Romantic breakups are among the most common, yet somehow underrated, traumatic events in our lives. Perhaps because breakups are so universal, most people discuss them openly with each other and are sympathetic. On the other hand, precisely because of the frequency of breakups, people can minimize how deeply hurtful and damaging a breakup really can be for an individual.
Romantic relationships bring out intense emotions that often override logic or explanation. They often tie to deep-seated feelings about our own worthiness from childhood, our parental and peer relationships, and more. When a relationship ends, even on relatively good terms, there is still an emotional reckoning taking place — the end of something we may have hoped would be continuous, which was based on mutual adoration. After a breakup, there is still a feeling of rejection, something fundamental, something that says we cannot be together as before. That’s a tough blow for anyone’s ego. When a breakup is unexpected or sudden, the rejection can be even more intense or traumatic. The rupture to one’s self-esteem, the end of one’s plans and hopes, and the reminder of one’s past sense of rejection or failure can all be devastating.
Self-care is crucial after a breakup. The metaphors of physical wounds healing during a breakup are quite apt, given that the psychic pain is severe, with distinct stages of healing afterward. The good news is that most people usually do heal appropriately, although it does take time and mental effort. Everyone grieves in their own way and should do what feels best for them, but many find the following steps to be helpful:
1. Take some time off and let it out.
It’s probably best not to suppress or hold back one’s emotions, especially immediately after a breakup. However, the emotions can be so intense that they may not be appropriate for public display, so take time out, go somewhere private, and sob it out. Yell it out. Scream it out. It’s normal.
2. Listen to sad music.
In the short term, it might reinforce or flare up painful memories, but it also normalizes the grief you are feeling so that you know you’re not alone.
3. Talk to supportive people.
Family and friends can help, but make sure you recognize their limits as well. You may decide that professional help from therapists may be more appropriate or useful, and may provide a more neutral and long-lasting perspective. They can also point out deeper patterns of behavior or thinking that a broken relationship may be symptomatic of so that future relationships are healthier and happier.
4. Read books about breakups.
Something about quiet words on the page describing what you are going through can be calming in a way little else is. It also helps to reboot the logic centers of your brain that your emotional state may have shut off or flooded. Even simple self-help books, like It’s Called a Breakup Because It’s Broken, by Greg Behrendt, can give your whirring mind the good shake it needs.
5. Sleep, eat, and exercise.
As tempting as it is to throw your regular cycle out the window, now is the time it is most crucial to stick to it. Keep to your usual sleeping and eating schedule (and amounts) as much as possible, and get out some extra anger or energy in the gym. It may be hard to do at first, but trying to at least go through the motions will speed the healing process.
6. Treat yourself right.
Now is a fine time to do self-care rituals that, at other times, you might consider to be unnecessary splurges. Shop for clothes, accessories, or makeup. Get a new haircut. Nibble on some chocolate. Anything that boosts your sense of yourself as someone worthy of comfort and pride.
7. Meet new people.
While rebounding can be risky, it is OK when one feels ready — on average, it takes people three to six months — to test the dating waters. And actually, this is probably the quickest way to restore one’s feeling of being a viable mate. The key is to take it slow and steady.
8. Set firm boundaries.
One of the worst outcomes of a breakup is an on-again, off-again, ambiguous limbo relationship, which almost always leads to worsening heartache. This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t wrap up loose ends or discuss important unresolved issues and questions with an ex — or that reconciliations don’t ever happen. But as much as possible, once a breakup has happened, you should limit contact with that person. It isn’t unlike going through substance detoxification: There is a difficult withdrawal period, but that is the only way to move forward and heal.
None of these are hard and fast rules, just suggestions for dusting oneself off after a rough fall and heading in the right direction. If, at any time, you feel so overwhelmed that you turn excessively to alcohol or drugs, cannot function in your daily life, and/or fall into depression or anxiety, don’t hesitate to seek professional help.
Breakups are almost universal, but still cataclysmic events in our life experience, and they deserve careful attention. The good news is that in most cases, after the devastating rain, the clouds clear out. In the end, breakups can lead to positive growth and maturity, deeper self-knowledge, and better days ahead.