This breakup survival guide is a personal collection of thoughts and realizations stemming from my own breakup experience. It is the bittersweet aftertaste of how I went from sleeping with my cellphone under the pillow, hoping my ex would call, to accepting a new romantic life without preconditions.
This is the residue of my story, and hopefully there’s something buried in here that can serve as inspiration to you.
Laying The Groundwork
The nature of breakup pain
I’m a firm believer in our ability to program our minds to soothe a breakup. Or, at the very least, make the transition to acceptance as painless as possible. Allow me to explain.
There are four main kinds of pain we have to deal with in a breakup.
- Subconscious pain we have no control over. This is pain stemming from aspects of the breakup that are out of our hands such as an ex moving on or starting a new relationship.
- Subconscious pain we have limited control over. If you are still talking with your ex, this pain relates to the anxiety of not knowing what is going to happen in the future. Not knowing what they are thinking and not knowing where you stand. We have some control over the relationship, but not enough to feel “safe”.
- Pain stemming from separation and loss of routine. These aspects of breakup pain are rarely discussed but cause additional shock and can lead to long-term scarring if we don’t address them. No matter how you feel about your ex, or the relationship, having an entire world and its routine stripped away from you is going to cause a degree of trauma.
- Physical pain. I am not a doctor and therefore will not be addressing this in this article. But it is worth keeping track of. Eat well (I lost 20 pounds I couldn’t afford to lose in 2 months after my breakup). Sleep well and keep track of your emotions. Do what you can to avoid adding physical stress to your already fragile mental state. Your physical well-being is linked to your emotional well-being, don’t neglect it!
Getting organized means dealing with points (2) and (3) above and is the main goal of this article. Forget magic bullets and reverse psychology, surviving a breakup quickly means knowing what you have control over and what you don’t. It means investing what energy you have left into aspects of your life you can control. This is what acceptance is. It means regaining a sense of control and surrendering fully to the present as it stands, independently of the lemons your romantic life throws at you.
There are many useful tools available to you for free or at a premium. But before I list my personal suggestions, here’s a list of tools I would suggest avoiding.
Bad breakup tools
- Any breakup service or product that promises you a solution, without factoring in the context of your situation. This means playbooks with titles such as “One reverse psychology trick that will make them beg for you back!”. You know what I’m referring to. If there’s anything 11 years of talking with everyday people about their breakups has taught me, it’s this: Every relationship is different and has its own internal rules. Don’t trust generalized, all-in-one advice when it comes to building the foundation of your future relationship. These sorts of products are cooked up by marketers. No serious counselor, or sincere friend for that matter, would ever tell you they can guarantee to fix your relationship.
- Any advice that centers around using manipulation. Being in a breakup situation means that our partners will be hypersensitive to every crumb that comes out of our mouth. If we think that our ex can’t see through our attempts to shock them with shiny, new pictures of us on our shared social media, then we are fooling ourselves. We are dealing with someone who knows us well, attempting to emotionally blackmail them is going to backfire once they realize that our mind games stem from desperation.
- Using social Media to bait a response out of an ex. Nothing creates more mixed messages, resentment and confusion than dealing with crumbs from an ex on our social media accounts. But we do it anyway because it is low risk and a accessible. If you have something meaningful to say, there are ways to do it without causing long-term resentment (more on this later).
- Using mutual acquaintances as messengers. If we don’t trust ourselves to contact our ex directly, we might be tempted to use friends we have in common to relay our thoughts and hopes. Unfortunately, not only do we risk destroying friendships, but the message itself always seems to get muddied in the process. My advice would be to communicate directly, or not at all.
In general, I would consider anything that is designed primarily to comfort us to be a bad tool. Not that finding things to make you comfortable is bad. But feeding denial and false hope will just prolong breakup trauma. There is no such thing as a soft letdown, it’s just about deciding when you’re ready to face certain realities in the face.
Good tools on the other hand are things we can use to explore our feelings, without confusing things further.
Good breakup tools
- Online communities and forums. Not only will talking with like-minded individuals who share your pain help you make sense of your own confusion. But due to the anonymity provided by online communities you are also likely to receive the kind of objective advice your friends and family won’t give you. A couple of forums I use myself to talk about relationships are Loveshack and Reddit’s Breakup subreddit. Check them out. they’re free. You can also chat with us here on the Unknown over at our own small forum.
- High-quality self-help books. The emphasis here is definitely on high-quality. I feel that ninety percent of self-help books seem to miss the mark or are written by marketers rather than counselors. There are some really great references out there, though. An example of a book I appreciated was This Is Me Letting You Go by Heidi Priebe.
- Diaries. Yes, seriously, diaries. The pen and paper or the blogging kind. They are a way of taking what’s inside and making it tangible. Not just an emotion, but something real enough to haggle with. This website started out as my personal breakup diary. It expanded in scope once people I’d never met began commenting on the entries, layering their own experiences on top of mine. Whenever I wrote about an aspect of my breakup that was troubling me it felt like I was giving that particular thought its funeral. It stopped buzzing around in my head. Try it!
- Friends and family. Having a social outlet means having a channel to vent some stress through, but it is also a way to remind ourselves there is more to our lives than the spectre of our past relationship. Remember that moving on is not a metaphorical term. Moving on means moving on–literally! Being out with your friends means building new experiences, and is a way to teach our subconscious brain to accept that life is now.
- Psychotherapy. Sometimes a clinical setting is exactly what it takes to start making real progress. And sometimes, just the act of admitting there is a problem we can’t tackle alone, and acting on that realization, is enough to spark positive change. Beyond the immense value of a qualified and competent psychotherapist (which I am not), the act of recognizing the problem and confronting it head-on is a great way to shred elements of denial from our reasoning. Be warned that no single psychotherapy is effective for all patients.
Improving our mental outlook
I’m going to premise what I say next by stating that I understand that in a breakup scenario we are not fully in control of what we think.
We can’t help feeling like lost children when our most intimate relationships are stripped away from us. We are going to say things we don’t mean, and do things we regret on our journey to emotional stability. This is inevitable and necessary (more on this later).
Adjusting our mindset means looking at the chaos going on and separating what we can control from what we can’t, thereby regaining a sense of control over our lives.
Focusing on what we can control
Our breakup battle plan should prioritize aspects of our lives we can control. Small steps forwards in areas of our life, even areas that have nothing to do with the breakup, directly improve our ability to deal with pain.
In fact, I would argue that focusing solely on finding a breakup solution is counter-productive because by making healing or reconciliation our singular goal, every day we wake up and realize we are in pain will mean feeling like a failure.
We may not have control over what our ex thinks or does, but we do control what we can do about it. Sometimes just realizing that we have the power to act, to change our circumstances, is enough to open a path forward. The main realization here is that you don’t have to solve your current relationship in order to find peace. You can work towards acceptance indirectly by improving other areas of your life (I know how quaint that sounds, but looking back at dealing with my breakup, I really do swear by this). Areas that you directly control.
This might include:
- Focusing on your career or changing your job.
- Improving your health or dealing with unresolved health issues.
- Improving and strengthening friendships. Or better yet, making completely new acquaintances (thereby forcing your subconscious mind into accepting a fresh start, separating you from the tendrils of the past).
- Starting a new hobby. I feel like rolling my eyes at my own advice, but it works.
- Volunteering. Volunteering is not only about helping others, but is a proven way to improve self-esteem which is likely feeling bruised and battered.
- Start traveling. This is another great way to burst through our broken comfort zone and create something new for the brain to focus on.
The key here is making small, measurable, incremental steps forward. Create forward momentum regardless of what happens to your romantic life.
Using trauma to make changes
Trauma catalyzes change. We’re thrust into a new world, without planning and without reference points. There’s no escaping the pain of having our routine shattered, even if that routine wasn’t healthy for us.
Now that the egg has cracked open, change is inevitable. So why not take the helm of this change? Why not think big and bold?
If you’re sat there reading this article, wondering why everything around you feels like a reminder of what was, like a cemetary come back to life. It is partly because it’s true, but also partly because your brain insists that it is true (it wants the past back). You are seeing the ghosts of your past everywhere because your brain wants you to address the problem.
One way to break the mirage of the past is to do something so different that it forces the brain to reevaluate what it took for granted. Give it a new challenge.
- Why not change your job if that’s what you want?
- Why not move to the ocean if those vistas have been haunting you?
- Why not change country, if the thought has been tickling you for years?
- Why not change social circles, if the old ones were unhealthy?
The objective here isn’t necessarily succeeding at any of these things, it is the subconscious benefit of giving the brain something new to explore and fixate on.
Dealing With A Failed Relationship
No matter what we do to indirectly improve our chances of healing, there’s no getting around dealing with the remnants of a broken relationship, and the aftereffects on our psyche.
Healing quickly and efficiently means facing our fears. We all know this instinctively, yet few of us do. Choosing instead a tortuous, winding path through hellish anxiety and guilt (the soft letdown).
Consider my opening paragraph.
It is the bittersweet aftertaste of how I went from sleeping with my cellphone under the pillow, hoping my ex would call, to accepting a new romantic life without preconditions.
I wasn’t joking when I said I kept the phone within arms reach in case my ex called. In hindsight, I feel this is a perfect example of what I mean about refusing take responsibility.
The idea of just calling her myself seemed atrociously risky.
- What if she didn’t answer?
- What if she was with someone else and I was merely an afterthought?
- What if she yelled at me?
- What if she told me never to contact her again?
However, by wallowing in doubt, night after night, week after week, I began to realize that the anxiety of “not knowing” was potentially worse than having my hopes torn in two.
I did eventually call. My last remaining hopes died a few minutes later, but so did my anxiety. Despite the pain of realizing that my denial had fed my hopes rather than what I knew deep inside was an objectively dead relationship, I felt like laughing. My world was aflame, but along with my hope, my pain was being disintegrated.
Taking responsibility will shred anxiety. You can’t always fix a broken relationship. You can’t always convince an ex to give it another try. But you can get the answers you need. The cost is almost always hope, but holding on to hope will mean forever living in limbo, drowning in a sea of uncertainty and pain.
If you need answers pick up the phone. But only if you actually need them.
Keeping An Eye On Guilt
If you’re anything like me, and I’m guessing you are, then guilt is eating you alive without you realizing it. Before moving on to dealing with our ex (if that is your objective) it’s time to take stock of how far gone our sense of self has fallen.
Guilt isn’t only feeling overly responsible for the demise of the relationship. It can manifest in unpredictable ways, delaying recovery. Here are a few examples of how guilt can negatively influence us.
- Diving into a rebound relationship. Rebound relationships compound guilt because once they inevitably end, you will feel guilty about “using” your rebound partner as an emotional crutch. Rebounds are often the result of unresolved grief and low self esteem (guilt).
- Making promises you can’t keep. Taking responsibility is all good and well, but make sure your guilt isn’t causing you to take responsibility for aspects of the relationship that aren’t under your control. Promising the world in order to reconcile will only lead to further resentment once the promises inevitably collapse. Mistakes were made. Admitting those problems exist and working through them is what successfully reconciling is all about. Saying “whoops, my fault” is just another way to sweep our relationship issues under the rug.
- Driving friends and family away. For many of us, self-inflicted social isolation is a natural stress response. Personally, I have a tendency to want to confront my problems alone. In hindsight, losing track of my friends and family was a mistake it took months to rectify. People will understand your need to take a breather, but don’t lose track of them completely.
These are just examples of what guilt can lead to, but it is not an exhaustive list. Keeping an eye on guilt means double-checking our motives every now and again to make sure we aren’t overcompensating or punishing ourselves.
Sooner or later our sense of worth will begin to climb, and when it does, these grief-induced constructs will begin to collapse. The sooner we can address these issues, the sooner we can move forward cleanly.
Tying Loose Ends
In the wake of a breakup it is natural to feel that the only way to move forward is to tie any loose ends. To turn the chaos into order.
This is an entirely human reaction to problem solving. We fix one problem then move onto another.
The issue here is that there is no such thing as tying loose ends. There will never come a point in the wake of a breakup where your curiosity is exhausted. Answers will tend to lead to more questions.
Acceptance is not happiness, it is primarily an unconditional surrender to the present. There will always be doubt, there will always be some lingering hope, and there will always be something to bring you down (or make you laugh).
Deciding when you’ve had your fill of ruminating over the past is not entirely up to your conscious mind. Grief will have to run its course. But, as detailed in the first part of this guide, moving on means moving on. It means getting on with life, despite our perceived need for answers.
Admittedly, some answers are important.
- What did I do wrong and what could I have done better?
- Do I want to reconcile?
- Does my ex want to reconcile?
- How are we going to organize any shared responsibilities (custody, rent, e.t.c)?
- How are we going to redefine our relationship (can we realistically salvage a friendship)?
Most of these answers are uncomplicated binary yes or nos that we allow our broken egos to overcomplicate. An example of this would be the tendency of some exs to blame the breakup on a construct such as the grass is greener syndrome. To me, this is just another form of denial. An understandable, comfortabing trampoline for our broken psyches to land on. But denial nonetheless.
My advice is to go ahead ask what you need to ask, but to take the answers at face value when they are given. For example, if you call and your ex doesn’t answer the phone, remember that is also an answer! If your ex is notoriously manipulative, making taking things at face value impossible, keep reading.
Harnessing Our Anger
Anger is a well known element in the cycle of grief. I say cycle, and not stages, because in my experience you don’t just go through the stages once, but you tend to cycle between them.
Anger is often warranted. Perhaps we are angry at how dismissive our ex is of our investment in the relationship. Or perhaps you are hurt and angry by a case of infidelity. Whatever the case may be, it is not for me to be the moral arbiter of how justified your anger is. Instead, I want to suggest using that anger to your advantage.
Yes, it can be harnessed!
When you are angry you will jog a little faster, talk a little more hurriedly and rush your tasks. Anger is energy, at least in the short-term. You can use these fleeting states (between sadness, anger and bargaining) to make changes you usually wouldn’t have the energy for. Channel that angry-borne energy in the right direction.
I mentioned earlier using trauma to make changes. This is one way to accomplish that.
In the long-term however, anger will drain you because it is physiologically costly. In the (disputed) words of Nelson Mandela:
Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.
Use your anger to make radical, but needed, change. Then discard it if you can.
Dealing With Our Ex
This section is for people who still have hopes of repairing the relationship. Despite all the doom and gloom I’ve detailed above, sometimes surviving a breakup means successfully reconciling. Sometimes a breakup will strengthen a relationship, but only if you have the courage and clarity to identify outstanding issues.
Learning how to communicate effectively is both the hardest and most rewarding relationship skill there is. What does communicating effectively entail? Well, it means:
- Saying what you mean.
- Focusing on finding a solution rather than judging intention.
- Knowing the difference between your needs and wants.
- Learning to say no.
- Being willing to negotiate your wants but protecting your needs.
- Extending the same logic to our partner.
Communicating effectively combines all the elements I’ve listed so far in this guide. It means taking responsibility for your end of the breakup bargain, and it means preferring a clean cut rather than a soft letdown.
If you are lying there drowning in a sea of questions, it can be relieving to know that you have the power to force clarity. But it is incredibly painful in the short-term. My advice here is that as painful as getting the answers you need is, it beats the limbo that trading crumbs and mixed messages leads to.
Dealing With Mind Games
Mind games are the side-effect of having something to lose. But it is important to separate mind games from genuine confusion, or resentment will doom any chance at reconciliation.
It is natural to act inconsistently in the wake of a breakup because trauma and change will cause our character to fluctuate as we attempt to regain balance. Sometimes you literally are one person on Monday and another on Tuesday.
Mind games, on the other hand, are bait. They are ways for an ex to attempt to get answers without risking revealing a painful truth in the process. This means:
- Engaging in mixed messages and crumbs.
- Attempting to guilt or shame in order to level the playing field. If your ex is being mean, remember that it is usually a defense mechanism rather than a sign you are worthless. If they can convince themselves you are worthless, then losing you will appear to be less of a loss. This is an illusion, of course, and one will they will almost always regret. Cue the out of the blue “I’m sorry” six months down the line!
- Weaponizing social media. If our exes won’t or can’t access you directly, they may attempt to make you miserable enough to contact them. Those flashy new profile pictures and ambiguous status messages might be a way to reach out to you indirectly.
I risk sounding paranoid here, but we all know these games happen.
The antidote to this chaos is simple; don’t play the game. If you don’t fall for the bait, and offer yourself and your hard fought clarity free of charge, your ex will be forced to reach out to you for the answers directly. The game works only if you play along.
No Contact – Yea or Nay?
No contact is a fantastic healing tool, if healing is the objective! It is the embodiment of what I’ve mentioned regarding not playing mind games.
No contact is a way of detoxing, it is also a way of protecting you from the anxiety and pain that mind games and other mixed messages can cause.
It is not is an effective way to reconcile. Despite this, I’ve seen it marketed, branded and sold all over the internet as a breakup plan to “get your ex back“.
The premise is that by starving our already miserable ex of our attention and affection, that they will collapse under the weight of their solitude and reach out to us to fill that gaping void in their hearts. Does my interpretation sound callous? I hope it does, because that is exactly what I think the objective is. If you disagree, feel free to let me know in the comments!
Yes, it occasionally works for this reason. An emotionally unstable ex might crack and reach out. But ask yourself whether or not this ex is in a position to negotiate the foundation of a functional new relationship. What happens when their sense of worth and self-esteem begins to heal again? The same problems that broke the relationship will re-materialize and it will all be a case of history repeating!
Instead of weaponizing no contact, I would suggest using limited contact.
What is limited contact? It means:
- Reaching out when you genuinely have questions to ask.
- Ignoring mixed messages and crumbs completely. Avoid the chit-chat at all costs.
- Using language that leaves no room for misinterpretation.
- Respecting boundaries, both yours and theirs. This means not acting like the relationship still exists.
Limited contact means communicating effectively. It means leading by example. If you say what you mean in a clear and transparent way, you are drastically increasing the chances that your ex will respond in kind. Your courage and discipline will be rewarded with getting the answers you need (though not necessarily those you want).
Don’t know where to start? How about writing a no contact letter and building from there?
The Value Of Body Language
If you get the chance to meet your ex in person, should you take it? I would argue that you should. Words are one thing. But our innate ability read body language is something else.
Body language is so revealing that it can provide answers to questions non-verbally. With regards to our progression and healing, if the answer to reconciling is “no”, it was “no” regardless of whether or not we actually met up with our ex. All we are doing is saving ourselves from time in limbo.
Actually seeing the answer manifest itself, reading the distance in their eyes and closed posture, rather than just scanning the words on a page, will mean that we can actually start to move forward with our lives because there’s little left to for us to fool ourselves with.
And this is if the answer is no. What if meeting in person reveals a crack for us to pry open? What if our fears were just the product of our insecurity?
Having said all this, I would suggest meeting in a public place. Somewhere that fosters a sense of security (not safety from our exes necessarily, just a passive sense of safety that will encourage opening up).
If your relationship was marred by episodes of abuse and manipulation, I would suggest not meeting at all. But that is my only caveat.
In summary: yes, treat your ex to a coffee.
Breakup Survival Guide Final Words
This guide feels a bit rushed, despite it being close to 5000 words! That is because the possibilities in the world of breakups are literally endless, and every comma and detail has a caveat that ought to be addressed. Context is important. I will always prefer dealing with each relationship in isolation rather than offering general advice.
I’ve tried to support the idea that taking a clean cut is preferable to a soft letdown. I don’t know how effectively I’ve made my case. That the realization of our fear relating to separation and banishment from the lives of our exes is often less painful than the anxiety and fear that the unknown inflicts on us. This was certainly my case, at least.
My belated takeaway:
- Communicate effectively. Be bold and transparent with your words and actions.
- Avoid playing the games your insecurity and fear want you to play.
- Use negative emotions to catalyze positive change. Trauma can be a blessing, though I know saying that sounds crass.
- Get the answers you need. Realize that you have the power to force clarity! Even silence is an answer if you take it at face value.
- Take responsibility for your side of the equation but don’t wallow in guilt. Separate the factors you are in control of from those that you aren’t, and work on them.
I hope these something buried in this mess of an article that you can apply to your own situation. If you have any questions please feel free to use the comment section below or start a thread on the forum (for those who want to start a discussion about their situation).