When someone breaks up with you, or even when you come to the mutual agreement to end a relationship, it can really sting—but how long those negative feelings last, and what form they take, can vary. No one put it more succinctly than Kacey Musgraves when she sang, “Healing doesn’t happen in a straight line” in her song Justified, about managing the various emotional stages of a breakup.
Indeed, according to therapists, processing a breakup can come with a whirlwind of emotions—and the road to healing is often a winding one. For instance, you might feel sad and then feel mad, and then come back to feeling sad, says therapist Melissa Divaris Thompson, LMFT: “Sometimes, there’s a mishmash of feelings all around.” Almost like the loss of a loved one, the loss of a relationship—and a person in your life—can trigger grief and all the complex emotions that come with it.
A breakup is a form of loss, and the emotional aftermath can chart a similar path as grief
It’s completely normal to feel a soup of emotions after a breakup. After all, breakups are emotionally complex territory because while they involve losing a partner, there’s also the knowledge that this person is still somewhere in the world living their life—just a life of which you’re no longer a part.
“Breakup grief [is a unique kind of grief] because you will love again, and you will be in a relationship again, so it’s not an ending that’s forever,” says trauma-informed therapist and grief counselor Gina Moffa, LCSW, author of the forthcoming book Moving On Doesn’t Mean Letting Go: A Modern Guide to Navigating Loss.
Figuring out how to leave a relationship in the past can also be particularly difficult when the person is still alive and well, and perhaps, you can’t help but wonder what could have been if things had unfolded differently. “People tend to go back and think about the good [parts of the relationship], and then analyze everything, even more so with relationship loss than with death,” says Moffa. That mindset makes it easier to blame yourself for the dissolution of a relationship, she adds. But even if you played a role (it certainly takes two to tango), adding blame into the picture can make it even tougher to manage the emotional stages of a breakup and the loss that the end of a relationship entails.
“People tend to go back and think about the good [parts of the relationship], and then analyze everything, even more so with relationship loss than with death.” —Gina Moffa, LCSW, grief counselor
Just as is true with any type of grief, there’s no set sequence or order of emotional phases you’re bound to experience after a breakup. As unique, layered, and nuanced as breakups can be, so goes healing and recovery.
Even so, there are some hallmark emotional stages of a breakup that you can expect to encounter, says Thompson, including sadness, resentment, and anger. And you could feel them all in the course of a day, or even an hour… or perhaps much, much longer; some days, you might be caught in a rumination spiral, and others might find you overcome with sadness. And maybe on other days, you could feel remarkably complacent and accepting of the relationship being over.
In any case, grieving is a process. And according to both Thompson and Moffa, fully feeling and embracing your emotions—and being patient and kind to yourself as you oscillate between them—is all part of it. “This cycle is what leads to more compassion, more self-love, and changes within us that allow us to progress to the point where we can search for love again,” says Moffa. The important thing to remember? You’re not on any specific timetable for getting to that point.
The 5 emotional stages of processing and healing from a breakup
According to Moffa, ruminating after a breakup is typically about trying to make sense of what happened, and it consists of analyzing (and re-analyzing) the ups, downs, and in-betweens of your ex-partnership. “Before they do anything else, people tend to spend a lot of time going over all the details from start to finish,” says Moffa. One common reason why? To assess whether the breakup was “their fault or yours,” says Thompson, adding that the answer is almost always that each person played a part.
Aside from searching for someone to blame, you might find yourself thinking about all the good times you shared with your ex, which is what Moffa calls “positive recall.” While it’s helpful to recognize the upsides of the relationship, harping on these positive memories can also make you feel worse about the relationship ending. In that realm, you might also “ruminate about how you could get them back or make them feel bad about why they [broke up with you],” she says.
2. Resentment and anger
You may harbor resentment toward your former partner if you feel they wasted your time or that you wasted your efforts with this person, says Thompson. And depending on how and why the relationship ended—whether they wronged you or hurt you in any way—you may naturally feel some anger toward this person for their misgivings.
At the heart of the grieving process is sadness, which can be for any number of different reasons: sadness that the person is no longer in your life, that the relationship didn’t work out as planned, that the life you envisioned with this person will not come to fruition. It’s also possible that you find yourself mourning the loss of future plans and companionship, and the fact that you’re single more than the actual departure of this specific person from your life, adds Thompson.
In any case, the sadness can also show up in plenty of different ways, says Moffa. You might find that you withdraw from activities or isolate from your friends to take some time to heal, or that you have issues sleeping. “Sometimes, our self-esteem also drops during this phase, and we question our worth, even if momentarily,” she adds.
As you heal from the breakup, you might gain access to some introspection. “This is where people start to look at their choices and question their patterns,” says Moffa. Perhaps you might realize, with enough distance from the sadness and/or anger of the breakup, that you have a history of choosing partners who are emotionally unavailable, or you begin to reflect on the ways in which you tend to violate your own boundaries to accommodate significant others.
This phase represents a turning point in the journey to healing your heart and mind, says Moffa. Examining your own choices, she says, can ease you into the next step of recovery. “Whether that step is to get outside help or support, to commit to changing certain patterns, or even to go take classes in Krav Maga and get your fierceness back, that self-reflection cycle slides into the state of acceptance and growth,” she says. And some forward momentum typically follows.
Acceptance is a state of mind in which you’re “no longer resisting what’s happened,” says Moffa. This isn’t to say you will no longer feel pain, or sadness, or anger—you still might. It’s just that when you hit this emotional stage of a breakup, you’re ready to think about and actively pursue your life beyond the former relationship, says Thompson.
This will feel and look different for everyone; perhaps, you decide you’re ready to download a dating app, or you commit to staying single for a while and practicing self-love and self-compassion. There’s no one right way to embrace this phase, nor is there a timeline for arriving at it. The only requirement is that it opens a door to life beyond your ex.
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