The Breakup Compendium: How To Deal With a Breakup

Key Points

  • People break up for many different reasons.

  • The recovery time of a breakup depends on how the breakup happens.

  • The key to how to deal with a breakup is managing your emotions.

  • There are five emotional stages of a breakup.

  • There are important things to avoid when learning how to deal with a breakup.

Learning how to deal with a breakup is one of the more difficult things a person experiences. The younger you are, the less life experience you have and the more a breakup makes you feel like your world is crumbling down around you. This is understandable since romance is typically on a higher pedestal in a person’s life as compared to other interpersonal relationships. The loss of a significant other often results in a great emotional response.

Part of this has to do with the way society raises young people to value romance in their lives. Most are not strangers to having deep platonic connections with others, but the end-all-be-all of a person’s life in American society is usually their wedding day. This is why knowing how to deal with a breakup is so hard. You’re only taught how to start a relationship – never how to end one. 

There’s a list of "life steps" commonly accepted as the only way things should be done. Step one is to find someone who can offer you a good life. This looks different for men than it does for women, but the basic structure is the same: stability, validation, and someone warm to come home to at the end of a long day. 

Step two is to marry them: Cue the white picket fence American dream. Maybe you’ll have a few kids and a nice house. As understanding of human nature expands, that dream crumbles for some folks. Not everyone has the white picket fence or the nine-to-five office job or the charming children in their future.

Some people want a brood; some people want cats. Many don’t even want a romantic relationship and are perfectly happy alone. Part of getting older is realizing that not everyone is barreling down the same side of the cosmos that you are, no matter how badly you want them to be.

Thus: Break-ups happen. They aren’t fun nor pretty, but if this happens to you, you’ll be better prepared for navigating the turmoil once you’re finished with this article. 

Why People Break Up

Humans want to be happy. That is a fundamental drive – the eternal pursuit of happiness. Before a person is old enough to know what it is that makes them happy, many are perfectly okay with direction from the people around them. 

Using the ideas of others to guide your happiness repeats for the rest of your life – or at least until you figure out what you want for yourself. Your happiness has a direct relation to the people around you to one extent or the other. It may seem like you're never quite able to live as independently as you may expect yourself to. For some that’s okay; for others, it’s devastating. 

Man leaving and crying woman

Understanding why you’ve broken up with someone, or why they've broken up with you, is part of the healing process. Take the time to think about why your relationship may have ended.

Your Happinesses Do Not Mesh

Part of being in a romantic relationship is agreeing that the other person is your safe space. Hands entwined, you and your significant other vow to spend as much of your lives together as you can. So if the thing that makes you happy and gives your life meaning is not compatible with the thing that your significant other wants, you may have to accept that you are not right for each other. 

This might look like a difference in career goals. You may want to have three children and your partner wants zero. One person wants to travel the world while the other prefers the comfort of their bedroom and a laptop. At some point, you may realize that things you’re both giving up to be together are hurting you more than they should. 

A relationship that is serving as an active detriment to your well-being is not worth it. Once you’ve noticed the harm it’s causing you, a sit-down with your partner is a good idea. 

Life Goals

Life goals are one of the most common things to break apart a couple. Part of a relationship is planning your future together, and if the future you see for yourself does not match what your partner wants, parting ways is something you should consider.

Some things you can live without. Maybe you don’t get the dog you’ve always wanted because your boyfriend is allergic, or your wife’s job requires you to live in the city instead of the suburbs. Each situation is unique to you and your significant other – a deal breaker for one relationship is a minor inconvenience for another. 

Interests

Some couples don’t have anything in common. When the lust wears off, conversation grows stale, the giddiness and excitement of a new relationship fades away, and you find yourself sitting across from the person you’ve spent months (maybe even years) of your life with and realizing you have nothing to talk about. 

You Aren’t Compatible Anymore

People change every day. Experiences shape your thoughts and feelings; this sometimes bends you away from your significant other. You may have fit together perfectly once upon a time, but the pieces just don’t click anymore, corroded away by the ebb and flow of everyday life. 

You find one day that your partner doesn’t make you laugh the way they used to, or that you aren’t looking forward to seeing them quite as much anymore. Changes like this become more apparent when it comes to past partners. You may run into an ex and know — despite what you used to feel — that it would never work now.

Though it’s painful to admit to yourself, being open to the possibility that someday you and the person you love could become incompatible with each other is important. If a breakup feels imminent, take a step back and ask yourself when the last time you were truly happy was. 

Someone Cheated

Cheating isn’t a deal-breaker for everyone, but when it is, it’s heartbreaking. When you enter a monogamous relationship, you’re both making a promise to each other — you are promising your body to them and them alone. 

Having that promise violated by your partner is incredibly difficult to navigate. Some couples sit down and agree to try moving forward together. More often than not, though, the result of someone cheating is a lot of screaming and crying, maybe a bit of throwing things into suitcases and slamming a few doors. The response, and the recovery time, depend on how the cheatee found out about the cheating, how long it was happening, what form the cheating took – in person or online, for instance – and many other factors. 

They Confessed

Perhaps the guilt got the better of your partner, and they corner you somewhere, prepare a lavish dinner, or just manage to mumble it while you’re cuddling in bed. When the cheater decides to do this, it allows for much more of a dialogue and is more likely to work out positively. 

A 2021 survey by Health Testing Centers reported that, out of the responses that confessed to having cheated, nearly 24 percent reported staying together after the fact.

They Got Caught in the Act

Finding the person you love in the arms of someone else is earth-shattering. You're immediately slapped in the face with a wide array of emotions — everything from shock and anger to sadness and betrayal.

Since you now have the mental image ingrained in your mind, this type of betrayal is much more difficult to get over. Discovering infidelity this way is much less likely to result in the continuation of the relationship. 

Their Friend, Your Ally

Everyone loves to say that they would speak up if a friend were cheating on their significant other, but when actually confronted with the situation, many stay silent. The choice is essentially between staying quiet or losing a friendship. Far fewer people choose the ethical option.

Hearing that your partner is cheating on you from one of your friends is difficult, but it does solidify that you have people looking out for you. Essentially, you approach this as a built-in support system. 

Couple breaking up

How People Break Up

There are many different ways that a relationship comes to an end. Some are more mutual than others, some you can see from a mile away, and others are more abrupt. Each type of break-up comes with its very own set of challenges.

The following list is in order of average estimated recovery time, from shortest to longest: 

The One You Both Agreed On

Also known as the mutual breakup, this breakup has the quickest potential recovery time. These are most common in relationships that have good communication. Both people feel comfortable expressing to their partner that their time together has come to an end.

Anything may cause this kind of breakup but the key difference between other types of breakups is the mutual understanding that this is for the best. Both parties have had time to think about this, plans are set, and more often than not you part amicably and with no ill will between you.

The One You Knew Was Coming

This type of breakup gives you a chance to prepare for it. It may be because of a big upcoming life change, or because you simply fell out of love with your partner and didn’t act on it. Either way, getting over it isn’t as much of an issue, because you’ve done that to an extent.

Circumstantial

Something on the horizon is breaking you apart. You’re moving to a new, faraway city and you’ve agreed you can’t go long distance. A job that takes up all your time makes it clear you can’t have a relationship right now. All their friends hate you and you knew they would listen eventually. Whatever it is, you’ve had the time to make your peace with it.

It Was Over Before It Actually Ended

Fights have grown more frequent and you find yourself wanting to avoid your partner more than you want to spend time with them. Conversation dries up, they ghost you for a while, or they don’t seem all that interested in checking in on your day. Whatever has changed, you know a breakup is imminent. You don’t even consider yourself to be dating them anymore – even though an actual conversation about the break-up hasn’t happened yet. 

By the time the “We should break up” conversation rolls around, you’ve gone over it in your head about a dozen times. It doesn’t feel like it’s been a long time coming. It just feels like it happened already. You’ve been stuck in break-up limbo, and you’re just happy to finally be free of it.

The One That a Single Comment Started

A person spends years with someone, and then they say one thing that suddenly jumpstarts the beginning of the end. No matter how long you’ve known them, you never truly know someone’s insides. Some people easily keep entire aspects of their personality stored away for the duration of a relationship. 

All they have to do to activate this sort of breakup is to let that hidden part of themself slip a little. Your loved one can easily say something that forever changes how you see them, be that because of where they reveal their priorities lie, or because of something else entirely. 

Say you’re eating dinner with your beloved, and suddenly they turn and start being needlessly rude to the waiter. It’s just one little comment, but for a moment, you no longer find yourself able to look them in the eyes. 

The One You Weren’t Prepared For

You’re head-over-heels for this person, and then out of nowhere they’re sitting you down with an awful look on their face, and you’re wondering if you’re ever going to be okay again.  

Being left out of nowhere when you thought you were in a perfectly happy and trusting relationship, affects you much more in the long term than any of the other types of breakups. Not only do you find yourself alone, but you’re confronted with a terrifying realization: You never truly know what anyone is thinking.

You thought your significant other was happy. Now you’re left with the gift that keeps on giving — a little something in your head that constantly whispers that if they left you, anybody could leave you.

All breakups are a form of trauma. Losing someone you thought you would spend the rest of your life with always is. But this type of breakup is a recipe for trust issues and ongoing insecurity. This is something you want to speak with your future partner about, before you find yourself self-sabotaging the relationship out of a fear that they, too, could suddenly leave you. 

How Long Does Breakup Hurt Last?

There is no one specific formula for how long a breakup hurts. A huge number of factors come into play, each one with different results, all entirely depending on your specific circumstances. 

Studies do show that the average person takes about 11 weeks (approximately three months) to fully heal from a breakup. Still, this number comes from a whole lot of data mushed together, and does not necessarily reflect your unique circumstances.

Therapist Sarah Bren comments, "I would actually caution a client from getting too attached to the notion that there is some sort of equation or ‘right’ amount of time to get over a breakup." Holding yourself to a specific recovery time can actually be detrimental to your recovery. Take each day as it comes.

The How and the Why

The way your relationship ended drastically affects how long it may take you to get over someone. Even the slightest of circumstances has the potential to change your recovery time, whether it’s because you’re a more sensitive person or because you’ve had the worst breakup in the history of breakups.

Woman leaving man

You may be emotionally healthy and well-practiced in navigating your pitfalls, paving the way to stability in just a few short weeks.

If you were expecting your breakup to happen or initiated it, it’s likely to take less time for you to recover than if it came out of nowhere. The more communication you have with your ex-partner, the healthier the breakup is. It’s important to keep in mind, though, that if your ex wants space, you need to give it to them.

Long-Term Versus Short-Term Relationship Breakups

The way relationships develop affects how the breakup tends to go. Because of how reliant people are on their own perception, and how little control you actually have over how you feel, the first thing you want to do before getting into any kind of relationship is decide what you’re looking to get out of it. The type of relationship it is impacts how the breakup goes. 

Short-Term Relationships

Sometimes, you go into a relationship not looking for anything big. You don’t want to marry this person, you don’t see any sort of a future with them, and you’re just a bit lonely and looking for someone to fill the void in your soul for a while. 

This is a short-term relationship. When approached with clear boundaries, short-term relationships are great for a little bit of entertainment. It’s nice to have someone to go on dates with and have a little casual sex without having to think about the future.

Short-term relationships exist outside of mortgages and meeting family members. They’re fun and exciting, and an excellent way to spice your life up. Assuming the relationship starts with the expectation of an end, short-term relationship breakups are not as big of a deal.

Eventually, you and the person you’re dating start to feel the excitement fizzle out. It’s likely that you weren’t exclusive, and that they were barely part of your support system, so breaking up feels less like losing a part of your life, and more like closing a door and moving on to a new chapter.

When getting into a short-term relationship, it’s important to establish your intentions. Sit down with your partner and make sure that you’re on the same page. Make it clear that you don't see moving in together or a wedding on the horizon. 

If one person doesn’t feel like they can stay detached in the way a short-term relationship requires them to be, it’s important to find that out sooner rather than later. And if that results in the short-term relationship ending, that person is more likely to go through an experience more similar to a long-term breakup. The way a breakup feels, after all, is entirely dependent on the individual and what they were expecting and experiencing while in the relationship. 

Long-Term Relationships

Long-term relationships are more along the lines of what you see when you sit down to watch a romance movie. They’re cuddles and rose petals and engagement rings.

A long-term relationship is an agreement to not only make a person part of your life, but to let them see all the parts of you that you keep hidden. It’s a promise that you love them unconditionally. You are swearing to grow and change right along with them. 

These relationships require a lot of heavy emotional investment. When you enter one, whether you want to or not, a lot of your happiness begins to rely on how your partner feels. It’s good to be able to identify when something like that is affecting you negatively, giving you the chance to sit down with your partner and talk through it. 

Man heartbroken

Long-term relationships still need boundaries. You’re still your own separate people, and you deserve to have your own space. If you notice that nearly every activity you do involves your partner, it’s a good idea to step back and consider having a talk with them about doing things on your own. If too much of your life depends on another person, it’s very easy to fall into an unhealthy spiral that results in neither of you being able to navigate arguments. 

For some people, the level of codependency that goes into a long-term relationship is okay. For others, it means giving up control, which can be terrifying – especially if they have leftover emotional baggage from a previous breakup. 

Either way, breaking up with your long-term partner means suddenly having a large, person-shaped hole in your life where your partner used to be. It means having to let go of the little habits you picked up – like which side of the bed you sleep on, or where you keep your toothbrush. You miss them. It's hard, and it doesn’t matter who did the breaking up, or what the circumstances were.

Even if the breakup was one of those ones that should have happened a long time ago, one where you broke up with them in your head long before you did it in person, the little things they left behind still bother you. Don’t expect to start navigating your single life immediately, especially if you still smell their perfume in the bathroom and it makes you cry.

The Five Stages of a Breakup and How To Deal With Them

Breakups are heartbreaking and scary. Separating things into categories helps with the healing process, though it’s very important to remember that no two breakups are the same, and no article truly predicts how you specifically feel, or how your healing process goes. 

That said, the process of a breakup is split into five steps — commonly referred to as the five stages of grief. Though usually used when referring to death, when you break up with someone you do lose them; it is perfectly normal to mourn accordingly.

A person experiences each stage differently, depending on what role you play in the breakup.

Stage 1: Denial

The first stage is usually in response to receiving news you weren’t prepared for. This stage can take place either before or after an official breakup. Often, people who know they should break up with their significant others spend some time in this stage, trying to convince themselves that everything is okay.

If you’re the person doing the dumping, you experience the denial stage before the breakup. It comes in many forms but is essentially a bit of time in your relationship when you feel the end is coming closer, and you’re not quite ready to admit to yourself that you don’t want to be dating your partner anymore. 

If you are the dumpee, the denial stage comes after the breakup. It’s a mix of “surely this is a misunderstanding” and the small voice in the back of your head telling you that they’ll come back. Most of the time, they do not. 

The best way to handle this stage of your breakup is to talk to your support system in order to de-rationalize your denial.

Stage 2: Anger

After you manage to push away the denial, in comes anger — the much more emotionally violent sister. A breakup involves two people. When one of the people is you, and you feel sad and awful, the natural reaction is to locate a cause. The second person, your former partner, is the obvious target for blame. 

If you are the person doing the dumping, you experience this stage in private, often with no one else knowing that it’s happening. You start to look at your partner, who you’ve by now realized you want to break up with, and try to pin the upcoming hailstorm of insanity on them. After all, had they been better – in whatever way wasn’t good enough – you wouldn’t be building up to a breakup right now. 

If you are the dumpee, this stage presents itself as throwing out all their stuff and burning things. Alternatively, it may involve hitting pillows and hysterical crying. Similarly to the dumper, the dumpee finds all the fault in their partner during this stage, even if it isn’t necessarily deserved. 

The best way to handle this stage of your breakup is to talk to your support system before making any decisions. All of the decisions you make in this stage should be carefully thought through, so watching your impulse control is important.

Don’t go to your ex’s house and slash their tires. It won’t do you any favors later and a lawsuit or jail time will only make everything that much worse. 

Stage 3: Bargaining

This stage is like if denial got bored and changed clothes. For the person doing the breaking up, bargaining is about trying to find ways around the impending breakup. Staying in a relationship you have no interest in never works for long, so this stage doesn’t have much of a lifespan.

Breakup of a couple

For the dumpee, bargaining is trying to find ways to keep your ex in your life. You try to convince yourself you can still be friends or that you must have some sort of room in your lives for each other. This is a poor approach. Even if you think you could be friends later, taking a break from each other at the beginning of a breakup is the best way to make healing easier. 

You and your partner can agree on a specific time frame, or simply promise to message each other when one of you feels ready to talk again, as long as you take some time apart first. Staying friends after a breakup absolutely works with proper communication and boundaries (two things that a surprising amount of adults are terrible at, hence why most people cling to the “we-can-still-be-friends is a lie” myth), but that break before you attempt a platonic relationship is crucial. 

Stage 4: Depression

This is the first stage experienced post-breakup by both parties. Losing someone important to you sucks, especially when you consider how much space a significant other takes up in your life. They’re your best friend, part of your emotional support system, and your easiest link to human connection. 

The depression stage is all unhealthy habits. Stuffing your face or not eating enough, sleeping too much or not at all – you know, your usual run-of-the-mill depression symptoms. This is another stage in which leaning on your support system is your best bet, as well as keeping a close eye on bad habits to make sure they don’t become detrimental to your health.

If you are the person doing the breaking up, you might find yourself cycling through the first three stages all over again post-breakup, before you reach this one. Make sure to look out for signs of this, so that you know what steps to take to keep yourself stable.

Stage 5: Acceptance

The pain is still there but you feel ready to embrace your new situation once you have acceptance. This is the final part of the emotional rollercoaster. Be proud of yourself now for making it through.

No matter what kind of breakup it was, whether it was healthy or horrible, if you were already over it or if you thought your ex was the love of your life, you'll reach the acceptance stage eventually. It takes longer for some than for others, and though the finish line may look far away, the breakup will probably not haunt you for the rest of your life. 

You'll reach a time when you look at pictures of you together and you'll be happy it happened instead of being sad that it ended. You might be friends, you might resent them, or you might hope to never make contact again, but the point is that you’re okay. 

What Not To Do After a Breakup

Breakups are incredibly difficult. As a result of all the feelings, you’re more likely to make rash decisions. 

Here are a few things to look out for as you navigate your breakup, avoiding those which helps your healing, and minimize unnecessary damage:

Beg for a Second Chance

When inevitably this doesn’t work, you’re going to find yourself feeling worse than you did before. All begging does is lower your status in your ex’s eyes. You do not want pity because you’re not a victim. You’re just someone going through something very difficult. 

But you’re also not the first – and you certainly won’t be the last –person to experience this trauma. 

Get Revenge

Getting revenge never serves you in the long term. After the smoke clears, you’ll find yourself wondering who exactly you’ve become. 

Post About It

Advertising your personal business on the internet is rarely a good idea but in your particularly vulnerable state, it's a really bad idea. All you’re doing is memorializing a time of your life that you’re going to want to forget. 

In addition, breakups involve two people, and posting about your breakup without your ex’s consent is rude and counterproductive to a healthy breakup. You aren’t just airing your dirty laundry – you’re airing your former partner’s, as well.

Isolate, Self-Medicate, and Catastrophize

Sitting alone in your room with a handle of vodka, whispering to yourself how you’ll never love again is a terrible way to deal with anything. 

You will love again. You will feel hopeful again. It truly sucks but it isn’t the end of the world. Medicating with substances does absolutely nothing except help you avoid the inevitable for a little while and prevent you from working through your emotions to be able to move forward.

Self-isolation during a time you should be leaning on your support system also does nothing but harm you. You may want your space, but make sure that space is interrupted by activities and people that make you happy. 

Girl going through breakup

Accepting the End

Breakups are hard. Losing people is difficult and scary, and very few prepare themselves to healthily navigate it. Building an understanding of the reasons you broke up, and learning to see things from other perspectives is incredibly helpful when it comes to dealing with breakups. It also helps to know what to expect. Anticipate the emotional stages and feelings you'll go through when dealing with something like this. 

Most importantly, remember that this is not the end of the world, no matter how much it feels like it is. The sun will shine again on your relationship life! 

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