6 Ways to Cope After a Breakup

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By UB staff therapist Michael Maloney, LCPC

People break up for lots of reasons.  Sometimes there was a betrayal. Other times you just drifted apart.  On occasion it might be things that are beyond your/their control. But whatever the cause, you will probably be feeling pain.  This is true if you were the one that was broken up with or the one that decided to end the relationship. These separations are hard.  

We have now seen studies that have shown the brain looks very similar when we go through a break up as someone going through withdrawal from drugs.  Your mind it literally sending signals you, that you are in pain.

Our brains are wired to be social and engaged with others.  When we are babies we become distressed when we feel detached from our parents.  We will call out, act out, and fidget until we feel connected to our parents again.  In the same space we do this as adults too. We might have felt distressed when fighting or having general conflict with a partner.  We might feel isolated and hurt if we don’t feel engaged with them. However, we get a sense of relief when we are able to connect, resolve conflicts, and reengage with them.  In relationships we learn to co-regulate to soothe ourselves by reconnecting with our partner. But when the relationship ends we can no longer do that.

Many people try to reach out to the exes after the breakup or may have thoughts that it might have worked out if only…  And with internet and technology the way that it is these days there are ways to try to reach out or even try to get a glimpse of what is going on for the other person.  Someone may look up their former partner’s social media, trying to call or text their partner (sometimes out of instinct), and even showing up outside of their residence.  We sometimes are trying to re-regulate ourselves from relief of the pain we are feeling by reconnecting with the other person. Yet, it is only a small reprieve before more of the pain comes back.   

As we are going through this pain it is sometimes hard to figure out what we are supposed to do to take care of ourselves.  Our old coping skills (connect with our partner) become a vacant hole that needs to be filled. We are grieving a relationship and often people can feel stuck or overly reflective about the past.  What are some ways that might help work on taking care of yourself?

Don’t Go It Alone

First and foremost, I will tell anyone dealing with grief to avoid being alone when possible.  Grief is the loss of an attachment. That is the painful response we feel when someone dies, we transition from a job and when we end a relationship.  We are no longer able to reconnect to our partner, but we are able to reconnect to our friends and family. These communities, that feel safe, can help us relieve some of the pain.  When we are social with others our body releases endogenous opioids (meaning opioids originating from the body) to help sooth some of the pain we are feeling.

This might be hard since when we go through grief we feel more depressed, have less energy and don’t feel our best selves.  You may just want to lie on the couch all day and veg out. This is alright for the short-term, but if you lay in bed all day, the bed will sap your strength.  You don’t have to be your best self to connect with the people you trust the most. Connect with friends and family you trust. Let them know you need to get out of the house and be honest that you are not ok.  It is totally okay that you are not okay right now.

For many people they find that they need to talk about the ending of the relationship with someone to help make sense of things.  They might need validation about their side of the events. They might need another set of eyes to see if they missed something. They also just might need time to talk to someone to process what happened.  It should also be pointed out that you might not want to talk about the ending of the relationship. This will happen and it is okay to ask to talk about anything else. Sometimes we need distractions from being stuck thinking about the same things over and over again.  

Restrict Social Media and Limit Connections

Again it is tempting to see what is going on for the other person, since you may be curious. However this often brings a whiplash of emotions and hurt afterwards.  Social media also has a tendency to bring up triggers for many people (Facebook’s Timehops can be a bane of things you don’t want to remember).  It may be helpful to unfollow people associated with your ex or take a hiatus from certain platforms.

Write It Up

A task I ask people who broke up to do is to write up a 2 part list.  The first part of the list are things you are going to miss about the relationship.  Those are the parts you were grieving about that were helpful for you in a relationship.  The second part, to no surprise, are the things you won’t miss. These are the things that caused conflict (even how they managed conflicts), barriers to connecting with them, or just annoyances.  Even if you didn’t choose to end the relationship, write this list out.

This list has multiple purposes.  If you do choose to reenter the relationship, I would recommend to go back to this list.  You can talk about what wasn’t working for you and question if these items are fixable or worth the cost of the relationship.  The list can also help figure out what you are looking for in a relationship. I recommend writing the list out and keep it accessible.  

Journaling can also be a helpful tool to process your emotions.  Writing can help up put words to our emotions. As we go through grief we need to process those emotions and not try to push them away.  If we give time to reflection we can move forward with our grief instead of being weighed down from it.

Be Mindful of Your Critic

Many times people blame themselves for the ending of the relationship.  Rarely is it just about one person’s fault. Be cautious if how your critics talks to you.  Our critic is the voice in our head that asks “What’s wrong with you?” “Why did you have to do that?” or “Guess I’m not cut out for relationships.”  

It is okay to want to change some of our skills or behaviors and the critic could be helpful in those areas.  However, it is making large generalizations or placing labels on you they are most likely causing more harm than good.  Therapists will talk about the difference between guilt and shame. Guilt is I did something wrong and I need to work on not doing it again.  Shame is I did something wrong and I’m a horrible person and should never even think of trying to do anything like that again.

While guilt can be helpful it can sometimes be a slippery slope to shame while we are in painful spaces.  Make sure you are sharing thoughts to a trusted person or a therapist

Reclaiming Time, Space, and You

As stated this can be a time of grief.  Grief can be a time of reflection and putting things in perspective.  While the relationship has ended, you have most likely learned more things about yourself.  Reflect on the areas you have grown in the relationship. Things you might want to explore now.  What might you give yourself permission to try now? You will likely have more time now and where would you want to invest it in?  I also recommend people try to move and reorganize furniture. This is especially true if you are living in the space your shared space, but also true if you lived in separate spaces.  

Consider Therapy

In general having time to focus on this may be helpful.  Scheduling time with a therapist can help give yourself a alotted time to process with someone.  It might be helpful to talk to someone that is not engaged in your social circles, particularly if you feel like you have to censor yourself in front of mutual friends  You might find areas you will want to work on about yourself and therapy can help process those. A therapist might also help identify triggers from the relationship as well.  

This is a hard process for anyone to go through.  By making sure we take care of ourselves and not shut down we can move forward and figure out what is the best thing for ourselves.  And as I said before, don’t go alone.