A relationship breakup, or commonly referred to as a breakup, is the termination of an intimate relationship by any means other than death.4 The term ‘breakup’ is often associated with unmarried couples. When a married couple ‘break ups’ it is often referred to as a divorce or separation. Regardless of the circumstance, this article is intended to help any individual with overcoming and understanding heartbreak. According to recent statistics, 85% of the population will experience a breakup at some point in their lifetime.5 However, 50% of couples will get back together after a breakup.5 Reasons for a breakup can range from the lack of communication, lack of trust, adultery, distance, to personality differences. Breakups happen every day, but how one copes with it can be helpful for moving on. Some relationship bonds are very strong and the breakup may come as a surprise while other relationships are unhealthy and make a breakup seem inevitable. This can lead to complications when coping with the emotional aspects of a breakup because not all breakups can be treated the same way. Losing a relationship with someone whom you may have thought of as your soul mate can be difficult, but, there several techniques that can aid the healing process. For example, keeping yourself very busy and distancing yourself from your ex can do wonders to help you move on from the relationship. These are just a few techniques that can accelerate the process of moving on from a break-up.
Table of Contents
Breaking up with a partner
A breakup can be a difficult emotional time in a person’s life. Some may interpret a breakup as the loss of a lifelong partner, while others may see it as a necessary step forward. It can be challenging to realize when a relationship becomes a negative influence in one’s life. Many people fail to recognize when a relationship becomes toxic, which can lead to further difficulties when attempting to cope with said breakup. There are many signs, both physical and emotional, that arise when a relationship is not healthy. Ending a relationship can be a difficult decision to make because it often signifies the end of a physical and emotional connection with an individual. Multiple factors can influence the intensity of feelings after a breakup.
- The length of a relationship and the negative consequences associated with a breakup are positively correlated. Thus, longer relationships are associated with more negative consequences.
- High satisfaction levels with a relationship and negative consequences associated with a breakup are positively correlated. Thus, the higher the satisfaction levels with a relationship, the more negative consequences associated.
- High levels of romantic investment are positively correlated with negative consequences after a breakup. Thus, high romantic investment in a relationship leads to greater negative consequences.
- High amounts of positive memories associated with a relationship is negatively correlated with negative consequences after a breakup Thus, the greater the positive memories associated with a relationship, the greater the negative consequences.
Romantic Situation After the Breakup
- The ability to find a new partner shortly after a breakup greatly decreases the negative consequences associated with the breakup.
- Openness to the formation of a new relationship decreases the negative consequences of a breakup, in specific victimization.
Circumstances of the Breakup
- While both partners experience negative consequences following a breakup, the initiator often experiences less negative side effects compared to their partner.
- Uncertainty about the initiators’ reasoning behind the breakup is associated with higher levels of anxiety and stress for the person who was broken up with.
Characteristics of the Affected Individuals
- Fearful attachment styles are associated with greater negative consequences during the breakup process.
- Females experience more negative side effects than males.
- Struggling with mental health and a history of substance abuse amplifies negative side effects associated with breakups.
- Individuals with high levels of self-reported self-complexity, hardiness, and self-esteem experienced less of the negative consequences associated with breakups.
- Using avoidance and distraction as a coping method has been linked to negative coping outcomes and the worsening of negative consequences during the breakup process.
- Objectively assessing the relationship and possible benefits to its termination has been linked to less stress-related symptoms during the breakup.
- Individuals with a strong social support system experience less negative consequences after a breakup.
Any of the previously mentioned factors can amplify or mitigate the negative consequences associated with a breakup. Try to identify which factors may apply to your circumstance and cope accordingly.
Signs That a Relationship Is Not Working
There may be many signs that your partner is not the right person for you. One sign is that your partner constantly puts you down. A partner should make you feel more secure about yourself, not less. Furthermore, if your partner influences you through their bad habits, such as excessive drinking or lying, they may not be the best person for your future. If you cannot trust your partner, chances are that the relationship will not last. A key component of a successful relationship is being able to fully trust your partner. If there is no trust in your relationship, insecurity will take over the relationship. These signs of an unhealthy relationship are not universal; rather, they indicate that a relationship is not healthy.
The Brain During a Breakup
Your brain processes the pain of a breakup similarly to the way that the brain interprets physical pain. Often after a breakup, individuals can feel physically sick. A study done by Columbia University monitored the brain activity of individuals who had gone through an unwanted breakup. When participants were shown a picture of their ex, the areas of their brain that reacted were the same areas of the brain that react to physical pain.8 Some studies have shown that taking pain relievers, such as Tylenol, can relieve the physical symptoms associated with heartbreak.8 In addition, many studies have compared breakups to withdrawal symptoms. During the early and later stages of love, dopamine and endorphins are released during quality time with a partner. If that partnership is terminated, so are the associated levels of dopamine and endorphins; this process is similar to how the brain operates within drug addiction.9 These withdrawal symptoms caused by rejection usually manifest in obsessive behaviors such as late-night texts or purposely trying to run into your ex – all done in an attempt to regain the lost endorphins and dopamine. This theory also explains why individuals often feel depressed after a breakup.
Gender and Breakups
Theorized to be attributed to biological origins, men and women react to breakups in different ways. According to research, females have evolved to invest more in a relationship than males. Females react more strongly to a breakup because they have a higher biological investment, given that a brief sexual encounter can lead to nine months of pregnancy and many years of child-rearing. In contrast, after a sexual encounter, males can leave with no further biological investment.5 Simply put women have more to lose in romantic and sexual encounters. On average, while women feel more pain immediately after a breakup, men experience more distress over the long-term. Coping strategies vary among men and women as well. Men report greater feelings of anger and self-destructive behaviors, while women report more depressive feelings and social, affiliate behaviors. In addition, women are more likely to participate in self-reflection and attempt to identify the positives of the termination, such as increased personal awareness and greater perceptivity in future relationships. Instead of self-reflection, many men participate in distractive behaviors, and self-destructive behaviors, such as alcohol, drugs, and sex.5
After a breakup, many individuals attempt to remain friends with their ex-partner. Initiators of the breakup are less likely to pursue a friendship compared to the partner who was broken up with. According to researcher Rebeca Griffith, four reasons contribute to this mentality. The first being, civility, because many believe that remaining friends with an ex-partner can lessen the hurt associated with the breakup.10 The second reason is associated with unresolved romantic desire, such as befriending an ex-partner as a ‘back-up option’ in case other romantic endeavors fail. The third reason is for practically, which is often the case for parties that live in close proximity or share the same group of friends. The final reason for wanting to remain friends is for security. Many individuals trust their ex-partner and want to keep them as a support system in their life. Griffith found that friendships pursued due to unresolved romantic desires had the most negative outcomes, such as feelings of sadness, disapproval from friends, and trouble reaching closure. Friendships that were pursued due to security produced the most positive outcomes and high-quality friendships.10 Regardless of the reasoning behind the friendship, give yourself time and distance before pursuing a friendship with your ex-partner. In many cases, time and distance away from an ex-partner can put the circumstances into perspective and ultimately affect your decision to pursue a platonic relationship. If a friendship is pursued enforce your boundaries, physical and emotional, such as the preferred amount of contact.
Coping With a Breakup
The aftermath of a breakup can be one of the most emotionally challenging times an individual faces in their life. No matter whose decision it is to breakup, each person may experience a wide range of emotions, and spend time wondering how to cope with the emotions they face. It is okay to be emotional, no matter your gender. The duration of the relationship can matter more in some cases than others. For example, the reaction to a breakup can be the same in a three-month relationship and a seven-year relationship.
For many couples, there comes a time when one or both partners may decide they are no longer happy with the status of their current relationship. If your partner is the one to decide that the relationship is over, it is perfectly normal to feel as though this period of distress may never end. Furthermore, do not blame yourself because it hinders the ability to move on. It is even healthy, to cry as much as you want.1 Letting out the pain and grief is normal, and often better than holding it in. Since every relationship is different, with its own set of memories, situations, and dynamics, realize that every breakup is different as well. Some couples do end up getting back together. If this is the case for your relationship, ensure that the initial reasons for separating do not interfere a second or a third time. Here are a few helpful tips to cope with a difficult situation:
Acknowledge and Accept
Recognize that the relationship has ended. There will be periods of sadness and mourning, which is normal. Allow yourself sufficient time to mourn, but realize that the end of your relationship is not the end of the world. Acknowledge that life continues and that you should continue to do what makes you happy. Also, keep in mind that there were good times, as well as bad times, in the relationship. Many people are often bitter and have negative emotions toward their ex-partners, but that anger stems from focusing solely on the negative aspects of a relationship, rather than good memories. The sooner you make these realizations, the easier it will be to cope with a breakup and move on in a healthy manner.
Continue going to school or work and make time to socialize with friends. Go on walks, listen to music, play games, or watch movies to keep yourself busy. These positive habits are most effective once the initial phases of sadness are over. Going out may not seem appealing at first, but it is more beneficial than sitting in your room, thinking about the hurt you feel. Additionally, try to get out and exercise. The Mayo Clinic claims that exercise improves stress levels, improves sleep, and supplies endorphins that can help ease one’s mind.3
Seek Emotional Support
Talk to friends, family, or other loved ones about how you are feeling. Oftentimes, they can relate and offer comfort. If you feel uncomfortable talking to friends or family seek counseling or therapy, as trained professionals are equipped to handle these situations.
Spend some time away from your ex. It is nearly impossible to get over someone you see on a daily basis. A breakup can be even more painful when the partners have mutual friends. Often, these friends may feel pressured to choose sides or to stay out of the situation altogether. If you and your ex share close friends, let them know that you need time to heal from the breakup without seeing or hearing about your ex. Seeing your ex often can bring back feelings of sadness, regret, or confusion regarding the way that the relationship turned out.2 Also, strongly consider unfollowing or unfriending your partner on social media because seeing them, or being tempted to look at their pictures, can elicit negative emotional responses. Some studies have shown that following your ex-partners on social media can prolong the moving on process.
Take Your Time
Getting over someone does not have a time limit or specific rules. It may take months to move on or, for some, only a few weeks. Also, remember that healing is not linear. It is normal for weeks of growth to be followed by weeks of anxiety and sadness—this is normal. Try not to rush into another relationship as this can unintentionally lead to emotionally harming someone else. Give yourself time to be sad, angry, and reflect on what could have been. All of these thoughts and feelings are normal; but if this process becomes excessive, it can lead to ruminating. One day, however you may wake up and realize the breakup is no longer constantly on your mind. If this day does not come as soon as you would like, remember that the more time that passes, the easier it gets.
Enjoy Being Single
Recovering from a breakup is the perfect time to focus on yourself and consider what you truly want in a relationship.2 Being single might seem weird or unappealing at first, especially when you see other couples together, but, being single can also be a pleasurable experience. There are many advantages of “flying solo,” such as a simpler lifestyle. Before you can commit to a healthy, long-lasting relationship, know yourself and to make sure that you can keep yourself happy. Being single allows you to focus on yourself. By spending time alone, you will learn more about who you are and what you enjoy, making it easier for you to choose a partner in the future who will be able to satisfy your needs. Furthermore, being single gives you a chance to meet someone better for you and explore the dating or “hook-up scene”. However, be cautious of rebounding. This involves connecting with another partner before you have had time to move on from the previous relationship. Rebounds are often short-term, but may occasionally grow into long-term, healthy relationships.
Express Your Emotions
When dealing with a breakup, express and process your emotions. A great way to do so is by writing. A study published by Temple University found that writing for 20 minutes a day about your emotions and past relationship can ease the resentment and guilt you may feel toward them and reduce the intrusive thoughts about an ex.12 Interestingly enough, trash-talking can also be a valuable tool to get over an ex. Immediately after a breakup, all of the bad aspects of the relationship or partner are overlooked, which makes the relationship appeare perfect. According to one study, writing about negative memories of an ex can facilitate the closure process.11 It is recommended for individuals to keep a list of the negative qualities of an ex-partner and refer to it when they begin to idealize the relationship.
Breakups can be valuable learning experiences. It is impossible to change the past, but it is prudent to learn from it. Dwelling on the past and rehashing the small details will only slow down the healing process. Past relationships are a great way to learn more about yourself and ensure that your future relationships will be better.
According to Dr. Ramani Durvasula, many factors can influence the ‘recovery time’ of a painful breakup.9 The first being the narrative that you create about the circumstance. If an individual victimizes them self and villainizes their ex, it may take longer to move on. While it may be easy to develop an all-or-nothing negative statement about an ex-partner, it can prevent recovery. Another factor is the future narrative that an individual creates for themselves. The mindset that a person ‘will never find someone new or as good as their ex’ is a common example of this mentality. Try to learn the lessons from the failed relationship and invest that into improving yourself and future relationships. That being said, according to a study published in the Journal of Positive Psychology the average amount of time it takes to get over a breakup is 11 weeks. In the case of a divorce, recovery time is extended to 18 weeks 13.13 According to the research, 11 weeks post-breakup, 71% of participants agreed with positive statements such as “I have learned a lot about myself” or “I have grown a lot as a person”. Furthermore, one study found that the predicted levels of future distress after a breakup were in reality much higher than the actual levels of distress following a breakup.13 In fact, the actual distress levels two weeks after a breakup were lower than the predicted distress levels ten weeks after a breakup 7. Thus, after heartbreak, it is normal to over-estimate the pain and length it will take to recover. It is important to note, that while eleven weeks may be the standard, each individual has a unique timeline of healing that is personal to them.
In addition to the coping mechanisms above, there are many other resources that you can use to help you get through a breakup. Because relationships can take a severe toll on an individual’s mental health as a whole, therapy can be a crucial tool in overcoming a difficult breakup. Also, there are many apps for mobile devices made specifically to help individuals cope with a breakup. In addition, there are many popular breakup books available that teach healthy coping mechanisms and emphasize self-growth. According to research from the University of Colorado Boulder, any form of self-care can help individuals recover from heartbreak, so long as they believe that it will help (placebo effect).14 Any of the above options can be instrumental in achieving closure.
Initially, breakups seem devastating, but most people heal very well and can resume normal lives after some time has passed. Time is one of the most critical components of the healing process as it allows one to look back on events and think about them logically. Furthermore, using healthy coping techniques can generally accelerate the process of getting over a breakup, no matter how serious. Breakups can be very beneficial because they are an opportunity for personal growth and the development of self-confidence. Most individuals see breakups as a negative, life-changing event. In reality, a break-up can be an opportunity for self-improvement in all aspects of one’s life.
2. Hirsh, Delphine. The Girl’s Guide to Surviving a Break up. Martin’s Griffin, NY. 2003.
3. “Exercise and Stress: Get Moving to Manage Stress.” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 16 April 2015.
4. “Breakup”. Dictionary.com.
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6. Yıldırım, F.B.; Demir, A. “Breakup adjustment in young adulthood”. Journal of Counseling and Development. 2015
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8. Ethan Kross, Marc G. Berman, Walter Mischel, Edward E. Smith, and Tor D. Wager. “Social rejection shares somatosensory representations with physical pain”. PNAS. April 12, 2011
9. Helen E. Fisher, Lucy L. Brown, Arthur Aron, Greg Strong and Debra Mashek. “Reward, Addiction, and Emotion Regulation Systems Associated With Rejection in Love”. May 5, 2010
10. Grifftih, R, L,. Gillath, O,. Zhao, X. and Martinez, R “Staying friends with ex‐romantic partners: Predictors, reasons, and outcomes. Pers Relationship”. 2017
11 Rachel E. Brenner. “Adjustment to the dissolution of a romantic relationship: effects of ex-relationship specific thought content valence” Iowa State University. 2015
12. Lepore, Stephen & Greenberg, Melanie. “Mending Broken Hearts: Effects of Expressive Writing on Mood, Cognitive Processing, Social Adjustment and Health Following a Relationship Breakup. Psychology and Health”. 2002
13. Lewandowski Jr, Gary & Bizzoco, Nicole. “Addition through subtraction: Growth following the dissolution of a low quality relationship” The Journal of Positive Psychology. 2007
14. Leonie Koban, Ethan Kross, Choong-Wan Woo, Luka Ruzic, “Front Brainstem Pathways Meditating Placebo Effects on Social Rejection”. Journal of Neuroscience. 29 March, 2017
Last Updated: 14 November 2019.