I have it on good authority (read: research + personal experience) that breakups are some of the most emotionally painful and gut-wrenching events that punctuate the human experience. They are unique in that they are intangible, but often wreak emotional, psychological, and physical havoc in the body. We’re all familiar, I’m sure, with the emotional and psychological pain associated with breakups. The deep sadness that descends upon you as you think about not only the person you’ve lost, but the dreams and hopes for the future that disappear with them. Your heart aches with the hurt and shock of it all. Colors seem duller, life is less exciting, social outings are unappealing, and daily obligations become difficult and burdensome. You spiral downward in your cognitive process and lament that you will be alone forever and never find that type of love again. Essentially, breakups very often serve as an entrée into psychological and emotional throes of despair.
Less shrift, however, is given to the physical manifestations of a breakup. This is despite the reality that a number of studies have indicated that a broken heart can—and often does—lead to a variety of somatic symptoms, including headaches, the common cold, sleep disturbances, and stomach issues. In one study of 40 people who had recently experienced an unwanted breakup, brain scans indicated that the same parts of their brains that were associated with physical pain lit up when they were shown pictures of their exes and instructed to think about the breakup. So real is the connection between breakups and physical pain, in fact, researchers have found that Tylenol—yes, the over-the-counter medication!—can actually help subside hurt feelings and social pain. This is proof that breakups truly are upending experiences in every dimension.
Would life be a lot easier if we could bypass the breakup process and do away with the psychological, emotional, and physical pain overload altogether? Absolutely. But since relationship dissolution experiences (whether voluntary or involuntary) are unavoidable for the vast majority of us, it is critical to have a guide that can help parse through the pain and most adeptly chart a path forward. In an effort to assist in the healing process, I’ve created a list of post-breakup do’s and don’ts to keep top of mind as you wade through the choppy breakup waters. My hope is that they will not only keep you afloat, but will ultimately help you find your way to shore.
- Do take all of the time and space that you need to grieve. There are so many emotional and physical components to disentangle after a breakup; this is especially true if the relationship lasted for a significant period of time. It’s okay to be sad. It’s okay to spontaneously burst into tears. And it’s okay to rage and vent when the mood strikes. In other words, do create space to feel all the feels.
- Do spend time in deep self-reflection. Consider the good things that happened in the relationship as well as what went wrong that perhaps led to the breakup. What was your role in its dissolution? What was your ex’s role? Is there anything that you would/could have done differently? What could your ex have done differently? Being honest with yourself is critical as doing so can help generate important insights for future relationships.
- Do take some space from your ex. Even if the breakup is amicable and you two aim to remain in each other’s lives as friends, take at least a little bit of time to separate from each other and learn what it’s like to operate on your own again. This entails a downshift in the amount of communication and physical contact after the breakup, which prevents the relationship from dragging on “unofficially.” That’s an uncomfortable gray space that can significantly distract from and delay the self-reflection process mentioned above.
- Do talk to trusted friends (i.e., people who know, love, and care about you) about the breakup and the pain you are experiencing. They can give you good and helpful perspective when you are spiraling or are camping out in the sunken place.
- Do reconnect and reinvest in your friendships. It’s possible that some of them might have faded a bit while you were with your ex, so use this as an opportunity to rebuild those relationships. Socializing with people who love and care about you is key in the breakup healing process.
- Do get out into the world and try some new things. Chances are, you have more time on your hands than you did when you were in a relationship. So use this unlocked time to take that class, join that kickball team, take that road trip, or otherwise do all of the things that had been put on the backburner for months or years.
- Do engage in self-care practices, including exercising and eating well.
- Do reflect on your relationship history and identify patterns that might emerge in your choice of dating partners. Since this is oftentimes very difficult to do on your own, individual therapy can be invaluable in parsing this out.
- Once the pain of the breakup subsides, do think about what you are looking for in future relationships. Now that you’re older and have learned more about yourself in relationships and in relation to other people, identify what’s truly important to you in a significant other. Be as specific as possible and consider using whatever you come up with as a guide for choosing your next partner. This woman did just that in her own dating process and ended up finding the love of her life.
- Do open yourself up to new relationship possibilities when you are ready and feeling healed from the breakup. Take heart in the fact that there are many, many single people out there looking for love (just like you!). As you embark on your new dating journey, go in with an open mind and remember that no matter what, you are likely to meet some pretty cool and interesting people along the way.
- Don’t rush the grieving and healing process. I’ve reiterated this a number of times already, but I cannot overstate the importance of taking the time to reflect, “feel the feels,” and fully process the relationship. This includes identifying what you liked, what you didn’t like, and what you plan to take forward with you. Moving too quickly through this stage strips you of the opportunity for healing and growth and also stunts and undermines your emotional development. It is important to note that there is no magic number for the amount of time that it takes to heal; it varies for each person and is also dependent upon a number of relationship factors. Stay tuned for another blog post that explores this in depth.
- Don’t rebound. Seeking out—or being receptive to—another relationship or sexual experience immediately after a breakup is never, ever a good idea. It ultimately compounds your pain once you realize that it will not work out (which is likely if you have not fully processed the original relationship).
- Don’t attempt to reconnect with other ex-partners. See above point about rebounding.
- Don’t feel obligated to “get over it” before you’re actually better.
- Don’t drag out your relationship with your ex. Once you two decide to end it, work on creating space from each other—at least for a little while—so that you can fully mourn and grieve.
- Don’t isolate yourself and wallow in despair. There’s a fine line between engaging in healthy self-reflection (even when it hurts) and spending all of your time moping and catastrophizing about how you’ll never find love again. It’s very easy to become a recluse in this process, but that oftentimes just magnifies the pain. This is why friends are so important. Spending time with them (even if you aren’t 100% willing to at first) helps you tap back into reality and engage with others who can help shift your perspective in a positive direction.
- Don’t feel the need to manage other people’s emotions about your breakup. I’ve found that this often becomes an issue when friends and family members really like your ex and are less than thrilled that you two are no longer together. Sometimes people can’t help but to be surprised, but if they go on and on about how upset and disappointed they are about it, consider that a red flag. As soon as the conversation shifts into you consoling them and telling them that it’ll be okay, take your exit or change the subject. You have enough on your plate already—making other people feel better about something that you’re going through should not piled onto it.
- Don’t act as though your ex never existed. So many people do this thinking that it will create a clean slate and fresh start. I’ve seen actions ranging from literally burning anything that belongs to or is from the ex to deleting the ex’s number and blocking them on social media. While taking some space is helpful (see point above), it does not behoove you at all to try to move forward as though the relationship never happened. No matter what, your ex and the relationship is part of your story now. And chances are, you learned some important things from the relationship that are critical to take forward with you. If you try to forge ahead, burning everything in your wake, you are much less likely to glean those nuggets of wisdom and much more likely to repeat the same mistakes that might have contributed to the dissolution of the relationship in the first place.
- Don’t try to transform your appearance or your life…unless you really want to! Some people cut or color their hair, some sell their house and buy a new one, and still others move out of the state or country entirely. Making these drastic changes does not mitigate the pain. Remember Jon Kabat-Zinn’s brilliant words: “wherever you go, there you are.” (Important caveat: if you would like to do something transformative for other reasons and not in an attempt to distract yourself from the pain of the breakup, then by all means, have at it!)
- Don’t regret the relationship. I truly believe that as long as you learned things that made you a more reflective, self-aware, and enlightened person, there is no room for regret. Now you are one step closer to finding the love of a lifetime.
Like so many other things in life, there is no way out of the breakup process but through. You will make it to the other side of it—and with these notes in mind, I am confident that you will do so healthily and completely. Godspeed.