Breakups are unique and often painful, but can present a rare opportunity for self-reflection and growth.
Breakups can mean different things to different people, depending on their circumstances. Did you initiate the relationship’s end? Or maybe you accepted it, even though breaking up might be the total opposite of what you want.
Breakups involve change and loss, and all these feelings can affect you in the aftermath.
In the wake of a relationship ending, you may find yourself going through common stages of grief. You may sometimes grieve your ex, and other times grieve your lost identity tied to the relationship.
A major relationship’s end can affect people emotionally, socially, and cognitively. However, a period of healing is also very common. Some people even report coming out of a rough breakup feeling better, as though they have grown into a new phase of themselves.
Research suggests the long-term positive effects of a breakup can include:
- an increased understanding of yourself
- a greater sense of purpose
- a new level of readiness for future relationships
Ellen Nicola, PhD, observed that in her experience, “every person is unique in how they handle loss or endings.” According to the North Carolina-based psychologist, “context matters.”
Factors affecting how you feel after a breakup can include:
- whether or not you initiated it
- your relationship history
- how you generally handle complex emotions
Even when the stages of grief apply, “those stages are not necessarily linear,” says Nicola, “nor is a terminated relationship always cause for grief, but sometimes relief.”
In text analyses of 1,027,541 posts from 6,803 Reddit Users, researchers found that their language laid bare the emotional and cognitive consequences of a breakup.
The study showed shifts in language even in forums unrelated to relationships that lasted about 6 months (sometimes to a year) after the breakup:
- “I” words increased, suggesting an internal focus and sometimes depression.
- “We” words were sometimes used by posters still trying to understand their ex, but generally disappeared over time.
- Cognitive processing words, such as “understand,” “because,” and “would” or “should” arose more frequently post breakup as posters attempted to make sense of life and identity changes.
- Language shifted from analytical to mostly personal and informative.
This study suggests that a romantic breakup can lead to a profound — if temporary — change in consciousness. Many people may make deep efforts to understand and explain their breakups to themselves and other people.
Since breakups involve changes in how people spend their time and their social status, a common reaction to a breakup is grief.
After a breakup, you may find yourself experiencing psychologist Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grief. Many people experience these stages differently, including:
- experiencing them out of order
- going back and forth among them
- resting in one phase longer than others
In this stage, you may find yourself not believing that the breakup is real. You may still refer to your ex-partner frequently or speak in terms of “we.” You may even convince yourself that your ex will come back.
Denial doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll distort reality forever. Usually, it just buys you some time to accept the reality of the change.
If you find yourself daydreaming about the past or even living as if you’re still a couple for a while, it may be reassuring to know that this is common form of self-protection and will likely pass.
The anger phase may feel good for a while, even refreshing. It’s typical to blame your ex, calling up their flaws and past mistakes.
Sometimes, a healthy dose of anger may inspire you to clean house. You might get rid of reminders of your ex or block them from your social media accounts.
Anger may let you know that even if you’re not happy, you’re still alive and capable of action.
This phase may correspond to ruminating and cognitive processing after a breakup. Bargaining is the mind’s way of trying to make sense of what has happened, even twisting facts in the process. “If only I had…” or “If I’d known I would have.”
If you’re in the bargaining phase, you may still very much wish to be in control of your past relationship. With bargaining, you may imagine there’s something you can do that can change the situation.
The reality of loss may sink in during this phase, but it still may be very hard to accept. In this phase, you may experience depression with the following symptoms:
- trouble eating
- difficulty sleeping
- sleeping too much
- desire to isolate
- intense longing for your ex
- preoccupation with the past
This may be part of your grieving process. However, if your symptoms last longer than 2 weeks, intensify, or you have thoughts of suicide, reach out for help.
Remember that you’re not alone and resources are available to you. If you need to talk with someone right away, you can:
- Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 24 hours a day at 800-273-8255.
- Text “HOME” to the Crisis Textline at 741741.
Not in the U.S.? You can find a helpline in your country with Befrienders Worldwide.
This stage is typically less about happiness and more about taking stock. If you’ve begun to accept your breakup, you may be able to see your losses clearly.
Maybe there are things you liked about your ex that you now miss. Maybe you’ve discovered ways you contributed to the relationship’s end and now know what you’ll do differently in your next relationship.
You may also feel grateful for what you still have, like your friends or your job. At this stage, it’s common to begin reaching out for support.
If your relationship was going south for a while before slipping away entirely, you may be tingling with relief. You may find yourself seeking signs from the universe like, “what next?” Or more precisely, “who next?”
It’s natural for the next person you date to be the polar opposite of your last ex. This might be okay for you for a while, but to truly recover from a breakup many experts recommend taking time and space to rebuild yourself.
Rebuilding after a breakup
Many experts agree that it can be helpful in the rebuilding phase to reframe negative thoughts. If you catch yourself in negative self-talk, ask yourself if what you’re saying is really true, then reframe it.
Saying, “I can’t bear to live alone,” might become, “I am not alone. I’ll go for a walk with my friend before work and call my sister after dinner.”
The CDC recommends trying to open yourself up to opportunities for self-expression, like taking up a new hobby such as journaling or gardening.
You can also restore order to your life when you’re feeling emotionally chaotic with daily rituals, such as a morning walk or quiet meditation.
A 2018 longitudinal, multi-informant study of young adults, their romantic partners, and friends found that adopting optimistic perspectives could turn breakups into positive experiences.
It may make you feel better to try thinking of your breakup and past relationship as:
- a romantic exploration that may well parlay into a satisfying long-term relationship down the road
- a learning experience
- a chance to find new ways to grow outside of your former relationship
When moving on from a breakup, it may be beneficial to ask yourself some questions about your next relationship, like:
- What do you want from your next partner?
- What are some positive traits you’d like in the next person you date?
- Do you want to approach your next relationship differently?
Seek out support
Once you’ve had a chance for self-reflection, it may be beneficial to reach out for support. According to a 2021 qualitative description
- friends and counselors who can listen to you and empathize emotionally
- support groups where everyone shares
- pets for companionship and comfort
Just as breakups can be unique, healing can be different for everyone. Typically, healing from a major relationship might take anywhere from 1.5 to 3 years. Marriages that end in divorce tend to need longer periods of healing.
According to a 2021 study on social media and breakups, participants needed about 6 months on average to heal. Others took up to a year, possibly because they stayed stuck in certain stages of grief ruminating on the past.
Every person will need a different amount of time to heal after a painful breakup. If you feel stuck or like it may be taking you longer than what feels appropriate, it may be helpful to reach out to a therapist or counselor for support.
No matter how long you were together, breaking up can be very hard to do. And while different factors may affect how you respond to a breakup, each person’s experience is unique.
Since breakups involve emotional loss as well as major changes to your social life, you may find yourself grieving. Journeying through the five stages of grief is very common during breakups.
You may need to take plenty of time and space to heal yourself and rebuild emotionally before fully moving on after a breakup. Things that may feel especially healing after a relationship split include:
- exploring new hobbies
- leaning on strong support systems
- listening to breakup songs
- joining an online support community for people going through breakups
Reaching out to a therapist or counselor can also be very beneficial to getting through a breakup. If you’re ready to seek help, visit Psych Central’s guide on finding mental health support.
With patience and time, it’s possible to enjoy new autonomy, support, and even new relationships after a breakup.