The first piece of writing I ever had published was about break ups. I wrote it in my last year of high school and it was titled If your heart was truly broken, you’d be dead. That cynical title sets the tone of the piece pretty well. You can read it here, but before you do, let me give a bit of a disclaimer.
I wrote the article a couple of weeks after breaking up with my best friend. I don’t mean that in the obligatory-refer-to-your-significant-other-as-your-best-friend-in-a-Facebook-anniversay-post kind of way; I mean this girl had been my best friend and partner in crime for several years before we starting going out. Our relationship was a John Green novel waiting to happen. Once we started dating, everyone just assumed it was going to last.
The break up was a lot to process, and generally, when I’m trying to process something, I write. So, I figured I would write an article about break ups.
What I quickly realised was that everyone – from gossip magazines to university professors – wanted to weigh in on the topic of romantic rejection, and most of their advice was utter garbage. Seriously, the number of publications that seemed to think getting a pet was the best way to navigate your ‘conscious uncoupling’ was staggering. If I bought an animal every time a relationship ended, I would now posses a rather respectable petting zoo.
But my article was going to be different. It was going to cut right to the heart of the teenaged break-up and speak to the souls of angsty seventeen year-olds everywhere.
Looking back, it’s not actually the greatest piece of writing. Which is fine. I’m sure Michelangelo’s first painting was garbage as well
Don’t get me wrong, I still stand by a lot of what I wrote, particularly the problems around modern dating. That said, I’m no longer a fan of other sections (who says heterosexual men can’t have diaries?!).
It’s been 5 years since I wrote If your heart was truly broken and I’ve certainly had my fair share of break ups in the mean time. So I wanted to tackle this topic again, with a little less cynicism and a lot more straight-up honesty.
Think of this post like a break-up first aid kit – it’s not going to give you everything you need long-term, but it might just help you survive that initial period of brain-melting emotional turmoil where every second thing reminds you of your ex.
1. Let it suck
As a general rule, break ups suck. It’s scientifically proven. A study carried out by Rutgers University found remarkable similarities between the neurological effects of break ups and cocaine addiction. That’s right – cocaine addiction. Your emotional state right now resembles that someone craving a Class-A drug. No wonder the triple-fudge ice-cream doesn’t seem to cut it.
Neuro-imaging scans revealed that both romantic rejection and drug addiction triggered activation in areas of the brain associated with motivation and reward, craving and addiction, and physical pain and distress.
In the next little while, you’re probably going to to be hit with feelings of sadness, anger, confusion, anxiety, disappointment, regret, emptiness, numbness, or all of the above. When faced with this particular emotional cocktail, it’s tempting to chase it down with one of the following items off the Extremely-Poor-Decisions Menu:
1) Drown your sorrows in alcohol, drugs or workaholism.
2) Rebound into another romantic relationship faster than you can say “Tinder.”
3) Pretend you’re fine. Usually through regular social media updates in an irregular number of caps: “Greatest. Night. EVER!”, “W-I-L-D Weekend!!!” #BoysNight #GirlsWeekend #ImTotallyFine #NoReally #IcecreamTastesBetterWithTears.
The problem with all of the above is that they’re temporary distractions. They might defer whatever you’re feeling for a while, but it’s going to catch up with you eventually. When it does, the confrontation probably won’t be improved by a hang-over or an additional broken heart in the mix.
Unfortunately, the only (healthy) way to get thorough a break up is straight through the middle. That probably means feeling like crap for a while, regardless of which side of the break-up you were on. What’s important is accepting where you’re at, and doing whatever you need to do to let yourself feel it – write it down, talk to a friend, listen to an Adele album on repeat. If you need to treat yo’ self, then go for it: stay home, buy a new pair of kicks, adhere to a strict diet of chocolate and bacon.
(I should probably add a caveat here: maybe it won’t suck. Once, when I broke off a relationship that had ended up pretty toxic, there wasn’t really any sadness or anger. Walking away, the overwhelming feeling was one of relief. Every break up is different.)
(Maybe it will suck for way longer than it should, and you’ll need to get some professional help from a counsellor or psychologist. That’s ok too).
2. Love yourself
A liquid diet of tears and melted ice-cream may be exactly what you need on day one, but to restore some sense of normalcy to your life, it’s important to get into good habits.
Eat healthy. You’re already exhibiting neurological symptoms akin to drug withdrawal; the least you can do is provide your body with basic nutrients. You don’t have to throw out the chocolate stashed next to the tissues, but go eat a broccoli or something. And don’t skip meals, even if the only thing you’re hungering for is your ex’s tender embrace.
Get plenty of sleep. By that I mean getting a solid 7+ hours every night, not just falling asleep on the couch with the Princess Bride on repeat. I’ve found few things are more effective at restoring some semblance of emotional equilibrium than a good night’s rest.
Exercise. It releases endorphins (the feel-good chemicals) and you’re probably pretty short on those at the moment. Join a gym, buy a punching bag, or just go for a walk. If you don’t have any kind of exercise routine, make a commitment to do somethign active for 30 minutes, every day, for the next 30 days.
3. Keep busy
After a break-up, I’ve usually felt a significant sense of loss – not (just) because I miss my ex, but because my daily habits were shaped by being in relationship with her. I hadn’t just broken up with the person, I’d broken up with a significant part of my day-to-day life and in its place was this giant empty space.
To escape the void, you’ve gotta keep busy. One of the best ways to do this is to (re)connect with friends and family. Spending time with your squad will help feed your need for human connection, even when all you want to do is hide yourself away like a swamp monster. Plus, talking things over with someone might give you some clarity on the relationship that you can’t see amidst the chaos.
It probably won’t feel like it straight away, but being single actually rocks. You’ve suddenly got a whole bunch of extra free time to learn to surf, improve your culinary prowess, or fix motorcycles. Just whatever you do…
3a. Don’t make any drastic life decisions
You might want to remind yourself that This too shall pass by getting the words tattooed in Old English 72pt font on your rib cage, but hold off for a couple of months. The same goes for changing your hairstyle, place of work/study, and country of residence. If you’re still listening to Adele on repeat, you’re probably not in the best place to make life-lasting decisions.
4. Make a clean break
Even if one of you has dropped the “just friends” bomb, your break up probably isn’t going to lead to a solid friendship. It definitely isn’t going to lead to one right away.
Give yourself some space to work though steps 1-3 and figure out what your life looks like without this relationship. Any contact with your ex can re-open old wounds, so try to go on a total he/she-tox for at least a month. Unfriend them, unfollow them and be sure to remove them as your other half.
Do it now. I’ll wait.
Finally, getting back together a week after you’ve broken up is a TOTAL violation of Steps 1, 2, and 3a. Before you can decide whether it’s worth another shot, or if you should even stay friends, you need to make a clean break for a while.
(Caveat No.2: There might be times when it’s important to communicate with your ex. Maybe you need to return some of their stuff, you’re in the same class, or you’re wondering why your Netflix password has suddenly changed. Where contact is inevitable, keep it civil and keep it to a minimum.)
5. Forgive them
I hope you get to skip this step. Honestly though, for most people, it’s the hardest step of all. This is where the post moves from break-up first-aid to long-term healing.
Even when a relationship ends on good terms, people can still end up hurting. You might blame the other party for what went wrong; something might have been left unsaid, or maybe you’re just struggling to grapple with failed expectations.
If you do end up reading If your heart was truly broken, you’ll notice there’s a distinct lack of anything about forgiveness. At the time of writing, I still hadn’t forgiven my ex. Deep down, I think I believed that as long as I held on to what I was feeling, I’d have some kind of moral high ground.
Truth be told, there’s a whole bunch of reasons why we struggle to forgive – from feeling like we totally hate the other person to just not knowing where to start.
Moving forward, it can be helpful to set out what forgiveness is – and what it isn’t:
Forgiveness is a decision to let go of the grievance you’re holding against someone else – that means letting go of any feelings of bitterness, resentment, and vengeance that are along for the ride.
Forgiving doesn’t mean forgetting. That’s denial.
Forgiving doesn’t mean excusing the wrong or saying it doesn’t matter. It just means letting go of the resentment born out of that wrong. Forgiveness says, “I know what you did. It hurt. But I’m not going to hold it against you.”
Forgiveness doesn’t necessarily mean reconciliation. You don’t have to be best friends with someone after you forgive them. Reconciliation with the person who hurt you is definitely something to be weighed up, but if re-connecting is going to do more harm than good, or it’s just not the right time (see Step 4), then steer clear.
Finally, forgiveness is an act of the will, not an emotion. You don’t have to feel forgiving to forgive. Heck, most of the time you probably won’t, and the hurt you’re feeling probably won’t just disappear. But regardless of how you’re feeling, forgiving will be a massive step on the road to healing.
(If you’re struggling to forgive yourself, click here.)
6. Stay hopeful
On the whole, I’ve found post-break up me goes for one of two worldviews:
1) Super jaded – true love is a myth; romance is nothing more than a chemical concoction phenylethylamine, norepinephrine, dopamine, oxytocin and vasopressin. Besides, I’m a strong independent man who don’t need no woman.
2) Totally devastated – I’ve lost my one true soul-mate. There will never be another (not that it matters, because I’m totally unlovable). Guess I’m doomed to wander alone for all my days.
None of that’s true, but it certainly feels that way when you’re at the bottom of the break-up bell curve:
It’s been agony trying to get through this post without every second line sounding like an inspirational wall-hanging, but I want you to notice something about the bell curve: the only way to go is up.
So let it suck, love yourself, keep busy, DON’T make any drastic life decisions, DO make a clean break, forgive them, and through it all, try to stay hopeful.
Time is the great healer here, and it’s been my experience that the hardest stuff is where we grow the most.