During one of my more devastating breakups, for days, I cried myself to sleep and woke up in the mornings to a pillow quite literally soaked with tears. I remember thinking that the pain may be similar to having an appendage forcibly removed. Reflecting on these details, they seem over the top, but these are my distinct memories of this time. I didn’t think I would ever recover, but I did. It took time. I’ll be forthcoming and admit that the relationship took another year to conclude fully. Things were messy, and we broke up, got back together, and then broke up again. And while that helped us eventually close the door on our relationship, the process was draining and difficult.
Navigating the end of a relationship is rarely ever a simple, easy, or painless process. Regardless of how long it lasted or why it ended, the end of a relationship can leave you feeling lost and adrift as you struggle to find a way to move forward. The grief that most experience is challenging and complex. A breakup can also take an immense toll on an individual’s mental and emotional health, as it may force them to question their ability to trust and be vulnerable. In some cases, a breakup might cause someone to wonder if they’re even loveable, which can wreak havoc on their self-esteem. And because most of us aren’t taught how to process complex emotions like grief and heartbreak, many just accept the belief that we should be able to “get over” a breakup by suppressing those feelings. But attempting to do so doesn’t really help; it can actually prolong the suffering.
Feeling grief after a breakup.
The common cultural understanding of grief assumes that it can only be felt or experienced after a loss of life, but ending a relationship can also bring about feelings of grief. The larger, more pressing considerations that arise in a breakup, like what to do about shared living spaces, bills, and property, can undoubtedly be challenging to navigate, but it’s often the loss of the smaller, more intimate forms of connection that can be especially devastating. Making each other coffee in the morning, sending silly texts, offering support during a hard day, and playfully bickering over what to watch after dinner are seemingly mundane aspects of a relationship that will end after a breakup. The reality of that can be hard to accept. Even if a breakup doesn’t completely blindside you and all of those little expressions of affection and connection have been fading for some time, the conclusion of a relationship can still seem like a crushing end. And in some ways, it is. At least, the life you shared with your former partner has ended, along with your plans and hopes for the future together.
Having to effectively start over and figure out an almost entirely new way of existing can feel like a nearly impossible task, and it’s pretty standard for people to cycle through the various stages of grief as they try to grapple with their new reality. You might experience denial as you struggle to accept that it’s over or you may feel trapped in anger after a betrayal. It’s also not uncommon for many people to find themselves stuck in the bargaining phase and try to renegotiate their decision or their partner’s decision to end things.
Unlike grief experienced in the aftermath of someone’s death, there’s not always a sense of finality when it comes to breakup grief. Many couples break up when they may still love each other, but they’ve reached a point where they realize they can’t make their relationship work any longer. In those instances, individuals might have an even more difficult time allowing themselves to grieve and get closure if they think there’s even the slightest hope of reconciliation. And given that we often take weeks and months to really be in a relationship, it makes sense that for many (myself included), it could take time to slowly end the relationship. This may be a way of honoring the time and love invested in the relationship. Still, it can also make it difficult to mourn the end of a relationship, which is crucial to one’s ability to truly move forward. When this process stalls over time, it can have challenging consequences, as one may have difficulty moving forward and beginning to re-engage in life and new dating relationships.
Difficulty with trust (both in oneself and in others) is actually a relatively common after-effect of ending a relationship. This can occur even in circumstances where the breakup wasn’t due to betrayal or abuse, and it can cause people to withdraw and self-isolate. Denying yourself the ability to process all the complex emotions that arise after a breakup can also negatively impact many other aspects of your life. Plenty of people report difficulty with concentration and focus, extreme fatigue levels, and loss of interest in activities they once enjoyed or found meaningful after a breakup. These are also all symptoms of depression; if left untreated, they can impact your ability to work, maintain friendships and take care of your daily needs.
The effects of a breakup on our mental health.
Despite the societal messaging we receive that can make it easy to think that we should just “get over” the end of a relationship, a breakup can significantly impact our mental health. For those who already struggle with depression, anxiety, and self-worth issues, a breakup can further exacerbate those conditions. Even if you initiated the breakup yourself, losing an intimate partner can be an incredibly dysregulating experience. Aside from all the feelings of loss and grief over what could have been, ending a relationship often means cutting off communication with an individual who likely was, at one point, the most significant figure in your life. We share our most private, intimate, and vulnerable selves with our partners, so coming to terms with the realization that that connection will suddenly be gone can be really challenging. Many people report feeling isolated, hopeless, empty, and even purposeless after ending a relationship which can very easily lead to depressive episodes and, in more extreme cases, periods of suicidal ideation.
Breakups and our bodies.
On a neurobiological level, experiencing romantic love can cause our brains to release feel-good chemicals like serotonin and dopamine. So when a relationship ends, the abrupt decrease in the production of those hormones can mimic the feeling of withdrawal, which can also lead to the onset of feelings of depression. In fact, one small study discovered that the brains of the heartsick can resemble the brains of those experiencing cocaine withdrawal under an MRI scanner.
In a 2011 study, the researchers showed brokenhearted individuals pictures of their exes, then monitored their brains. The investigators found that the parts of the brain associated with physical pain had lit up. Our bodies seem to experience the breakup much like they might a broken arm or another physical ailment. And a later study found that taking Tylenol can help us tolerate the pain! So it’s no surprise that moving through a breakup impacts us both physically and mentally.
Other studies further illustrate the impact of a breakup on our bodies. In one, investigators showed that people in long-term relationships tend to regulate each other’s biological rhythms. And a breakup can throw your entire physiology out of whack, disrupting your sleep, appetite, body temperature, and heart rate. These effects can even impact your immune system, making you more susceptible to colds and other viruses.
So how can you move on after a breakup?
Allow yourself time to feel your emotions and grieve.
One of the biggest missteps we may make in the aftermath of a breakup is attempting to suppress or ignore our feelings, not acknowledging the hurt, betrayal, or devastation we might be experiencing. We often do this as a form of self-protection, and the societal pressure to not dwell and simply move on is even greater when the breakup is what you want or choose. But just because we know that a relationship has to end doesn’t mean that it will necessarily hurt less or be easier to process when it does. Allowing yourself time to feel the full spectrum of your emotional response to the end of a relationship helps you find a way to heal, grow and move forward with your life.
Offer yourself some compassion (even if you were in the wrong).
After a breakup, it’s not uncommon to ruminate, thinking about the relationship and the missteps over and over in our attempts to understand what happened or what went wrong. It can be easy to fall into a pit of self-recrimination. We seek to blame ourselves for things going south because it can sometimes be easier than accepting that this person we loved could have hurt us so profoundly. And often, there is an element of responsibility that we carry for the dissolution of the relationship, as it’s rarely ever just black and white. Despite this, it’s essential to be kind to yourself after a breakup and offer yourself compassion and understanding when you find yourself slipping into a blame spiral.
Doing so will likely allow you to navigate the process of grieving the relationship and reach a place of healing and acceptance over time. In some circumstances, offering that same empathy and compassion to your former partner can also be instrumental in your ability to move on.
Work to rediscover yourself.
A relationship can be a transformative experience, but it can also result in a loss of individual identity as time goes on and you begin to operate more as a unit rather than two separate people. The more your lives become shared, the more you might have begun to shift and conform to develop common interests and goals. Many people also find that their attachment to their former partner ultimately became a big part of their identity. While this is not uncommon, particularly in long-term partnerships, it can make it challenging to feel like yourself after a breakup.
A growing body of research shows that regaining a clear sense of self after a breakup can help you move on. The best way to begin this path of rediscovery will vary from person to person. It can often start with simply taking time to think about what did or does bring you joy and the parts of yourself that you liked before the relationship even began. It doesn’t have to be anything elaborate or complicated to access. Instead, it can offer the opportunity to reconnect with the parts of yourself and your life that you may have inadvertently neglected during the relationship. When you choose to try it, pay attention to how you feel during the experience; how does it feel to do something meant to serve your needs alone? Is it uncomfortable? Scary? Exciting? Liberating? All of the above? Joy might not be the easiest emotion to access initially, but by engaging in activities that feed you, you will hopefully find a renewed sense of self and more confidence to move forward after the breakup.
Attempt to find opportunities for learning and growth.
When a relationship ends, it’s not uncommon to feel like you’ve wasted all that time and energy for nothing. But ideally, every relationship is an opportunity for learning and growth, even, perhaps especially, the ones that don’t work out. After a breakup, you might be better able to identify certain boundaries you had difficulty communicating in your relationship. You might also be more adept at advocating for your needs after being in a situation where you didn’t feel empowered to do so. Breakups can also allow us to reflect on what traits and behaviors we exhibit in a romantic relationship that might not be the healthiest or most productive. The end of a relationship can allow you to consider how you reacted to your partner, when those reactions were inappropriate or exacerbated the challenges, and how you may wish to engage in future relationships differently.
Try to keep in mind what didn’t work in the relationship.
It’s understandable that we would miss and reminisce about the good parts of the relationship after a breakup; the qualities that made you pick your partner in the first place, the comfort they offered, and the connection you once experienced. Part of mourning the end of the relationship may include grieving these elements. However, moving on from the relationship may require you to look at the relationship more objectively when you’re ready to. Consider the issues within your partnership and how they led to the breakup. Remind yourself of the times and ways you felt disappointed by your partner and what didn’t work for you. Studies about reappraisal show that they reduce attachment to an ex and that, while it’s challenging to do in the short term, it can help in the long term.
Seek the support of a therapist to help you reach acceptance.
Ending a relationship can take such an immense emotional toll; sometimes, it can be hard to see a way forward without support. Working with a licensed professional therapist can give you the space to express, process, and work through all the complicated emotions that come up after the end of a relationship. A therapist can help you identify coping mechanisms and offer support as you seek to navigate life without your former partner and offer you the empathy and understanding that you may struggle to provide yourself. Hopefully, with their guidance and care, you will be able to heal so that you can move through the grief and on to whatever is available for you on the horizon.
We understand that the pain can make it difficult to do anything during a breakup. Finding a path forward after a relationship has ended can require a great deal of strength and resilience, especially when we may believe that it’s better to stick it out rather than break up. In this way, ending a relationship can be the ultimate act of self-love. Whether or not you decide to end a relationship, you may need to choose to begin moving on and moving through the grief. Showing up for yourself in this way can be incredibly difficult. We know that. If you believe you need additional support getting through a breakup, please know that support is available. Please reach out to us, and we would be glad to see if one of our therapists would be a good fit or to help you find someone who is. Call or text (323) 388-5578 or email email@example.com.