Getting Through a Breakup Without Actually Breaking
Breakups often suck (also, the sky is blue, in case you didn't know).
They tend to suck when someone's broken up with you, and can suck when you're the one doing the breaking up, too. They even often suck when a breakup is something people come to mutually, after shared effort, communication and care. Endings can be hard, change is hard; anything that is or feels like a rejection of some part of ourselves or someone else stinks. Losing a personal connection that was important to us is a big deal; so is having what hopes and dreams we had in a relationship squished. And when elective interpersonal relationships -- friendships, romantic or sexual relationships -- are newer to us, and our elevated feelings in them are also new, a breakup, even when a relationship was short, even when it wasn't much of a relationship at all, can feel like a knife to the guts.
Our early relationships rarely survive a lifetime. Most relationships we have in our lives, at any age, won't last a lifetime. But our early loves, and most of the relationships we have in our teens and early twenties, not only won't tend to last forever, even though they may feel like they can or will, are often over a lot more quickly than we thought they'd be. Everyone is growing and changing so much between their pre-teens and their twenties that there can be a whole lot of interpersonal false starts, endings or fadeaways during those years. Sometimes moving into adulthood can feel like a marathon of loss in this way, one that just won't cut you a break.
On top of all that, since everyone's just starting to learn how to manage relationships, the way breakups happen during these years can also feel more painful and shocking than later on, when people do have more practice, more emotional maturity and life experience. Unfortunately, the way breakups most typically happen is that one person does the breaking up, often to the great surprise of the other person. That's usually because what "breaks" first in a relationship is communication. In other words, by the time someone says, "I want to break up," or "I'm breaking up with you," communication has either broken down in the relationship, or mutually open, honest communication, especially about conflicts or other hard stuff, was never really there to begin with.
Another common dynamic in relationships when you're younger -- one that's been really pervasive lately -- is for people to make serious commitments, or "get serious," before one or more of them actually have gotten to know each other, or have actually been sure they even want to enter into a more serious relationship. Rather than dating or hanging out more gradually first, and only deciding after a good deal of time, and talks together about what each are looking for and want, with this kind of rushing in, when people do actually get to know each other and find out they don't really click, or discover a particular kind of relationship, or relationship with that person isn't what they want, then it's BOOM! breakup, rather than people figuring those things out before getting seriously involved. In other words, it's something more likely to happen to people going through a before-getting-in-a-relationship process only after they've already gotten into one.
Even when the more-ideal has happened -- people really took time to make commitments, including to agree to be boyfriends or girlfriends, and honestly communicated when things weren't working for them as they weren't, rather than only when they were out the door -- breakups can still hurt. In fact, in that ideal kind of situation, where no one is shocked by a breakup, in some ways it might hurt worse, or for longer, because those are more typically longer-term relationships where everyone involved was a lot more close, and each putting a lot of effort and emotional investment into the relationship.
There are more ways breakups can and do happen, of course, but no matter how it happened, chances are that while the hurt or sadness, if you're feeling those things, won't always be the same, or happen the same way, a breakup probably hurts. And it might hurt an awful lot.
Feel How You Feel
If this was a big experience for you, a big deal, then as with most big deals in life, you're probably going to have a range of feelings, and they're probably not going to be the same from day to day or week to week. While a breakup most certainly isn't a death, it is a loss, and we may go through similar stages of grief as people can when dealing with a death: you might first be in denial -- of the breakup itself, or of any hard feelings around it -- then get pissed. Then you might move into bargaining, be it with your own head, the fates or a religious figure, or with an ex, like by asking them to please. please get back together. Rather than bargaining, around this time you may instead experience a lot of anxiety. Then you might get depressed, or start to really feel the deeper pain and sadness of loss. After that is when a person will usually start moving towards acceptance.
It might not happen in that order for you, or you might not feel all of those feelings or have all of those thoughts. There are other common feelings a lot of people grapple with after breakups: regret, loneliness or of unworthiness, feeling they've lost a part of their identity, or envy (often triggered by deeply annoying couples with the audacity to walk on the same street as us being lovey-dovey when we've just had a breakup, the heartless jerks). And sometimes our big feelings around a breakup, even of a relationship we wanted, aren't things like anger or sadness: sometimes we might feel relieved, even happy, especially if it was clear a relationship wasn't a good one, wasn't really what we wanted, or the person we started in it with, who seemed so great at the start, turned out to act radically different in it, or just changed as a person in way that really didn't fit. Perhaps you don't seem to have any big feelings post-breakup at all. Like I said, people tend to have a range of feelings. There really aren't feelings that are acceptable and those that aren't: there's just whatever it is you feel.
Whatever your feelings, to really deal, you've got to let yourself feel whatever it is that you're feeling, without bottling those feelings up or trying to push them away. When we lose -- or choose to give up -- something we care about, to cope with it and move forward, we need to grieve, even though the ways we do, and how we feel when we do, won't all be the same.
Hopefully, you won't have to defend your need to do that, but you might. Living with someone who won't stop crying or who's growly for weeks can be rough, and people who really care about you also obviously hate to see you so unhappy, so parents or family members might not always be so supportive of your process, especially if you also aren't letting them in emotionally. Friends might be great at first, then grow impatient, or decide that their breakup process is how yours should be. So, while you're dealing with a breakup, you might have to assert yourself, which is understandably challenging when you're already feeling raw. Just do what you can to remind other folks you're going through something hard, do let those closest to you in at least a little, and ask for the patience, time and room you need. If the way you're expressing a given set of feelings is in ways those around you are expressing concerns about, hear them in that, and make sure they're not right: if they are, ask for and get some help. Sometimes the reason people around us seem to be being crappy about us going through a breakup is because we're actually leading the charge of being crappy ourselves, or otherwise are a cause for real concern.
Boys Do Cry (and Girls Don't Always)
There are some gender issues or stereotypes with breakups, just like there are with relationships. While other kinds of stereotypes can also come into play -- like those around race, disability or economics -- it's fairly common, for example, for people to think that guys, if they have feelings about breakups at all, are only bitter or angry, or that girls who don't have their finger on a suicide hotline for months after a breakup are heartless and unfeeling. Many of our cultures rear people in such a way that girls learn to give each other a lot of attention and support with a breakup; many guys get messages that only weaklings, suckers or losers feel or act sad or hurt with breakups, and don't learn to support one other compassionately when a breakup leaves a guy brokenhearted.
Television shows and movies which show breakups often show women having intense emotional reactions, getting a lot of care and support from friends and doing a lot of talking about their feelings. On the other hand, in media, guys after breakups are often The Invisible Man: it's like we don't see any representations of guys experiencing breakups unless they're going postal and hurting or threatening to hurt someone or doing something funny for us to laugh at. Or, we might see them only being very flippant about breakups, and moving cavalierly from one partner to another with a total lack of care.
Guys can get the idea that a breakup should be more cause for relief or anger than sadness or other, un-macho feelings of loss. That's often especially true if it's the guy doing the breaking up. Guys may be more likely to get a pat on the back from other guys with a breakup, have "freedom" from even a cherished relationship celebrated, or have their friends think the best way to comfort them is by dissing their ex. On the other hand, for women who earnestly feel those ways, who aren't a hot mess over a breakup and do feel like it's mostly just a big relief, it can be tough to find understanding, too. It can be tough to explain to girlfriends who basically want to sit Shivah with you for weeks after a breakup that you're actually okay and, in fact, really don't want to watch any more sad movies or cry together until the end of time, because it's starting to feel fake to you or make you uncomfortable rather than being a comfort.
Of course, this is all bigger than just being about breakups: most of us live in a world where women hurting is considered acceptable -- and is even idealized or glamorized, especially when what women are hurting about is love -- and where the idea that boys don't cry, about anything, is still pervasive. These stereotypes, prescribed roles or media representations don't represent the diversity of realities well for any gender. By all means, sometimes those stereotypes or representations will be true for some people, but they won't be for many or even most. And sometimes a person whose experience, feelings or reactions do meet a given set roles, stereotypes or representations will be a different gender than is generally represented by them.
Again, however you feel is how you feel, even if that doesn't match your ideas, or someone else's ideas, of how you're supposed to feel, or how someone of your gender is "supposed" to feel or behave with a breakup. The good news is that as a world, we're starting to get a lot more aware of how busted these roles and stereotypes are, so chances are good at least someone you have access to won't be on board with them, won't question your gender for feeling a certain way, give you grief because you don't, or be unsupportive when you're real about how you're feeling and ask for their support and understanding.
If you do find that in your community or groups of friends, there are strongly gendered messages and responses to how you're supposed to feel or act with a breakup, per your gender, that isn't how you feel, or isn't how you want to act, you can try calling on friends or family members of a different gender, whose "opposite" messages might be a better match for you during a time when you mostly just need people around you to understand how you're feeling, even if it's silly that it's not universally recognized that your gender likely has bupkis to do with how you feel.
If you really feel like you've got nowhere to turn where you can be the guy, girl, or neither who is feeling whatever things you are with a breakup, don't forget that you've got resources like our community and direct services here, school or community counselors or resources and a range of hotlines.
While we're on stereotypes, If you’re queer, you may also run into some around breakups. For instance, the common myth that no one bisexual has relationships that are about anything but sex can make it tougher to get people to understand why you're hurting. The frequent notion that no sexual or romantic relationships between men can be or must be serious, especially young men, can result in a similar lack of understanding. Plus, you've got the fact that when you're a queer guy, your masculinity is often something already in question by so many people, that being sad and heartbroken on top of being queer may be something you're even more scared to show that straight guys can be. If you're lesbian and going through a breakup, it can feel like you rolled into Sexism City per people's reactions: now may be the time people decide to tell you how unfeeling and or what bitches women are (dismissing that you're sitting right there, being a woman feeling things who also likes women, and doesn't think they, or you, are bitches), or one of those times people decide to remind you they think you just haven't met the right man. And of course, having love relationships end when you’re young is tough enough as it is, but if your breakup was also one of your first same-sex relationships, it can be even harder.
Being queer also usually means being more isolated, all the more so if you aren’t out yet or don't live somewhere with a supportive, visible queer community. If you're not out to anyone except your ex, you may literally have no one you can talk to, and may have to come out to someone in order to have someone to talk to. When you're already fragile from a breakup, that's a whole lot of big scary all at once. If you find yourself in that position and don't feel up to any of that, remember we've always got someone you can talk to here in our services at the site, and this might also be the perfect time to look into what other LGBTQ support resources the internet (including ours), your school or your community have to offer.
I think it's helpful with words, especially the loaded ones, to know what they mean. Rejection is to refuse to accept, submit to, believe, or make use of; to refuse to consider or grant; to deny; to discard as defective or useless; throw away. We often feel rejected with breakups if we're the one being broken up with. That makes sense: the other person has, in fact, refused to grant us the continuation of the relationship or role we wanted with them. They're denying us that. They're done with the relationship, so, in a respect, they are throwing it away.
But think about this for a second: even though we often feel rejected, as people, we're not usually being rejected as people. No one is literally throwing us away, discarding us as useless, even if it feels that way because, of course, the relationship they're leaving was made, in part, of us. Even if a person is, indeed, saying they don't want us as their girlfriend or boyfriend, that's not actually the same thing as saying we are defective or useless as a person. To boot, we need to remember there's someone else who made up the relationship, too: the other person. Ultimately, it's really the relationship that's being rejected, not the people in it.
When an artist makes a piece of art, it usually means spending a lot of time, sometimes money, and a great deal of effort, including emotional effort. If that piece of art winds up being one that just isn't going right, that they can't seem to finish or, when finished, doesn't turn out to be at all what they -- or perhaps someone they were making it for -- wanted or had in mind, and they crumple it up and throw it away, they're rejecting that piece of work. In that moment, it's pretty normal to go to an "I suck; I am useless as an artist," place. Those of us who do art of any kind, who invest ourselves in anything, really, that doesn't go well or was we wanted, know that place. But we're not that piece of art, and the fact that it isn't what we or someone else wanted or intended doesn't mean we suck or are useless: the rejection of that thing we made or tired to make isn't a rejection of we as people unless we, ultimately, make it so and take that on ourselves.
Rejection happens in life. It's going to happen, sometimes a lot a lot, especially in any area where we put ourselves out there, as we have to if we want a chance at the good stuff. We often won't get things or situations we want when we want them; plenty of times, someone is going to turn us, part of us, or something we do or make down in some way. It's something we all have to learn to live with, get through and get past when it happens. What makes it a whole lot harder to get through? When we internalize feelings of rejection too deeply, or project rejection of something we made or wanted, or some part of who we are, unto us as whole people: when we take on the mantle of being The Rejected.
We can, and should, feel all our feelings about a breakup, to be sure, even the ugly ones, even the ones that we're probably mostly getting in goodie bags from a pity party we threw for ourselves. One of the things you might feel is rejected. Or, if it was you that did the breaking up, the other person might feel that way and you might feel bad about that.
What I suggest is that you let yourself feel those things, but do yourself a solid and don't dig in there. Setting yourself up in your head and your life as The Rejected is a sure-fire way to make sure you not only feel worse, and have a hard time getting through a breakup and coming out the other side intact. And when when you do start pursuing other relationships again, if you look for or come to them in a headspace where you're hanging on to feelings of worthlessness like that? You're not at all likely to drum up good things, and are much more likely to get stuck in a pattern of lousy relationships you feel lousy about, stuck in them with someone you think is lousy: yourself.
I was reminded of a quote from Kurt Vonnegut this week I'd forgotten about, which speaks to some of this well:
“Be soft. Do not let the world make you hard. Do not let pain make you hate. Do not let the bitterness steal your sweetness.”
Going to a place where we make breakups all about rejection is one of the surest ways to get super-bitter, hard, and generally yucktastic fast, and to have a harder time letting go of those feelings. Holding on tight to any of the worst, or most painful, feelings we have with a breakup, or staying in the most miserable of what should be temporary emotional spaces not only makes it more likely a breakup hurts more than it would otherwise, it also makes it more likely we'll come out of it much worse for wear, and be less likely to find and walk into our next relationships with the kind of wholeness and self-love we need to create good ones. And when we do face more rejection in life, as we will, having internalized it and held unto it is going to make it harder to deal with when it happens again, not easier.
Breakups can hurt like a mother, and will often make us feel very fragile, raw and vulnerable, so we can be inclined to think we've got to "toughen up." All those feelings we've got to feel, and thoughts we need to work through? Sometimes we can also use some of them that hurt really bad -- like feeling rejected -- to try and shield ourselves from feelings or thoughts that are even harder, like taking responsibility for ways we were part of a relationship ending, ways we might have hurt someone we've set up as being the only hurtful one. Or, like recognizing that we did things in a relationship that have us feeling so bad when it's over rather than all our hard feelings being about a breakup, like looking for all our self-esteem in it (and acknowledging that's because we don't even know how to love ourselves yet, let alone anyone else), overvaluing a relationship that actually was more shallow than deep, or having wanted relationship mostly because we're terrified of being on our own.
It seems to me that, of late, especially, there is a whole lot of snarky, snippy, or downright scary angry-bitter in the world, making it a rough place to live in. In a time of life when we also often already feel so alone and isolated, it's easier to be or become more isolated than ever before. All of that is so much harder to live with, and get away from, when we cut ourselves off from ourselves and our feelings, and close ourselves off from other people.
Protecting ourselves emotionally when we're feeling fragile is important. But we can do that without moving into really crummy places or self-assigned roles for ourselves that are only going to assure we keep hurting or hurt more than we are already. Instead, we can surround ourselves as best we can with people we know care about us, and will help care for us, who truly support us in a time we need extra self-care and care from others; we can be sure to really give ourselves that extra self-care, or, if we don't know how, use this time to learn some new ways of taking care of ourselves and comforting ourselves. We can take time away from the kind of relationships where we feel most vulnerable at the moment and stick to the kind where we feel less so. We can put all the things we're feeling into outlets where we feel capable and free to express ourselves openly, like a journal or a form of art, the heavy bag at the gym or a track, whatever those places and spaces are for you.
Relationships generally don't end because someone in them just sucks as a person, just like a given piece of art that doesn't come out as one'd like isn't automatically, or even usually, because someone sucks as an artist. A relationship, like art, is a creative endeavor and, as it is with art, doing it, making it, being part of it, is often a journey that doesn't get us to where we wanted or thought it might, or come out like we wanted. Relationships, like art, usually involve at least a few duds before we make a masterpiece.
Try thinking of a breakup less as a rejection of a person and more as an acknowledgement that something just isn't working or feels very wrong; a resulting action to try to change those bad feelings or or bad fits so everyone involved is more likely to find relationships that feel better and right for everyone involved, and are more likely to meet the needs and wants of everyone in them. In other words, try to think of them less as a rejection of you or someone else, and more as an acknowledgement that whoever you each are, you've got a great piece of art you can and will make in the future, but to get there, you just can't stay stuck in the piece that's not going to become that great one.
Mourning the Loss of What Never Was (But Could Have Been)
Sometimes the loss you're feeling isn't so much a loss of what actually was, but the loss of what could have been. You might have made plans, out loud together, or plans in your head for a future with someone else, including the very far-off future. Some of those plans may have been realistic; many of them probably weren't. But you felt them, and you wanted them: you dreamed about them, you hoped for them. It might seem like letting go of things that didn't actually happen should be easy, but hopes and dreams for big stuff we wanted that made us feel excited about our lives are big deals: letting go of them, even if letting go means knowing they're still possible, but not the way we thought, is often hard to do.
You may have invested a lot emotionally in what might have been someday with someone, and so when a breakup happens, it can actually feel like you lost those things, even though they never happened. You didn't actually have kids with that person, didn't actually live together, didn't actually get old together: but those hopes and dreams were very big and real to you, and you lost them. This can be one of the ways you feel sad and torn up about a breakup other people might not always understand or be empathetic about, and is one of the areas where older people, who've sometimes been in relationships where they actually had and even actually lost some of those things, can not get it. Chances are they have felt exactly what you're feeling before, but it's probably been a long time since then.
Losing our hopes and dreams is a big deal. It does hurt. If you're the person who did, or mostly did, the breaking up, you might be feeling that and also be feeling like you ruined someone else's hopes and dreams, so it can be a serious double-whammy. It's okay to feel that loss, and the mourn the loss of what-might've-been. Again, those hopes and dreams were real, even if they didn't manifest any realities. Just try and keep some perspective on that: remember it's the hopes with that person you lost, not those actual things, and try to remind yourself that while, indeed, you probably won't be experiencing those things with the person you thought you would, those hopes and dreams likely aren't out of reach. They're just things you have the possibility of experiencing with different people -- or even by yourself -- in the future, probably people you haven't even met yet. And probably people where those things are more likely to actually become realities.
On moving on, and when to do it
One thing we're often asked by users after a breakup is how long after one a person is supposed to move on.
I don't think there's a right answer to that, because how hard we take any given thing in our lives is how hard we take it. At what pace we move forward is going to vary, as is what we each need to do that. Every relationship is different, so is every person in it and their experience of being in it, as well as the place the relationship had in the larger contexts of their lives.
I can suggest a simple formula I've applied for myself with relationships less than a few years long (and where they didn't end with or contain something deeply traumatic, like a death or abuse, or wasn't tacked on to other big stuff -- all of that makes its own stuff to additionally work through and move past). By the time it's been as long or longer since a breakup as the relationship itself lasted, you should be moving towards moving on, if not pretty darn over it. So, if I was in something that lasted two weeks, then two weeks after a breakup I should feel like I'm getting myself together again; six months after a split from a six-month-long relationship, I should have accepted the breakup and be feeling pretty resolved about it.
If you aren't moving on at that point, or when you or others feel you should be, the answer isn't beating yourself up about how sad and pathetic you are, or how weak a person. Rather, if you aren't moving on after a decent stretch of time like that compared to the relationship itself, can't move on for years, or feel like you're stuck at any time and really not making progress, then I suggest that's just when it's time to try something different than you have been, and ask for some extra help.
If you've been crying over sad music or an endless loop of Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive," (great choice, by the way) in your room for weeks and you don't feel any better, or feel worse, maybe it's time to try hanging out more with friends, or picking up something new in life you've always wanted to do but have never tried. If you've gone a whole breakup on your own, or only with support from friends, and you feel the same months later as you did when it happened, it's probably time to look to someone like a family member or counselor for a different kind of help. If you've done everything on earth to distract yourself for months, but never actually just gave yourself time to be alone and feel your feelings? It's likely past time to do that. No matter the situation, if you just feel like you can't start moving on when you know or feel you should be, ask for help. It's strength it takes to ask for help when we need it, not weakness, so muster some up and ask.
Sometimes when people say "moving on," by the way, the idea or assumption is that that means "to someone else." For sure, if you feel like getting back into dating or maybe-dating is moving on for you, and what you want and feel ready to do, that's fine. But that's not what we usually mean when we talk about moving on: acceptance and resolution is the name of this game. In other words, getting to a point where you have accepted a breakup has happened and the relationship, as it was, is over -- you're not hanging on to hope you'll get back together, trying to get the other person to come back or changing your own mind, if you did the breaking up -- and then have gotten to a point where you have mostly resolved your feelings about the relationship and breakup. Only then is usually when we'll really be able to open up to and start any new, potentially great relationships on solid footing, anyway.
Speaking of moving on, sometimes some of the hurt with a breakup happens when one person moves on, or seems to move on, before the other. They might even have done so right when, or even before, they actually did any breaking up.
Often, by the time someone says they want to break up, they've already done a lot of thinking and feeling about all of this, so may have already done a lot of processing and healing. If they're breaking up, chances are they already felt very done, and sometimes they are, so can move on more quickly -- be that by being just fine after a breakup, or dating someone else right away -- while the other person, who hasn't done any of this feelings and processing yet, feels like a total zombie. They got a head start: you didn't.
Someone else moving on quickly can feel like a betrayal: paired with a breakup, it can seem like the relationship wasn't at all important to them, or wasn't as important as it was to the other person. Maybe it was, maybe it wasn't. But my advice with this is to put real effort into paying much more attention to your own process than to the other person's -- this isn't a race to see who moves on fastest -- and to figure there are probably things you don't know or weren't aware of that they were thinking and feeling way before the breakup. How important a relationship was or wasn't to someone else doesn't impact how important it was to you. What pace someone else moves on at isn't a right or wrong pace compared to yours, and can't dictate what yours will be or should be. Pay attention to your feelings and your process: put you first. Part of moving on is moving away from the relationship with that other person, and getting back to just you, as yourself, not as whoever you are in relationship to that person, so putting energy into tracking them, or a whole lot of investment into what's happening with them now is only a barrier to you taking care of yourself and moving forward in your own life.
"That was all for nothing!"
We hear this a lot when Scarleteen users have been whacked with a breakup, know one is coming, or know they should be doing some breaking up, but feel like once a relationship is over -- or even just once some part of it is -- that means all their feelings, time and effort in it were wasted. I understand feeling like that in the moment, but I strongly disagree that any relationship was "for nothing" just because we're not in it anymore. In fact, I'd say that if the only thing it felt like a relationship gave or offered you or the other person was being in it for any length of time, you both probably dodged a serious bullet: that would've been an awfully empty relationship and staying in it probably would have sucked the life right out of you.
If a relationship, however long it lasted, offered you anything at all while you were in it, it was never all for nothing. Even if you feel it completely stunk while you were in it, it still probably gave you something, like learning about what you do and don't want or need, and what does and doesn't work for you right now.
Maybe feeling like it was "all" for nothing is a reflection of you feeling like you invested or sacrificed way too much in it, or too much too soon: and maybe that's because you did. If so, even that wasn't all for nothing, because now you know to invest yourself more gradually next time around so you're less likely to get so hurt and that having a good relationship should never mean giving up things that are deeply important to you.
Relationships don't have value only if they last a certain amount of time, nor do they only have value when we're in them, value they completely lose once we're not. Relationships truly are ultimately a place for connecting, experiencing, learning and growing, not clockwatching. If we did absolutely none of that while we were in them? Then yeah, that was all for nothing. But chances are that if we stayed in them, even for the shortest amount of time possible, it's because were were doing at least one of those big things while we were in them.
I know it's tough not to pick up attitudes in the world about how the truest measure of a relationship is what kind of commitment -- usually marriage -- or long time period -- usually until someone dies -- it results in. But recognize that those messages are usually coming from people who either already have relationships like that that are offering them WAY more than just time OR are in relationships that ONLY offer or offered them time. You know what the value of your relationship was to you, and you knew what you were in it. And as the years go by, I promise you that with the big ones, you'll find out more about what it gave you that was worthwhile, even worth the hurt of a breakup, like teaching you building blocks for better relationships later, showing you some great things about yourself you didn't see before, helping you find out what you do and don't want in life and love, and even showing you that you can be strong enough to open your heart, get hurt, and still, in time, have the courage to go back out there and open it up again.
If You Hurt Someone
Sometimes tough breakup feelings are made much worse by guilt when we have hurt someone, whether we meant to or not. That hurt might have happened because you're the person who ultimately initiated or decided on the breakup, and maybe even did it really badly or without care. Or, perhaps you hurt someone and that's the reason they broke up with you, like because you didn't honor an agreement to be exclusive, was dishonest about something, or generally treated the other person poorly.
Those feelings might have merit, and can certainly be valuable. We're not supposed to feel good about hurting people, after all. Feeling lousy about causing someone pain is usually how we figure out that we need to learn to do things differently in the future, and commit ourselves to doing them differently. But those feelings aren't actually worth a damn if all you do is use them to make a guilt-shaped stick to beat yourself with.
What to do when you're hurting and you also hurt someone? For our today, let's keep it simple:
- Take responsibility for whatever it is you did. Own it (any sentence that starts with "But I only did that because you..." isn't owning it, just FYI). Say you're sorry: mean it.
- If you can make any amends, need to, or the other person is asking you to make amends that are healthy and reasonable -- and that doesn't include getting back together when they're saying that;s how to make amends, by the by -- do it.
- Give the other person space: don't hound them to forgive you if they don't, have contact with you they don't want, or to tell you they're okay when they aren't. You feel lousy because you hurt them, so you're probably going to want them to feel better as soon as possible so you can feel less lousy. That's not fair to that other person: your bad feelings are your cross to bear and yours to manage and get past. (Also, refer to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season 3, Episode 8. Oz explains why this isn't cool to Willow perfectly.) If and when they forgive you or feel better and want to share that with you, they will: but you have to leave that ball in their court.
- Be mad at yourself if you feel that way, but it doesn't make what you did go away, nor usually make another decent person feel better if you make yourself the enemy or tattoo "I Am a Horrid Big Meanie" on your face. You can be mad at you, but also not hold onto it too tightly. Instead, use that anger to figure out why you did whatever it was you did, then find what you can take away from that. For instance, maybe you've learned not to agree to monogamy too early, or when you're not 110% sure it's what you actually want. Maybe you've learned that tumblr is so not the place to break up with someone, or that telling someone something's been bothering you long before the same day you tell them you're finished with them is a better way to go. Whatever your takeaways are, they're what to focus on more than the bad feelings.
- Move on. Let the guilt go. You're going to do better from here on out, and that's all you can possibly do about something in the past.
The Lowdown: 10 Ways to Get Through a Breakup Without Breaking
1) While moving on is important in time, letting yourself really feel all you’re feeling now is just as important. If you feel any pressures, from yourself or others, to be more stiff-upper-lippy than you actually feel, to act or pretend like like a breakup doesn’t bother you, or, conversely, to be a total mess when you actually might be feeling relieved or refreshed, try and let them go and just feel what you are actually, truly feeling. It’s up to you who you share your feelings with, but make sure you’re at least giving yourself time and space alone to just experience those feelings and let them have their own flow.
2) Express yourself. Expressing how we feel is part of dealing with how we feel and moving forward. Any of us can use creative ways to express our feelings, such as through journaling, a creative art like photography or music, through physical activities, what have you. You know you best, and know your best places to let it all out: use them. A journal can be a particularly handy tool through this. And if you later find you've gotten stuck and can't move forward, you can find the parts you've been stuck on in the journal, rip those pages to shreds, and only be left with a book that helps you value what you had, but still move on.
3) Plenty of us, after a breakup, may pine or obsess over a lost partner with photographs or mementos of the relationship. But at a certain point, you have to put that stuff away. You don’t have to ritually destroy them or anything (though you can if you want), but putting them all in a box, and then somewhere well out of sight, only to be gone through when you feel long over the relationship, can help a lot.
4) Reclaim the things you enjoy and had less time for during your relationship. Obviously, the more relationships we have, the less time we usually have for ourselves, and intimate relationships can take up a lot of time and energy. Doing the things we love and have previously had less time for helps heal our hearts and also remind us of who we are, by ourselves, not just who we are in a relationship.
5) Find support. Not all of your friends may have the emotional maturity or life experience to understand how you’re feeling. Some may even be really bad choices to share with: a person who teases you about being sad -- or suggests you're heartless if you're not a wreck -- or who just disses your ex endlessly isn’t likely to be a good support. Reach out to people you think can give the kind of support you want and need. That might be a teacher or a coach, one of your parents or a sibling, or a friend of any gender, or our staff, volunteers or peers at our message boards. If you’re having a supremely tough time with a breakup, finding a counselor to help you through it can also be a good step, whether that’s the counselor at school or a counseling professional through your healthcare services. Breakups sometimes can truly tank people, and some people experience the desire to self-harm or harm others, or enter into deep depressions; if you feel like you're drowning, seek out a lifeboat.
6) Deal with your breakup in ways which are emotionally healthy for you and your ex. Some people act on hard feelings in ways that aren’t healthy, and which range from masochistic to downright dangerous. Ceasing to do all the things you enjoy doing, or which you need to do – going to school or work, eating, sleeping, bathing -- is not healthy. Self-harm through things like cutting, drinking or doing drugs, high-risk sexual behavior or suicide attempts are not healthy. Refusing to give your ex space and time – such as by texting or emailing them over and over again – or allowing an ex to refuse to give you space and time is not healthy. Hopefully it’s obvious, but blackmailing, manipulating, stalking, harassing, or physically or sexually attacking an ex in any way are not only unhealthy, but abusive and criminal.
7) If you and/or an ex want to try and sustain a platonic friendship, be sure you both are making and holding some real space and time first -- not hours or days, but more like weeks, months or maybe even longer than that -- and set and maintain healthy boundaries. Check in with your or their motivations for a friendship: often enough, some people want to “stay friends” not to actually be friends, but because they are either having a tough time letting go, or because they hope a friendship may help get the romantic relationship back. The same goes double for breaking up, then walking right back into a friends-with-benefits scenario. If neither person has had time to deal with the breakup, you can be very sure that someone is going to get hurt and feel very confused by casual sex – though sex with a recent ex is hardly casual – when a relationship is supposed to be over.
On that note? When it comes to social media, it can be a good idea to stop following each other, at least until you both feel pretty healed. You might even openly agree to unfriend each other for a little while, making clear, if things are amicable, that you're not disowning each other for good, you're just temporarily creating some of the space you both need to separate and take care of yourselves.
8) Give yourself time to be single after a relationship. Sure, now and then we rebound, or a new relationship just happens. Sometimes, a new relationship may even be why the old one ended. But most of us need time to grieve and reflect after a breakup, even just to remember and reclaim who we are all by ourselves, and as ourselves, not as someone's boyfriend or girlfriend. If we don’t have time to feel our feelings, as well as time to learn the lessons of our last relationships and the breakup, our next one might not be any better than the last. Too, after a breakup, we so often feel so lonely, having been used to having a partner, that relationship choices made hot on the heels of a breakup don’t tend to be our best. When we're feeling desperate to get validated, or to be with anyone so we don't have to be alone, we'll usually wind up with people who are way less than awesome.
9) Remember that a breakup is not about how much you suck, or how unwanted or undesirable you are. When relationships don’t work, it’s rarely about one person, which shouldn’t be surprising since relationships are more than one person. Relationships that end, fall apart or just don’t work tend to be about how any two people find that their personalities, lifestyles, goals, communication styles, and any number or kind of needs and wants don’t mesh or play nicely together. As well, breakups are even more common or frequent with younger people than with older folks because younger people are still growing and changing so much that a partnership that feels perfect one month can feel like -- and earnestly be -- a poor fit the next. Even the most awesome people in the world cannot have a great love relationship with just anyone: we can be as great as we want to be, but that doesn’t mean we’ll be great together with everyone. It’s helpful to try not to look at breakups as failures, even though it can sure feel that way. Moving on or away from something that isn’t working for one or both people isn’t a failure, it’s a movement towards both learning and finding what does work for them.
10) … and when it’s time, be open to other relationships again. It can be so easy, especially when a relationship is over, to only remember the good stuff or for our good times to seem even better than they actually were. If you’re getting over one of our first loves, it might feel like you’ll never have those feelings again, or never have them so hugely. You might also feel scared to try getting involved intimately again. All of those feelings are normal, but chances you will likely have those feelings again. Will they be exactly the same? Probably not, in one way or another. But they can be similar, though might be bigger or smaller, richer or less risk, deeper or shallower, with you connecting to someone else again in the same or very different ways than you did with your ex. But a person only ever having one big love in their young life and never, ever loving again?& People get struck by lightning more often than that. Most of the time? Not only do people not just find love again, but they usually find and create something deeper and bigger a bit later in life rather than earlier.
But if what I just said there basically made you hiss fire or yell "NO, NEVER!" that's okay. You're not there yet, and you don't have to be. You'll get there in time.