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6 Suggestions for Navigating a Breakup

Tips and observations from a psychoanalyst.

Key points

  • Breakups are a process. Learning to live without each other can take time.
  • It's possible for a couple to break up as a team and support one another at first. Over time, it's likely less contact will be needed.
  • It's important to keep the reasons for the breakup in mind during painful moments. A good one-line descriptor can help.

A breakup is an intensely painful experience. You may feel lonely and scared. You may question if you’ve done the right thing. You may ruminate on the mistakes you made. And the pain often feels relentless.

When you feel this way, just getting through the day can be a struggle. Here are some things you can do to help yourself through it.

1. Separating is a process, so break up as a team.

When a romantic relationship ends, you’re often also losing your best friend. It’s a double whammy on the heart. If that’s the case for you, it’s not necessary to stop talking to your partner immediately after the relationship ends. It’s unrealistic to assume that you can just easily cut them out of your life.

Learning to live without them will be a process, and it’s possible to encourage, reassure, and support one another through that process. A woman going through an amicable but painful divorce recently told me how important it was for her to know that she hadn’t been forgotten by her ex. “I have these moments where I convince myself that the divorce is hard for me but not my ex. I convince myself that he’s forgotten about me and it makes me panic. It’s weirdly important to me to know that he is struggling with this too. When we talk and he tells me how sad he is, I feel better.”

It’s not weird to be comforted by the knowledge that your ex is struggling just as much as you are. Their pain is a reflection of how important you are to them and it’s reassuring to know that they’re thinking about you. With a team approach and open lines of communication, you can reassure each other that you haven’t forgotten about the other. You can support and comfort each other in your sadness. In moments of doubt, you can also help each other hold onto the reasons why you decided to break up in the first place.

In the beginning, you may find that you need to speak to your ex frequently, but over time you’ll likely need less contact. You’ll be able to hold onto the reassurance they gave you without hearing it from them directly. You’ll slowly adjust to the way life looks and feels without your ex in it. But there’s no need to rush this process. It took you time to build the intimacy of the relationship and it will take time to separate from it too.

2. Institute a panic button.

If you don’t feel comfortable having consistent open lines of communication with your partner, institute what I affectionately call the emotional panic button. If you’re finding yourself feeling overwhelmed with sadness, fear, or loneliness, or if you’re just missing them more than usual, you can "hit the panic button" and call them for reassurance and support. Talking to your partner in these moments can help you calm down and move on with your day.

3. Take it one day at a time.

The pain of a breakup can feel intolerable and relentless. You may be plagued by thoughts like, "How long will I feel like this?" or "How can I make this go away?" When you find yourself thinking like this, try instead to think about time in more manageable chunks. Ask yourself, “Can I be this sad and still get out of bed?” “Can I be this sad and still take a shower?”

Take the breakup one day at a time. Try not to worry about how you’ll get through tomorrow or next week.

4. Create a good one-liner about why the relationship ended.

When you are experiencing doubts about the reasons for the breakup, find a good one-liner that serves as a reminder of why you’re breaking up. A young patient in the midst of a breakup recently told me, “Sometimes during the day, I start missing him so much that I forget why we broke up in the first place. I start to panic that I made a bad decision. And then I repeat to myself, ‘I love him but he doesn’t want to have kids.’ and that simple reminder really calms me down. This is so painful but I know that if I don’t ask myself to feel the pain now, I’ll just feel it later.”

A good one-liner can be mentally tucked into your back pocket for you to pull out when you need it.

5. Recognize that you’ll have learned from the relationship.

I often see people ruminate on the mistakes that they made in their relationship as it’s ending. Torturing yourself with the same painful thoughts over and over again isn’t useful, but we can and should learn from our mistakes. Take note of the things you did in your relationship that you think contributed to its end and keep them in mind for next time. Use your experience in this relationship to improve the next one.

6. Realize how strong you are for surviving the breakup.

As a therapist, I have observed that we learn a lot through painful experiences. You will come out of this breakup knowing things about yourself and about relationships that you didn’t know before—most notably, how strong and resilient you are.

A patient in his mid-30s recently told me: “I don’t think I ever realized how resilient I was until I got divorced. If I can feel this much pain and still get up and go to work and pay my bills and occasionally attend social functions, I can do anything. Whatever comes at me in life after this will feel like a walk in the park.”

Breakups are tough and even though it sometimes feels like the pain will last forever, it won’t. Everything is temporary. Tap into your resilience and remember that with time, you will recover.

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