How To Get Over A Break Up: As Told By Science

We’ve all been there. Whether you were sixteen at the sidelines of the Homecoming dance floor, or twenty-eight alone in a bed for the first time in six years.

I was recently in a heart-wrenching, hope-killing, fulfilling-the-man-hating-feminist-stereotype, break up. After nearly three years and in the midst of many friends’ engagements, it all came to a crash and I crashed with it.

This break up recently entered into a conversation of mine, and I was asked the big question: what happened? Just as simply, the person also asked, so what did you do?

What did I do? Well, it didn’t happen over night and it’s not one size fits all. It’s taken a long time, some steps where the first few days and others were a few months later, but I’ll tell you what I did. In no particular order:

Number One: I Told Others What Happened to Help Accountability

Soon afterwards I told a few close friends exactly how it fell apart; what he did, what I did, and all the dirty details. This allowed others to understand the extend of the hurt I was feeling and created an accountability of sorts– by telling others, I would not be able to act like it wasn’t as bad as it was, that it never happened, and entertain any romanticized memories of the event.

Brian Boutwell is an evolutionary psychologist from St. Louis University who states, “Falling in love presents very much like an addictive process… You have this drive to get that fix in the form of being around the person that you care about… Whereas emotionally it can be quite a big deal, and [breakups] can be a risk factor for depression, which is no clinical condition to take lightly.” By keying others into the truth of my feelings and the context of the break up, I was held to an accountability to take care of it and myself truthfully.

Number Two: I Wrote Him A Letter

This was due to the suggestion of a close friend. Over the course of a few days, I wrote a letter that ended up being two pages, single spaced filled with the factors that I felt led up to the break up, as well as the aftermath of the break up a few days and then a few weeks afterwards. I never gave it to anyone, I never reread it. I wrote it and I threw it away. By writing this letter I was able to have a final communication of sorts.

Research has shown the extent to which this can be an important part of a “relationship dissolution,” aka break up, for some people. Researcher Gary Lewandowski states “writing about the break-up is an effective coping strategy for a few reason: It’s relatively quick and easy to do, it’s inexpensive, and its accessible…Psychologically, we know that writing about events helps people understand the event more clearly. In the case of break-up, these writing prompts force people to think about break-up in a way that most people don’t.”

Number Three: I Blocked Him On Everything

This is a common suggestion when working through a break up but its importance is often understated. Deleting and blocking him on social media outlets–Facebook, Snapchat, text, and even LinkedIn–gave me control of if and when he entered back into my life during my recovery.

Researcher Leah LeFebvre, a dating and relationships professor at the University of Wyoming, calls this “withdrawing access,” a common recovery strategy “in order to manage relationship termination.”

Number Four: I Stopped Saying His Name

Some time after the break up I still found him creeping into my everyday conversation. I was often saying his name in connection with a story or thought I was sharing, even positive ones, to the point where I felt he was in every thought I had. Per the suggestion of my mother, one day I no longer allowed myself to say his name. I first replaced his name with “my ex” then began to removed him from the scene when describing the memory altogether. The story “I went kayaking there late year with my ex,” turned to “I went kayaking there last year.” Soon, even my friends were catching on, removing his name from their vocabulary and our shared memories.

Research has shown that long-term relationships can result in an interconnection of memories where couples become part of an interpersonal cognitive system, and that each person depends on the other to fill in certain memory gaps and create cognitive paths. It can take some time, but these memories can soon belong to the single individual instead of feeling shared through changes in the cognitive process of recalling the memory.

Number Five: I Made A Sad Playlist and I Cried

I created a playlist of all the songs that described how I was feeling, songs that related to our break up, and songs that would hypothetically get my point across of how I felt. The song Drinkin’ Too Much expressed the regrets, You Don’t Know told others outside of the relationship how I was feeling, and I Have Questions was my song directly to him.

It’s healthy to mourn the break up rather than wallow in the sadness. I allowed myself appropriate time and space to feel, using the songs to ground myself in that moment while it played and to remove myself from that moment when it was over. This technique uses both grounding skills–using sensory stimulation such as music to stay in the present–as well as a twist on containment skills, containing my emotions to this moment, knowing I can revisit the song when needed.

Number Six: I Started Therapy

After a decent amount of time had passed and I was still mourning my break up more than I was personally comfortable with, I decided to seek out professional help. As a professional in the area of social work, for sometime I felt self-applying the skills of my education was all I needed. Little did I know the amount to which speaking to another professional even months afterwards would help me.

Identity disruption–the feeling of “who am I without you” or self-concept content change– is common among both the individual left and the individual leaving the relationship. Research states that individuals in this study “experienced self-concept content change and reduced self-concept clarity post-breakup. Additionally, reduced clarity uniquely predicted post-breakup emotional distress.” This can be one of the major underlying issues that an individual can face post-break up, that can cause them the most distress, and is often successfully combated through therapy.

Each or any of these steps may not work for all individuals, but they can be useful and are scientifically proven to be of potential help in a rough break up. Thanks to these, I can now say that These Days is now the song I play and I sing:

“Love is just a tool
To remind us who we are
And that we are not alone
When we’re walking in the dark.”



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