Nothing can keep you from a happier future than a lingering relationship wound. We’ve all been there: Experiencing good love gone bad is painful. It doesn’t really matter what the circumstances were, or who was right and who was wrong. The bottom line is that it hurts and that the pain is preventing you from moving forward. While time is the best healer, there are 5 concrete steps you can take that will facilitate the process:
1. Cut off contact.
Do this at least for a little while. No, you do not need to be friends. Keeping an ex in your life is not by itself a sign of maturity; knowing how to take care of yourself and your emotional well-being is. Many people hang on to the idea of friendship with an ex as a way to keep the possibility of the relationship alive because the idea of completely letting go seems too overwhelming. While, depending on the circumstances, a friendship may eventually be possible, being friends can’t happen in a genuine way until you have healed through most if not all of the pain, which takes time. Being your own best friend is what is most important during a difficult break-up and that means not putting yourself in situations that don’t lead to feeling good. When you are hurting, you are vulnerable. Protecting yourself with healthy boundaries is an essential part of good self-care. Politely let your ex know you need your space and would prefer not to be in contact for the time being. (Don't ghost them.)
If you must remain in contact because of children or other shared obligations, know that there is a distinct difference between being friendly and being friends. True friendship means two people care about each other’s well-being and have one another’s best interest at heart. By the time many relationships end, it is often in question whether both parties can genuinely provide this kind of care and support for one another. The expectation that someone who didn’t treat you well while you were together will be capable of being a true friend afterward sets you up to continue being hurt. But choosing to be friendly means you can, without expectations, acknowledge the love you shared and honor that time in your life by treating the other person with kindness and respect.
2. Let go of the fantasy.
Many people don’t realize that a large majority of the pain they experience during a break-up has nothing to do with the relationship they really had. Relationships always end for a reason. It is rarely a complete surprise because things generally haven’t been going well for a while. There is often a long list of what each person did or didn’t do that led to all the fighting and hurt feelings. Most people don’t want back the relationship they actually had. What they mourn for is the relationship they thought they could have had if things had just been different. But the truth is, that relationship didn’t exist. Letting go of a dream can be painful. When the relationship first started there were expectations set for what it could be based on the good things that seemed to be unfolding at the time. Almost all relationships are great in the beginning—otherwise they would have never started—but the whole of a relationship is what it was from beginning to end.
Because our mind is trying to heal our heart, the painful memories often get shifted to the background and we find ourselves remembering and longing for the good times. We forget who the person really was and idealize who we wanted them to be. A good strategy for getting past these moments is to simply write down every painful thing you can remember happening during the relationship and read it over to yourself while making the effort to vividly recall those memories until the painful feelings subside. The point here isn’t to stay angry, but to remember the full truth of why the relationship ended. Eventually, letting go of these events will be an important part of the forgiveness and healing process, but in order to let go of something you must first acknowledge and accept that it happened.
3. Make peace with the past.
When someone treats you poorly or does something hurtful, it is a natural and healthy response to feel some anger. Anger helps you be aware of situations that are not in your best interest and can facilitate the separation process from an unhealthy relationship. But when we hold on to anger and resentment from past experiences we take them with us into the future. Nothing hurts more than when someone you love does something that causes you to reevaluate who you believed them to be. When someone betrays the trust you gave, it is painful. But letting what someone else did limit your ability to move forward means they still exert control over your life. Forgiveness isn’t about letting someone else off the hook for his or her bad behavior; it is about your emotional freedom.
Learning to forgive and make peace with things that happened in the past can happen more easily when you take your focus off of the specific events that occurred and instead try to see the perspective of the people involved. Most people don’t act with the intention of directly hurting someone else; generally, they make choices intending to make themselves feel better. For better or worse, it is in our nature as human beings to operate from our own self-beneficial perspective and the impact of our actions on others is often a secondary consideration. It doesn’t make it right, but sometimes seeing someone else’s perspective can help you understand the events that unfolded better and make them less personal. It can also be easier to forgive someone when you see them as a whole person. If you find yourself stewing in anger over something that someone else did or didn’t do, try to pull back and remember the good qualities you saw in them when you first met, and recognize that we all have flaws and we all make mistakes.
4. Know it is OK to still love them.
Love is never wrong. When someone comes into your life who allows you the opportunity to experience love, that is always a true gift. Part of maturity, however, is recognizing that love by itself isn’t always enough to make a relationship work. Many other factors and circumstances, such as timing, incompatible values, or the choices we make, play a significant role in whether a relationship can thrive. But moving on from a relationship that isn’t working isn’t always about ending the love you feel. Sometimes the only way to let go is to love someone enough to want the best for him or her even if that means not being together.
There are many forms of love, and it has the capacity to shift, evolve, and change over time. Let the romantic love you felt evolve into a different type of love that encompasses caring and compassion for a person who had an important place in your life. This will help facilitate the healing process. A good deal of the pain we feel when a relationship ends has to do with the loss we perceive. Conceptualizing it as a transition instead of a loss can ease some of the hurt. The truth is the relationships we have in life last forever. They last in our memories, in the feelings we have when we think of them, in who we have become because of them, and in the lessons we take forward from them.
5. Love yourself more.
Ultimately, moving on from a relationship that wasn’t working is about loving yourself. For some, this is the hardest part. Believing that you deserve to be in a loving relationship with someone who shares your values and treats you well requires that you view yourself in a positive light. If just the thought of this seems daunting because your inner dialogue is filled with negative self-doubt, criticism, or self-loathing, you may need to enlist the help of a professional. You can’t expect someone else to treat you better than you treat yourself.
Self-forgiveness is an important part of self-love. In hindsight, you may feel that there are things you could have done differently, but it is impossible to know what different outcomes could have been. Blaming yourself in a self-reproaching way is a futile waste of energy that only brings about negative emotions and delays the healing process. Instead, choose to turn the pain into a gain. Every relationship, if we let it, can teach us something about ourselves and give us greater clarity about what we need in order to be happy. Acknowledging your role in what went wrong with a relationship can be an important part of the learning process. When two people are in a relationship they create a dynamic and whatever happened, both contributed to it in some way. When you have the insight to understand your role, you will be in the position to do something different. If you believe that it might be helpful to make certain changes in your own behavior, such as learning to set better boundaries or improve your communication skills, then embrace your chance to do this so that your next relationship can be even more amazing.
We need relationships with others to see ourselves more clearly. Every relationship we have reflects back to us what we are putting out into the world. Know that a relationship isn’t a failure just because it ended. If you grew as a person and learned something to move your life forward, then it served a purpose and was truly a success.
Dr. Jennice Vilhauer is the director of the Outpatient Psychotherapy Treatment Program at Emory Healthcare, the developer of Future Directed Therapy, and the author of Think Forward to Thrive: How to Use the Mind’s Power of Anticipation to Transcend Your Past and Transform Your Life.