The stages of a breakup can be emotionally overwhelming—particularly if you’re on the receiving end of the “this isn’t working” news.
Severing ties with someone you’ve become attached to can bring up feelings of rejection, hurt, self-doubt—and maybe a little bit (or a lot) of anger, because let’s be honest, you’ve got a lot to offer.
We’ve all seen enough rom-com clichés to have an idea of what a Hollywood breakup looks like: Holing up at home with Haagen-Dazs and/or soaking a friend’s shoulders with tears.
But the reality is that many of us are unfamiliar with the actual grieving process involved in romantic loss—despite its near-universal prevalence.
If you’re experiencing a painful romantic separation, understanding the potential stages of a breakup—which tend to follow a trajectory similar to that of other forms of grief—can help you learn how to move on and heal, Gary W. Lewandowski, PhD, a professor of psychology at Monmouth University who studies romantic relationships and identity, tells SELF.
Mourning a relationship looks different for everyone, but there is some common grief ground.
You may have heard of the typical stages of grief, but the process doesn’t look the same for everyone. Psychiatrist Elizabeth Kubler-Ross first introduced the concept of five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance) in her 1969 book On Death and Dying to explain how patients came to terms with a terminal illness diagnosis.
It’s since been adopted as a roadmap for how we process other forms of loss; however, most experts no longer believe that grief occurs in defined, sequential steps (as SELF previously reported). Instead, some people may experience certain stages out of order, or even skip them altogether.
One factor that will likely (not surprisingly) influence your reaction: How attached you were to begin with. “I don’t think there are specific stages across the board; it depends on how invested you were in the relationship,” Niloo Dardashti, PhD, New York–based couples psychologist and cofounder of Manhattan Psychology Group, tells SELF.
“It’s a very different case for someone who’s been on a few dates and shared a few sleepovers versus a breakup where someone has been blindsided after several years.” (It’s also a very different case if you’re the breakup-er. You may still experience feelings of grief and loss, of course, but romantic rejection is a particularly painful blow—which is why we published this advice on how to break up with someone without being a total a-hole.)
Poorly handling a breakup isn’t a character flaw—despite what it may seem (or feel) like.
Science tells us freaking out after separating from a significant other is an ubiquitous experience programmed into our brains. Humans, like other mammals, are engineered to form social connections, so our brains may process social pain similarly to physical pain, according to research presented in Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect, by psychologist Matthew D. Lieberman, PhD, director of the Social Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory at UCLA.
When these connections are severed, “you suffer for important Darwinian reasons,” Helen Fisher, PhD, biological anthropologist and Chief Scientific Advisor for Match, tells SELF. While basic biological needs like “thirst and hunger keep you alive today, romantic love drives you to form a partnership and send your DNA into tomorrow,” she says.
In other words, if you feel like your survival is being threatened after a breakup, you’re not wrong. Seemingly unbearable emotions are a normal, hardwired response to romantic grief. While that doesn’t make them suck any less, knowing that you’re so not alone in your experience—and learning what to expect as you get through it—might offer a bit of relief and hope for the future.
And here’s the part you’ve been waiting for: Yes, you will get through it. You don’t have to take our word for it, either—there are plenty of studies and experts to back up the fact that, in time, you’ll feel like yourself again (maybe even with more wisdom and strength). With that in mind, we asked relationship experts to demystify and break down the potential stages of a breakup.
1. You might not believe it’s really happening.
Many people on the receiving end of a breakup are in a state of shock, so the reality of their new situation may not sink in immediately, Dr. Lewandowski says. This initial denial stage of grief is a self-protective reaction, psychologists say, since immediately taking in the fact that you’re never getting back together might be too painful for your brain to process. If this sounds like you, here are some small things you can do:
Ask yourself, Am I just seeing what I want to see?
While it’s normal to not fully accept your new situation (and even wait by your phone) right after a breakup, if you feel like you’re stuck in the denial stage and just can’t seem to acknowledge that the relationship is over, asking yourself this question might help, Dr. Dardashti says.
Our minds have a funny way of distorting reality to shield us from pain: For example, we’ll read into the final words or actions of an ex trying to decipher them for signs that the relationship hasn’t ended in order to get through the hurt, she says.
Then, consider making a list.
Your method of processing what happened and beginning to accept your new reality might involve journaling about your experience or talking to your support system to begin to unpack the whys of the breakup. Dr. Dardashti advises making a list of the ways you and your ex were incompatible—realizing that the relationship wasn’t perfect should help you begin to let go, she says. (More on that shortly).
2. You may feel anger—or rage.
Another common reaction that comes up during a breakup is anger. The second stage in the Kubler-Ross grief model, this emotion can come up at any time and can be expressed differently depending on the person. According to Dr. Dardashti your mind may convert your feelings of hurt and confusion into anger in order to push them away, causing you to direct ire towards something intangible—like the universe—or someone specific like, you guessed it, your ex.
While being furious with your romantic rejector makes sense and may inspire you to want to slam them on social media, lashing out publicly probably isn’t going to help you feel better in the long run. Instead, it’s likely to leave you with feelings of shame and remorse once you’ve moved past your fiery feelings, Dr. Dardashti says.
But that doesn’t mean you should bottle up these feelings and hope they go away. Here are some ways you might be able to channel your anger while you work through this stage:
Give yourself permission to be pissed.
“You might have to find a reason to be mad at the person until you’re ready to deal with the feelings of vulnerability and rawness that come with rejection,” Dr. Dardashti says. Maybe you replay the relationship in your mind to uncover all the red flags you ignored in the past, or decide that your ex was a commitment-phobe. What’s important is that you’ve formulated a story for yourself to make sense of the breakup, even if it’s not necessarily the complete picture, Dr. Lewandowski says.
Move through your anger in a productive way.
Sharing your feelings with someone in your support system, channeling them through an intense workout, or rage-writing them in a journal can all be helpful ways of working through your anger. (Maybe you’re even lucky enough to have a “break room” in your area where you can go to physically smash printers, small plates, and more.) On the other hand, if your anger—or any other emotion during a breakup, for that matter—is overwhelming and you can’t seem to get control of it, seeking advice from a therapist, if you’re able, might be your best bet for moving through your feelings and finding peace.
3. You might feel like you’ll do just about anything to get your ex back.
If you’ve ever promised to become a totally different person in a series of screen-length texts or have been playing The Temptations’ “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” as your personal anthem, you’ve experienced a rough grief phase called the bargaining stage—in which people’s inability to accept their painful situation may lead them to act out (sometimes out of character) to win back the object of their affection.
This phase is also known as the protest phase, according to Dr. Fisher. In a 2010 study in the Journal of Neurophysiology, she and her colleagues studied the brains of 15 participants immediately following a romantic rejection.
The researchers found that, when presented with photos of their exes, participants had increased activity in the ventral tegmental area of the brain, which plays a significant role in pleasure and joy. This brain activation may explain why dumpees will often ruminate about their exes and try to find ways to reinstate contact against all odds. If you feel stuck in this phase, try one of these tips instead:
Ask yourself, What’s the goal of my behavior here? Is this going to make it harder for me to let go?
Dr. Dardashti advises that having a balanced outlook might help you avoid acting on your impulses and going to extremes. Desperate attempts to win someone back may seem like a good idea in the moment, but, much like lashing out, they often leave you feeling regretful and ashamed in the future, she says.
Or maybe ask a friend that question.
Theoretically, you can ask yourself how you think you’ll feel about a particular win-them-back move a year from now before acting. But since heartbroken brains are in survival mode and have higher priorities than your future remorse, you may be better off asking your support system what they think before you decide to leave an eight-page love letter under your ex’s doormat.
4. You may feel so, so sad—or empty inside.
While, again, there’s not necessarily a sequential order of breakup stages, when protesting and bargaining don’t work, many people react by slipping into a phase some researchers call resignation (akin to the depression phase in the Kubler-Ross model), Dr. Fisher says. Here, she explains, you may experience feelings of sluggishness, hopelessness, and depression due to a decrease in dopamine.
A clear indication that you’ve entered the resignation or depression phase of a breakup is when you’re done trying to make contact with an ex and instead lean into your feelings of sadness.
There’s no right or wrong way to cope with feelings of hurt (as long as you’re not endangering yourself or others)—and how long they last will depend on your particular circumstances—but practicing self-empathy might help you get through them. And maybe this playlist (an oldie but a goodie) will help too. While you listen, here are some other strategies that may help you work through this moment:
Try to stay objective while you wallow.
Noticing how you’re feeling without judgment is not only an act of mindfulness and self-kindness, but it can help you gain the perspective necessary to connect your experience to other times in your life when you felt blue. This can help you realize that, even though this period of your life is incredibly difficult, “you’ll overcome it much as you did before,” Dr. Dardashti says.
Lean into your favorite self-care practices.
Treat yourself with compassion, just as you would your grieving best friend, Dr. Dardashti adds. Your version of post-breakup self-care might involve taking on less at work, going to bed earlier, or allowing yourself to be vulnerable with the people in your life by telling them how much you’re suffering. May we also suggest indulging in the practices that you genuinely enjoy, whether that’s taking long baths, splurging a little on professional beauty treatments, or revisiting a favorite—preferably comedic—TV series. (Here are the stress-reducing TV shows SELF staffers rely on).
5. Eventually, you’ll feel at peace and ready to move forward solo.
Moving between feelings of admiration and fury is par for the course for a dejected partner, but when you finally feel indifferent—or at least less raw—about a breakup, you’ve reached the acceptance stage of grief. At this point, you’re able to make sense of what happened in the relationship and hopefully apply those lessons toward a future partnership.
You may move in and out of this stage, but acceptance is, to answer Whitney Houston’s question, where (most) broken hearts go—eventually.
To encourage the process of acceptance, Dr. Fisher recommends putting the lessons you’ve learned into words. “We’ve found that people who purposefully focus on the positive aspects of the breakup may heal best,” she says. Why is that? Her 2010 study referenced above showed that rejected partners had increased activity in the regions of the brain that work together to assist in reinforcement learning, which is a learning process in which previous experiences are used to improve future ones. So try this:
Write about the perspective you’ve gained.
Dr. Fisher and her colleagues speculate that romantically rejected brains learn to adjust to their single status and adapt their behaviour accordingly—and that writing out the perspective you’ve gained from a breakup could, in theory, help move that adjustment process along.
Or talk about it with someone you trust.
If writing really isn’t your thing, you can also identify the silver linings of your otherwise gray breakup by talking them out with a friend or therapist. The idea is to shift your focus to the positive aspects of your separation so you can start to see your future in a brighter light.
What’s the hardest stage of a breakup?
Again, while the stages above are typical of heartache—and grief in general—there’s not really a typical way to experience them. However, feeling like the pain will never end can certainly be one of the worst aspects of romantic grief, Dr. Dardashti says: “A lot of people think they won’t find someone else or they won’t feel the same way again. That can be really hard—the fear of being alone.”
Speaking of loneliness, remembering that you’re definitely not alone can be a source of comfort as you heal. “You can try thinking, There are millions of people going through this just like me right now,” Dr. Dardashti says. Or maybe you’ve gotten through a tough breakup before. Remember, if you got through it before, you can do it again.
Most importantly, try to bear in mind that the stages of a breakup won’t last forever. They’re necessary to get over someone, but you will get past your feelings of loss, Dr. Darfashti says. And one way to potentially make that happen sooner rather than later, per Dr. Fisher, is to try to cut off communication with your ex.
You may or may not end up having some sort of relationship with them in the end, but because the same three brain regions linked with addiction are active during romantic rejection, the best way to get over someone is to treat them like any other dependency, she says.
“Don’t write, don’t call, don’t show up at the door, and don’t check up on them on social media,” Dr. Fisher suggests. Blocking or unfollowing your ex on social media is probably best, but if you’re not ready, consider muting your ex. And when the urge to initiate contact takes hold, try texting a friend instead.
Okay, but I need to know: How long does it take to get over a breakup?
In dating, we’re often told that it takes half the duration of the relationship to get over someone, and while it would be such a relief if a little math could tell us exactly how long it’ll be until Crazy Rich Asians doesn’t elicit sobbing, none of the experts we spoke to agreed with this timeline.
What they did agree on: Time does, indeed, help heal a broken heart. Wallowing at home is to be expected, but eventually your brain will grow accustomed to its new normal and, one day, the pangs of sadness over your breakup will likely feel like a distant memory.
Having said all that, remember that if your pain continues to be overwhelming for months, or you’re unable to complete daily tasks like going to work, seeking mental health help is your best option.
The reality is that, yes, breakups can be among the most painful experiences of loss you’ll have in life, akin to some forms of physical pain. But on the other side of that heartache is the opportunity for some profound healing (and invaluable perspective, we might add). The hurt you experience during a breakup can be an excellent motivator for striving for a better relationship the next time.
It may feel like you’re meant to be with your ex, but if you broke up, that’s a pretty clear indication something wasn’t right. And seeing your separation as an opportunity for growth can help lay the groundwork for a happier future. “It’s important to realize that great relationships seldom fail,” Dr. Lewandowski says. “Breakups create space in your life to find the truly great relationship you deserve.” Plus, where would Adele be without them?
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