipient.
While the wound is still fresh for your ex, do not maintain a platonic relationship with them. Whether you intend to or not, you’re preventing them from moving on. “It really interrupts and hinders their ability to move forward because there’s always a little bit of hope,” Chan says. “The constant reminders or the text messaging or the sharing of good news keeps them stuck in this relationship, in this attachment to someone who’s getting the girlfriend or boyfriend experience on an emotional level without any commitment or responsibility.”
Although you were the one ending the relationship, you can still look back on what kind of partner you were. How did you communicate? How did you help meet the needs of your ex? This reflection helps illuminate areas of improvement and how you want to show up for your next relationship. While it may be tempting to immediately rebound, you won’t give yourself enough time to process the relationship if you’re constantly distracted by new flings, Ury says.
Even if you’re flooded with conflicting emotions — calmness and loneliness, say — know your experience is valid. Just because you’re relieved or proud you left the relationship doesn’t mean you don’t want what’s best for your ex. You can still think they’re a good person, but not the right person for you. “Two things can coexist,” Jackson says, “I can love you and let you go at the same time.”
No matter how your relationship ends, the cliche holds true: Time heals all wounds. Things may feel pretty terrible for a while and you’ll want to wish the unpleasant feelings away or even judge yourself for feeling them. Embrace the waves of grief, anger, and annoyance and let them pass, Jackson says. One day soon, you may not even notice it happened, but you won’t even think about your ex as anything but a passing memory.
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