The storm of heartbreak strikes like a hurricane. Sometimes we’re alerted to its arrival by an ominous sign. Often it catches us by surprise; a conversation takes a startling turn or an unexpected text arrives as we busily go about our day.
We think of a broken heart as something that happens to the young, the naive, or the inexperienced. Adults are meant to handle such occurrences as they might any other setback — with maturity and stoicism.
That is, until our own heart gets broken. Then, we will be reminded that heartbreak hurts as much later in life as it did when we were teenagers.
Real heartbreak is unmistakable, from the intensity of the emotional pain it causes, to the totality with which it takes over our minds and even our bodies. We think of nothing else, feel nothing else, care about nothing else.
Often, we feel as if we can do nothing except sit with the pain, grief and loss. These feelings are familiar to most — almost everyone has or will have their heart broken at some point.
As a psychologist who’s had a private practice for more than two decades, I’ve had a front-row seat — or rather, armchair — to hundreds of heartbroken people and their struggles to recover. Looking back at the most dramatic and painful moments I’ve witnessed in my career, heartbreak was behind most of them.
So how do we heal from the devastation of a broken relationship? What can we do to move on?
I’ve read thousands of studies and papers and used many of their insights and techniques to help heartbroken patients recover more quickly. The best of them are listed here as solutions to particular problems you might encounter when a relationship ends.
If your heart is broken, it will take time to mend. But, as you’ll discover, how much time is up to you…
You sit up all night combing through old photos. You call when you know he’s out just to hear his voice on his answerphone. You keep ‘remembering’ things you left at his — a T-shirt, tights, an old Tupperware box. You still think of him so frequently, it’s as if you’re addicted.
In fact, studies of the brain have revealed that romantic love involves the activation of brain structures and neurochemistry associated with addiction. And when our hearts are broken, our brains respond similarly to those of addicts going through withdrawal from a Class A drug.
We become intensely focused on the person who broke our heart and feel strong cravings for them. The lack of contact makes us unable to focus, disturbs our sleep and appetite, causes anxiety, lethargy, irritability, crying spells, depression and intense feelings of need that no one but our heartbreaker can ease.
One of the main factors that allows us to ‘let go’ is having certainty about why the break-up occurred. Listen carefully when your soon-to-be ex tells you why he’s ending the relationship.
Being clear about the reasons helps us to end hopes and fantasies of a reconciliation and move on.
And if you don’t know? If he tells you ‘it’s not you, it’s me’, and that’s it? Don’t go begging for more honesty — you’ll make yourself vulnerable, and nothing will change.
Instead, come up with your own explanation for why the break-up occurred — a best guess that fits the facts, considers your ex’s personality, takes recent history into account and leaves your self-esteem intact. His unwillingness to commit doesn’t mean you’re not a catch.
In the era of social media, the most common way to satisfy a craving for the person who broke your heart is to stalk them digitally.
I once worked with a client who used fake accounts to spy on his ex-girlfriend across Twitter, Facebook and Instagram — and they had split up 20 years ago!
Remove temptation. If we want to avoid deepening the pain of a fresh loss or re-opening the wounds of an old one, we have to eliminate our options to do so.
Be ruthless and thorough. Unfriend, unfollow, block and delete the object of your affections across all social media platforms — and do the same for his friends and family so you can’t scour their accounts for news of him.
End access to his world completely by burning all cyber-bridges.
You open the fridge, realise you’re out of milk and burst into tears; or perhaps you forget your umbrella on a rainy day and feel like screaming.
Worse, you get incredibly irritated with a friend over the smallest disagreement and end up shouting at them down the phone. It’s such strange behaviour, you worry you’re having some sort of breakdown . . .
Fear not. Scientists have proved that the emotional pain of a break-up can flood your body with stress hormone cortisol, which not only suppresses the immune system (you’re more vulnerable to infection in the throes of a split), but also severely taxes your coping mechanisms — which is why tiny irritations seem like the end of the world.
Recognise that it’s normal. When we catch ourselves behaving in unusual ways and worry we might be ‘losing it’, we need to remember our reactions are natural responses to emotional pain.
There are even names for the feelings we go through. In the ‘protest phase’ we’ll do anything to get back with our ex, while the next period of ‘abandonment rage’ is characterised by feelings of fury and devastation.
Reassuring ourselves that we are not going crazy can help us remove at least one source of stress.
When extreme feelings don’t ease after six months, it can be a sign we’ve developed an abnormal response to heartbreak known as ‘complicated grief’, or ‘persistent complex bereavement disorder’.
Studies have shown negative thoughts — particularly thoughts of excessive self-blame — play a crucial and damaging role at this point.
The tendency to blame ourselves when our heart is broken is hardly unusual. Yet constant negative thoughts (‘it must have been something I did wrong’) can sabotage our ability to move quickly through the break-up process, and even cause us obsessively to examine every date to work out what it was we did.
Just as harmful are negative thoughts about our looks or personalities. ‘I wish I were prettier’, or ‘I don’t like my smile’, are unfortunately common, but when these turn to ‘no man will ever want me’, or ‘I’ll be alone for ever’, we’re in thrall to dangerously negative thoughts.
If two different people (other than close family) make the same point (e.g. that people find us attractive or that a break-up wasn’t our fault) we should give it consideration. Especially if we bristle at their suggestion. Why?
First, because two separate people are saying the same thing; and second, because our bristling indicates our resistance is fuelled by an underlying issue, such as low self-esteem, and has nothing to do with whether they’re right or wrong. Let go of self-critical thoughts. They’re not helpful.
Our ‘cravings’ for our ex make us focus disproportionately on their best qualities. We replay all the wonderful moments we shared, imagine their smile, laugh and the times they made us feel happy and content.
We focus much less on their flaws, their annoying habits, the arguments, the times they made us feel terrible and the moments we couldn’t stand them.
By idealising the person and recalling only highly polished versions of our lives with them, we inflate the magnitude of our loss and delay our recovery.
Force yourself to have a balanced perspective about your ex. Remind yourself of your pet peeves — their embarrassing eating habits or chronic lateness, your close friends they never got along with or their defensiveness whenever you tried to discuss an issue.
The idea is not to vilify them, but to see the flaws in them and your relationship. You’ll need to remind yourself of these flaws repeatedly and doing so helps ease worries about never finding someone ‘as perfect’ again.
Our efforts to manage the pain of heartbreak can lead us to make decisions that spare us hurt in the short term, but increase it in the long run.
One of the most common is to withdraw from places and activities that remind us of what we’ve lost — the cafe you’d go to for Sunday brunch, the cinema where you had your first date.
Shunning places you shared is a bad idea. Avoiding things doesn’t lessen their emotional impact — it supersizes it.
We need to ‘cleanse’ our associations with these places, and reclaim them. Revisit favourite restaurants under different circumstances. Take friends for a catch-up or siblings for a birthday. Expect to be haunted by old memories on the first or second outings. After that, the new associations will start to replace the old ones.
All relationships require us to modify how we see ourselves. We substitute ‘I’ and ‘my’ with ‘we’ and ‘our’; we give up individual interests for mutual ones.
But when one ends we’re left dangling and have to reconnect to who we are as individuals. Studies have found that failure to find ourselves again increases and prolongs the psychological distress of a broken heart.
We struggle after a break-up because we are unconsciously continuing to define ourselves by our now-defunct relationship. Don’t let your response to a broken heart — moping or feeling angry — define who you are. Instead, work out who you want to be and which actions support that.
If you love art, but your ex didn’t, get out to galleries. Conversely, if you love cycling and used to cycle with him, don’t stop. Reconnecting to who we were before our ex came along is a vital task, so devote time and careful thought to it.
Psychologists have found a single variable that predicts healthier and quicker emotional adjustment to heartbreak — finding a new partner.
Going on dates when our heart has been broken can feel inappropriate, awkward, disloyal or just wrong. Yet doing so has been shown to ease emotional pain and grief because it reduces our attachment to the person we’ve lost.
Of course no one should sign up to dating sites the day after a split. But we don’t have to wait until we are ‘totally over it.’
We can fight back and move on even if we don’t feel ready to. So get back out there!