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Dealing with a Breakup or Divorce

Grieving and Moving on After a Relationship Ends

Divorcing couple

A breakup or divorce can be one of the most stressful and emotional experiences in life. Whatever the reason for the split—and whether you wanted it or not—the breakup of a relationship can turn your whole world upside down and trigger all sorts of painful and unsettling emotions. As well as grieving the loss of your relationship, you may feel confused, isolated, and fearful about the future. But there are plenty of things you can do to cope with the pain, get through this difficult time, and even move on with a renewed sense of hope and optimism.

Why are breakups so painful?

Even when a relationship is no longer good, a divorce or breakup can be extremely painful because it represents the loss, not just of the partnership, but also of the dreams and commitments you shared. Romantic relationships begin on a high note of excitement and hopes for the future. When a relationship fails, we experience profound disappointment, stress, and grief.

A breakup or divorce launches you into uncharted territory. Everything is disrupted: your routine and responsibilities, your home, your relationships with extended family and friends, and even your identity. A breakup also brings uncertainty about the future. What will life be like without your partner? Will you find someone else? Will you end up alone? These unknowns can often seem worse than being in an unhappy relationship.

This pain, disruption, and uncertainty means that recovering from a breakup or divorce can be difficult and take time. However, it’s important to keep reminding yourself that you can and will get through this difficult experience and move on with your life as a stronger and wiser person.

Coping with a breakup or divorce

  • Recognize that it’s OK to have different feelings. It’s normal to feel sad, angry, exhausted, frustrated, and confused—and these feelings can be intense. You may also feel anxious about the future. Accept that reactions like these will lessen over time. Even if the relationship was unhealthy, venturing into the unknown is frightening.
  • Give yourself a break. Give yourself permission to feel and to function at a less than optimal level for a period of time. You may not be able to be quite as productive on the job or care for others in exactly the way you’re accustomed to for a little while. No one is superman or superwoman; take time to heal, regroup, and re-energize.
  • Don’t go through this alone. Sharing your feelings with friends and family can help you get through this period. Consider joining a support group where you can talk to others in similar situations. Isolating yourself can raise your stress levels, reduce your concentration, and get in the way of your work, other relationships, and overall health. Don’t be afraid to get outside help if you need it.

Source: Mental Health America

Allow yourself to grieve the loss of the relationship

Grief is a natural reaction to loss, and the breakup or divorce of a love relationship involves multiple losses:

  • Loss of companionship and shared experiences (which may or may not have been consistently pleasurable)
  • Loss of support, be it financial, intellectual, social, or emotional
  • Loss of hopes, plans, and dreams (which can be even more painful than practical losses)

Allowing yourself to feel the pain of these losses may be scary. You may fear that your emotions will be too intense to bear, or that you’ll be stuck in a dark place forever. Just remember that grieving is essential to the healing process. The pain of grief is precisely what helps you let go of the old relationship and move on. And no matter how strong your grief, it won’t last forever.

Tips for grieving after a breakup or divorce:

Don’t fight your feelings – It’s normal to have lots of ups and downs, and feel many conflicting emotions, including anger, resentment, sadness, relief, fear, and confusion. It’s important to identify and acknowledge these feelings. While these emotions will often be painful, trying to suppress or ignore them will only prolong the grieving process.

Talk about how you’re feeling – Even if it is difficult for you to talk about your feelings with other people, it is very important to find a way to do so when you are grieving. Knowing that others are aware of your feelings will make you feel less alone with your pain and will help you heal. Writing in a journal can also be a helpful outlet for your feelings.

Remember that moving on is the end goal – Expressing your feelings will liberate you in a way, but it is important not to dwell on the negative feelings or to over-analyze the situation. Getting stuck in hurtful feelings like blame, anger, and resentment will rob you of valuable energy and prevent you from healing and moving forward.

Remind yourself that you still have a future – When you commit to another person, you create many hopes and dreams for a life together. After a breakup, it's hard to let these aspirations go. As you grieve the loss of the future you once envisioned, be encouraged by the fact that new hopes and dreams will eventually replace your old ones.

Know the difference between a normal reaction to a breakup and depression – Grief can be paralyzing after a breakup, but after a while, the sadness begins to lift. Day by day, and little by little, you start moving on. However, if you don’t feel any forward momentum, you may be suffering from depression.

Helping your kids during a breakup or divorce

When mom and dad split, a child can feel confused, angry, and uncertain as well as profoundly sad. As a parent, you can help your kids cope with the breakup by providing stability and attending to your child's needs with a reassuring, positive attitude. See: Children and Divorce

Reach out to others for support

Support from others is critical to healing after a breakup or divorce. You might feel like being alone, but isolating yourself will only make this time more difficult. Don’t try to get through this on your own.

Connect face-to-face with trusted friends and family members. People who have been through painful breakups or divorces can be especially helpful. They know what it is like and they can assure you that there is hope for healing and new relationships. Frequent face-to-face contact is also a great way to relieve the stress of a breakup and regain balance in your life.

Spend time with people who support, value, and energize you. As you consider who to reach out to, choose wisely. Surround yourself with people who are positive and who truly listen to you. It’s important that you feel free to be honest about what you’re going through, without worrying about being judged, criticized, or told what to do.

Get outside help if you need it. If reaching out to others doesn’t come naturally, consider seeing a counselor or joining a support group (see the Resources section below). The most important thing is that you have at least one place where you feel comfortable opening up.

Cultivate new friendships. If you feel like you have lost your social network along with the divorce or breakup, make an effort to meet new people. Join a networking group or special interest club, take a class, get involved in community activities, or volunteer at a school, place of worship, or other community organization.

Taking care of yourself after a breakup

A divorce is a highly stressful, life-changing event. When you’re going through the emotional wringer and dealing with major life changes, it’s more important than ever to take care of yourself. The strain and upset of a major breakup can leave you psychologically and physically vulnerable.

Treat yourself like you’re getting over the flu. Get plenty of rest, minimize other sources of stress in your life, and reduce your workload if possible. Learning to take care of yourself can be one of the most valuable lessons you learn following a breakup. As you feel the emotions of your loss and begin learning from your experience, you can resolve to take better care of yourself and make positive choices going forward.

Self-care tips:

Make time each day to nurture yourself. Help yourself heal by scheduling daily time for activities you find calming and soothing. Spend time with good friends, go for a walk in nature, listen to music, enjoy a hot bath, get a massage, read a favorite book, take a yoga class, or savor a warm cup of tea.

Pay attention to what you need in any given moment and speak up to express your needs. Honor what you believe to be right and best for you even though it may be different from what your ex or others want. Say "no" without guilt or angst as a way of honoring what is right for you.

Stick to a routine. A divorce or relationship breakup can disrupt almost every area of your life, amplifying feelings of stress, uncertainty, and chaos. Getting back to a regular routine can provide a comforting sense of structure and normalcy.

Take a time out. Try not to make any major decisions in the first few months after a separation or divorce, such as starting a new job or moving to a new city. If you can, wait until you’re feeling less emotional so that you can make decisions with a clearer head.

Avoid using alcohol, drugs, or food to cope. When you’re in the middle of a breakup, you may be tempted to do anything to relieve your feelings of pain and loneliness. But using alcohol, drugs, or food as an escape is unhealthy and destructive in the long run. It’s essential to find healthier ways of coping with painful feelings. HelpGuide's free emotional intelligence toolkit can help.

Explore new interests. A divorce or breakup is a beginning as well as an end. Take the opportunity to explore new interests and activities. Pursuing fun, new activities gives you a chance to enjoy life in the here-and-now, rather than dwelling on the past.

Making healthy choices: Eat well, sleep well, and exercise

When you’re going through the stress of a divorce or breakup, healthy habits easily fall by the wayside. You might find yourself not eating at all or overeating your favorite junk foods. Exercise might be harder to fit in because of the added pressures at home and sleep might be elusive. But all of the work you are doing to move forward in a positive way will be pointless if you don’t make long-term healthy lifestyle choices. See: Healthy Eating, Getting Better Sleep, and How to Start Exercising and Stick to It

Learning important lessons from a breakup or divorce

It can be difficult to see it when you’re going through a painful breakup, but in times of emotional crisis, there are opportunities to grow and learn. You may be feeling nothing but emptiness and sadness in your life right now, but that doesn’t mean that things will never change. Try to consider this period in your life a time-out, a time for sowing the seeds for new growth. You can emerge from this experience knowing yourself better and feeling stronger and wiser.

In order to fully accept a breakup and move on, you need to understand what happened and acknowledge the part you played. The more you understand how the choices you made affected the relationship, the better you’ll be able to learn from your mistakes—and avoid repeating them in the future.

Some questions to ask yourself:

  1. Step back and look at the big picture. How did you contribute to the problems of the relationship?
  2. Do you tend to repeat the same mistakes or choose the wrong person in relationship after relationship?
  3. Think about how you react to stress and deal with conflict and insecurities. Could you act in a more constructive way?
  4. Consider whether or not you accept other people the way they are, not the way they could or “should” be.
  5. Examine your negative feelings as a starting point for change. Are you in control of your feelings, or are they in control of you?

You’ll need to be honest with yourself during this part of the healing process. Try not to dwell on who is to blame or beat yourself up over your mistakes. As you look back on the relationship, you have an opportunity to learn more about yourself, how you relate to others, and the problems you need to work on. If you are able to objectively examine your own choices and behavior, including the reasons why you chose your former partner, you’ll be able to see where you went wrong and make better choices next time.

More help for grief

Resources and references

Coping with a breakup or divorce

Coping with Separation and Divorce – Helpful tips on how to cope with and recover from a separation, divorce, or relationship breakup. (Mental Health America)

Recovering from a Break-up – Article describes what you can to do recover after a breakup, including how to cope with painful feelings and learn from past mistakes. (UC Riverside Counseling Center)

Divorce Matters: Coping with Stress and Change (PDF) – Practical guide to restructuring family life and coping with the loss and change that come along with separation and divorce. (Iowa State University)

Relationship Break-Up Living in the Void – Tips for making it through the pain of divorce and feeling your grief. (Thriveafterdivorce.com)

Finding support after a breakup or divorce

Find a DivorceCare group meting near you - Worldwide directory of support groups for people going through a separation or divorce. (DivorceCare)

Authors: Jeanne Segal, Ph.D., Gina Kemp, M.A., and Melinda Smith, M.A. Last updated: April 2017.