Heartbreak is incredibly painful. It doesn’t matter who ended a relationship or why it ended, it often just….hurts. Having been there myself many times, this is a guide to remind future me, and for any others who might benefit from it, of how this process works and how to survive it.
What is a breakup?
Simply put, a breakup is a grief process. You had something, you lost it, and now you are grieving that loss.
This is true regardless of who ended the relationship or why it ended (yes, even if you ended it). The only exception is if you didn’t care about the relationship (in which case you wouldn’t be reading breakup articles online would you?). So, first step here is to understand what this is. You are grieving, and regardless of what rom-com, breakup book, or other advice you hear, a grief process takes time. So buckle up, you’re in this for the long haul whether you like it or not.
How do we grieve? A grief process if often considered to involve five elements. These are often known under the heading “the five stages of grief”. They are:
Of course, there are debates about how accurate these stage are, but as a general guide for what you’re likely to experience they serve pretty well. What a lot of people don’t realize though is that one doesn’t just go through the stages one by one. This isn’t a checkbox, you don’t get to cross these items off your list; the heart isn’t that simple. Rather, a grief process often is a cycling of these elements. This means that as you mourn the loss of a relationship you are likely at some point to feel all the five stages of grief.
What does that actually look like?
Coping with the breakup – How grief works
First, grief is not a linear process; rather it comes in waves. This means that a few days after the breakup you might find yourself feeling fine! You’ll think this is easier than you expected and be impressed with yourself for handling things so well, and then something reminds you of your ex and you’ll feel a wave of emotion crash over you. Sadness, hurt, anger, loss; this HURTS and there’s no easy solution for it. That’s actually how this works though; like waves:
Also, these waves can take the forms of any and all of the five stages of grief. That means one day you may have a wave of sadness, another a wave of bargaining, another of anger, etc. You’re not guaranteed to have every stage, they likely won’t always come in order, and they can be surprising.
“I was once two months out of a relationship and had only experienced denial, bargaining, and depression (multiple times each) and a bit of acceptance. Suddenly, while sitting at a stoplight one day, I looked up and was hit by the most extreme, over the top, absolute RAGE! At my ex, at the relationship, at myself for having let it go as it did; I was just engulfed. It was like all the anger waves to that point had saved up and hit me together, and I lived in the midst of that fury on and off for several weeks before that anger started to abate.“
These waves can at times be quite simply overwhelming and there is sadly no trick to making this go faster. In the world of deep emotions, easy answers or quick solutions don’t help. Things that look like tempting escapes (e.g. alcohol, casual sex, etc.) are just ways to try and suppress or ignore your feelings. These can actually prolong the process since they delay dealing with the emotion.
What you can do in the middle of these waves though is to remind yourself that these are waves and they will pass. And while you’re waiting for it to pass seek healthy distractions like:
- Spending time with friends and make new friends
- Process and grow from the experience with a therapist
- Work out – this is a great time to join a running group or become a regular at the gym!
- Get healthier (eat well, sleep well, or figure out what’s preventing this and improve it)
- Go to social events (meetup.com is great for this)
- Find classes to take (dancing, cooking, welding, painting, brick making, programming, writing; whatever you’re interested in)
- Take up a new sport
- Start a new hobby or project
These are just a few ideas to inspire; the point is to be active in healthy ways. It won’t stop the waves from coming, but it will help you endure them, process them, and get to a healthy place again faster. And particularly important; be patient with yourself. You can’t rush this process, you just have to endure it, and it will take longer than you want.
When you find yet another wave coming, right when you thought it was all long gone, just breathe and be patient. Over time you will notice that the waves are coming less frequently and getting weaker. That doesn’t mean they always get weaker, sometimes a strong wave will come after a long time with only weak ones, but these will tend to be shorter-lived, and overall the waves will become smaller and less frequent. This is how progress happens.
Why you should cut contact with your ex during this process
I’m gonna be a bit controversial here and give you some hard advice too: CUT CONTACT WITH YOUR EX!
I’m not saying you have to do this forever, but for a time at least you need the space to grieve.
You can do this formally (by saying you need to not be in contact for some period of time) or informally (by just not getting in touch or responding), but you need to do it in a way that actually prevents you from contacting your ex.
Why? Because denial, bargaining, anger, depression. That’s right, you’ll likely be feeling most or all of these feelings; do any of those sound like good frames of mind for you to get in touch with your ex? If the relationship is actually over then denial is crazy, bargaining counterproductive, and if you reach out in the midst of anger or depression you will most likely be cruel, pathetic, hurtful (to both of you, as you’ll regret things you said later), and just generally do a lot of harm for no reason.
In my stoplight moment above (see blue box), can you imagine if I’d reached out to my ex? The emotions I was dealing with at that time seemed like they were focused on my ex but they were really about me, and if I’d reached out and blasted any of them at my ex I would have damaged a potential future friendship, probably hurt at least one of us, embarrassed myself, and I would have gotten distracted from a deeply productive healing process. It took me a while in that case but eventually I discovered the reasons for my anger, the actions I had taken that led to that place, and I grew from that.
In one particular breakup I had finally figured out enough of the above to really commit to doing it right. I sought out therapy to talk about what the relationship and breakup had brought up for me and to process that, I discussed it extensively with friends, I signed up for loads of new classes and social events, I worked out super-regularly, I tried to eat healthier. It was still just as hard, I still spent plenty of time angry, depressed, in tears, and miserable, but working through the grief process intentionally opened a new door for me.
That particular grief process forever changed the kind of relationships I have. A long-standing relationship dynamic I’d always struggled with finally fell away in those months, and I gained the ability to have a full equal adult relationship in a way I’d never been able to manage before. Only took me a few decades to get there…
How to cut contact
Here there are no hard and fast rules, and this depends a lot on you. It’s not uncommon that one person grieves a relationship more or differently than the other and if this is true, who is where makes a difference here. There are times where it’s worth reaching out to your ex and declaring that you need silence and no contact for a time. You can make this indefinite, you can leave it vague (“just for a while”) or you can pick a date and say that you need to have no contact at least six months, or a year.
The general rule of thumb is half the length of the relationship. E.g. if you were together for a year, pick a date at least six months out. Having a date isn’t always necessary but if it seems like a better approach to you then set one, but don’t stress too much about it. That stress is part of your grief process too; if you find yourself agonizing over it, set the date around half the length of your relationship away and move on. You can always get in touch earlier if you want, and the closer you get to moving on the less you’ll stress about it.
If your ex isn’t reaching out to you, the easiest way to cut contact is to not get in touch either. In some breakups this is the best way to cut contact.
One other point: If you cut contact an important step at the start of it is to find any and all things that belong to your ex and either throw them out (if they’re okay with that) or send them ALL in one package. Likewise, if they have anything of yours either tell them to throw it out or ask for it now. You don’t want silence to be broken later because one of you needs something the other has; when you decide to cut contact have one last exchange of possessions. After that you’re done; cut contact and get on with your grief process and leave your ex out of it.
What if we should get back together?
There are cases where breakups are temporary. Sometimes the breakup is just what you need for one or both of you to realize what you had and lost or what you’re willing to do for the relationship, and things change. Cutting contact doesn’t mean you have to close this door. If, in the early stages of the breakup, you feel this way and want to give it a try again, reach out! Talk it through. Sometimes this works. This really just means you’re not entirely sure about the breakup yet. It can be hard to be certain after all.
Often however this leads to an on-again, off-again dynamic in which you try again for a while, break up again, try again, break up again, and on and on. Or you decide to just be friends; if this works immediately, great! But if you find yourselves having the same fights and arguments again as if you were still in the relationship, it’s time to cut the cord.
Having a friendship with these fights is like having all the downsides of the relationship without any of the upsides. But sometimes you need several rounds of all this before you’re ready to commit to the breakup. If that’s true then do that; try the relationship again, or try being friends; if it really does work for you great! Watch though to see if you’re getting caught up in cycles of drama like those I describe here.
What I call a breakup is really the point that comes AFTER you’re done with all the drama. It’s that time when you’re finally able to be off-again and stay broken up, or when the whole on-again, off-again is just too much and one or both of you is just so done that you really know it’s not going to work or isn’t worth trying again. This is the real breakup, and this is the point to cut contact and start working through the grief intentionally.
How long does this grief thing go on/when will I know I’m done?
As with knowing when the breakup is actually real, there are no hard and fast rules here. Again, a rule of thumb is often half the length of the relationship. There are people who grieve the relationship before it’s over though, and by the time a breakup happens, they’re already done. This is more often true of women in long-term relationships; they grieve as the relationship dies and by the time the breakup or divorce comes they’re ready to move on. For many of us though, the grieving begins at the breakup and it takes around half the relationship length or a year (whichever is less) to work through the grief.
How will you know you’re done? Some of it will be that the waves of grief are fewer and less frequent. They may not be gone entirely (you might get a small wave now and then even years later), but they don’t leave you in tears at random moments, or suddenly sad at reminders, or changing your schedule to avoid places with memories.
When all that’s stopped, you’re near the end. When are you actually there though? And when are you ready to start dating again?
First, it is important to actually wait until you’re ready. There is such a thing as too early; if you jump too soon your judgment about partners will be off and likely your heart won’t really be open to something real. If you go down this path you’re likely to end up hurt again and you could mess up the chance with someone great by trying before you’re ready. A future article about rebound relationships will discuss this, but the point here is simply that if you want to find a real connection you’ll actually get there faster by waiting until you’re ready; forcing it can make it worse.
How to know when you’re ready? I have yet to find a general rule here, and this is one area where I really have seen people be very different from one another. You will have to pay attention to yourself and figure out how you work. Pay attention to your feelings over a period of days or weeks before deciding and don’t rush the choice. And if you do start dating and finding yourself thinking more about your ex than the new person then maybe it was too soon (some comparisons are inevitable though). Beyond that, it’s up to you to figure out when you’re really ready and if there’s a magic key for all here; please share it with us all in the comments.
My own rule is that when I become more afraid of dating other people than excited about it, I’m ready. Early in a grief phase the thought of dating others can seem overwhelming, but at some point it starts to seem seem quite exciting! The prospect of getting out there, the thought of what’s possible, the chance to start afresh. For me, I think some part of me knows I’m not really ready for it though and as such it’s mostly just exciting.
When I’m really ready though, that part of me starts to know the possibility is real, and as such the nervousness about it all, the fear of getting hurt again, all of it just starts to seem more scary than fun. That and I find myself rehashing old arguments with exes that I’ve really already finished with; nothing new is coming up, my brain is just bored and since it’s got no new material it keeps playing reruns. This is the moment when I need to get out there and start dating again.
The opportunity in a breakup
Breakups, particularly the truly painful ones, are potentially some of the most powerful and useful growth moments in your life. Relationships have a special kind of magic in their ability to get under our skin. They bring out our crazy, and tear away some of our self-deceptions. They show us where our world isn’t like we thought, give us a glimpse into someone else’s world, and bring out some of our deepest and most profound emotions. Sometimes they teach us how to make those emotions even deeper than we were capable of before.
The end of something like this is, thus, a deeply powerful moment. Because of this, the most traumatizing breakups can actually be the best opportunities in life to to grow. You’ve just had your world ripped apart and seen a piece of someone else’s world at the same time; if you’re thoughtful about rebuilding from this you can build a better world for yourself to live in now.
If you sieze that moment fully, the work will likely be exhausting, hard, and come in fits and starts, but the end result can be a far more fully realized person than you were capable of being before. For this purpose I HIGHLY recommend seeking out a therapist to help you in that journey; it can make this process more efficient and ensure you learn from it everything you can, but however you go about this, consider this a chance to take a giant step forward toward the person you’d like to become.
This is a rare moment that you don’t get every day; it’s at these transitions when you’re on your own and fully exposed that you can make truly massive strides and discover fundamental things about who you really are or want to be. Doing so may be one of the hardest things you’ve ever done in your life, but it can also one of the most rewarding. So grieve, cry, work through it all, but use this chance too. You won’t get it again.