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There’s no denying that breakups suck. Like, really suck. After all, the ending of a relationship, whether platonic or romantic, is a type of grief—and grief is never easy to get over.
“Breakups are difficult, in general, because it’s a change, transition, and loss of something that was once, in many cases, stable and consistent,” says Brooke Schwartz, LCSW, a licensed psychotherapist and clinical social worker based in Los Angeles.
Not to mention, as relational human beings, we naturally crave and form attachments, so letting go of an attachment we’ve developed can be really difficult, explains Caitlin Cantor, LCSW, an individual, couples, and AASECT-certified sex therapist with practices in Philadelphia and New Jersey. As a result, breakups can spark a lot of shame, guilt, and fear about what the future holds for one’s relationship outcomes, she adds.
Even if the breakup was mutual and amicable, it can still trigger old attachment wounds, beliefs about oneself, and memories from past relationships or past experiences with attachment figures, says Schwartz.
TL;DR: Breakups are the worst. But luckily, the stages of a breakup are rather predictable, and expert-approved strategies can help you cope while navigating each stage.
Meet the Experts:
Brooke Schwartz, LCSW, is a licensed psychotherapist and clinical social worker based in Los Angeles, California.
Caitlin Cantor, LCSW, is an individual, couples, and AASECT-certified sex therapist with practices in Philadelphia, Pennslyvania and New Jersey.
Ned Presnall, LCSW, is a therapist and clinical director of services at Plan Your Recovery in St. Louis, Missouri.
Nicole Arzt, LMFT, is a licensed marriage and family therapist and founder of Soul of Therapy.
Beverley Andre, LMFT, is a licensed marriage and family therapist and founder of BeHeart Counseling Services.
Megan Harrison, LMFT, is a sex therapist and founder of Couples Candy. Carla Manly, PhD, is a clinical psychologist and author of Joy from Fear: Create the Life of Your Dreams by Making Fear Your Friend.
Worth noting: The stages of a breakup are not linear and may look different for everyone. You may bounce between stages, stay in one for a particularly long time and others more briefly, or go through them in a completely different order than below. At times, you may even find yourself revisiting a stage you thought you were for sure past when you least expect it, says Cantor.
TBH, there’s no right way to process a split, but hopefully, understanding these standard stages can help you mentally prepare—and get over your ex for good.
Should you break up? Should you stay together? Can you really love someone who did X? But what about their redeeming quality of Y?
“In the stage of ambivalence, a person has had both positive and negative phases in a relationship, but they are unsure which one is definitive,” says Ned Presnall, LCSW, clinical director of services at Plan Your Recovery in St. Louis, Missouri. Presnall explains that this roller-coaster stage is marked by both good days (like after couple’s therapy or make-up sex) and bad days (like during a fight). “Oftentimes, their partner isn’t aware of their ambivalence, which can make this stage even more painful,” says Presnall.
Presnall suggests talking to friends and family to unpack the pros and cons of your relationship. It may also be beneficial to take stock of patterns in this relationship and previous ones to see if you exhibited signs of ambivalence in other romantic partnerships. Since some people are inherently more ambivalent than others, reviewing any trends in your dating history may help you realize it’s not specific to your current S.O. In that case, “you may need to work on resolving this in order to have a successful, long-term relationship,” says Presnall.
2. Euphoric Recall
So, you've broken up. Welcome to the time when everything about your ex is all sunshine and daisies. Sigh, weren’t they perfect? Here, as you focus on the good aspects of your former relationship, you may gloss over the issues that led to your relationship’s demise, says Nicole Arzt, LMFT, a licensed marriage and family therapist and founder of Soul of Therapy. Sometimes, this stage can even create feelings of guilt or regret.
That’s where reality testing comes in. “It's okay to reflect on the positive elements of a relationship, as doing so can help with feelings of anger or bitterness," says Arzt. "But write down the negative parts of your relationship as well." Like, "Did you feel disrespected? Did your partner put other people before you? Were you constantly fighting? It's helpful to remember why you broke up.”
3. Making Sense Of It All
This is when you feel like your brain cells are firing at a million miles per hour as you try to come to terms with your relationship’s dissolution. “People tend to analyze the explanation of why the relationship was terminated and obsess over the fine details," says Beverley Andre, LMFT, a licensed marriage and family therapist and founder of BeHeart Counseling Services. "If the person is confused, they will over-analyze each aspect of themselves, ex-partner, and the relationship to understand why the breakup is happening.”
Until you feel like you have a solid grasp of why things ended, you’ll be trapped in this headspace. That’s why getting some kind of closure is so important when saying adieu to your (former) boo.
If you’re struggling with this phase of a breakup, Andre advises chatting with your ex about any unresolved questions. “Proceed with the knowledge that they may not be able to articulate their responses in a way that is satisfying to you,” says Andre, but it will at least help you express yourself.
If you don’t feel comfortable (or safe) speaking with your ex, you may want to consider writing a letter containing the above, and not sending it. Sometimes, the act of writing can be helpful in the moving on process, even if you don’t share your words with the intended recipient.
“Not everyone experiences this phase, but the symptoms include detachment from reality and a sense of denial as to your current reality," says Artz. "Numbness can last anywhere from a few hours after the breakup to several weeks."
To recover from this not-so-fun state, let yourself feel your emotions rather than blocking them out. “Scream. Journal. Cry. Talk to a loved one. Let those feelings out, even if they scare you. The more you can honor them, the more likely you are to heal and grow from the experience,” she continues. Punching a pillow works wonders too (IYKYK).
The denial stage is when you’re having a hard time acknowledging that your relationship is over. “It’s a common defense mechanism used to help numb the intensity of the situation,” says Megan Harrison, LMFT, a sex therapist and founder of Couples Candy. “A person in denial lives with the false hope that things will go back to the way they were before, and this person is ultimately unwilling to move on.”
Denial may show up as you reaching out to your ex-partner, not respecting their boundaries, and continuing to carry out plans that were in place when you were still together in an attempt to re-establish the relationship, adds Schwartz.
“Many people fall into denial when they feel a loss of identity without their significant other,” says Harrison. “Remember that you are your own person, with your entire future ahead of you. Be encouraged by the fact that new life ambitions, goals, and dreams will replace your old ones.”
Harrison recommends prioritizing self-care during this stage. Re-shift your focus to beneficial self-care activities like exercising, reading a new book, or pampering yourself with an at-home spa treatment.
“During the anger stage, people are no longer denying what’s happened, so they’re looking back and feeling anger,” says Cantor.
In this stage, you may feel resentment towards your ex, frustrated about the breakup itself, or even angry at yourself for a variety of reasons. You may be frustrated at yourself for acting in certain ways, doing certain things, or initiating the breakup, even if it was the right thing to do, says Schwartz.
If your ex has moved on, you might be angry at them for finding someone so soon, says Cantor. You may even reflect back on earlier moments in the relationship and find yourself not necessarily angry about the breakup, but angry about something that happened six years ago, says Schwartz. Like, “Why did they do that? Or why did they say that?”
While anger isn’t a very comfortable emotion, it’s healthy to be angry and that anger can provide a helpful reminder of why the relationship ultimately had to end. Nevertheless, make sure to not let that anger consume you; instead, work to put that energy into self-care activities. “You could take a hot bath, smell a candle, or listen to calming music,” Schwartz suggests.
After the anger stage comes bargaining. During this stage, people tend to imagine ways they could’ve handled the situation differently to possibly have had a better outcome. “There are often a lot of ‘what if’s,’ ‘I should have’s,’ and ‘I could have’s,’” says Cantor.
“In some ways, it’s trying to undo what’s already been done,” adds Schwartz. For some people, it’s an internal reckoning of what they could have done differently, while for others, it’s external. They might directly ask their ex to make changes or they, themselves, might offer to make changes in order to salvage the relationship, she says.
If you find yourself bargaining, remind yourself of the facts, suggests Schwartz. Bargaining might look like compromising on previously-established nonnegotiables in order to maintain the relationship. For example, you think, “Well, maybe I could compromise and have kids if that’s what he really wants.” But if parenthood isn’t a goal for you, then stating that fact involves being honest with yourself about your wants and needs. Remember: In a true partnership, you won’t need to compromise on your core goals and values.
Don’t underestimate your pain. “The end of a relationship can resemble the loss of a loved one," says Harrison. "A breakup is extremely painful and can be overwhelmingly disruptive to all aspects of your life." Remember: The end of a partnership not only means the loss of the person, but also your future hopes and dreams with that person.
Similar to the symptoms of depression, during this stage, you may find yourself withdrawing socially, sense some changes in your appetite or sleep patterns, and even become more irritable than usual, says Schwartz. And while symptoms like isolating yourself may be normal (and even healing for some) for a short period of time, if they start to prevent you from doing the things you would otherwise want to do, it may be a sign to consider seeking professional help, she adds.
Nevertheless, while it’s extremely difficult at times to feel your feelings, Cantor recommends not being afraid to “go there” as a lot of growth and processing can happen in this stage. Allow yourself to cry, scream, and spend all day in your bedroom binging your favorite comfort show until you feel better (Sex and the City cures all, just sayin’).
FYI, you also don’t have to “go there” alone. If you can, lean on your support network—it’s harder to handle sadness alone. Talk to loved ones about what you’re going through, or enroll the counsel of a licensed therapist or psychologist. “Spending time with people who support and care about you will remind you that you are valued,” says Harrison.
At the end of the day, instead of fretting about the past and predicting the worst for the future—What if I never meet someone? What if we hadn’t gotten into that fight?—remember to ground yourself in the now, Harrison urges. “Mindfulness can help you step back from these thoughts and allows you to embrace the flow of life as it unfolds, without taking negative thoughts too seriously,” she says.
9. Social Media ~Changes~
Let's be honest, social media has made it harder to feel like you’ve fully moved on. First off, know it’s okay to take some time after the initial breakup before you tackle the process of deleting social media pictures, updating your Facebook relationship status, and the like. "Go on a social media sabbatical until you're emotionally ready to make changes to your accounts," says Andre. "There's no need to rush through your emotions."
In addition to updating digital networks, it’s now also time to part with physical remnants such as any clothes, gifts, or other items that remind you of your former partner.
Above all, remember that you don't owe anyone in your social network an explanation. “Create and enforce personal boundaries in order to protect your wellness,” says Andre. Marie Kondo-ing the ghost of your relationship past may even leave you feeling empowered and excited to start anew.
Heartbreak can bring you back together, and in some cases, help you overcome issues that were previously holding you back. “Sometimes, this can lead to a more stable long-term relationship—the grief can act as a wake-up call and motivate the couple to focus on the positives,” says Presnall. “But sometimes, the relapse is just a relapse. There might be a moment of relief, but then the negative dynamics of the relationship become more prominent, and you breakup again.” (Again and again and again, even.)
If you decide to reconcile your differences and get back together, be sure to take time to reflect and work through what led you to break up in the first place...or you'll be back at breakup stage one before ya know it.
After being in anger, doing the bargaining, and feeling your feelings (and, yes, relapsing), acceptance is where you land when you are no longer resisting the breakup, says Cantor. In other words, you’ve made it to the other side.
In this stage, you’re beginning to build out your life again now that the relationship is officially over. And while you may still have your moments, you’re looking ahead towards your oh-so-bright future. “It’s a feeling I’ve heard described as inner peace,” says Schwartz. “It’s finally coming to terms with the reality of the relationship having ended, even if you’re not okay or happy with the end result.” (BRB, just entering my villain era, a.k.a setting boundaries and living for me.)
12. The Comparison Dating Phase
This part of the post-breakup journey reveals that you’ve made enough progress to begin your search for love again—congrats!—but are still having a hard time letting go of your former flame. Hey, it's a process!
“During this phase, you may go out with people, but you find yourself comparing them to your ex," says Arzt. "As a result, you continue to feel disappointed or let down. Even if you like the other person, you still feel fixated on your ex." This phase may last for a few months, years, or for those in a very long, serious relationship, even decades. Yeah, sorry.
To break free, recognize that this behavior is completely normal. Then, try to track when and in what situations you compare a new love interest to your ex to help you uncover why you’re doing it. (Is it because that characteristic is something you love in a partner? Hate? Is it because you miss your ex’s friends group? Is it because they’re too similar to your ex?)
“Your ex was an integral part of your life—it makes sense that you use them as the barometer for your next relationship,” says Arzt. But consider chatting with a professional if this is getting in the way of your next ~love.~ "It's helpful to talk about these feelings in a safe place where you can discuss your fears or challenges."
13. Forward Motion
Hallelujah. You did it. You’ve emerged and are wholeheartedly ready to get on with your life. Of course, that doesn’t mean there won’t be tough moments, days, or weeks ahead as you adjust to life post-breakup. “Straggling emotions and memories may still bleed through,” says Carla Marie Manly, PhD, author of Joy from Fear: Create the Life of Your Dreams by Making Fear Your Friend. It’s perfectly normal to want to date again, even if it’s accompanied with some mixed emotions.
Continuing your work from the previous stages will serve you well. “By journaling, engaging in self-care, and continuing to increase self-awareness, the painful breakup energy slowly but surely dissolves,” says Manly. Phew, that’s a relief.
Now, get out there, tiger. You got this!
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