What are some emotions/states of being people commonly experience after a breakup?
When a couple breaks up, it can stir up all kinds of emotions from anxiety and stress to feelings of total abandonment or the stages of grief that feel on par with the death of a loved one.
Would you say there are different stages of a breakup, similar to how there are different stages of grief? Or are they one and the same?
One of the hardest transitions to experience at the end of a relationship is learning how to shift our view of the world from a “we” to a “me” perspective.
When people begin a relationship they typically start to think about their world and their activities through a lens of how much would they enjoy doing things together. They try to figure out how to make it work with each other’s schedules, and they may even try to work out what they can afford based on joint finances.
When a couple breaks up there is not only an emotional break from shared emotions of closeness and connection, there is also a physical reminder that day-to-day considerations are severed. The person you made joint decisions with, evaluated pros and cons with or even worked together with to determine the potential level of enjoyment a particular activity could bring is gone.
These physical manifestations and symbols of being suddenly completely without your most trusted confidant may hit you with a wave of grief, loss, and worry that you may never have this kind of attachment or connection again. This means all the shared stories, memories, and inside jokes are also gone, which in the moment feels like it threatens to erase part of your personal history and the joy you may attach to those times.
Do you have advice or specific coping mechanisms for someone who is mourning a very recent breakup from a long-term relationship?
Treat yourself like you have the flu right now. Don’t expect yourself to bounce right back or to automatically feel better in a few days because this was a major life transition. You don’t have to be hard on yourself or tell yourself to just get it together or to be stronger. It makes sense that you are in pain. You suffered a loss of someone who played a significant role in how you view yourself and your place in the world. Allow yourself to grieve. If that means you stay in your pajamas for a few days eating a pint of ice cream listening to sad songs, then let yourself do it.
Once you have had your time to allow yourself to feel sad, then start thinking about who you used to be, what mattered to you, and times when all you had to do was think about what brought you an individual sense of purpose, meaning, and joy. Commit to rediscovering the parts of you that might have been lost, minimized, or put in mental storage while you were tending to the health of your relationship.
It’s important to avoid trying to get over, go around, or avoid dealing with the loss of this person and the relationship. Your only option is to go through it so that you can feel healthy and whole on the other side. Many of us try to immediately get into another relationship so that we can feel attractive, desirable, or to have something to deposit our love onto in order to avoid feeling pain, regret, or sadness. This option is not a long-term fix. It’s a short and often unsatisfying substitute for really doing the work of healing and learning what patterns or behaviors you do that contributed to the ending of the relationship. Spending time figuring out your role in what led to the ending of the relationship is a valuable investment of your time and energy at this point in your healing.
What about someone who was broken up with by someone who they were casually dating, but they still feel very sad?
Try to evaluate if you are experiencing sadness about losing the actual person or what that person represented to you. In other words, were you falling for their potential? Most people start a relationship on their best behavior and sort of devolving into their true and natural selves because staying on someone’s best behavior is too hard of work and is not sustainable.
So many of my clients who are feeling really emotional about ending a relationship with someone they have only been dating a short time tell me they miss the person they were with at the beginning, and they don’t know why that part changed. They also share with me that they keep holding on waiting for the person they were when they first started dating to show back up.
The reality is that this “person from the beginning” is not likely who they really are, and the person they are now is more likely the one who is here to stay. Craving the “person from the beginning” and waiting for things to return to the way they were during the new relationship energy phase will keep you feeling sad. It means you are stuck having fallen for someone’s first impression but haven’t taken the time to really get to know who they are and accepted they were likely not going to be a good match for your long term.
When you fall for someone you have been casually dating, it means you didn’t really have to go through anything with each other, accept difficult parts of each other’s personalities, or work through conflict or differing value systems. It also means you were likely looking for someone to love and were searching for the feeling of being in a relationship versus finding the person who makes your life complete and working through inevitable challenges being in a relationship brings.
When you have strong feelings of loss for someone you haven’t invested the time into evaluating goodness of fit about, then sometimes you have to look at whether or not you are truly grieving the loss of what you hoped could have been versus what you actually were.
Do you have specific tips or advice for someone who has been out of their relationship for quite some time, but still experiences overwhelming moments of grief or loss?
It might be time to seek out some professional therapy if you are finding yourself overcome by grief or an inability to experience any joy several months after the end of the relationship. If you find yourself continuing to fantasize about getting back together or spending energy trying to get your partner to change their mind and come back with no success, then it may be time to look at why you are pursuing something so hard that isn’t being reciprocated. Are you trying to repair your ego, your sense of value, or your worth by staying mentally in a relationship that has ended?
If this is the case, then meeting with a professional who can help you lovingly challenge some of those stories you are holding onto about wanting to feel needed by someone or not feeling complete unless you are in a relationship is a first step to getting unstuck.
What coping techniques would you recommend to someone who is contemplating going back to a “toxic ex”?
Sometimes people want to get that toxic ex back. However, it’s not because he or she was an amazing person or treated them well. The reason is often that they want to heal a part of themselves that is broken in the way they view themselves or in their sense of self-worth.
For example, if someone is in love with a seemingly self-absorbed curmudgeon who doesn’t seem to put forth any positive energy or emotional investment, a healthy observer would wonder why anyone would want to be in a relationship with someone who is so one-sided. A wounded partner may see this person as a challenge. They may believe that if they can get this person to love them, a person who seeming has no need for others and doesn’t hold a soft spot for anyone in their lives, then winning them over will mean that they are special. If that person chooses them when they have rejected so many others, they may feel validated that there is something amazing and valuable about themselves.
The faulty thinking of a person in this situation is that they are taking it personally that partner isn’t able to be a giving partner and that they have to keep minimizing their own needs in order to make the relationship work. It’s not about boosting your ego. It’s about having a healthy evaluation of what staying in a relationship where a partner is not capable of meeting your emotional needs will do to your relationship long term.
Are there any other important points about breakups that you think should be mentioned?
Many people who break up can’t let go of thinking about their ex even when they didn’t treat them well or they cognitively know this partner wasn’t able to meet their needs. One of the reasons they stay stuck is because they keep experiencing a thought in the back of their mind that says, “Maybe they will get their act together, and then I will have missed out on someone I put so much effort into. Then the next person will reap the benefit of all the work I put into them, and the new person gets to be with the good version of my partner that I should have gotten to be with.”
So often my clients talk about this dream they have of reformed partners who suddenly become the best version of themselves, using the break-up to make them suddenly see the light and turn things around. They make it sound so romantic. I call this thinking the rom-com dream, and my clients get stuck in this space A LOT.
The reason the rom-com dream doesn’t happen is because breaking up does not suddenly transform your partner into a good fit for you. There were reasons your relationship didn’t work out, and while many of those going through a breakup lose weight, start going to the gym, or take an interest in self-growth during a breakup, it’s often not a permanent change.
It also doesn’t make someone suddenly change the way they view relationships or become more self-aware about how their behaviors impact relationships without going to therapy or doing some soul-searching. Since so many people who break up avoid dealing with these parts because they are painful, they often just keep being themselves and head into the next relationship hoping for a better fit without doing anything new.
Additionally, if you are the person who has done a lot of personal growth after a breakup, the likelihood of you still being attracted to your ex, who hasn’t invested any energy in bettering themselves or taking responsibility for the things they need to work on moving forward, is very slim. The more you grow and heal, the less attractive your ex will be to you because you aren’t the same person who was in a relationship with them.
Dr. Dana McNeil is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and is the founder The Relationship Place, a group practice with locations in San Diego and Encinitas, California. Dr. Dana’s practice specializes in couples’ therapy and utilizes an evidence-based type of couples’ therapy known as the Gottman Method. Dr. Dana is a certified Gottman Method therapist and Bringing Home Baby instructor. Dr. Dana works with all types of relationship issues from pre-marital counseling, dealing with the aftermath of extramarital affairs, partners working through addiction recovery, military deployed families, parents of special needs children, LGBTQ, and polyamorous clients.
Dr. Dana has been featured on many relationship podcasts and in publications such as the Business Insider, Authority Magazine, Bustle, Parade, Oprah Living, Martha Stewart Living, Ladders, Reader’s Digest, AARP, and is the resident relationship expert on the Cox Communications show “I Do.”