There’s no known antidote to heartbreak. When someone you love suddenly exits your life, your friends and family may comfort you with the “breakup rule”: the idea that it takes half the length of any relationship to mend the metaphorical cracks in your heart. Yes, it’s soothing to believe that your pain will have a definitive expiration date (no question!) but experts say the rule is more lore than law.
“I don’t believe the standard equation is applicable to most breakups,” says relationship expert Susan Winter. “The time it takes to recover from a breakup depends upon the depth of your emotional investment.” Instead of time, she says recovery comes from the meeting of resilience and opportunity. “If one is resilient and has a positive attitude, moving forward is the next logical step. Additionally, if one has ample opportunity to meet a partner, moving on is far easier. The difficulty lies in a lack of resilience, combined with lack of opportunity. This is when people get stuck,” she explains.
Science has shown us why heartbreak hurts so much. fMRI studies have revealed that the brain experiencing heartbreak operates similarly to how it does when we’re in physical pain. And still more fMRI studies have shown that the devastation activates the same mechanisms in the brain associated with the withdrawal symptoms of drug addiction.
“The time it takes to recover from a breakup depends upon the depth of your emotional investment.” – Susan Winter, relationship expert
I know, I know: It’s so not what you want to hear, but getting over someone isn’t a one-size-fits-all kind of experience. Some good news? Research suggests that most people overestimate how long it will take them to put their relationship in the past, so your pain will likely recede sooner than you think. First, you’ll have to do the work though. There’s a lot of weed-whacking involved, and well, it starts with addressing why the breakup happened in the first place.
3 steps that will help you get over a breakup
1. Take back the story for yourself
“You need to be able to state the reason why the break occurred, even if you’re guessing,” says Winter. “This gives the mind a place to land. You can’t move forward without having some logical reason to satisfy your mind.”
Research backs Winter’s advice. A 2015 study published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science found that the difficult work of reflecting on a breakup helped the heartbroken move on. This doesn’t (repeat after me: does not) mean reaching out to your ex and asking for an explanation. It’s about giving yourself a story that will keep you from wondering down rabbit holes that will ultimately only harm you.
“There is no breakup explanation that’s going to feel satisfying,” says Guy Winch, PhD, in a TED Talk. “No rationale can take away the pain you feel. So don’t search for one, don’t wait for one, just accept the one you were offered or make up one yourself and then put the question to rest, because you need that closure to resist the addiction.” By “addiction,” he means the desire to continue inhabiting the “why” of the breakup rather than to look toward the future.
You don’t want to stumble into an on-again, off-again relationship cycle.
2. Give your mate a 360-degree assessment
When you’re deeply in love with someone, it’s natural to become a little bit biased (okay, a lot biased) about how great they are. In reality though, you’re not the Meredith Grey to their McDreamy. Once they’re no longer in your life, Winter says it’s necessary to more thoroughly assess the strengths and weaknesses of the relationship.
“We tend to put our ex on a pedestal, or make them the worst human being in the world. In truth, they maybe both as well as many more things in the middle. It’s important to deconstruct the idealization of our ex, as well as casting them in a purely negative light. Both extremes won’t let us move forward. In the former, we lost a good thing. In the latter, we never had a good thing,” she says.
As comedian Jared Freid is fond of saying on the U Up? podcast, dating is about developing your taste. If you take the time to think about what worked and what just didn’t, you’ll be better prepared to define your standards for the next relationship.
3. Watch out for the replay loop
Once steps one and two are “check and check,” notice when your mind starts creating montages of your past flame. “We get stuck in a mental loop of replaying the good times, bad times, and everything our partner said. This keeps us in a loop of misery. The only way out of this obsession is awareness,” says Winter.
Just like you would in meditation, practice awareness around thoughts that are dragging you into the past and cut. them. off. “The best way out of the chaotic aftermath of a breakup is to use your mind to heal your emotions,” says Winter. “Thoughts create feelings, so it’s worth catching those thoughts that send you into a negative, downward spiral. Be aware of the tricks your mind will play on you.”
“The best way out of the chaotic aftermath of a breakup is to use your mind to heal your emotions.”
The relationship expert says that self-awareness happens to be the closest thing we have to a cure for heartache. Nope, it isn’t perfect, but as with many things in life, the only way out is through (yourself).
So how long does it take to get over a breakup?
TBD… by you.
While not very much research has been conducted on the lasting effects of heartbreak, one poll of 2,000 people found that the average person will experience three heartbreaks in their lifetime for a total of a year and a half of recovery. And despite the tissues-and-pizza reputation breakups have been given in pop culture, it’s important to remember that good things come of them, too.
Back in 2007, Gary Lewandowski Jr, PhD, a psychologist at Stony Brook, found that calling it quits with someone can ultimately lead to positive effects like personal growth. “The increased positive emotions included feelings of such as: comfort, confidence, empowerment, energy, happiness, optimism, relief, satisfaction, thankfulness, and wisdom,” he writes in the study.
Remember, the relationship you have with yourself is the only one that’s permanent. No separation. No breakups. No divorces. So when someone you love walks away, make sure you’re first priority is caring for your first and last love. (That’s you!)
This story was originally published on November 2, 2019; updated on June 26, 2020.
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