The Painful Truth About Breakups
Breakups are painful, no matter what brings them about and whether or not you want to break up. Initiating a breakup when the other person does not want to break up can cause sadness, guilt, and worry. Being broken up with can lead to feelings of hurt and rejection. Even if the breakup is mutual, it’s still natural to struggle with difficult feelings, like anger or depression, at least for a while.
As painful as the decision can be, there are healthy ways to deal with a breakup and get over a breakup. With time, support from family and friends, reflection, and self-compassion, healing can happen.
What Can Lead to a Breakup
Breakups happen for many reasons. Some reasons are external—such as one of you moving away, going to separate colleges, or going through another lifestyle change that affects how you prioritize relationships. Other reasons are more about internal changes—maybe you feel like you’ve grown apart, or you’re growing in different directions. In some cases, relationships are unhealthy for one or both people. A relationship may come to an end naturally or may need to end to preserve one or both people’s mental health and well-being.
Sometimes breakups happen because you and your partner (or partners) don’t share the same opinions, beliefs, or goals. That’s why it’s important to communicate your deal-breakers—the things that you won’t compromise on—early in the relationship. For example, if you want a monogamous relationship, then having a partner who wants an open or polyamorous relationship may be a deal-breaker for you.
It’s also important to understand that as we grow and evolve as people, things change: priorities, the kind of person we’re attracted to, what we want out of a relationship, and even our understanding of our own sexuality. This means that what we are willing to compromise on may change, too. For example, if a couple agrees that they do not want children and then one partner decides they do, compatibility of their unique life goals and desires may need to be revisited. If something changes for you while you’re in a relationship, it is important to be honest with yourself and, eventually, with your partner.
It’s okay if your deal-breakers are different from what your friends or family thinks is a priority. Ultimately, you get to decide what works for you in a relationship. Whatever you decide, it’s important to be clear about how you feel with a partner or potential partner.
Dealing with Infidelity
Infidelity, or cheating, can be defined differently in different relationships. Boundaries in one monogamous relationship may look different than boundaries in another, and the same is true for polyamorous or open relationships where there are more than two people involved. It’s important to communicate what you’re comfortable with and what your boundaries are. If you feel that important or well understood boundaries have been violated in a relationship, it’s okay to break up, even if your partner or others in your life don’t see infidelity the same way you do.
One important aspect of consent in a relationship is around sexual safety. If someone in a sexual relationship has sex with someone else without their partner’s knowledge, they are putting their partner at risk for a sexually transmitted infection (STI) or other complications. This is why it is a good idea to get tested for STIs if you find out your partner had sex with someone else.
What if There is No Specific Reason?
Sometimes, there may not be a specific reason to end the relationship—and that’s okay. We all change over time and sometimes something that felt comfortable at the beginning simply stops feeling that way over time. Simply wanting to leave a relationship is enough of a reason to break up. The most important part of being in a relationship is wanting to be in that relationship. If you no longer feel that way, it’s healthier to break up.
Nevertheless, it’s one thing to come to that conclusion and another to actually break up. Even when you know you want to break up with someone, it is not less sad or hurtful to actually do it. There may be things you still like or love about that person, and you may feel pain at the idea of losing out on those things after you break up with them.
Having the “breakup conversation” is another hard part about breaking up. Unless the other person feels similarly, it is likely that the person you are breaking up with will feel confused if there is no clear cause, so it is helpful to spend a little time thinking about how to describe your feelings in a way that honors you and addresses concern that the other person will likely have that they did something wrong. It’s important to be truthful with yourself while also being considerate of the other person’s feelings when delivering difficult news.
How You May Feel After a Breakup
Whether you initiated the breakup, you’ve been broken up with, or a breakup was mutual, ending a relationship can cause all kinds of emotions, including sadness, confusion, anger, and even sometimes relief. While there is no one right way to feel after a breakup, there are a few things to watch out for:
If you or others around you have the unhelpful habit of viewing past relationships as “failed” relationships, going through a breakup may make you question your self-worth, especially if you’ve been through multiple breakups. It is most healthy and true to see all of your relationships as part of your life experience and growth. It is very common and healthy to have more than one important relationship in life, and each one of them provides you with insight into yourself and what you want out of relationships.
If you initiated the breakup, you may feel like a bad person or that you’re incapable of having a lasting relationship. But ending a relationship does not mean the relationship failed, or that you’re a failure. If you were broken up with, you may feel unattractive or undesirable. But whether or not you’re in a relationship, or whether or not someone finds you desirable, is an unhealthy measure of your value as a person. What makes you valuable and deserving of love has nothing to do with what someone else thinks of you.
A breakup is a kind of loss, and it is not uncommon to feel “breakup depression,” or at least a deep sadness, in the aftermath. You may be grieving not just the past relationship, but the future you thought you’d have together. It’s normal to grieve the relationship and give yourself time to get past your sadness. But if symptoms of depression get worse or disrupt your everyday life, it may be time to reach out to a mental health professional who can help you process your feelings.
How to Get Over a Breakup
There is no one way to deal with a breakup, and there is no set time it takes to get over a breakup. It’s important to let yourself process the breakup on your own terms and not push yourself to get over it or move on faster.
Grieve what was lost
After a breakup you may experience some of the stages of grief. With a breakup, these could look like:
- Denial: You may not want to believe that the breakup is happening, or you believe the issues you’re having aren’t serious enough to break up over.
- Bargaining: As a way to control the outcome or avoid accepting the breakup, you may start to try to make promises to change yourself or believe you can “fix” the relationship.
- Anger: Depending on the situation, you may be angry at yourself, your ex, or express anger more generally at the circumstances that led to your breakup.
- Depression: Once the reality starts to set in, you may feel a deep, lingering sadness. You may also feel hurt and alone, which may cause you to isolate yourself from your other relationships.
The eventual goal is to move toward acceptance so that you can again focus your attention on your own life and future. That doesn’t mean you need to be happy about the breakup, but it does mean allowing the anger or sadness to pass so you can experience a new beginning and move into the next chapter of your life.
Validate your feelings
Breakups can be messy, and you may be navigating a lot of complicated and intense feelings. Some are negative, like sadness or anger. Some may be positive, such as feelings of freedom, relief, or understanding. If there are lessons to take away about yourself or the relationship more broadly, give yourself time to understand them. Try to avoid returning to feelings of guilt or self-judgment, and instead focus on applying lessons learned from the relationship and creating a life you want and appreciate.
Coming to terms with changes and “the new normal”
When you lose a partner, you may also feel like you are losing a friend. If you spent a lot of time together or lived together, it will likely take time to create new daily habits, social connections, and routines. Depending on the circumstances, you also may need space from mutual friends, activities you shared, or places that remind you of your ex. A breakup can also mean needing to find a new place to live or splitting financial responsibilities.
While it is natural to mourn what we lose in a breakup, ending a relationship often opens up new opportunities such as finding new hobbies, activities, and friendships, or reinvesting in ones that we didn’t prioritize during our relationship. A breakup, while painful, can open you up to new parts of your life that you might have never explored otherwise. Being open to new experiences and people is an important and healthy step to moving on.
Determining what you relationship with your ex should look like
Being friends with an ex is a common goal in popular movies and shows, and is even a goal we may set for ourselves before we ever experience a breakup. While it’s possible to stay friends, it takes a lot of honest communication and maturity.
In some cases, staying friends is a form of denial: it allows us to feel like we are in control of the situation and to avoid the reality of losing our partner or our lives altogether. But forcing yourself to maintain a friendship with an ex while either one of you still has complicated feelings about the breakup can prolong the pain of the breakup.
If you really do want to be friends with an ex, it’s important that both of you accept that the romantic relationship is over. And, it often requires time and space apart to transition from being romantic partners to being friends. Trying to force something different or sooner than what you are ready for can make establishing a comfortable friendship much harder in the long run.
Moving On From a Breakup
Once you have accepted a breakup, you can begin to move beyond the relationship and into the next phase of your life.
Reflect on the Relationship
All of our relationships teach us about ourselves, even the relationships that have ended. An important part of moving on from a breakup and growing into the next part of your life is reflecting on the relationship.
Either by yourself, with a trusted friend, or with help from a mental health professional, ask these questions and be honest about your answers:
- How did this relationship make me feel about myself?
- What can I learn from how this relationship started, and how it ended?
- Is there anything from this relationship that I want to have again in my next relationship? Is there anything from this relationship that I don’t want in my next relationship?
- Was this a healthy relationship, or have I romanticized it now that we’re not together?
Relationships are a two-way street. Answering these questions honestly will help you figure out what you want out of a relationship, how to find someone who best fits your needs, and how to be a supportive partner to someone else.
Maintain your new normal
Getting through a breakup and adjusting to your new normal can be difficult. It may take time to feel normal living life without this relationship, or taking time away from mutual hobbies and friends. Encourage yourself to keep investing in other parts of your life, even when it feels hard. Stick with your new habits, hobbies, and friendships.
Open yourself up to new relationships
Learning from your past relationships will prepare you for a new relationship that will better fulfill your needs and help you grow even more. Your growth will also make you a better partner in the long run. When you are ready, be open to new experiences with a new partner.