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How to Recover From a Breakup

Here are four steps to reclaim your life.

Key points

  • Unworthiness, shame, and isolation are our most painful emotions, and a breakup can trigger them all.
  • If we let emotions wash over us, they may recede more quickly than if we try to put them out.
  • When a relationship ends, other connections can buoy you.
  • Feeling the ghost of a past relationship is normal and doesn't mean you're not ready to move on.
Priscilla du Pree/Unsplash
Priscilla du Pree/Unsplash

Even if you see it coming (but especially when you don't), even if it's your idea (but especially when it isn't), and even if you know it's for the best (but especially when it's not), breakups can be devastating.

In a serious romantic relationship, you've built a life with this person, met most of your needs for connection through them, and have become accustomed to the rhythms and routines you have together. When you break up, under any circumstances, it's normal to grieve your life together and your dreams for the future.

If you've been left, there's a natural tendency to ruminate on painful memories and question your lovability. Unworthiness, shame, and isolation are our most painful emotions, and being broken up with might trigger all of these feelings simultaneously.

If you are the one to end the relationship, you may feel relief but also guilt, regret, and worry that you've made a mistake. You might be desperate to return to the relationship, even if you know that's not the right thing, just to stop the pain. This is normal and doesn't mean ending the relationship was the wrong decision.

Regardless of which end of the breakup you're on, here are a few steps to work through the hurt:

1. Find time for both distraction and reflection.

Your instinct might be to stay in bed, alone with your sorrow indefinitely, or to keep yourself so busy you barely have time to think at all. It's better to find a balance—some time to grieve and some time to reengage with activities and people you enjoy. It can be hard to imagine doing both at once: How can I get on with my life while still allowing myself to feel heartache?

Structure your days so you have time for both distraction and reflection. Make time for the feelings to come without trying to suppress them. If we let emotions wash over us like waves, they recede more quickly than if we try to extinguish them.

You might imagine that if you let the tears come, they'll never stop. That isn't the case. I once had a client mortified after a breakup because she kept crying on the subway. Through our work together, she decided that instead of fighting it, she'd allow the tears to come quietly during her commute. New Yorkers famously leave each other alone, and when she did receive a sympathetic look or, in one case, a light squeeze on the arm from an elderly woman, she appreciated it. After a few weeks of having a specific place to allow her sadness, the worst of it subsided.

2. Lean on your other relationships.

Good lives are built on meaningful relationships. When one relationship ends, other connections can buoy you and remind you that love still exists in your life. See all your friends, visit your family, and snuggle with your dog. Connection and love will be the greatest allies in your recovery.

Seeing a therapist will help give you a deeper perspective on what happened and the ability to grow from the experience. Especially if you feel that your sadness is getting worse over time, you are unable to engage in the activities that might help you feel better, or you're stuck in a cycle of shame and self-recrimination, you might consider seeing a therapist.

3. Don't torture yourself.

Allow yourself to withdraw, at least temporarily, from people and situations that will be especially painful. Unfollow your ex on social media, skip the mutual friend's birthday party, and don't force yourself to do anything you aren't ready for. I'm often surprised at how often people resist taking these steps in a misguided attempt to appear "over it" immediately. Just because you "can" operate business-as-usual right after a breakup doesn't mean you should. Treat yourself like someone who deserves extra time, tenderness, and protection, because you do.

4. Be a rebel.

Even the hardest breakups usually have a silver lining—parts of yourself you've neglected or abandoned for the relationship. Welcome back into your life anything you've missed or denied yourself. Couldn't get the cat you've always wanted because your ex was allergic? It might be time to adopt a kitten.

See the friends they didn't like, stay up late if they were an early riser, fry up some bacon if they were vegan. Enjoy all of it. This isn't vindictive (they won't even know about the bacon!); it's about reclaiming your life and savoring your new freedom.

The end of a serious relationship will probably linger at least a little bit until you fall in love again. That's because the ex takes up the "partner space" in your mind until someone else moves in. Your thoughts and feelings about relationships still revolve around the old experience. Feeling the ghost of a past relationship is normal and doesn't mean you're not ready to move on.

People generally see recovering from a relationship as binary—you're either entirely over something or profoundly suffering. That's not how it works. You might think you've moved past a breakup and then find yourself bursting into tears after a first date with someone else because you miss the level of comfort you had with your ex. Your feelings might be confusing and contradictory. If you show yourself compassion and curiosity instead of judgment and self-recrimination, you will start to feel better.