We’ve all heard Shakespeare’s famous relationship advice. But is it really better to have “loved and lost” like Bill said all those centuries ago? The truth is that every breakup is different. If you’ve been through a few, you know that the heartache can range from momentary sadness to desperation.
Whether your relationship lasted a couple dates or a couple of decades, it can be hard to wrap your head around your feelings now that you’re apart. According to Tyler Jones, MD, chief medical officer at Banner Behavioral Health Hospital, “the act of ’getting over it’ just takes as long as it takes.” He offered a few tips he’s picked up on over the course of his career.
1. Respect your grief. It’s real.
Separating from a partner can feel like a death in the family. Grief is a perfectly normal reaction. In fact, Dr. Jones explained your grief is based in biology. “The loss of relationships is correlated with a decrease in dopamine, the neurotransmitter involved in the brain’s reward system. Your brain learns to feel rewarded when you’re around this person.”
Friends can be a huge support and you should lean on them when you’re feeling low. But if they are pushing you too fast or guilting you into getting back out there, saying no is completely within your rights. No one should feel shame for the duration of their heartache, however long or short. Dr. Jones even suggested that forcing yourself to “snap out of it” may do exactly the opposite of what you intended, prolonging the feelings of isolation and setting an unfair expectation for yourself.
2. Stay away from drugs and alcohol
In times of heartache, it can be tempting to drown your sorrows. We’ve all heard the heart-heavy country songs. But before you pour that drink, Dr. Jones strongly warned against this behavior. Not just because of the obvious dangers associated with substance use disorder, but also, because it simply won’t help you feel better. When you drink, you get impulsive and are more likely to call or text your ex, talk about them or ruminate on the relationship, or worst of all, it could lead to self-harm. “That’s not to say reflecting on the relationship is a bad thing,” noted Dr. Jones, “but adding drugs or alcohol will only make that reflection distorted and difficult to understand.” Rather than looking for a distraction, welcome these moments of positive reflection as an opportunity to seek clarity, mindfulness and acceptance.
3. Boundaries don’t equal bitterness
Especially if you’re setting them, boundaries may be perceived as cruelty by your former partner. It can be difficult to respect your own feelings enough to set them but setting proper boundaries can pay dividends in your ability to bounce back. Boundaries can include a lot of things, explained Dr. Jones. “They could include physical distance, limited contact, or even ‘rules of engagement’.”
These rules of engagement are especially important for people undergoing a divorce or who share children, where it may not be possible to simply cut off contact completely. Set clear expectations that you will not be yelled at, demeaned, or disrespected. It’s easy to feel defensive during these discussions. Some people may appreciate scheduled times and expectations for important discussions. If your ex is still angry or won’t respect your boundaries, the best option may be silence. In any case, clear communication of boundaries is a sign of emotional maturity, not bitterness.
4. Staying friends isn’t for everyone
Staying friends isn’t the only way to be friendly. In fact, separation may be essential if you want to stay civil. For couples in shared friend groups or who share custody of children, that civility is even more important. Although “staying friends” may soften the blow of a breakup at first, many couples will find going back to being just friends too difficult. Even if your ex has an expectation of friendship, you may not feel comfortable with that. And that’s ok! Once again, setting clear boundaries will pave the way for a healthy relationship if you choose to have one going forward.
5. Closure doesn’t come all at once
If closure is the missing piece in your breakup journey, remember that it takes time and rarely happens all at once. In fact, Dr. Jones explained that closure may be a matter of varying degrees. In the early days post-breakup, it might be enough to just be free of the confrontation. With a little more time, you may see yourself growing in ways that you couldn’t in the relationship. In most cases, closure is a thing that happens over time and in phases. In every case, the validation of closure will come from within you and no one else. Focus on the present and take wisdom as it comes.
6. Don’t just “get over it,” grow from it
This one requires a little bit of patience. In fact, your growth may not be apparent until you see it in the rearview mirror. “As difficult as it may be, this is a time that can actually become very productive and enjoyable,” Dr. Jones commented. “Time outside of a relationship is a chance to become the person you want to be. The person you want a partner to fall in love with.” Journaling is a powerful tool for discovery.
7. You don’t need to struggle alone
You don’t need to be at DEFCON 1 to get help. If you are struggling and looking for answers, a therapist can help you navigate your feelings so that you can find those opportunities to grow and evolve. Even if you don’t feel like you are in a crisis, therapy can be a powerful tool for personal development and discovery.
Dr. Jones explained that many people may not recognize when support is needed. Pay attention to outward signs of struggle like poor work performance, declining relationships with friends and family, loss of appetite, difficulty concentrating, and abuse of substances like drugs and alcohol. If these signs continue for more than a week or two, it’s time to see your doctor or mental health professional. If at any point you consider self-harm, seek help. Relief is closer than you think, even in your darkest moments.
Breakups are not a reflection on your personal worth. Relationships are about compatibility. Even the best people in your life have been through a tough breakup at least once. Probably a few times! Grant yourself the latitude for forgiveness, growth and honesty. There is light at the end of the tunnel, even if it feels far away.
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