By the time I publish this article, it will have been 1 year since my live-in partner of 6 years moved out. Despite the heartbreak and the anxiety, it is safe to say that I’ve come out the other end — stronger, healthier, and different. Below are some of the things that helped me along the way, backed by research.
Romantic separation is, for many people, one of life’s most stressful events.
On The Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale — which is an established psychological tool to evaluate stress and the risk of stress-induced illness — “divorce” and “marital separation” are the second and third most stressful events, respectively, in human life.
If you were wondering, jail time and the death of a family member fall right below. These were deemed less stressful by the 5,000+ people who were surveyed.
As a consequence, lots of articles will tell you that a breakup raises the risk of a range of illnesses that I’m not going to cram your head with; contemplating such risks only increases anxiety, which I’m sure you will have plenty of at this point anyway.
Regardless of where you are on the post-break up timeline and whether you were the dumper or the dumpee, all that matters is that your heart aches. So, what can you do about it?
Below are a few tips for dealing with romantic separation, filtered through research and this writer’s own experience.
Before we move on, let me say that the importance of things such as eating right, getting plenty of rest, and exercising during this very dark time cannot be underestimated.
But such things can be hard to achieve when you feel emotionally shattered, so this article will focus more on the psychology of romantic dissolution and how to cope with the distress that ensues.
Specialized literature will tell you that social support is one of the three main coping mechanisms that predict one’s chances of post-breakup recovery (along with “emotional expression” and “account-making,” which we’ll get to in a bit).
Your friends, family, co-workers, acquaintances — you may benefit from letting them all know that you’re going through a difficult time.
Numerous studies have shown that increased social support in the face of adversity (such as bereavement, sexual assault, cancer, or even war) leads to better mental and physical health. And, an increase in such support was proven to reduce depression and post-traumatic stress.
An important thing to remember about social support, however, is that it comes in many different shapes and sizes. You may need empathy and emotional support primarily, but in addition, people can offer “informational support” such as giving you advice on coping, “tangible support” in the form of financial help, and “social companionship” such as simply being there with you so you have someone to go to the movies with. All of these things help.
This might sound intuitive to you, but in my experience, it’s vital to remember that different people offer different kinds of support, because when the pain is excruciating and nobody seems to truly grasp what you’re going through, you may feel disappointed and depressed.
Instead of letting this upset you, try to make the best of what you’re offered. For example, maybe your parents aren’t the most empathetic humans out there, or maybe they’ll jump to conclusions about what you did “wrong” in your relationship.
However, they may also do everything that is “tangibly” in their power to help, from cooking you meals to lending you money.
Accept what they have to offer, and for those moments when you need someone to listen to your feelings and agree with you, call your best friend from high school.
That being said, it could well be the case that your need for empathy and being listened to may overwhelm mere mortals. Not everyone succeeds at empathy, as Dr. Brené Brown — a research professor at the University of Houston in Texas — explains in this wonderfully educational video (which you can show to your less sensitive friends.)
And even if people are great at empathy, sometimes what you feel is overwhelming. So, if that’s the case for you, do what Carrie Bradshaw did in Season 2 when she couldn’t stop obsessing about Mr. Big: see a therapist.
A therapist was my first port of call, as I realized pretty early on that I couldn’t go on by myself — and I’m very glad that I did. My therapist helped me see patterns in myself that I wasn’t aware of (my psychological blindspot) and helped me learn and grow as a person.
As Mental Health America advise, you should never be afraid to get outside help if you need it. They also offer a comprehensive list of affordable mental health services, as well as counseling directories where you can search for a therapist near you or a provider that accepts Medicaid.
In the first months immediately after my breakup, I did a lot of crying at unsociable hours, when I least expected it, and in different corners of the floor of my apartment.
On many occasions, I couldn’t call anyone, nor was I particularly comfortable with the thought of letting someone see me at my worst. These were the times when my tabby kitten Petrica comforted me like no human ever could.
Petrica would always come and sit by my side when I was feeling down and often tried to touch my face with his little paw when I was crying.
Whether he did that purely because he was fascinated by water (the way he stared at running taps for minutes on end supports this theory) or if he genuinely “felt” that something was wrong, I’ll never really know.
Regardless, what I do know is that having a pet during emotionally challenging times can offer an unparalleled feeling of unconditional love and emotional support. And I’m not the only one.
At Medical News Today, we report on a variety of studies showcasing not only the psychological benefits of having a pet, but also the physiological ones. Having a dog or cat reduces anxiety and stress, improves heart health, and helps you to sleep better.
When it comes to mental health, the verdict is clear: pet ownership provides “unique” benefits. In the words of a study participant who was interviewed about his dog, “When he comes and sits up beside you on a night, it’s different, you know, it’s like, he needs me as much as I need him.”
And after someone told you that they don’t need you anymore, or you decided that you no longer need them, I can hardly think of a more precious feeling to hope for.
One of the first things that I did immediately after my separation was buy a brand new notebook. Of course, as a writer, you’d think that I enjoy recording my thoughts and feelings more than the average person, but writing is a great coping strategy for anyone going through a breakup.
Researchers have been hailing the health benefits of expressive writing for a little while now, but a recent study makes an interesting distinction. Not every kind of writing helps, write the authors, but “expressive narrative writing” in particular is likely to lower your heart rate and help your body adapt more easily to physiological stress.
So, instead of jotting down random feelings, try to incorporate those feelings into a story. “To be able to create a story in a structured way,” they say, “not just re-experience your emotions but make meaning out of them — allows you to process those feelings in a more physiologically adaptive way,” say the lead study authors.
As I explained above, “emotional expression” and “account making” (that is, coming up with an explanation for a traumatic event) are the other two main psychological processes crucial for coping with a breakup — and this type of writing helps with both.
Research has demonstrated that people who love themselves more and display higher levels of self-compassion tend to get over a separation more quickly.
But that’s easier said than done, right? When somebody leaves you feeling unloved or rejected, “loving yourself” can seem like too demanding an imperative and too lofty a goal.
It might be more achievable to simply reacquaint yourself with…yourself. After a breakup, you may experience something called “reduced self-concept clarity” — or, more simply put, you just don’t know who you are anymore.
Try to remember who you were before the relationship. What music did you like (that your partner hated)? What were some of the things that you always wanted to do but couldn’t because the “relationship committee” vetoed them?
Try to be mindful of your own wishes and desires and do what you damn well please. This will not only gradually help you to enjoy your freedom, but it will also remind you of who you are and help you to cultivate self-kindness at a time when you need it most.
That said, focusing on your own pleasure and doing nice things for yourself when all you’re ridden with is guilt or sadness may be particularly difficult. You may find it helpful to remember that the pain of a breakup, with all of its self-recrimination, is a universal experience.
Literally everybody goes through it at some point — Beyoncé, Barack Obama, and that annoyingly cool friend of yours who never seems to be affected by anything.
According to some psychologists, this mere “acknowledgment that people are not perfect and that personal experiences are part of the larger human experience” is one of the key elements of self-love. So there: you’ve just been tricked into loving yourself a little bit more.
As Carol Dweck, a professor of psychology at Stanford University in California, puts it, “Few things in life are more traumatic than being rejected by someone who knows you well and then, with this insight, decides that she or he no longer cares for you or wants to be with you.”
But the good news is such a painful experience can help you grow — and simply being aware of this can help.
A study led by Dweck and her colleagues found that people with a growth-oriented mindset (or people who believe that they are the architects of their personality and can continuously change and grow) cope better with romantic rejection than those with a fixed mindset (or those who think their personality is static and cannot be changed).
“To them,” says Dweck, referring to those with a fixed mindset, “a rejection reveals that [the self] is fixed at a deficient level. On the other hand, people who believe in their ability to grow and develop, while of course hurt by rejections, can more readily bounce back and envision a brighter future.”
So, the takeaway? Let the emotional pain transform you. After all, there seems to be such a thing as “post-traumatic growth,” and the pain that you’re going through right now may be a sign that you’re tapping into a wonderful inner resource.
Plus, if you’re prone to rumination and anxiety — like me — here is some more good news for you: according to some studies, you’re more likely to grow and expand as a result of your breakup than people who seem to mindlessly waltz through life.
Finally, this is something that I cannot stress enough. Forget about conventional wisdom that says that it takes half the total time you spent with that person to get over them and forget about all the scientific studies telling you how long it takes the “average person” to get over a breakup.
First of all, you’re not an “average person,” and secondly, getting over your lost love is similar to getting over an addiction: you need to take it a day at a time.
So, if you’ve never had much empathy for people with substance abuse issues, you will now. While, as with most addictions, there won’t be a magical moment when you can say “I’m cured,” your days will get better — one at a time.
Take them as they come and don’t be mad with yourself if it seems to take forever. Once you do come out of this dark tunnel, what you will find on the other end is a more empowered, more complex, and more human version of you.