After a Breakup, All the Sad Feels

January 27, 2017

BreakupIn a recent coaching session, my client Tessa wanted to discuss a recent breakup. She specifically requested advice on “managing sad thoughts when they arise.” It’s a fair question, and I imagine she expected me to discuss strategies for handling her emotions, or even repressing them. Instead, I advised her to go headlong into the sadness. To feel all the sadness.

Have you heard the rule of thumb that after a breakup you get one week to feel crappy for every month you were together? One article even suggests three different mourning timelines based on the kind of breakup, ranging from “none” to “at least a year.” These kinds of guidelines totally ignore individual differences. Some people have more sad thoughts than others, no matter what the relationship was like.

A breakup represents a loss. Psychologists call it a “social loss.” It’s an ending that plunges us into a state of grief. How strongly we feel the loss will depend on several things, including the depth of the commitment we had, as well as our own life experiences and personality traits. Writing at Vox, relationship psychologist Grace Larson explains that when relationships end in an upsetting way, at a minimum we mourn the loss of physical affection, intimacy and mutual care. But that’s not all:

“Breakups also have a range of subtler effects: reshuffling our identity, throwing off our internal biological rhythms, and forcing us to revamp assumptions about our future.”

No wonder breakups are a risk factor for clinical depression in young adults. Uncertainty is very psychologically stressful, and breakups catapult us into a state of crisis and uncertainty about the future.

Identity Crisis

A breakup suddenly jolts us from “we” back to “I”:

“One of the most blissful parts of falling in love is getting so close to someone that you feel as though you are almost merging. And research confirms that as a relationship grows, the psychological boundaries between the two members of a couple blur in several different ways.

…The more committed couples become, the more they do tend to think in terms of “we” — what’s best for us, what do we want, what does our future hold.

This process is thrilling and rewarding. Experiencing it in reverse, however, is disorienting and distressing. The end of a relationship calls into question many of our beliefs about our selves.”

Physiological Changes

People who suffer a breakup often experience distressing physical symptoms, including high blood pressure, a racing pulse, insomnia, loss of appetite, etc. We literally feel ill. Lovesickness is real.

“Close partners help keep our physical systems in balance: They calm us down when we get agitated, energize us when we start to lag, and help set the pace of our daily lives (like signaling when it’s mealtime or bedtime).

In essence, in addition to being lovable, a partner also acts like a combination alarm clock, pacemaker, and security blanket. And whether a relationship is wonderful or lousy, partners still become deeply accustomed to each other’s presence, physically and psychologically.”

Misgivings About the Future

“I’ll never be happy again.” Have you ever tried to tell someone they’re better off after a breakup? Or that they’ll find someone much better next time? No one wants to hear that when a relationship has ended, even if it was a bad relationship.

After a devastating breakup, people often feel hopeless about the future. They can’t imagine ever finding love again. Larson describes this kind of “large-scale mental revision” as confusing, draining and difficult.”

“Very committed couples are much less likely to break up, but when they do, the emotional fallout is substantially worse.

Indeed, while the length and happiness of a relationship doesn’t necessarily affect how devastating the breakup is, people show sharper declines in their life satisfaction after a breakup if they had made a concrete commitment to their partner, including moving in together or planning to marry.”

Respect the Stages of Grief

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross pioneered the concept of the stages of grief:

It originally applied to patients near death, and there’s some debate about whether these stages are entirely linear. Anyone who’s been through a breakup will recognize the variety of emotions and recall sad or depressive thoughts. Sometimes regret is part of the Depression stage as well.

Depression is followed by preparation to let go of the grief. We begin to explore life without our ex, and often come to have positive feelings about new opportunities, personal growth and even the absence of the negativity that led to the breakup in the first place. The end result is a feeling of calm (though not necessarily happiness).

There’s no shortcut from Denial to Acceptance. The Depression stage is unavoidable. What’s more, it’s desirable in the sense that it is necessary. You can’t move on from a loss until you’ve grieved it. You’ve got to hit bottom emotionally in order to climb back up. Sometimes people get stuck in the Anger or Depression stage and need help working through it. The objective is always Acceptance, which is a prerequisite to a new – and hopefully better – relationship.

You Can Have a Good Breakup

Breakups are incredibly difficult, but it’s possible to have a good breakup. That’s one in which you come through all the stages of grief, including Depression. When you feel sad after a loss, embrace the sadness. You can’t hide from it, not for long. The sooner you allow yourself to feel really, really sad the sooner you’ll be able to climb out of the dark and into the light again. Grace Larson agrees:

“One perfectly reasonable reaction to a breakup is to try to think about it as little as possible (a goal often made easier by a few mezcal shots or a marathon screening of Friends). Most people wouldn’t want to repeatedly rehash the details of their split, and they certainly wouldn’t want to do so with strangers.

But recent research my colleagues and I conducted at the University of Arizona suggests that this uncomfortable-sounding scenario could actually be therapeutic.”

When sad thoughts arise, let them sit awhile. Feel the sadness, and be gentle with yourself. A bright future waits for you – but not until you’ve had all the sad feels.