Bitterness is one response to a bad breakup. You might also find yourself sulking, crying, isolating and obsessing on your lost love. Revenge may be another impulse you feel, but it is frowned upon in polite society.
Vowing to never date again is also common. When you’ve been hurt badly at the end of any romantic relationship, it seems downright rational. “We met when we were 20 and 21, and nine and a half years later our relationship was over,” says Anne, of Northbrook, IL. “He ended it over the phone on Easter Sunday, and when the line went dead, so did my self-esteem.” Anne spent two months in a “depressed fog,” she says, and “functioned only during weekdays, working 12-hour days and drinking cup after cup of coffee. On Friday nights I’d collapse into bed and barely move until Monday morning.”
“The first thing to know is you can’t skip over the pain; you have to feel the pain,” says Lisa Steadman, relationship coach and author of It’s A Breakup, Not A Breakdown: Get Over the Big One and Change Your Life — for Good!
Steadman compares the process to Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross
’s famous five stages of grief: denial and isolation, anger, bargaining, depression and, finally, acceptance. “In a way, it would be easier if the other person died,” says Steadman; “we wouldn’t have to run into that person again.”
And while sobbing over a breakup is often portrayed in pop culture as something only women do, Steadman adds that “Men do go through it too, only they don’t like to talk about it.”
Embrace the painful feelings
Grief hurts, whether you anticipate its arrival or not. No one seeks out grief, but a lot can be done to speed up and ameliorate the process. “Have a pity party,” suggests Steadman. “Celebrate your slump. Give yourself permission to cry, emotionally eat, watch sappy movies and let yourself be the big fat drama queen you want to be. There will be a point when you’re over that, and that’s when your strength and resilience will kick in.” She advises rounding up at least three friends — known as “your Boo-Hoo Crew” — to help you through the roughest spots.
Bad breakups inevitably batter your ego. When someone you would’ve taken a bullet for no longer desires your company, you can end up feeling used and worthless. Tina B. Tessina, Ph.D., a psychotherapist and author of The Unofficial Guide to Dating Again
, says: “Don’t hesitate to get therapy to help you through this transition so you can grieve what’s lost and focus on building a good life in your new circumstance. A professional viewpoint will help you move from past to present — and plan for the future.”
Take a break from dating for awhile
Friends may say that you need to jump right back on the horse that threw you. This advice is useful, but only if you know why you ended up being thrown to the ground in the first place. If you’re using a Teflon-coated saddle, try a little self-analysis before jumping back into anything. “It took a year before I could get myself up to dating at the insistence of a friend who set me up on three really bad blind dates,” says Kelly, of New Hyde Park, NY. “Getting over a serious breakup is different for everyone. For women, I think they need time to heal before jumping back in the game.”
Remember, time can be your friend after a breakup, not necessarily your enemy. Steadman notes that people who devoted a lot of time to the failed relationship may find it weighing on their conscience, feeling lost and without a clear direction. “Reconnect with who you are,” says Steadman. “Use this time to remember the things you like to do that you may have neglected in order to spend time with the other person.”
Use this opportunity for personal growth wisely
More good advice: don’t romanticize a bad relationship. “In counseling people who got dumped, every client realized the warning signs that were ignored early in the relationship,” Dr. Tessina says. “Don’t pick out the few good moments you remember and ignore what wasn’t working.” Dr. Tessina also says that, after the initial crisis has passed, you should “review the dynamics of the relationship and analyze what went wrong, what you could have done differently and what you learned. There’s no need to give yourself a hard time about it; just process the information so you don’t repeat the same mistakes.”
Steadman believes that most people jump in before they are ready, setting themselves up for a painful rebound: “It’s not fair to the person you’re rebounding with, and it makes the healing process messier. There’s no formula to determine the proper amount of time, but if you find yourself in the bathroom on the date crying — it’s too soon!”
Rid yourself of negative emotions in positive ways
Dr. Tessina warns against assigning blame for the breakup: “If you blame your ex, you’ll eventually turn that blame on yourself.” Avoiding blame can be particularly hard if the breakup involves a third party who presents a perfect, custom-made target for your anger. “Of course you’ll be hurt, angry, and feel like taking revenge,” says Dr. Tessina, “but hopefully, you’ll minimize, rather than maximize the time you spend dwelling on this. Instead, count yourself lucky that you are rid of the sleazebag who did this to you, and free to find a really good partner who is capable of commitment. Revenge fantasies will lead you in the wrong direction. To rid yourself of negative emotions, have a ceremony in which you destroy something — burn a picture, smash a memento — that symbolizes the relationship. Then, pack up every reminder of the relationship in a box and put it away someplace. You can get it out in a year, when you’re happy again, and see if you want to keep anything in it. Tell all your friends not to gossip about what your ex is doing and move on.”
Wait to date until you feel hopeful and confident again
How will you know when you’re ready start dating again? If you meet someone who give you butterflies, that’s an obvious sign. But suppose you’ve gotten up the nerve to start looking, but not dating? “When your friends start dragging you to singles events, posting your profile online, nagging you,” said Steadman, “you know that they think you’re ready. Your Boo-Hoo Crew is ready to become your Woo-Hoo Crew.”
For Anne from Northbrook, IL, the turning point came one Sunday in May when she decided she’d had enough and went for a walk. Her walk led her to a church where the sermon talked about feeling lost when you’ve lost someone or something to which you’ve pinned all your hopes and dreams. “That evening, I felt a sense of hope for the first time in, well, years,” recalls Anne. “I realized that I was regaining a sense of self. I was Anne and Anne alone, not Anne, Mike’s ex-girlfriend.”
After that, Anne started dating again. Before the year was out she met the man that she’s been with for the last seven years. “He was the kind of guy I had hoped existed, but I’d given up the search. I still had a lot of healing to do (in terms of the breakup), but I realized three things: First, if you think a person can make you happy, then you’re basing your happiness on the wrong thing. Second, don’t ever give up hope — you never know who’s going to walk through the door of the next torturous suburban potluck dinner party. And third, you must protect your heart until the right person comes along. You’ll know it when it’s right; it’s a cliché, but it’s true.”
Mark Amundsen is a freelance writer and editor in New York.