The end of a romantic relationship hurts, especially if it’s been serious. Break-ups can be hard even for the one who decides to leave, but of course are worse for the one who was left.
If you find yourself hurting after a break-up, you may be so overwhelmed that you can’t think clearly. Because evolution has hard-wired us to become attached to our partner, the end of that attachment can feel like a threat to your very existence. It isn’t; you will survive. But man, it can feel like the end of the world.
What can you do to get through the pain and ready for the next stage of your life? Here’s what helps:
Be patient with yourself. For the first days or weeks after a breakup, you may just want to curl up and cry. That’s okay. Do what you have to (go to work, for instance), but then give into the sadness. Use every nurturing, self-care thing in the book: warm baths, cuddly blankets, a body pillow to snuggle up with, long walks, talking with people who love you, favorite foods, silly movies (maybe go easy on the rom-coms for a while). There’s nothing wrong with you; it just takes time for the hurt to ease.
Put away things that remind you of your ex—but don’t throw them away. Some people have a fit of “getting rid of” where they tear up every photo that includes the ex, throw away everything the two of you ever shared together, etc. It’s understandable that you don’t want to look at that stuff while you’re upset about the split. But there may come a time when you’ll want to listen to that music again or look at those vacation pictures or make that recipe or whatever. Put the stuff that reminds you of your ex in a box and put the box somewhere out of sight. (Or even ask a friend to keep it for a while.) Months later, when the hurt isn’t so raw, you can decide what you want to keep and what needs to go.
Avoid catastrophic “always”/“never” thinking. When your heart is banged up, you may start to tell yourself ridiculous things like “I always mess things up,” “I’ll never love again,” or “I’ll never find a trustworthy partner.” Those sorts of thoughts are both unhelpful and untrue. You’re hurting now, but that doesn’t mean you will be forever.
Don’t bad-mouth your ex publicly. It’s fine to complain to a couple trusted friends, but don’t spew to the world (especially not on social media, where your rant is there forever). Even if what you say is true, you’ll just look sour-grapesy, mean, or unreasonable—not at all like the grounded, compassionate person you want to be.
Don’t pester your ex. No phone calls demanding an explanation, no showing up at his or her place unannounced—that only makes you look like a crazy person and makes your ex happy to have gotten away. Act like a mature adult (even if that’s hard right now).
Don’t look at your ex’s social media. Your ex probably puts only the happy stuff on social media, and there’s really no benefit to seeing that. After a break-up, people are often particularly determined to show that they’re fine/happy/have moved on and so present an even more rosy picture than usual. Why torture yourself? Stop following your ex and consider un-friending.
Be careful about booze. At a vulnerable time, it can be tempting to numb out with alcohol or other substances. A little of that in the mix is okay, but go easy. You don’t want drinking to become a habitual way you comfort yourself (because that can lead to addiction).
Find physical release for your hurt and anger. Any form of exercise is likely to help. There’s something especially therapeutic about kicking and hitting (in ways that don’t hurt you or anyone else). Try things like hitting tennis balls against a wall, chopping wood, taking a kickboxing class, or throwing rocks into the water. If no one’s nearby, use colorful language while you do it; call your ex whatever nasty names you’ve been thinking. This helps get the aggression out of your system so you can move beyond it. (You may end up in tears, which is actually helpful, because you’re feeling the hurt that’s below the anger. And you have to feel the hurt in order to get past it.)
Don’t try to prove to your ex how happy or desirable you are. In fact, don’t try to prove anything to your ex; it isn’t about him/her anymore. If you’re focused on proving something to your ex or anyone else, you aren’t focusing on what you really need at the moment, which should be your first priority.
Give yourself time to grieve before you start dating again. People sometimes want to “get back out there” right away—to take their mind off their hurt, to prove to their ex that they’re attractive, to prove to themselves that they’re attractive. That’s a recipe for disaster. You’re not ready to see a new person for who he or she really is; you’re so raw you may come off as needy or too aggressive. Rebound relationships seldom end well. It’s much better to wait until you’re back to being yourself before you go looking for someone else. Go out with friends, absolutely—just give the dating thing a pause.
Don’t be black-and-white about the person. After a break-up, there’s a tendency to see the ex as all good—remembering all the wonderful times and ignoring the lousy ones—or all bad (“he’s completely worthless”; “it was never a real relationship”). Relationships and people are more complex than that. Do your best to remember the whole of the person, good and bad.
Once you’re calmer, learn from your experience. What did you learn from this painful experience? about what you want or don’t want in a partner? What was your own role in the relationship problems? Are there things you’d do differently next time? The introspection may not be fun–but it’ll help you have a more satisfying next relationship when the time comes.