Strategies and tools for getting through a break up

Back­ground:

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:

  1. Stop feel­ing so sad in the im­me­di­ate moment

  2. “Get over” my partner

  3. 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.

More ar­gu­ments de­pend on your situ­a­tion. Like lef­tover french fries, very few re­la­tion­ships are as good when you try to re­vive them, it’s bet­ter just to get new french fries.

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.

Ad­di­tional Read­ing:

http://​​wiki.less­wrong.com/​​wiki/​​Deal­ing_with_a_Ma­jor_Per­sonal_Crisis

Ad­den­dum:

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.

Mile­stones:

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.