No one ever died of a broken heart, but it certainly feels that way to those who have been unlucky in love. We talk to two relationship experts about the different stages of being broken hearted and ask what are the best ways to recover from the ordeal.
Most of us know what it feels like to be heart broken – whether it’s young love that’s run out of passion or a more mature relationship that’s no longer working. Breaking up with someone can be a painful experience.
But knowing what to expect and how to avoid certain pitfalls can help make it easier.
According to Dr Janet Reibstein, professor of psychology at Exeter University and author of The Best Kept Secret: Men and Women’s Stories of Lasting Love, the reason breaking up can be so painful is due to deep seated attachment, particularly for couples who’ve been together for a long time.
‘In the case of long-term, co-habiting relationships, there’s a theory about how we become attached to a particular person, and once that has happened, they become quite central to our sense of existence,’ says Dr Reibstein.
‘The more bonded we become in that way, the more a relationship break up has the features of grief, and we go through a mourning process. Even if the relationship was bad, there’s still a loss – perhaps even just losing established habits and routines,’ she says.
Felix Economakis, chartered psychologist and relationship expert in London, says the end of a relationship has a number of stages that can be similar to those of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and then acceptance.
Although it’s not a steadfast rule, it can be useful to identify which stage you are in.
‘Denial can include a belief that the other person doesn’t really mean it and will change their mind,’ says Felix Economakis.
‘Anger can include a sense of indignation and outrage. Bargaining can include promises to change and to be different – which can lead to weepy notes and tokens of affection,’ she says.
Some people get stuck at different stages. But it’s important to let yourself feel each stage – not act upon them – and allow yourself to progress.
Some people do break up and then realise it was a mistake.
But fundamentally, if you broke up for good reasons – and those reasons haven’t changed – then as soon as you jump back in old patterns will re-emerge.
When it is over, Felix Economakis recommends the short, sharp shock approach, ‘The quicker you take on the pain, the quicker it will be over.’
‘Give yourself space for at least a month. Don’t text or get lured into a dialogue,’ he says.
Will the pain ever go away?
Yes, it will – eventually.
But how long it takes can depend on a number of factors, including your life stage, whether you were planning a future together, and whether you were the one who decided to end things.
‘If you’re in the position of not being the person who decided the relationship was over, it might take a while to catch up, process your emotions, and get to a point where you can begin to see how you can reshape your life,’ says Dr Reibstein.
One of the best things you can do is to develop new habits and routines to re-establish yourself as an individual without your ex.
Missing someone is like a craving, so it’s important to avoid triggers – like going to the same pub or continuing old habits that you used to share.
‘On the simplest level, it’s about handling your impulses,’ says Dr Reibstein.
If you think ‘Oh I need to tell X about such and such,’ try talking to someone else. Or if you usually cook such and such with X, try cooking something different.
IMPORTANT DOS AND DON’TS
It’s particularly helpful in the early stages of a relationship break up to follow a few basic dos and don’ts.
This is when you are most likely to act on impulse and can end up making the situation worse, being embarrassed and making it even more difficult to get over.
This is a tough one because quick firing angry messages to an absent ex may feel like a wonderful release in the short term. But it’s likely to lead to a whole bundle of other unwanted emotions, such as regret and embarrassment.
Think, think and think again about any communication – this is what the ‘drafts’ box on your mobile is for.
This is especially important if under the influence of alcohol. Dr Riebstein advises that if you are going to drink, do it with someone you trust. This is the person who is going to stop you from texting or calling at 3am.
Follow a routine: you may not feel like getting up and getting on with your life. But it’s often the best thing to do. Even if you are just going through the motions of a daily routine, it will help give you structure. Work can be particularly helpful in taking your mind off the break up.
Tell someone: especially at work, it can be important to be honest and tell a trusted manager if the situation is affecting your concentration. They are likely to be understanding and more likely to be lenient about any lapses in work.
Give yourself space and time: healing can take a while, and you must let yourself get over your break up at your own pace.
Don’t rush into another relationship in an attempt to anaesthetise difficult emotions. Dr Reibstein says it’s important to call on people who remind you of your own value and who will be supportive when you feel like you have fallen apart.
Ultimately, it’s important to look after yourself. Treat yourself as you would a good friend who was going through the same thing.
By: Sarah James, health journalist