Breakup First Aid: What to Expect, What to Do

Regardless of the circumstances, breakups are always about managing loss.

Posted Jan 23, 2021

 Zachary Staines/Unsplash
Source: Zachary Staines/Unsplash

Not all breakups are created equal: The one after four dates is way different from the one after four years. And whether you’re the breakup-er or the breakup-ee obviously makes a difference. If you initiate the breakup you not only are more in control, you’ve likely already worked through the emotional pros and cons to reach this point. And if you are the recipient of the news, your reaction likely depends on whether you too realized the relationship was withering, whether you had the same feelings (though maybe not so strongly), whether you were caught completely off-guard or not.

But regardless of your role and control, your state of mind, even the quality of the relationship, breakups are at their core about loss, and with loss comes grief. Though the loss may feel like it is about love or like, it's also about attachment. I’ve met folks, you’ve met folks, who were in seemingly terrible relationships—even ones filled with emotional abuse—who still struggle with grief once the relationship is over. The more attached you are, the bigger the pull of loss and grief. Even though the relationship is no longer there, like a phantom limb, those emotional nerves keep firing.

What to expect

Think in terms of threes: If it is breakup-light, maybe a few days of ruminating and emotional upset. For a more serious relationship expect three weeks of shell shock, three months of feeling emotionally unsettled before you begin to get your sea legs, and three more months before you begin to feel you are starting to get out of the woods, all part of moving through the grief process. Here are some of the normal reactions to expect:

Feeling numb, feeling overwhelmed: During the shell-shock stage your emotions are all over the place. You walk around in a fog, or suddenly find yourself in a fit of sadness or anger. Or you feel relief but maybe also guilt over feeling relief. And you can’t focus much on anything. 

Obsessing: You likely can't focus because you are also likely constantly obsessing. You feel like you have no control over your mind; it is always running, replaying events from the past, triple-analyzing text messages, that last conversation over and over.

What your mind is doing is struggling to create a story, to connect the dots between all those memories and positive feelings of before with the current reality of after. You're forced to look at your relationship through a new lens; all those positive memories are corrupted, and your brain is trying to create a coherent story so that the now—the breakup—matches the past.

For the leaver, this processing was likely well underway before the breakup and actually helped fuel it. For the leftee, it now begins. You find your mind wandering back to those early red flags that you ignored or the times you felt annoyed and wanted to speak up but didn’t. You unravel the thread that ran through all those positive events and rethread them through the negative ones. Once you’ve reconnected the dots, resown the relationship fabric in a new way, your obsessions will stop. 

Dreams: Dreams from the past, about making up, about past sex, about being lost, about frustration. Dreams about past relationships.

Guilt: Guilt about feeling relieved, about leaving, about how you left, about not taking a stand earlier, about not being more honest, about stupid comments you made that your obsessive brain is telling you were critical moments that you ignored, about not pushing back.

Stirring of other losses: You find yourself thinking spontaneously about past losses—other breakups, pets, grandparents, the failed job—one loss triggering others. You may find yourself looking for some theme, some lesson that connects them all and helps them make sense. And if you didn’t fully grieve any of those past ones, that grief piles onto your current one, making the pain and regret stronger.

What to not do and do 

Don’t self-medicate. You understandably are looking to calm your brain and emotions, but you’re at risk of that 5 o'clock glass of wine becoming a 2 o'clock glass of wine, finding yourself smoking pot all day, or binging on sugar or porn or videogames. Whatever you’ve used in the past to deal with hard times, those same drugs or behaviors are likely calling your name. It’s all too easy to get swept in and lose control.

Don’t rebound. Out of the blue, you get a text from an old boyfriend/girlfriend and you text back a flirty one. Or you know someone at work has been interested in you and you suggest getting a coffee, or you start trolling Bumble. Yes, you need to get out, maybe want to step back into dating, but be careful about falling into a serious relationship. For the next several months at least you're not likely to be able to really see a whole, new someone, but rather outlines—everyone is an un-version of your ex. At these early stages of grief, your relationship lens is distorted; you're mentally comparing and contrasting everyone to your ex, honing in on the one or two things that you hated or miss. But all this will change as you move through the grief process.

Don’t make big decisions. You know this. Stressful times are the worst time to make big decisions. Your life and view of reality will change in a few weeks or months, so don’t quit that job and move to Colorado because you love the mountains or because your sister is only two states away. Don’t buy that expensive sports car. Take a deep breath: Give your most rational self time to get back online.

Do get support, express your emotions. Let those close to you know what is going on and find those you can lean on. It’s okay to talk on and on about how you're feeling; this too is part of the process, the unraveling of your pain. And if you worry that you are burdening one person too much, find others who can listen to you. If you find they are giving you too much advice, help them out—let them know you just need to talk, that they don’t need to fix anything, that you're getting that grief out, draining the wound. By retelling, the story changes and you begin to connect the dots. 

And consider what you may want to say to professional colleagues and what support you may need from them. Sure, you may not want to give your supervisor all the details of your breakup, but you may want to give her a heads-up that you are going through a difficult time for a lot of good reasons. What others don't understand they make up, and what they make up is usually wrong. Help them out with as much context as you are willing to share. 

And if you don’t have others you can lean on for whatever reason, write. Journal to put your emotions into words, write to get all those jumbled thoughts out of your head.

Do keep routines. Some folks throw themselves into their work following a breakup, which can help fill in the hole, give you something you can control to offset what you can’t. Even if you’re not efficient and effective at work, show up. The danger here is that allow your emotions to run your life, and you slip into a downward spiral that morphs into a new normal. Routines and structure keep you upright, so do your laundry, cook yourself a meal, keep up your exercise, keep in touch with friends even if you feel you don't have much to offer. 

Do plan downtime. Have a long weekend coming up? Start thinking on Tuesday about what you’re going to do on the weekend. You may not be able to push away all the loneliness, but by coming up with a plan, you can push away some of the dread, avoid feeling like a victim of your emotions. 

Do consider professional support. You're going through an unusual and difficult time. You may want to consider therapy, even on a short-term basis, to provide you with a safe place to deconstruct what has happened, give you a gentle dose of reality and emotional support. 

This is a time of transition, a time of emotional challenges. Be patient with yourself; grief has its own pace. Realize that right now you’re at your bottom, but believe that in a few months, if you hold steady, things will get better.