How to Get Through a Devastating Breakup

February 25, 2016

breakupSo we’ve had a heart break in the HUS community, and I’m really grateful that a reader could bring that here and ask for support. I’m also moved by all the virtual (((hugs))) offered to her. We may not know one another offline, but the relationships here are real when you need a friend.

Rejection is the hardest part about dating – it’s one of the hardest things in life. Fear of rejection, rejection before a relationship can ever get off the ground, and rejection once relationships are well underway. Sometimes we get blindsided by rejection after years of marriage. Rejection never gets easier, but when it happens there are ways of coping and reflecting that I think can be helpful.

Breakups are Super Stressful

A 2015 study aimed to better understand life after a breakup. From The Science of Relationships blog:

“Researchers surveyed 5,705 people in nearly 100 countries about their breakups and experience of grief afterwards. The most common reason for breaking up was “lack of communication.” Women were more likely to initiate a breakup; those who were broken up with experienced more grief than initiators.

Post-relationship grief was more severe emotionally (e.g., anxiety, depression) than physically (e.g., insomnia, weight change). Among those who were dumped, women reported slightly more emotional and physical consequences than men, although post-relationship grief was high for both men and women.”

The average age of subjects was 27, and 75% had experienced a breakup. Furthermore, 75% of those had experienced several breakups. Both sexes assessed their “post-relationship grief” at about 7 out of 10, with 0 = No effect and 10 = Unbearable. But they differed in what they felt, with more women reporting symptoms than men in all areas except Emotional Numbness and Loss of Focus:

% ReportingWomenMen
Emotional Numbness5255
Loss of focus5355
Inability to function4040
Nausea/unable to eat2010
Panic attacks2515
Reduced Immunity2113
Weight change5530

Note: Values are approximations of bar chart.

When it comes to who initiates the breakup, women and men don’t agree. One interesting finding is that the most common cause of breakups is “lack of communication,” which was indicated twice as often as “infidelity.”

% ReportingWomenMen
Women Initiated3947
Man Initiated3728

Finally, the person initiating the breakup did report less grief overall, but both parties experienced extreme stress as a result of breaking up.

Bottom Line:

You have good reason to feel extremely upset, stressed, even ill. Breaking up is very difficult for everyone, especially in the first days and weeks. This data shows how difficult – you are not alone.

Some People Take Breakups Harder Than Others

The above data shows that there are some real differences between men and women, but it’s also true that within each sex there is a lot of variation, and that distribution is the same for both sexes. In other words, some guys and girls get through breakups fairly easily, while some guys and girls are devasted for extended periods of time. And everything in between.

Lauren Howe’s Atlantic article The Psychology of Why Some People Take Breakups Harder Than Others explores the difference.

It’s a question that often plagues people after a painful break-up: What went wrong? As they work to figure out the answer, people typically create new relationship stories, analyzing the events leading up to the breakup and using them to build a cohesive narrative. In some cases, this type of storytelling can be positive, helping people to make sense of—and come to terms with—painful things that happen to them. Other times, though, the storytelling process can be a negative one, compounding pain rather than easing it. 

My colleague Carol Dweck and I research why some people are haunted by the ghosts of their romantic past, while others seem to move on from failed relationships with minimal difficulty.”

It boils down to what Howe calls a “self-deprecation trap.”

“Dweck and I asked people to reflect on a time when they were rejected in a romantic context, and then write about the question: What did you take away from this rejection? For some people, their answers made it clear that the rejection had come to define them—they assumed that their former partners had discovered something truly undesirable about them.

…In these types of stories, rejection uncovered a hidden flaw, one that led people to question or change their own views of themselves—and, often, they portrayed their personalities as toxic, with negative qualities likely to contaminate other relationships.

…The refrains were familiar:  “Why wasn’t I good enough?” or “Is there something wrong with me?” When people see ex-partners in new relationships, they often ask themselves: “What does she or he have that I don’t?”

…The belief that rejection revealed a flaw prompted people to worry that this defect would resurface in other relationships. They worried that future relationships would continue to fail, voicing fears that no matter how hard they tried, they would not be able to find someone new to love them.”

People less traumatized by breakups tended to see the rejection as separate from their identity, saying things like “Rejection is part of life.” and “It just means we were not a good match.”

Others were actually able to view the rejection as a growth experience, which I think is pretty impressive:

“Communication was a recurrent theme: People described how a rejection had helped them understand the importance of clear expectations, how to identify differences in goals, and how to express what they wanted out of a relationship. Other participants wrote that breakups had helped them to accept that they couldn’t control the thoughts and actions of others, or to learn how to forgive.”

What Howe and Dweck found was that the first group tended to see personality as fixed, so a failed relationship meant they were now stuck with some undesirable trait that would thwart future relationships. Others believed in change and growth, so were able to learn from and use the relationship experience to get a better outcome the next time.

Bottom Line:

Howe says we should create a healthy habit of questioning our own narratives. This is something we can do individually, with a trusted confidante, or here at HUS.

Rejection Makes Your Life Better

There’s a better relationship in your future.

When we are rejected, we are in pain because we find out that we are not loved. Our feelings for another person are not mutual. When the breakup is a surprise, we struggle to make sense of it. We thought everything was fine – why did things change?

But the truth is that things were not fine. Our relationship was not thriving. And letting go of that relationship is both necessary and beneficial to our future happiness. Because what we’re really looking for is someone who loves us back, without complications, ambivalence or reluctance.

The sooner we get out of a relationship that’s a dead end (even if we didn’t know it), the sooner we are free to enter a better one.

Raise your standards and your expectations. 

Just make sure you’re focusing on the right things. Choose someone who:

  • Treats you well, with respect.
  • Is effective and productive.
  • Is emotionally available and demonstrative.
  • Is ready for a relationship commitment.

Gain self-knowledge.

You’re not perfect, and there were likely real mistakes you made in the failed relationship. Take time to reflect on that. Be brutally honest with yourself – but keep the narrative productive as Howe suggests, not hopeless.

Try making a list of 10 things you’d like to do differently next time around. Hell, that’s even a good idea if you’re in a healthy relationship. I could make that list in about a minute and I’ve been happily married for over 30 years.

Bottom Line: 

You think you still want them but you don’t. You really, really don’t. Keeping on with that relationship is settling. Welcome the new and challenging journey that greets you.

Tactics to Help You Move On

Elite Daily has an article by Sheila Amir that includes some excellent suggestions for managing the initial, hardest stage when you’ve just broken up.

I. Dive into your own recovery.

“Look at what you’ve done and where you are. Yes, that other person is still out there living his or her life and that’s okay.

The truth is, it no longer affects you. Although, you may not yet have the mental clarity to understand and accept that; that comes with time.

It takes a lot of work and will to distract yourself, but you must. Jump into projects, hit the gym, go to movies, blast music, read books, hell, learn a foreign language.

Every cloud is shaped like your ex, every movie is somehow symbolic of your entire relationship and every song reminds you deeply of him or her. Push through and keep going until that stops.”


“Slap a cease and desist order on all communication. Change his or her name in your cell to the honest truth, like “Letdown Manbitch,” “AZ SheDevil,” or “Ungood Person.”

Bonus life hack: Your smartphone will make this name change in your email as well! No one wants to reach out or respond to “Crooked Penis Liar.”

Don’t stop there. BLOCK THEM! This is crucial. You’ve already given this person a substantial portion of your life, and you are never getting that back.

That’s a done deal. All you have is from this moment forward. Time is non-refundable and you only live once.”

III. Treat people well.

“It’s incredibly cruel to expect another person to be the better version of your ex so you “win.”

If you’re in the mindset of winning or losing, you’re still caught up in the mindf*cking game. Love isn’t a game or battlefield, and until you understand that, life will continue to suck.

There aren’t life condoms to protect people from you splooging your issues all over them.”

Revenge is pathetic, forget about it. Wanting revenge is admitting that the only way you can feel good about yourself is if someone else feels bad. And besides, it doesn’t work. You won’t feel good if your ex gets hit by a car or dumped by his next gf.

IV. Never feel stupid for loving. 

“Don’t feel stupid for that. Don’t go cold. There’s more love to be had. Different love. Healthy love. Non-codependent love. Love deserving of you.”

Bottom line:

What good is sitting alone in your room? Get back out there.

We all experience heartbreak. I wouldn’t marry a man who hadn’t. I wouldn’t be the same person if I hadn’t.

It’s not enjoyable, but it is something that shapes our identity, our values, and even our dreams. Think of it as a really tough pilgrimage. You’ll get there in the end.