Few people go into relationships looking forward to a breakup: Maybe no one does! But for most relationships outside of marriage, and even close to half of marital relationships, the road into the future is shorter than we may have expected: What lies at the end of the road is a breakup.
Often nearly as bad as, or even worse than the breakup are the consequences that go along with the breakup—sometimes, finding a new place to live; possibly, division of resources; seeing some of one’s friends turn away; in some cases, children being divided between households; financial hardship; possibly, dealing with the legal system; and much more.
I cannot deal in this blogpost with all those consequences. After all, I’m a PhD in psychology, not a lawyer or a financial counselor. What I would like to deal with is just one kind of consequence—the devastating psychological costs associated with breakups.
I just gave a talk yesterday morning. After the talk, there was a public question period. One of the questioners told me that he and his girlfriend had just broken up. He was obviously devastated. He wanted to know what to do. That’s what I want to talk about here. Here are six things you can do when a relationship is over.
1. Make sure it’s really over.
I do not know what percentage of breakups are permanent, but in my experience over the years, I’ve concluded that it’s probably about 50-50. Perhaps as many of half of breakups end up not being permanent: The couples get back together. Paul Simon once wrote a song, “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover.” Now think about it in reverse.
There are probably 50 ways to get back together with your lover, too. If you made a mistake, say you’re sorry; or if you already did, say it again and mean it. Or suggest you give the relationship just one more try—a really serious try. Or show that the breakup was based on a misunderstanding. Or forgive your partner if something they did instigated the breakup. Or buy your partner, now ex-partner, something special and meaningful and see whether they reconsider. Or decide that you must have been out of your mind to let your partner go and beg to be taken back. Or suggest that couple's therapy the two of you long needed.
Find your own 50 ways. But if you really want the relationship back, don’t give up too easily. Your partner also may want it back! Maybe you both are too proud easily to admit it. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. People can have catastrophic events in their relationships and still salvage the relationships because their love is more important to them than some unhappy events that transpired, even very unhappy ones!
2. Try to forget about it.
Well, talk about things that are easier said than done! Trying to forget about it is certainly one of those. If you are someone who readily can do what psychologists call “directed forgetting”—forgetting at will—you are lucky. You will have an easier recovery than most!
3. Find something else to preoccupy you.
You need to distract yourself. The worst thing—really, the worst thing you can do is to ruminate about the breakup—turn it over in your mind, again and again and again. You need distractions. Time to start playing a musical instrument, or to pick up one again that you once played? Time to start a new sport or to increase your exercise routine? Time to join organizations where you can meet new people? Time to discover or rediscover religion? Time to get a pet?
4. Find someone else.
Speaking of finding something else to preoccupy you, you also can find someone else to preoccupy you. Often, someone else can help you move on to the next phase of your life. However, I must add one thing. If you are not over your now ex- partner, your new relationship probably will not last, or, at least, prosper. You cannot really form a healthy and durable relationship with a new person unless you are over the previous one. If you are not over the previous person, there always will be a shadow over your new relationship. The new relationship will be dominated by the memory of the old person. There will be a third “silent” partner, whether you want them there or not.
5. If you cannot get over the former partner, focus on all the things you didn’t like about the partner and the relationship.
Hey, you broke up for a reason. Probably, there were lots of reasons things didn’t work out. Focus on those. Reflect on all the reasons the old relationship didn’t work and that you actually may be lucky that the relationship ended. You may realize that you actually got a good deal when the relationship ended.
6. Think long term.
Right now, your life isn’t so great. Maybe it sucks. But it won’t always be that way. People do get over these things. It just takes time and patience. Be patient with yourself. Realize that almost no one gets over a relationship in a day, or even a week or a month. Give yourself time. Think about the future. Every crisis is also an opportunity. Think of the break-up as an opportunity to create a better future.