How to Get Over a Bad Break-up
I originally wrote this post in August 2020, 3 years after my husband left and my life changed completely. Here we are in April 2022. Our divorce was finalised last month. I still love this post, so I've updated it to make it as useful to you as it can be.
The key takeaway is: when you experience life changing loss, and your whole world wobbles on its axis, it's important to do everything you can to show yourself grace and love.
I suggest 10 different approaches that will support you through hard times. (And they are relevant whatever your situation, so click here to skip straight ahead to the list if the specifics of break ups don't interest you).
The End of the Marriage
It is more than three years since the abrupt and surprising end of my marriage. It has, and continues to be, a tough road to emotional recovery.
What I know is this: there is no getting over a break-up. All you can do is get through it. Right through the middle. No skirting round the side or hopping over the top. You just have to plough straight into it until you emerge at the other side.
In this post I’ll talk about managing the immediate aftermath, and what will make it easier to be a whole person once the dust has settled.
I’ve mentioned before in the blog that the end of my relationship was sudden, unexpected, and unwanted. I never in a million years thought that this kind of thing would happen to me. It seemed like the stuff you read on the cover of a tawdry magazine. Something distant that only happened to people that weren’t paying attention.
I’ve since read (of course I have, I researched the crap out of this thing) that this kind of relationship dissolution is on the rise. Ones where the partner that is left (the wife usually) has no clue what is coming, and thinks that they are in a happy committed relationship. And then. Bang. It all blows up.
And suddenly there is devastation and uncertainty, and a void where the person that would have helped you through this used to stand.
All break-ups are sad and difficult.
But there is something totally disorienting about an unexpected split. Especially when the relationship has been a very long one. Everything has to be re-thought. The past, the present, and the future.
There is doubt about what was, and utter confusion about what is ahead. Like many others that find themselves shocked in this way I couldn’t sleep or eat for months. Not because I didn’t want to, but because my mind and body were traumatised and all normal functioning ceased. I couldn’t even muster the focus to watch tv. There was no escape, no anodyne.
Seeking professional support after a break up
I sought help immediately in the form of therapy, and although just having a chance to let off steam and to talk it through helped, for the most part I felt completely mis-understood.
I wanted my husband to come home. I wanted to understand. I wanted to change myself to make things better.
My doctor told me in the immediate aftermath “he’s a bastard, this will be the best thing that ever happened to you, you’ll meet someone so much better in no time”; the couples counsellor berated me while I cried hysterically “sometimes there are no answers, you just have to accept that”, and my kindly counsellor said “you aren’t getting better, maybe you should consider medication”.
With hindsight, what do I think of this diverse advice?
I didn’t want the doctor to judge my husband. I didn’t want anyone to. This was a man that I loved all my adult life. For twenty-three years. For better and for worse.
What he did was terrible, and unfathomably cowardly, but I couldn’t reconcile that with the kind gentle person I knew.
After time I did meet someone new, someone absolutely lovely. But that doesn’t take away the sadness or the confusion of what went before. I don’t think that it’s right to expect that from any person or relationship.
I consider the relationship counsellor the very worst therapist I have ever been to.
She was impatient and lacking in compassion, when the opposite was required. There is some truth in what she said, perhaps. If what she meant was that seeking “closure” by understanding his motives would not bring the hoped-for comfort.
Knowing why it happened wouldn’t change the outcome, or the powerlessness, or the loss of control. But it is still perfectly natural to want answers. It is a part of grief. And I was grieving.
The kindly counsellor was relatively inexperienced and was worrying that she was not seeing results. The end of a marriage has the same effect on the brain as a loss where a person dies does. And so time and talking and accepting your feelings are so important.
With hindsight, seeing her once a week for twelve weeks was a godsend. Nothing much was achieved, but the routine, the talking, and the kindness helped. I took her advice and took anti-anxiety medication for the first time in my life. It may or may not have helped, I can’t be sure because taking it coincided with other changes I made. But I don’t regret the decision.
Suffice to say though, that the whole thing blew my world apart and had seismic repercussions in every single area of my life. So what did I learn about how to get over (or through) a bad break-up that could help others in the same situation?
10 Ways to Recovery After a Break Up (or life changing loss)
1. After a Loss Dismiss Trite Advice
Oh the platitudes people use. They use them to avoid the discomfort. They use them because they are scared. They use them because they don't know what else to say. Their platitudes aren't a reflection on you or your unique situation.
time heals all wounds
(it doesn’t, it really doesn’t. But after time it won’t feel as raw or as scary)
everything happens for a reason
(nonsense, sometimes things happen in a completely random way, there is no grand plan, sometimes it's just absolute shitty bad luck).
There are so many of these that people wheel out because they can’t engage fully with your pain.
Be really focused on what you need not on these hackneyed platitudes.
2. Practice Radical Acceptance
When experiencing uncertainty it is easy to want to believe that things can and will be different. And perhaps they will. But in the moment make sure that you accept your currently reality as it is.
You don’t have to want it or agree with it, but acknowledging how things really are for you right now, gives you the space to focus on the here and now, and on yourself.
Then you can do the things that will make you feel stronger and be better able to take care of you. If you focus on why the situation is unfair or why it should be different, you relinquish your control.
3. Focus on you
This can be a major mind shift.
Moving from “we” to “I” is hard.
But focusing on yourself, and taking care of you, is the most important thing you can do. Think about the kindest and most compassionate support you would extend to a friend in the same situation and do that same thing for yourself. Over and over again.
4. Occupy yourself
Even if every action is suffused with panic, get outside, be around people, talk, try new things – try not to be alone all of the time.
5. Get active
Moving your body takes the focus away from your thoughts, and helps to use up adrenaline, and all the other troublesome but mysterious hormones that are making you jittery with a racing heart.
If you don’t exercise already try different things to figure out what you like.
Don’t limit yourself.
Even if you think you don’t like something, you could be wrong. (I discovered that I love playing tennis while previously I thought I hated it).
It doesn’t have to be a sport - walking, cleaning, moving in any way is good for your heart and soul as well as your body.
6. Start saying yes
It’s a documented fact that as we couple-up we tend to withdraw socially.
Start experimenting with saying yes to invitations.
I did things in the aftermath of my break-up that I would never have done before. It gave me a whole new understanding of me and what I liked.
For example, one of my friends invited me for dinner with a big group of female friends that I didn’t know. I was 41, they were all in their mid-twenties. Previously I would have made my excuses, too self-conscious to join in.
But I went along, we ate at a vegan pop-up, they talked about work and studying, and it was glorious.
I had so much fun.
That one event has changed my attitude to trying new things completely, even now. I never shy away from new situations like I used to.
That aspect of breaking up made me feel so liberated.
7. Affirm yourself
Your self-esteem can take a huge knock after a break-up.
I’ve never held much truck with sticking affirmation post-its to mirrors. But I made an exception when I had nobody but me to pick me up.
Or rather I wrote in marker pen on big pieces of paper and fished them out when I needed them.
Choose things that don’t make you cringe, for me that’s pretty tame, like “I am a strong and resourceful person”.
8. Celebrate small wins
At sad times it can be easy to dismiss the good things. Make sure you take notice of what goes right every day. Even if they are tiny things. This will make you feel so much more positive because you’ll know that even in the maelstrom of misery life can still present happy or triumphant moments.
You can still find pockets of happiness, however small.
9. Don’t try to suppress your feelings
You will doubtless go through hundreds of different emotions. It can be very uncomfortable and sometimes scary. When they crop up, be sure to honour them, to be kind to yourself and remind yourself that the feelings will pass.
10. Date if and when you are ready
If you go looking for a better replacement to your ex, you are likely to have a miserable time.
Likewise if you think that you shouldn’t date until you have been single for long enough and come to know yourself fully, you will be closing off an important avenue of growth.
We are social creatures and we know ourselves through our relationships with others. Simply being alone won't give you privileged knowledge of who you are, although this is a fairly prevalent opinion (remember number 1, dismiss trite advice).
Approach dating with an open mind and see it as an opportunity to learn and to meet new people. It can be so empowering to see yourself in new ways, and to understand that your own entrenched views, or the way that your ex-partner saw you do not completely define you.
If you do date be sure that you set boundaries around the behaviours you are prepared to tolerate from others. This is so important when you are feeling vulnerable already.
How are things 5 years post marriage break-up?
I can't quite believe it's been that long.
For a long time after it happened, the grief and the pain was overwhelming. It was a matter of years, if I'm honest. And I have just got got to the point where I don't feel haunted by it anymore.
A lot of that is because of my brilliant therapist, Danielle. She created the space for me to talk and talk until I didn't need to talk about it anymore, and the veil magically lifted. And a lot of it is because of my partner, Steve, who said very early on in our relationship "of course you are upset, you will probably cry about it sometimes when you are 83".
I'm also pleased that I chose to heal myself rather than succumbing to bitterness.
If after a relationship ends you can focus on yourself, building strength, renewing your love for yourself, you will be in a good position to be happier and healthier when the immediate hurt has subsided.
Whatever your future holds, know that a break up is both an ending and a beginning.
So end well if you can, and begin from a position of strength by giving yourself all of the advantages of self-care that you can muster.
If you have read this because you are in the midst of a break-up, and are wondering which steps you could take to re-build, you might also want to consider change coaching which can support you in finding the best new beginning for you.
Further Info on Relationships and Break-ups
Relationship counsellor Andrew G Marshall has written lots of books about the end of relationships that I found gave me courage and insight.
Psychotherapist Esther Perel was also a source of comfort and knowledge about relationship dynamics – she has written several books, hosts a podcast and numerous talks on youtube.
The Gottman Institute take a research based approach to relationships, and can help you understand why relationships end, and how to strengthen existing relationships.