When we enter into a relationship with someone, we often fantasize about the “happily ever after” that we assume we will eventually reach. After all, we all want the fairytale ending, right?
Unfortunately, though, we don’t always reach that forever and always stage with every relationship we enter. In fact, nearly half of all marriages (which should last forever) end in divorce these days.
So, experiencing a breakup or feel like it’s only a matter of time before everything falls apart, know that you’re not alone.
In fact, with the right information in your back pocket, you may even find that you can bounce back from a breakup reasonably quickly.
Luckily for you, psychologists and other experts love to study breakups and how they impact us all.
With a bit of reading, you can not only learn how to handle your breakup, but how to ultimately heal your broken heart and find the courage to look for love again… when you’re ready.
What are the 7 stages of a breakup?
There’s no denying that breakups suck. Breakups cause us to experience a similar grieving process to the grief we experience when a loved one passes away.
In fact, Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby, clinical director of Growing Self Counseling and host of the podcast Love, Happiness & Success says that a breakup is a process with seven highly defined stages of emotional responses.
Stage 1: Shock and Denial
While we sometimes see the writing on the wall, breakups still often catch us off guard.
When someone breaks up with you, you may initially ask yourself: “What just happened?” You may feel conflicted about the situation and even crave your ex’s attention shortly after the breakup.
Whatever you’re feeling, don’t panic; it’s normal.
Stage 2: Extreme Sadness and Grief
Once you’ve finally worked yourself out of the initial shock of the breakup, you will more than likely experience extreme sadness.
In fact, author and family therapist Tristan Coopersmith refers to this as the stage of isolation. Coopersmith says, “You may draw your blinds and not even leave the house. Sitting in silence, [with] a pint of ice cream feels better than going outside and admitting to the world that it’s over.”
Stage 3: Anger
Regardless of who ended the relationship or why most of us experience some form of anger as we process the breakup more.
You may feel angry with your ex for leaving you or hate yourself for allowing things to end. Take time to process your anger so that you can move on.
Stage 4: The Competitive Streak
Even after the anger subsides, you still feel heartbroken and awful, right? That doesn’t mean you want your ex to know that!
While you post sexy pictures on Instagram to make your ex jealous, Dr. Bobby says this phase can actually help you rebuild your confidence.
Stage 5: Apathy and Moving On
Eventually, the rapid cycle of emotional turmoil takes a toll on all of us. However, Cosmopolitan’s sex and relationship editor Taylor Andrews says that this phase of disengagement is exactly what you need to move on.
Stage 6: Acceptance
Stage 7: Hope
As your acceptance deepens, psychologist Suzanne Lachmann says that you will eventually reach “an opportunity to redirect the life force of hope.”
During this final phase, you begin to see that life goes on and you may even start finding love again. This makes all the other phases worth it.
How do you handle the end of a relationship?
While the seven stages of a breakup happen fairly naturally, we all have a choice when it comes to how we decide how we handle our emotions and unresolved issues at the end of a relationship.
In fact, clinical psychologist Antonio Pascual-Leone says that people resolve these lingering problems in three distinct steps.
- First, you must untangle and identify your feelings surrounding the breakup.
- Then, you must determine what you really need in order to move on.
- Finally, you must spend some time looking at the end of the relationship to determine what potential losses are really plaguing you.
To better understand these three steps and hear how Dr. Pascual-Leone recommends you handle the end of your relationship, check out his TEDx talk from 2019:
What does heartbreak feel like?
The fascinating thing about heartbreak is the way we physically feel it. According to The Little Book of Heartbreak: Love Gone Wrong Through the Ages’ author Meghan Laslocky, “you feel pain somewhere in your body—probably in your chest or stomach.”
You may experience heartache as a dull ache within their chest. You may also feel like your body is physically being crushed or squeezed.
Even more, you may also experience a severe, piercing pain as if someone jabbed a dagger directly into your heart.
The physical sensations and pains you feel may last a few minutes or linger for days. You may even find the physical pain drains you and leaves you unable to get out of bed, just like a back injury or migraine would similarly debilitate you.
When it comes to the emotional feelings associated with heartbreak, they mainly line up with the typical feelings that clinical depression causes.
Heartbreak will likely leave you feeling weepy-eyed, heavy, and sluggish.
How do you heal a broken heart?
Obviously, healing after a breakup is no easy task. However, if you allow yourself enough time, you can put the pieces of your broken heart back together.
To heal, you must first allow yourself to process the grief that comes with the breakup and let yourself work through the complex strand of emotions that come with ending a relationship.
Also, it’s important that you spend some time focusing on why things ended. As licensed clinical therapist Chamin Ajjan says, “You need to accept the reality of why the relationship has ended so you can get past it.”
There’s a really powerful quote in the movie The Tale of Despereaux that really pinpoints how to heal a broken heart: “There is one emotion that is stronger than fear, and that is forgiveness.” Ultimately you must forgive your ex and yourself so that you can heal.
Most importantly, though, you must take this time after breaking up to heal your broken heart from within yourself. Buddha even said that attachment leads to suffering, so what better solution then to detach from your ex and spend time with yourself?
Take yourself on dates, pick up a new hobby, or just focus on your career or other aspects of your life.
It may feel impossible at first, but the more you assert your independence and show yourself some love, the more you’ll start feeling whole again.
What are the psychological effects of breaking up?
We all know that breakups do horrible things to our brains. In fact, numerous studies have proven that ending any sort of romantic relationship impacts our emotions and brain functionality for a significant amount of time.
According to Melanie Greenberg Ph.D, we develop obsessive thinking anytime we experience a breakup. We often ruminate about our ex and wonder how they’re handling the breakup.
These psychological effects resemble our brain’s response to trauma, which explains why we struggle so much in the days and weeks after a breakup.
What’s more, we may even “crave” our partners again, even after they broke our heart. A research time led by anthropologist Helen Fisher recently discovered that missing your significant other engages the same parts of your brain as drug addicts experiencing withdrawal.
So, in other words, breakups cause our brains to obsess and crave, leaving us feeling traumatized and in a state of withdrawal.
What are the physical effects and symptoms?
As I mentioned, you’ll likely feel heartache in your chest. However, the feelings of heartbreak don’t just end there.
According to Naomi Eisenbuerger, a UCLA assistant professor of psychology, a breakup engages the same area of your brain that fires when you sustain a physical injury. This, in turn, causes your body to release stress hormones like cortisol and epinephrine.
As a result of these stress hormones, you’ll likely feel tense. You may even experience headaches, neck stiffness, and swelling in your arms and legs.
Also, a clinical psychologist and author, Christina Hibbert warns that “sleep can also be seriously impacted.
Insomnia or hypersomnia are common with the loss of a significant relationship, and these can lead to other physical health issues.”
You may even find your face breaking out even worse than usual. What’s more, you may crave certain foods (bring on the ice cream!) or lose your appetite completely.
All of this is simply your body’s automatic response to the distress of a broken heart.
How long does a heartbreak take to heal?
They say that “time heals all wounds,” but how much time do they actually mean?
Well, according to a 2014 research study, most people make little or no progress towards healing within the first four months following a breakup.
According to Dr. Dana Dawson who headed the study, "The general belief was this condition was recovering itself very rapidly, but this was obviously not the case when we investigated in greater detail.”
The Friendly Psychologist founder Jacqui Manning says, “The first 12 months are the hardest.” However, Manning points out that the exact amount of time it takes to heal varies from person to person.
"Some people process feelings quite quickly. However, most of us like to run away from our feelings, which obviously prolongs the healing process," Manning says.
So, the ultimate advice? Don’t run away from your feelings and avoid them. Process that stuff so you can move on!
What are you waiting for?
I know that right now, the world may seem dark, and your body likely feels heavy. I hope that in the coming days, you’ll remember that it’s okay for you to cry or even stay in bed.
This isn’t a race to recover from a breakup as fast as you can — it’s about taking the time you need to heal.
My biggest piece of advice to you is this: Don’t fight your feelings. Allow yourself the time to grieve, to feel angry, and ultimately move on.
Remember that these things take time and you won’t feel like a new woman overnight, no matter how many drinks you have with your besties.
Whether it takes six months or even a year, though, you’ll eventually find hope again and feel ready to move on.
But for now? Cry, eat candy, burn every picture of your ex you own — do whatever it takes to help yourself heal your broken heart.