Romantic breakups are among the most common, yet somehow underrated, traumatic events in our lives. Perhaps because breakups are so universal, most people discuss it openly with each other and be sympathetic. But on the other hand, precisely because of breakups' frequency, people can minimize how deeply hurtful and damaging a breakups really can be for an individual.
Romantic relationships bring out intense emotions that often override logic or explanation. They often tie to deep-seated feelings about our own worthiness from childhood, our parental and peer relationships, and more. When a relationship ends, even on relatively good terms, there is still an emotional reckoning taking place—the end of something we may have hoped would be continuous, and which was based on mutual adoration. After a breakup, there is still a feeling of rejection of something fundamental, something that says we cannot be together as before, and that is a tough blow for anyone’s ego. When a breakup is unexpected or sudden, the rejection can be even more intense or traumatic—the rupture to one’s sense of self-esteem, one’s plans and hopes, one’s past sense of rejection or failure can all be devastating.
Self-care is crucial after a breakup. The metaphors of physical wounds healing during a breakup are quite apt, given that the psychic pain is severe, with distinct stages of healing afterwards. (They are also similar to the famous Kubler-Ross stages of grief—denial, bargaining, anger, depression, acceptance.) The good news is that most people usually do heal appropriately, although it does take time and some mental effort. Everyone grieves in their own way and should do what feels best for them, but many find the following steps to be helpful:
1. Take some time off and let it out.
It’s probably best not to suppress or hold back one’s emotions, especially immediately after a breakup. However, the emotions can be so intense that they may not be appropriate for public display, so take time out, go somewhere private. . .and sob it out. Yell it out. Scream it out. It’s normal.
2. Listen to sad music.
Short term, it might reinforce or flare up painful memories, but it also normalizes the grief you are feeling, so that you know you're not alone.
3. Talk to supportive people.
Family and friends can help, but make sure you recognize their limits as well. You may decide that professional help from therapists may be more appropriate or helpful, and may provide a more neutral and long-lasting perspective. They can also point out deeper patterns of behavior or thinking that a broken relationship may be symptomatic of, so that future relationships are healthier and happier.
4. Read books about breakups.
Something about quiet words on the page describing what you are going through can be calming in a way little else is. It also helps reboot the logic centers of your brain that your emotional state may have shut off or flooded. Even simple self-help books, like It’s Called a Breakup Because It’s Broken by Greg Behrendt, can go give your whirring mind the good shake it needs.
5. Sleep, eat, and exercise.
As tempting as it is to throw your regular cycle out the window, now is the time it is most crucial to stick to it. Keep to our usual sleeping and eating schedules (and amounts) as much as possible, and get out some extra anger or energy in the gym. It may be hard to do at first, but trying to at least go through the motions will speed the healing process.
6. Treat yourself right.
Now is a fine time to do self-care rituals that, at other times, you might consider to be unnecessary splurges. Shop for clothes, accessories, or makeup. Get a new haircut. Nibble on some chocolate—anything that boosts your sense of yourself as someone worthy of comfort and pride.
7. Meet new people.
While rebounding can be risky, it is OK when one feels ready—on average, it takes people three-to-six months—to test the dating waters. And actually, this is probably the quickest way to restore one’s feeling of being a viable mate. The key is to take it slow and steady.
8. Set firm boundaries.
One of the worst outcomes of a breakup is an on-again, off-again, ambiguous limbo relationship, which almost always leads to worsening heartache. This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t wrap up loose ends or discuss important unresolved issues and questions with an ex—or that reconciliations don't ever happen. But as much as possible, once a breakup has happened, you should limit contact with that person. It isn’t unlike going through substance detoxification: There is a difficult withdrawal period, but that is the only way to move forward and heal.
None of these are hard and fast rules, just suggestions for dusting oneself off after a rough fall and pointing in the right direction. If at any time, you feel so overwhelmed that you turn excessively to alcohol or drugs and/or cannot function in your daily life and fall into depression and/or anxiety, don’t hesitate to seek professional help.
Breakups are near-universal but still cataclysmic events in our life experience, and they deserve careful attention. The good news is that in most cases, after the devastating rain, the clouds clear out. In the end, breakups can lead to positive growth and maturity, deeper self-knowledge, and better days ahead.