Six Psychological Strategies for Getting Over a Bad Breakup
Understanding the psychology of ending a relationship can help you get over it.
Posted Apr 23, 2018
“Tell me on a Sunday,” the old Broadway standard goes. The singer knows that her relationship is ending and wants the breakup to happen in person, in a quiet, honest way, in a setting where she’ll have the space to feel and express all the emotions it provokes. But today, most people expecting a breakup can count themselves lucky if they even hear the news in person. Breakups by text are on the rise, as they require very little in the way of social skills, honesty, or clarity. Even worse, the trend toward “ghosting” has relationships ending without even the vestigial grace of a text: The loved one simply stops responding and won’t return calls or texts, becoming instantly, and irrevocably, unavailable.
For better or for worse, the emotional tone of a breakup can powerfully affect the recovery process that the “dumped” (or ghosted) partner goes through. Bad breakups often instigate long recoveries involving depression, self-doubt, and a reluctance to move on. Even the normal breakup process is hard enough: Some say there are seven stages to recovery, with each roughly analogous to the seven stages of grief first described by Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. This makes sense, because after all, a breakup is first and foremost a loss that requires grieving. To get over it, one first often goes through a desperate need for answers, then denial, bargaining, and anger (punctuated by occasional relapses of romantic feeling or emotional contact), until one finally arrives at acceptance and the ability to redirect one’s hope. Mutual friends are often lost, and loneliness becomes a reliable companion. Quite often, a dumped partner continues to feel doubts about his or her own ability to attract someone new.
Internally — inside one’s brain — bad breakups can lay waste to neurological homeostasis. It’s difficult not to think about the people who left us behind, seemingly taking our happiness with them, even though doing so activates the very areas of the brain that make it harder to get through a breakup, such as the ventral terminal region (associated with motivation and reward); the nucleus accumbens and the prefrontal cortex (which are both part of the dopamine system and associated with addiction); and the insular cortex and anterior cingulate cortex (which are responsible for handling physical pain and bodily distress). Thus, a social rejection will light up the same region of the brain that handles reactions to physical pain. To put it simply, breakups hurt the way they do because your brain processes them just like injuries to your body. Worse, one reason why it’s often so difficult to “get over” an ex-partner is that, neurologically, your experience is analogous to withdrawal from an addictive drug.
So what can you do about this social, emotional, and neurological assault? Unfortunately, there are no “life hacks” that will always get you over the hard times. The only way out, as they say, is through. You’ll need to consolidate all of the positive and negative memories of your ex as components of your past, not your present: Accomplishing this feat constitutes the main task of grieving. Self-care is paramount, and it often also helps to remind oneself of the reasons why the relationship didn’t work out. Lastly, it helps to manage one's environment, to cut down on painful reminders of your loss.
Here, then, are six key suggestions for anyone going through a bad breakup:
1. Stay away from your ex — as far as you can.
Don’t reach out to ask him or her to help you understand why the relationship ended. Don’t indulge in following his or her social media feeds. And of course, don’t succumb to the temptation of post-breakup sex. These highly charged behaviors will only prolong your feeling of being intensely emotionally connected to your ex-partner.
2. Make a list of your ex’s bad qualities.
Petty though it may seem, listing every reason why your relationship would never have worked in the long-term (“He’s too controlling,” “She's always late," or “We disagree politically”) can help shore up your certainty that the relationship is over for good, and should build your resolve to stay away from your ex.
3. Refresh your living space.
Move your furniture around, buy some new art, or paint your room a different color. Naturally, you should put away any physical reminders of your ex — things he or she bought you, or that you bought together, including those items that may be the most difficult to part with or put out of sight. The goal is to create a fresher, less memory-soaked space for you to inhabit.
4. Take up new activities.
You’ll need to fill your schedule so you don’t end up spending too much time alone. But it’s also worthwhile to create new memories, which take up more mental space than falling back on your old routine. These new memories can broaden the psychological distance between you and your ex.
5. Stay healthy.
It’s harder to feel terrible when your body feels great, so get better sleep, eat well, and exercise more. Do this even if you find it difficult to get motivated. If nothing else, exercise can serve as a welcome change to your routine and productively fill your schedule.
Find five to ten minutes every morning to sit, breathe, and stay in the present moment. Meditation can help with stress, improve blood flow, reduce anxiety, and simply help you become more comfortable with the flow of your own thoughts.
Again, here are no real shortcuts to getting over the end of a significant relationship. Good self-care will help you through the times when you feel your lowest, and a sensible restriction of the people, places, and things that remind you of your ex may help to keep you from feeling that way for very long. Lastly, opening yourself up to new experiences can both alter your perspective and help you put valuable psychological distance between yourself and the breakup. Eventually you should see the world differently — and begin to feel like yourself again.
Corliss, J. (October 3, 2017). Mindfulness meditation may ease anxiety, mental stress. Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/mindfulness-meditation-may-ease-anxiety-mental-stress-201401086967
Draaisma, D. (2012). Why Life Speeds Up As You Get Older: How Memory Shapes our Past. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.
Kübler-Ross, E. (2007). On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief Through the Five Stages of Loss. New York: Scribner.
Lachmann, S. (2014). The 7 Stages of Grieving a Breakup. Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/me-we/201406/the-7-stages-grieving-breakup?collection=162644
Svoboda, E. (January 1, 2011). The Thoroughly Modern Guide to Breakups. Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/articles/201101/the-thoroughly-modern-guide-breakups