Grief differs between people and situations, but the steps for moving on are universal.
No matter how long you’ve been with a partner, for many, a breakup can feel like a big ol’ sucker punch to the stomach — and heart.
The emotions that follow the end of a relationship run high and can range from sadness and despair to anger and frustration. Some find they develop depression or experience post-traumatic relationship disorder, while others may rely on vices such as alcohol to help them through.
But can these responses be classed as grief — and, if so, what can be done about them?
Grief is primarily associated with the death of a loved one — but it’s not limited to this event alone. It’s OK to grieve over a relationship and not feel ashamed or awkward about doing so.
“Grief is very much a [natural] human reaction to a relationship ending. [It] is the process of working through a broken heart,” explains Dr. Lauren Ogren, a licensed marriage and family therapist in California.
Remember: While there may not have been a physical loss, per se, you’ve still lost something that held great significance.
Ogren notes It is:
- the loss of a current way of life
- mourning the memories of the past
- a letting go of the dreams and hopes of the future of the relationship
Kübler-Ross listed them as:
But it’s “important to mention that these stages were developed in reference to discovering one has a terminal illness,” states Ogren — and, when it comes to breakup grief, “there is no linear progression.”
“It’s [typical] to fluctuate between feelings,” concurs Dr. Cadmona A. Hall, a psychologist and associate professor at Adler University in Chicago. “One day, you might be incredibly sad. Another day, you could be feeling relieved and happy to move forward with a new life.”
Ogren explains that emotions and reactions during the grieving process can vary and include:
There’s no one-size-fits-all level for emotions, and numerous factors can influence a person’s grief response.
“The intensity, meaning, and significance of the relationship” are key players in breakup grief, reveals Joanna Kaminski, a licensed marriage and family therapist at Clarity Therapy NYC in New York.
A relationship’s duration is a critical factor, largely thanks to the influence of time on our memory and associated emotions. “The longer the relationship, the more memories we have to elicit, which can prolong the grief process,” states Ogren.
When we’re faced with “something like a smell, song, or picture that reminds us of a memory of an ex, this neural pathway [between memory and emotion] can be triggered,” she explains.
Our brains cannot recognize that the trigger is related to memory and not a real-time event. Ogren says that it “tells the nervous system to elicit a physical response, such as a fluttering in the stomach or dry mouth,” and these are difficult to ignore.
Remember when those raging teenage hormones made everything feel more intense? Similar effects can occur as an adult, Ogren says.
For instance, having a child with your ex-partner can elicit a deeper connection, she notes, “as the hormonal spikes when you introduce a new child into your relationship creates deep and lasting bonds and memories.”
Plenty of clichés suggest men are ‘less emotional’ than women and, therefore, might not mourn the end of a relationship. But the reality is somewhat different.
“Thoughts and feelings related to grief aren’t gendered. Everyone experiences grief,” says Hall. Instead, she notes, gender stereotypes mean that “men are often socialized to avoid or suppress displays of emotion.”
A 2015 study of over 5,700 individuals found that while women feel higher emotional and physical pain after a breakup, men will feel the hurt for longer. Meanwhile, a 2021 study of over 184,600 people discovered that men were likelier to discuss their relationships and heartache online.
Ultimately, Kaminski says, “there is no one rule that fits any gender in particular, and stereotyping, in general, is not a good idea from a therapeutic standpoint.”
Grief can feel overwhelming and never-ending at times, but several approaches can help you ease its impact and move on to happier days.
Take your time
Friends might share how long their grief lasted following a breakup, but know there’s no set time limit for the process to take.
“The long-held rule of thought regarding grief is that it’s a very personal experience that is completely dependent on the individuality of the person involved,” explains Kaminski. So don’t beat yourself up if it’s taking longer to deal with your emotions than you might like or expect.
She adds that grief has to last 6 months or more to be classed as “complicated grief,” although it can also depend on circumstances.
Don’t avoid your feelings
Kaminski reveals that trying to eliminate feelings of grief “may be counterproductive.”
Indeed, research indicates doing so may have the opposite effect on our mental state. A 2005 study found that trying to quash thoughts and feelings around breakup grief led to participants having more negative thoughts than those who talked about them.
Instead, Ogren recommends acknowledging and honoring that you have strong feelings of sadness due to an end of:
- emotional connection
“Allow yourself some time, whether that’s a weekend or a few minutes at the end of the day, to feel the feelings you are feeling,” she continues. In doing so, “we’re validating our experience and are able to move through the grief process with honor.”
Get support from family, friends, or a therapist
Having “a community of support will [positively] impact the grief process,” shares Hall. Trusted friends and family members can:
Seeking help from a therapist is also an option, says Kaminski, as they “will stay with us, regardless of how sad we’re coming across.”
Engage in some TLC
“It sounds cliché, but this is a time to focus on self-care,” says Hall. “Not luxury trips and spa days, but rediscovering activities that bring joy or trying something new, like a language course, or writing the book you’ve always talked about.”
Create new memories
Rather than going to places that can stir up memories of your relationship or ex, you can take the opportunity to form new memories that (in the words of Marie Kondo) “spark joy.”
Ogren suggests waking up the brain and allowing for new memories to form by letting your attention shift to the present moment and the world around you. She says you might try:
- going to different coffee shops
- buying new clothes or getting a new hairstyle
- taking a new route to work
Following the ending of a relationship, “even if you’re the person who initiated the breakup,” Hall notes that grief is a natural process.
There are no set stages of healing that individuals go through, and the emotional response will be influenced by factors such as:
- the length and intensity of the relationship
- the reasons behind the breakup
- potential attachment issues
Some days, it might feel like the grief will last forever — but there is light at the end of the tunnel, particularly if you implement coping strategies.
“You may still be hit with a wave at times. But the more you accept and work through the grief process with honesty, the more you will be able to see the wave coming — and I know there are calm seas ahead,” Ogren assures.