Not unlike mourning a loved one who passed, the process of handling a breakup is a version of grieving. “When we lose someone important to us, it’s a naturally chaotic time,” says relationship therapist Elizabeth Earnshaw, LMFT, co-founder and head of relationship health at premarital counseling platform Ours. “Searching for answers is an attempt to get grounded and feel a sense of control.”
“Searching for answers [in the wake of a breakup] is an attempt to get grounded and feel a sense of control.” —Elizabeth Earnshaw, LMFT, relationship therapist
But no matter how natural it may be to try to make sense of a breakup, it’s often not possible to do so; after all, we can’t control or often even access the full breadth and depth of someone else’s feelings. The more you try to go down the rabbit hole of guessing or speculating or assuming what was going through your partner’s head, the more bewildered you may wind up feeling, says Earnshaw.
That’s not to say you can’t feel your feelings; quite the contrary, it’s essential to notice what may be bubbling up for you when you're figuring out how to deal with a breakup. It just means that a more productive way of processing a breakup is to differentiate between what relationship therapist Melissa Divaris Thompson, LMFT calls helpful and unhelpful feelings, with the former being feelings that permit you to process the situation and the latter being feelings that keep you stuck in place.
“The difference is if you’re swirling around a lot of emotions that feel like they’re on a loop [which would be unhelpful feelings] versus feeling very upset, and then being able to move onto doing or thinking about something else [which would be helpful feelings],” says Thompson.
To keep your feelings moving through you, crying can be incredibly cathartic. So can spending time alone, and taking a break from social media or journaling for heartbreak (which involves writing down the things you wish your ex had said to you as a way to meet your own needs). If listening to music helps you process big emotions, consider cranking up the volume on songs about moving on. Alternatively, you might find that just a few minutes spent lying on the floor for grounding can help you feel better. The key here is to make sure you’re feeling your feelings without letting them derail you to the point where you’re removed from your own life.
Below, relationship therapists share additional strategies for what to do after a breakup in order to cope with big emotions.
5 therapist-backed pointers for how to deal with any kind of breakup
1. Take care of your physical needs
Breakups are a type of grief, and grief can be all-consuming. It’s not uncommon to neglect yourself and let your basic needs—like eating, sleeping, moving your body, and showering—go unmet in the wake of a breakup, says Thompson, who suggests taking extra care to, well, care for yourself.
As hard as it may sound, sticking to a health-supportive routine can create necessary structure that helps you grieve the end of the relationship and heal your heart. That can look like going on walks, hydrating throughout the day, eating nourishing foods (takeout counts), and prioritizing sleep.
Make sure to add in soothing and enjoyable activities, too. Don’t skip your Pilates or art or cooking class if it makes you happy. Make time to see your friends and loved ones, too, and employ all the self-care measures—draw yourself that relaxing bath or treat yourself to that afternoon latté.
2. Write a list of questions
One suggestion for how to deal with a breakup when you feel like you're stuck in overthinking mode? Write out a list of answerable and unanswerable questions about your relationship, suggests Earnshaw. For instance, she says, if your ex told you simply that they don’t want to date you anymore, then the question of, “Do they still want to be with me?” can be answered with a “no.” By contrast, any question that requires you to assume or speculate would be categorized as unanswerable. Simply putting these questions into words on paper can help you feel less chaotic and more grounded, she says.
3. Schedule time to grieve
It's often easy to let your thoughts about an ex consume an outsize amount of your time. To counteract that tendency, Earnshaw suggests allotting a specific amount of time each day to grieve—much like you might carve out time to worry about a problem in order to keep yourself from dwelling endlessly on it.
You might use that time to write in a journal, listen to somber music, look at pictures from your time together, or the like. “At the end of that time, plan to do an activity that is nurturing and soothing,” adds Earnshaw, “like taking a walk, cooking dinner, or watching your favorite TV show.”
4. Use the 4 R’s to direct your thinking away from your ex
If your mind often wanders into overthinking about your ex, Earnshaw says you can also learn how to deal with a breakup by utilizing a focus-shifting technique called the 4 R’s developed by psychiatrist Jeffrey Schwartz, MD: Relabel, reattribute, refocus, and revalue.
In practice, you could start by relabeling any desire to seek information on your ex as an urge. For instance, you might acknowledge that you have an urge to Google your ex or dig into one of their personality traits, says Earnshaw. Then, reattribute that urge to the grief you’re feeling over the loss of a partner: “It makes sense that I’d have this urge because I’m grieving right now.”
From there, find a distraction that pushes you to refocus your attention on something else, whether that’s a physical activity or a creative task that requires full use of your mind. Then, as a final step, you could come back to the initial thought you were having about your ex if needed, and notice how it may have lost some of its urgency—how you were able to turn your attention toward other tasks without feeling like you had to figure out an answer to it right then.
5. Seek professional help
If you find that you aren’t able to give yourself space to process the breakup at all—say, you’re denying it happened or trying to move forward without acknowledging it at all—that’s a sign that you’re not really letting yourself grieve, and you may benefit from the support of a therapist or psychologist who can help you identify and feel your feelings. Though suppressing your emotions might feel easy or preferable in the short term, Thompson says it will actually prolong the pain in the end.
If, by contrast, you find that you’re so affected by grief in the wake of a breakup that you aren’t able to carry on with your normal activities or tend to your personal hygiene, that could mean you’re getting stuck in your emotions—which is another scenario in which you might need some extra support. “[A therapist] can work with you step-by-step to set up a new system and create your new normal after a breakup,” says Thompson.
6 things not to do when dealing with a breakup, in order to help you heal
1. Play detective
Searching for answers after a breakup (“Was it something I did or said?” “Could I have prevented the relationship from ending?”) can quickly devolve into an endless trap, says Earnshaw. No matter how much time you spend checking an ex's social media accounts or fishing for details about what they’re up to now, you may never learn their reason(s) for the breakup.
Not to mention, the emotional toll of keeping your attention focused on a person who is no longer your partner, says Thompson, which can make it even tougher for you to heal.
2. Dive into a new relationship right away
The often-referenced saying that, “The best way to get over someone is to get under someone else” isn’t actually true, according to Thompson. By diving into something new immediately post-breakup, you risk tabling the healing required for you to move forward.
This doesn’t mean to shut yourself off from having fun or exploring a new connection with someone else if you feel ready—but it’s important not to seek a new partner as a means to avoid or delay healing, or in any (misguided) attempt to make your ex jealous, says Thompson.
3. Self-analyze so much that you tip into self-criticism
Relationships are a two-way street, so it’s often the case that both people played some role in the breakup. But introspecting deeply or for a lengthy period of time about what part of the breakup may be your fault can quickly tip into too-harsh criticism that will only serve to wreck your confidence.
“Some self-analysis can be helpful, but being really hard on yourself in a breakup isn’t,” says Thompson. Introspecting about how you could’ve been more considerate in the relationship, for example, could be a means for growth. But replaying what you think you could’ve done differently is only helpful to a point; set a limit for self-analysis, and curtail any extended sessions that turn into damaging criticism.
4. Talk about your ex all the time
Sharing some of your postmortem on the relationship with friends and loved ones can be helpful and healing. But if your inner circle mentions to you that you are spending too much time discussing your ex, Thompson says it’s time to pause those conversations and engage a therapist instead.
Your loved ones likely want to help you feel better and their support certainly will, but they’re not equipped to handle everything. A trained professional is a great resource to help guide you through emotional healing after a breakup in that they can help you figure out how to use all your observations and analysis to move forward—rather than continue to discuss them on a loop.
5. Make major or impulsive life changes
Maybe your breakup has given you new clarity about what you want your life to be like, and as a result, you’ve decided to quit your job to become a vintner. That’s great, says Thompson, but the immediate aftermath of a breakup isn’t the time to suddenly sell all your belongings, move to a new country, or embark on any other entirely divergent life path.
This inclination often springs from a desire to avoid feeling heartbreak by just focusing on something else, says Thompson. You may very well want to quit your job or live abroad, but the flurry of emotions clouding your thinking after a breakup will make it tough to go about this in a considered way. Instead, she advises waiting until you feel a bit more emotionally settled to push any big changes forward.
6. Force a closure conversation with your ex
Regardless of how your ex decided to end things and what was (or wasn’t) said during the breakup, it’s not a good idea to arrange a meetup afterward in order to discuss the breakup in greater detail.
According to Thompson, this kind of postmortem just tends to backfire, no matter what you’re hoping it will achieve. If you think there’s a way that this conversation could convince your ex to rethink their decision, you’ll more than likely be disappointed, she says. And if what you want is to learn exactly all the ways they think you wronged them, you might get more intel than you bargained for, she adds, kicking off a chain of self-criticism that could throttle your self-esteem.
Focusing on the present instead of the past, and learning to support yourself in your own healing is a better recipe for coming out on the other side of the breakup in good emotional shape.
Frequently Asked Questions About How To Deal With a Breakup
What are the five stages of a breakup?
When you’re the one who’s been jilted and broken up with, you’re bound to experience a range of emotions in the aftermath, some of which will be confusing and contradictory. You could feel devastated about the end of your relationship one day, but elated just a day later when you realize that maybe there were deeper cracks in the foundation than you realized, and now you’re free to pursue something else. After all, processing a breakup is exactly that—a process—and it typically comes in five emotional stages:
- Rumination: This first stage of getting dumped involves trying to make sense of what happened. You could find yourself turning over all the details and analyzing who is at fault.
- Resentment and anger: Depending on the nature of the relationship and how the breakup unfolded, you might proceed to feel particularly upset at your partner for leaving you.
- Sadness: The heart of the grieving stage, feeling sad tends to follow feeling mad.
- Reflection: This is the phase of a breakup where you start to turn inward. You might reflect on the parts of the relationship that you won’t miss, or think about how you might do things differently in your next relationship.
- Acceptance: This is the point post-breakup where you’re fully ready to move forward and consider life beyond your former relationship.
What is the hardest point of a breakup?
The immediate aftermath can be particularly jarring, says Thompson. Not only could you find yourself reeling from being dumped, but also, you have to immediately reckon with a future that doesn’t include your ex for the first time.
Your mind might jump to the trips you’d planned to take with your ex, or the office holiday party you were hoping to attend with them. Reconciling with the fact that these plans are no longer happening can be challenging, particularly when you were just looking forward to them a few hours or days prior.
How long do breakups take to get over?
There’s no set amount of time it takes to recover from a breakup. How long it takes you to handle a breakup will depend on elements of your personality (like your attachment style), as well as the nature of the relationship and the way it ended. Even breakups from short relationships can take a long time to process, depending on the circumstances. “I’ve had clients who dated someone for three months be as much in grief as someone who dated someone for three years,” says Thompson.
The fastest way to get over a breakup, though, is to actually let yourself do the work of processing and healing. If you find that you're not acknowledging your sadness, or anger, or whatever other emotion the breakup raises, that's going to prolong how long it’ll take to heal and move forward, says Thompson.
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