At the end of a relationship the routine of your life and the social circle that you built around the relationship are suddenly disrupted. Your thoughts can rapidly cycle back and forth between blaming your partner for all of their faults to blaming yourself. You may come to wonder what your future will look like and whether you can get into a lasting relationship again. Often the clinical symptoms of a break-up look a lot like depression including crying, sleeping too much or too little, weight gain or loss, and feelings of guilt or worthlessness. Friends may suggest you need to “move on”, but what does that mean and how do you do it? Helping clients resolve the pain of a breakup is a frequent enough therapy task that I have come up with this toolkit. I hope that it can help you too.
If you are regularly seeing the person that you broke up with, seeing them will evoke the mixed feelings of love, pain, grief, anger, and tension that come with the breakup. So I recommend that you avoid seeing your ex where possible, unfollow them on social media, say “no” to their request for a coffee meeting, don’t send regular text messages, don’t sit reviewing the photos of the two of you, don’t watch your favorite shows or go to special shared places, and don’t call them. It’s hard, it will hurt, but if you decrease contact in this way, you will increase the speed of your recovery process and your thoughts and your emotions will begin focusing on other parts of your life. Once that happens, you will probably be able to do all those things but the feeling will be less painful.
Sometimes my clients reject this recommendation because they plan on staying friends with their ex-partner or because they want to support each other through the break-up. These are laudable goals. However, nothing about taking a break for a few weeks or more eliminates the possibility of being friends at a later time. Give yourselves time to end one relationship script before you try to enact a new script. Stay away from old relationship-based patterns and clear room for the new friendship-based patterns to which you aspire. As for the idea of supporting each other through the break up, I think that is often misguided. If you are broken up, then the idea of the very person you are in pain about being your source of support for that pain, seems incongruous. Emotional support is intimate but you’ve decided not to be as intimate. I think most people’s emotions will be confused by that process. I know some people make that mutual support work but I ask you to carefully consider your history and your emotional maturity before you decide you are the rare exception. So unless you don’t want the break-up and are willing to risk another round of intense hurt, stay away from your ex for a little while to give yourself time to reset.
What if that’s not possible?
Sometimes it just isn’t possible to not see your ex-partner. A prime example of this would be when parents break-up. So, the next best recommendation that I can make in this circumstance is that you keep your relationship with your ex within the parameters of the new relationship definitions. For co-parents, that means you coordinate pick-ups and drop-offs, vacations, and the kids developmental needs. But you don’t talk about missing each other, reminiscing about your relationship, having sex, or spending the night with each other. It isn’t that there’s anything wrong with any of these behaviors, it is only that if you are having a hard time getting over the relationship, these kinds of behaviors can make it harder.
Discreet Mourning Periods
There’s only so long that you can eat ice cream, call in sick to work, and let the dishes fester in your sink before you begin facing some consequences. Yet the reality of loss and grief may bring all of those symptoms and more. One thing that I recommend is that you plan discreet mourning periods. Get your adult mindset on and consider how long you can allow yourself to have the most intense behaviors of mourning. I’m a big fan of a two-week limit or less for the more intense symptoms because depressive symptoms of more than two weeks become diagnostic. After that, identify another window of time where you may still engage in reflection and a bit of introversion. Finally, identify when you think you’d like to begin dating again.
The time frames here are not absolute. Maybe you need less time, maybe more for a longer relationship. Just make sure that these time frames accommodate your work, self-care, and other-care obligations. Use the time to express and validate your own grief. You lost something, it is important to take time to let those feelings out. If you don’t express your feelings, they will probably sneak out and express themselves in other ways like misplaced anger or uncontrolled crying at more inconvenient times.
Some men need particular encouragement to take this suggestion before jumping past all the messy emotional stuff they may not have been taught to deal with and go straight to the last tool in this toolkit, dating. Dating immediately after a breakup gives the impression of recovery but is actually more like covering an oil spill with concrete. It might clean up the mess, but it isn’t great for planting a new set of intimacy crops.
Okay, so you’ve got your mourning periods scheduled? Good. Now, how do you grieve exactly? Emotional expression means that you take the feelings inside of you and put them outside of you in some way. Examples include writing in a journal, drawing, talking with friends about it until you are sick of it, exercise, walking in nature, watching movies that reflect and mirror your grief (but not favorite movies you shared with the partner), crying, and cleaning feverishly.
Don’t do things that are simply distractions. So, binge watching a movie that always makes you cry is good as long as you feel a sense of relief from the grief even when your thoughts return to the breakup. However, binge watching a new TV series and losing sleep over it because otherwise you might remember the breakup and you simply cannot handle that is not a good idea because it will just leave you emotionally constipated and tired.
Identify the Lessons
One reason we can have a hard time getting over a breakup is that our mind cycles over-and-over about who is at fault for the breakup. As a therapist I like to use a mathematically-nonsense phrase, “Both people are 100% responsible for the relationship.” But if you need to make sense of it in a more tangible way, try the following exercise. Take a sheet of paper and draw a line down the middle. On the left side make a bullet-item list of the things that you think you did that fall short of the ideal partner that you want to be. Take note here, I’ve phrased that very carefully. This isn’t about the things that your partner complained about but what fell short of your own ideals for yourself. This is the stuff to bring to therapy, to your friends, your community, and to try to work on to help you come closer to being the partner that you want to be.
On the right-hand side of the paper write out a bullet-item list of traits or qualities that your partner exhibited that didn’t work for you in relationship. Again, this is phrased very carefully. Don’t get into an itemized list if each time your partner hurt you, just write down, “Lying” for example. The stuff on their side of the sheet of paper is stuff to be careful about in a future relationship partner.
Once you have used this exercise to identify the lessons you want to learn from the relationship, you should be able to silence those inner thoughts. If you still notice your mind trying to find fault and assign blame, just ask that internal voice, “Is there something new these thoughts are bringing to my attention that I need to learn to become the partner I want to be?” and “Is there something new these thoughts are bringing to my attention that I need to learn to pick a better partner next time?” if there is something, add it to the appropriate list. If there isn’t, tell the thoughts that you’re not going to pay attention to the worry anymore. Then distract yourself in a positive way with exercise, an exciting social event, a little bit of work, or something else that takes care of you.
For a little while after a break-up you may not feel like going out or spending time with friends. If you follow the suggestion above about setting a time for mourning then when that time ends you should put socialization on your to-do list.
When alone, your thoughts can spin in a lot of directions and right after a break-up more of those directions will lead you down. Friends who love you add experiences and voices that counter the negative voices in your mind. Even if you are more of an introvert, fill up your calendar with trips to nature and those two or three close friends who refill your bucket. Besides, those social contacts will help when you are ready for the last tool in this toolkit.
Begin Dating Again
Especially if you are reading this soon after a breakup you may not feel ready for dating again. That’s fine. Just pick the time or specific set of conditions when you think you should be ready to date again and add that to your post-mourning schedule. When you get to that point, you may still not feel ready, but give it a try anyway; just a couple of coffee dates here and there. Dipping your toes back into the dating pool will hopefully give you a chance to begin using those lessons you’ve learned to begin sorting out people who aren’t the partners that you want and to begin testing and refining the partner you want to be. Just remember, when you are the partner you want to be it will be clarifying; some people will opt out. They are just leaving room for the people who will be magnetized to you.
If men often need encouragement to stay in the mourning period, it is women that often need encouragement to embark on this step. Go for it ladies, let your diva back out. Dating can be hard but waiting until you are “ready” can lead to a never ending self-improvement tactic that covers for avoidance. I’m not saying every woman needs a partner, but if you know that you want to date eventually, focus on the fact that you are good enough to begin dating while you also continue becoming the woman you want to be.
Whether you use this toolkit or something else, a plan after a breakup can help you accept and soothe the emotional roller coaster then move on to the new possibilities that await you.