Everybody loves the 1962 classic “Breaking Up Is Hard to Do,” but singer/songrwriter Neil Sedaka didn’t get the story entirely correct. Breaking up isn’t just hard to do. It’s freaking torture. And almost everyone roaming the earth has gone through the seven stages of a nasty breakup at least once in their life.
But if you’re finding it difficult to bounce back from a breakup, go easy on yourself. Just like losing a loved one or a beloved pet, breakups bring up deep, deep emotions that can include grief. This is totally normal, and you need to give yourself plenty of time to grieve to really get over this hump. Knowing what to expect in each stage of the breakup recovery process can make it easier to ask for help from friends and family when it’s needed — and may remind you to be gentle with yourself.
And actually turns out that there is science behind why going through a breakup is so tough. In 2016, Stanford psychologists discovered that you are more likely to take a breakup harder if you internalize it, seeing the rejection as a reflection of your potentially flawed personality. In five studies conducted on 891 participants, people who felt their personality was fixed without the room for growth or change held on to a relationship rejection for much longer.
It’s hard not to feel the sting after a relationship ends, and it’s even harder not to take it personally. But understanding that it is possible to make it through and even see changes in yourself on the other side can make the grief gauntlet more manageable. Taking the time to heal can help, but if you find yourself stuck in anxiety, anger or depression following a breakup, it’s important to seek professional help. Sometimes, the perspective of an outside professional is just what we need to point us in a new, healthier direction.
Breakup recovery is a process, and as you’re putting the pieces of your life back together, you may have experienced one or more of these breakup stages by now:
1. Shock: “What the hell just happened?”
Shock is the body’s natural protection against pain. And when your relationship first ends, you just might not want to deal with what’s coming next. It may be too scary, too lonely, too confusing. A state of disbelief could last minutes, weeks or even months and likely lasts longer if you are on the receiving end of an unexpected breakup. Don’t be surprised if you feel a sense of blurriness about the actual breakup scene, a literal loss of breath, or trouble sleeping.
- Do prescribe yourself calming cures like meditation or long walks.
- Do not freak out. You will make sense of all of this!
2. Denial: “This is so not happening.”
Denial is rejection of reality and a storage of feelings. The thinking is that, if you don’t accept the heartbreak, then it didn’t really happen, thus leaving hope for reunion. During this stage of a breakup it is common to call, email or even Facebook-stalk — anything that feels remotely “normal” about the relationship — in an effort to put dealing with the heartbreak on hold.
- Do open up to a journal or trusted friend to begin unleashing fears, identifying unreasonable thoughts and more.
- Do not minimize the situation. Pretending your breakup doesn’t have to be dealt with will lead to emotional numbness and leave you stuck.
3. Isolation: “I just want to sit in this all by myself.”
Once you’ve recognized the breakup, you get into the dirty work: Dealing with the dissolution of the relationship. You may replay the relationship over and over in your mind, trying to pinpoint where it fell apart and how it could have been saved. Your thoughts may feel very scattered and disorganized. This stage of grief has you in withdrawal; you don’t even feel like updating your Facebook status or checking your voicemails. You may draw your blinds and not even want to leave the house. Sitting in silence, darkness or a pint of ice cream feels better than going outside and admitting to the world that, yes, it’s over.
- Do take regular showers and create reasons to face the day (work, social activities).
- Do not indulge in self-pity by letting irrational thoughts like “No one will ever love me again” take over.
Originally published July 2010. Updated February 2017.