Strategies and tools for getting through a break up
I was very recently (3 weeks now) in a relationship that lasted for 5.5 years. My partner had been fantastic through all those years and we were suffering no conflict, no fights, no strain or tension. My partner also was prone to depression, and is/was going through an episode of depression. I am usually a major source of support at these times. Six months ago we opened our relationship. I wasn’t dating anyone (mostly due to busy-ness), and my partner was, though not seriously. I felt him pulling away somewhat, which I (correctly) attributed mostly to depression and which nonetheless caused me some occasional moments of jealousy. But I was overall extremely happy with this relationship, very committed, and still very much in love as well. It was quite a surprise when my partner broke up with me one Wednesday evening.
After we had a good cry together, the next morning I woke up and immediately started researching what the literature said about breaking up. My goals were threefold:
Stop feeling so sad in the immediate moment
“Get over” my partner
Internalize any gains I had made over the course of our relationship or any lessons I had learned from the break up
I made most of my gains in the first few days, by day 3 I was 50% over it. Two weeks later I was 90% over the relationship, with a few hold-over habits and tendencies (like feeling responsible for improving his emotional state) which are currently too strong but which will serve me well in our continuing friendship. My ex, on the other hand (no doubt partially due to the depression) is fine most of the time but unpredictably becomes extremely sad for hours on end. Originally this was guilt at having hurt me but now it is mostly nostalgia+isolation based. I hope to continue being close friends and I’ve been doing my best to support him emotionally, at the distance of a friend. Below are the states of mind and strategies that allowed me to get over it more quickly and with good personal growth.
Note: mileage may vary. I have low neuroticism and a slightly higher than average base level of happiness. You might not get over the relationship in 2 weeks, but your getting-over-it will certainly be sped up from their default speed.
Strategies (in order of importance)
1. Decide you don’t want to get back in the relationship. Decide that it is over and given the opportunity, you will not get back with this person. If you were the breaker-upper, you can skip this step.
Until you can do this, it is unlikely that you will get over it. It’s hard to ignore an impulse that you agree with wholeheartedly. If you’re always hoping for an opportunity or an argument or a situation that will bring you back together, much of your mental energy will go towards formulating those arguments, planning for that situation, imagining that opportunity. Some of the below strategies can still be used, but spend some serious time on this first one. It’s the foundation of everything else. There are some facts that can help you convince the logical part of brain that this is the correct attitude.
People in on-and-off relationships are less satisfied, feel more anxiety about their relationship status, and continue to cycle on-and-off even after couples add additional constraints like cohabitation or marriage
People in tumultuous relationships are much less happy than singles
Wanting to stay in a relationship is reinforced by many biases (status quo bias, ambiguity effect, choice supportive bias, loss aversion, mere-exposure effect, ostrich effect). For someone to break through all those biases and end things, they must be extremely unhappy. If your continuing relationship makes someone you love extremely unhappy, it is a disservice again to capitalize on those biases in a moment of weakness and return to the relationship.
Being in a relationship with someone who isn’t excited about and pleased by you is settling for an inferior quality of relationship. The amazing number of date-able people in the world means settling for this is not an optimal decision. Contrast this to a tribal situation where replacing a lost mate was difficult or impossible. All these feelings of wanting to get back together evolved in a situation of scarcity, but we live in a world of plenty.
Intermittent rewards are the most powerful, so an on-again-off-again relationship has the power to make you commit to things you would never commit to given a new relationship. The more hot-and-cold your partner is, the more rewarding the relationship seems and the less likely you are to be happy in the long term. Only you can end that tantalizing possibility of intermittent rewards by resolving not to partake if the opportunity arises.
Even if some extenuating circumstance could explain away their intention to break up (depression, bipolar, long-distance, etc), it is belittling to your ex-partner to try to invalidate their stated feelings. Do not fall into the trap of feeling that you know more about a person’s inner state than they do. Take it at face value and act accordingly. Even if this is only a temporary state of mind for them, it is unlikely that they will never ever again be in the same state of mind.
2. Talk to other people about the good things that came of your break-up. (This can also help you arrive at #1, not wanting to get back together)
I speculate that benefits from this come from three places. First, talking about good thinks makes you notice good things and talking in a positive attitude makes you feel positive. Second, it re-emphasizes to your brain that losing your significant other does not mean losing your social support network. Third, it acts as a mild commitment mechanism—it would be a loss of face to go on about how great you’re doing outside the relationship and later have to explain you jumped back in at the first opportunity.
You do not need to be purely positive. If you are feeling sadness, it sometimes helps to talk about this. But don’t dwell only on the sadness when you talk. When I was talking to my very close friends about all aspects of my feelings, I still tried to say two positive things for every negative thing. For example: “It was a surprise, which was jarring and unpleasant and upended my life plans in these ways. But being a surprise, I didn’t have time to dread and dwell on it beforehand. And breaking up sooner is preferable to a long decline in happiness for both parties, so its better to break up as soon as it becomes clear to either party that the path is headed downhill, even if it is surprising to the other party.”
Talk about the positives as often as possible without alienating people. The people you talk to do not need to be serious close friends. I spend a collective hour and a half talking to two OKCupid dates about how many good things came from the break up. (Both dates had been scheduled before actually breaking up, both people had met me once prior, and both dates went surprisingly well due to sympathy, escalating self-disclosure, and positive tone. I signaled that I am an emotionally healthy person dealing well with an understandably difficult situation).
If you feel that you don’t have any candidates for good listeners either because the break up was due to some mistake or infidelity of yours, or because you are socially isolated/anxious, writing is an effective alternative to talking. Study participants recovered quicker when they spent 15 minutes writing about the positive aspects of their break up, participants with three 15 minute sessions did better still. And it can benefit anyone to keep a running list of positives to can bring up out in conversation.
3. Create a social support system
Identify who in your social network can still be relied on as a confidant and/or a neutral listener. You would be surprised at who still cares about you. In my breakup, my primary confidant was my ex’s cousin, who also happens to be my housemate and close friend. His mom and best friend, both in other states, also made the effort to inquire about my state of mind. Most of the time, even people who you consider your partner’s friends still feel enough allegiance to you and enough sympathy to be good listeners and through listening they can become your friends.
If you don’t currently have a support system, make one! OKCupid is a great resource for meeting friends outside of just dating, and people are way way more likely to want to meet you if you message them with a “just looking for friends” type message. People you aren’t currently close to but who you know and like can become better friends if you are willing to reveal personal/vulnerable stories. Escalating self-disclosure+symmetrical vulnerability=feelings of friendship. Break ups are a great time for this to happen because you’ve got a big vulnerability, and one which almost everyone has experienced. Everyone has stories to share and advice to give on the topic of breaking up.
4. Intentionally practice differentiation
One of the most painful parts of a break up is that so much of your sense-of-self is tied into your relationship. You will be basically rebuilding your sense of self. Depending on the length and the committed-ness of the relationship, you may be rebuilding it from the ground up. Think of this as an opportunity. You can rebuild it an any way you desire. All the things you used to like before your relationship, all the interests and hobbies you once cared about, those can be reincorporated into your new, differentiated sense of self. You can do all the things you once wished you did.
Spend at least 5 minutes thinking about what your best self looks like. What kind of person do you wish to be? This is a great opportunity to make some resolutions. Because you have a fresh start, and because these resolutions are about self-identification, they are much more likely to stick. Just be sure to frame them in relation to your sense-of-self: not ‘I will exercise,’ instead ‘I’m a fit active person, the kind of person who exercises’ not ‘I want to improve my Spanish fluency’ but ‘I’m a Spanish speaking polygot, the kind of person who is making an big effort to become fluent.’
Language is also a good tool to practice differentiation. Try not to use the word “we,” “us,” of “our,” even in your head. From now on, it is “s/he and I,” “me and him/her,” or “mine and his/hers.” Practice using the word “ex” a lot. Memories are re-formulated and overwritten each time we revisit them, so in your memories make sure to think of you two as separate independent people and not as a unit.
5. Make use of the following mental frameworks to re-frame your thinking:
Over the relationship vs. over the person
You do not have to stop having romantic, tender, or lustful feelings about your ex to get over the relationship. Those type of feelings are not easily controlled, but you can have those same feelings for good friends or crushes without it destroying your ability to have a meaningful platonic relationship, why should this be different?
Being over the relationship means:
Not feeling as though you are missing out on being part of a relationship.
Not dwelling/ruminating/obsessing about your ex-partner (includes both positive, negative and neutral thoughts “they’re so great” and “I hate them and hope they die” and “I wonder what they are up to”.
Not wishing to be back with your ex-partner.
Not making plans that include consideration of your ex-partner because these considerations are no longer important (this includes considerations like “this will make him/her feel sorry I’m gone,” or “this will show him/her that I’m totally over it”)
Being able to interact with people without your ex-partner at your side and not feel weird about it, especially things you used to do together (eg. a shared hobby or at a party)
In very lucky peaceful-breakup situations, being able to interact with your ex-partner and maybe even their current romantic interests without it being too horribly weird and unpleasant.
On the other hand, being over a person means experiencing no pull towards that person, romantic, emotional, or sexual. If your break up was messy, you can be over the person without being over the relationship. This is often when people turn to messy and unsatisfying rebound relationships. It is far far more important to be over the relationship, and some of us (me included) will just have to make peace with never being over the person, with the help of knowing that having a crush on someone does not necessarily have the power to make you miserable or destroy your friendship.
Obsessive thinking and cravings
If you used a brain scanner to look at a person who has been recently broken up with, and then you used the same brain scanner to look at someone who recently sobered up from an addictive drug, their brain activity would be very similar. So similar, in fact, that some neurologists speculate that addiction hijacks the circuits for romantic obsession (there is a very plausible evolutionary reason for romantic obsession to exist in early human tribal societies. Addiction, less so).
In cases of addiction/craving, you can’t just force your mind to stop thinking thoughts you don’t like. But you can change your relationship with those thoughts. Recognize when they happen. Identify them as a craving rather than a true need. Recognize that, when satisfied, cravings temporarily diminish and then grow stronger (you’ve rewarded your brain for that behavior). These are thoughts without substance. The impulse they drive you towards will increase, rather than decrease, unpleasant feelings.
When I first broke up, I had a couple very unpleasant hours of rumination, thinking uncontrollably about the same topics over and over despite those topics being painful. At some point I realized that continuing to merely think about the break up was also addictive. My craving circuits just picked the one set of thoughts I couldn’t argue against so that my brain could go on obsessively dwelling without me being able to pull a logic override. These thoughts SEEM like goal oriented thinking, they FEEL productive, but they are a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
In my specific case, my brain was concern trolling me. Concern trolling on the internet is when someone expresses sympathy and concern while actually having ulterior motives (eg on a body-positive website, fat shaming with: “I’m so glad you’re happy but I’m concerned that people will think less of you because of your weight”). In my case, I was worrying about my ex’s depression and his state of mind, which are very hard thoughts to quash. Empathy and caring are good, right? And he really was going through a hard time. Maybe I should call and check up on him.… My brain was concern trolling me.
Depending on how your relationship ended, your brain could be trolling in other ways. Flaming seems to be a popular set of unstoppable thoughts. If you can’t argue with the thought that the jerk is a horrible person, then THAT is the easiest way for your brain’s addictive circuits to happily go on obsessing about this break up. Nostalgia is also a popular option. If the memories were good, then it’s hard to argue with those thoughts. If you’re a well trained rationalist, you might notice that you are feeling confused and then burn up many brain cycles trying to resolve your confusion by making sense of a fact, despite it not being a rational thing. Your addictive circuits can even hijack good rationalist habits. Other common ruminations are problem solving, simulating possible futures, regret, counter-factual thinking.
As I said, you can’t force these parts of your brain to just shut up. That’s not how craving works. But you can take away their power by recognizing that all your ruminating is just these circuits hijacking your normal thought process. Say to yourself “I feeling an urge to call and yell at him/her, but so what. Its just a meaningless craving.”
What you lose
There is a great sense of loss that comes with the end of a relationship. For some people, it is a similar feeling to actually being in mourning. Revisiting memories becomes painful, things you used to do together are suddenly tinged with sadness.
I found it helpful to think of my relationship as a book. A book with some really powerful life-changing passages in the early chapters, a good rising action, great characters. A book which made me a better person by reading it. But a book with a stupid deus ex machina ending that totally invalidated the foreshadowing in the best passages. Finishing the book can be frustrating and saddening, but the first chapters of book still exist. Knowing that the ending sucks isn’t going to stop the first chapters from being awesome and entertaining and powerful. And I could revisit those first chapters any time I liked. I could just read my favorite parts without needing to read the whole stupid ending.
You don’t lose your memories. You don’t lose your personal growth. Any gains you made while you were with someone, anything new that they introduced you to, or helped you to improve on, or nagged at you till you had a new better habit, you get to keep all of those. That show you used to watch together, it is still there and you still get to watch it and care about it without him/her. The bar you used to visit together is still there too. All those photos are still great pictures of both of you in interesting places. Depending on the situation of the break up, your mutual friends are still around. Even your ex still exists and is still the same person you liked before, and breaking up doesn’t mean you’ll never see them again unless that’s what you guys want/need.
The only thing you definitely lose at the end of a relationship is the future of that relationship. You are losing something that hasn’t happened yet, something which never existed. The only thing you are losing is what you imagined someday having. It’s something similar to the endowment effect: you assumed this future was yours so you assigned it a lot of value. But it never was yours, you’ve lost something which doesn’t exist. It’s still a painful experience, but realizing all of this helped me a lot.
Comparisons and self-esteem:
Brains are built to compare and optimize, so one difficult problem I’ve faced in the months after the break up was seeing my ex date other people. I had trouble because my unconscious impulse is to think “he has chosen them over me.” This thinking pattern is instant, unconscious, and hard to break. And it comes with a big hit to either self esteem or my willingness to humanize these actual humans he is dating.
It was helpful to remind myself that the break up occurred because the relationship was broken. There is a heavy opportunity cost to date someone with whom it can never work out or with whom you are not happy. That opportunity cost is the freedom to seek a better relationship. So I shouldn’t be comparing myself to any flesh-and-blood person. He chose opportunity and freedom over me. And its just not possible to compare yourself to a a concept like that in a way that makes sense. The people that come as a result that choice are irrelevant.
It took me 2 weeks to be over this particular relationship, it took me a month and a half to not wish I was in some relationship, to get excited and happy about being single. It was 3 months before dating and experiencing new people started to sound like it might be fun/interesting.
Long Tail of Sadness:
During the period after the break up, for about 3 months, I had to be extra careful to have enough sleep, drink enough water, get sunshine, eat enough, and meditate. If my physical state was normal, I almost always felt great, acted normal, and rarely thought about my ex. But if I let myself get into a physical state which would normally cause a generalized bad mood, I would more often find myself ruminating on the break up. Sleep is medicine.