4 tips for navigating a painful break-up

Breaking up is hard to do. People consistently rate the ending of a close romantic relationship as one of life’s most distressing events. Depending on the details of the breakup, the pain that follows has been likened to that of a traumatic event or the complex grief that arises after a deep loss. On the bright side, research tells us that painful breakups are the perfect opportunity for stress-related growth, where individuals grow beyond their previous level of functioning in the wake of a traumatic or stressful event. Here are four ways to promote stress-related growth following the end of a relationship.

It’s Okay to Cry

Here are four tips for navigating a painful break up.

Break-ups can trigger strong emotional responses. The experience of rejection is common and so painful that it can impair normal activities. If the breakup involved a betrayal or deception, the resulting symptoms can resemble those of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. The way that we process and express these strong emotions can affect the intensity and longevity of distress following a break-up. One study showed that expression of emotion (e.g. through crying) can lead a person from a state of distress to a place of personal growth post-relationship. In contrast, avoidance or suppression of emotions contributes to distress. Acceptance of painful thoughts and feelings is crucial for navigating this difficult journey from pain to personal growth and well-being. Part of that process is allowing your thoughts and feelings to come, without trying to change them or push them away. This can be a painful and frightening process, so make sure your support system is close by. If you don’t regularly see a therapist or counselor, this may be a great time to seek assistance in processing deep emotions.

Tell Your Story

Break-ups can also leave us feeling lost and confused, particularly for those who didn’t initiate the split. People often create and recreate stories to help them understand and explain the events that led to the end of the relationship. You may also feel the impulse to vent to friends and loved ones about all the negative aspects of the relationship and ex-partner, but this also leads to continued distress. Individuals who express more positivity following a break-up (e.g. what they learned from the relationship) experience more positive emotion in the days to follow.

It may be helpful to spend 15-30 minutes writing a narrative about the relationship that focuses on the positive. The story will likely contain attributions, or explanations for how the relationship came to an end. Although the impulse may be to place all the blame on the ex-partner, these types of attributions usually lead to continued distress. Individuals who can find environmental (e.g. work-related stress) and relational (e.g. poor communication) explanations for the break-up end up being more confident and competent in subsequent relationships. Creating a story can help reduce any confusion around the break-up that perpetuates distress, highlighting areas for tangible changes that can improve the quality of your next relationship.

Take Time to Rediscover Yourself

Throughout the course of a relationship, romantic partners often weave aspects of the other person into their own self-concept, creating an intertwining of identities. For example, you may find yourself enjoying rock climbing after dating an outdoor enthusiast. This process is beneficial during the relationship, but can produce distress when the relationship ends. You may choose to keep aspects of yourself that were defined by your ex-partner, or you may choose to let them go. Either way, this re-negotiation often leaves people with less clarity in the way they define themselves, which can contribute to confusion and distress.

It’s important to take the time to rediscover yourself by pursuing activities you once loved, but may not have had time for during the relationship. This can help to restore self-concept clarity, which promotes personal growth and emotional well-being following a break-up. This may take the form of a change in appearance, social circles, activities, or even values and goals. What is most important is that you get to decide, as this process is about restoring your perception of who you are and redefining your preferences and beliefs. When all is said and done, you may have a more solid understanding of your desires and needs than you did before the start of the relationship, which can help you better navigate future relationships.

Remember that You Are Worthy of Love

Perhaps one of the most painful aspects of break-ups is that they can leave you feeling alone and empty. The pain of rejection may lead you to believe that you are somehow responsible for the relationship’s end, or that the break-up was due to some inadequacy in you. A relationship partner can be our biggest support and source of love and validation, so the loss of a partner can be a big hit to self-esteem. If you are experiencing self-deprecating emotions, see if you can turn that negative self-talk into self-love.

One way to practice this is through a loving-kindness meditation, in which you cultivate the feelings of love, kindness, and compassion that you may experience for someone else in your life (e.g. a family member or a pet), and direct those feelings toward yourself. The idea is to remind you that you are just as worthy of kindness and compassion as your loved ones, or anyone else in the world. Here are a few links to loving-kindness meditations you can listen to online for. During your practice, see if you can also direct that same love and kindness toward the countless men and women who are also suffering through a painful break-up at this moment, because you are certainly not alone.

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