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Breaking Up - a How-to Guide

 The old song reminds us, breaking up is hard to do. . . While this song is popular (or was) for its simply stated message, it clearly minimizes the depth of pain and complexity involved in the ending of a relationship.Breaking up is hard to do, but what makes it so hard? Are there ways to make the process easier? In this article I will talk about the specific challenges involved in breaking up, for both the break-ee and the break-er, and will also provide some tips for taking care of yourself during the period following the break.

When a relationship ends, it is nearly universal that people experience one or more of the following emotions: denial, anger, fear, self-blame, guilt, disorientation, and/or relief. Your particular feelings may depend partially on whether or not you were the one to end the relationship or whether it was your partner making this decision. Moving through the tumultuous post-break-up time can be facilitated by understanding the unique challenges of both sides.

For the break-ee (the one who got "dumped"), the good news is that you can turn on any radio station and hear about 12 songs (in a row) that speak to some aspect of the pain you're feeling right now. While you may be without your ex, you are definitely not alone. Many people's first response to hearing that their partner would like to end the relationship is disbelief. Once you get over your shock and realize what your partner has really said, you might find yourself trying to convince him/her that it's a bad idea, or that you belong together. Maybe you will bring up past positive times you've shared and wonder how your partner could discount/forget them. Following this denial phase, you might become angry, sad, vengeful, or despairing. During this phase people often cry, talk about their partners to friends (in both positive and negative terms), and/or make efforts to seek out their partners despite the break-up. You might wonder if you will ever again feel the way you felt about your ex, or if you will ever trust anyone again.People also frequently feel disoriented after a break-up; usually break-ups lead to changes in your daily routine that can throw you off balance. For example, if you talked to your partner four times a day and always before going to bed, there will now feel like a lot of free time with no one to talk to and going to sleep might be difficult. If you ate every meal with your partner, you might wonder who you will sit with at lunch now. These kinds of changes might sound insignificant, but in the period immediately following a break-up they can feel extremely important and disorienting.

For the break-er (the one who decides to call things off), the challenges you face at the end of your relationship are often overlooked or minimized by others. Making the decision to end a relationship can be agonizing. Maybe you really love your ex but just didn't see the relationship going anywhere long-term. Or maybe you ended the relationship because you don't feel you are able to put the time and energy into it that it deserves. Maybe you just weren't very happy in the relationship, or have decided that you want alone time, to date someone else, or to move away. Whatever your reasons for ending the relationship, being the one who calls it off presents challenges. Often break-ers are worried about hurting their partner, and/or feel guilty, scared, and alone. What if you are making a mistake? What if other people think you made a mistake? What if you're not happy with the break and want your ex back? Is it fair to go back and forth? What if your ex is really hurt and angry? What if you don't find anyone who loves you as much as your ex did? These are all common concerns for people deciding to end a relationship. The other issue, which is equally important, is determining exactly how you're going to make the break. What will you actually say? Will you do it in person or on the phone? What will happen if/when you see your ex out socially? It is frequently assumed that break-ups are easier for the person who makes the decision to end things, but given this complicated set of questions and issues, I'm not sure this is necessarily true.

For both break-ees and break-ers knowing how to cope with mutual friends can be difficult. Chances are, you could use some support in coping with the break-up and would like to talk to your friends--but what if all of your friends are friends with your ex too? Is this unfair to your friends? Unfair to your ex?

Below are some tips on how to cope with a break-up (whether it was your choice to end the relationship or not), and how to deal with mutual friends. One thing that can help is allowing yourself the time and space to really feel whatever you feel. Fully experiencing sadness, anger, fear, guilt, etc. can help validate the importance of the relationship as it was. Acknowledging that the relationship was significant in terms of who you are today can help you move forward without it--there are changes that have happened within you that you will carry with you even if your partner is no longer there.Noticing and allowing your emotions to come up can help you remember this.

A second way to cope with the break-up is to surround yourself with supportive people. This might be family, friends, counselors, religious leaders, professors--anyone who you feel listens and truly cares. You may need to tell the story of what happened, what you thought, what you felt, and what your fears are many times before it feels real to you. If you (or those around you) get tired of this story, you can simply say, "I'm still feeling sad about things", "I still miss him/her", or "I'm still wondering if I did the right thing". Letting others know what's going on for you, even if you don't go into detail, can help you feel less alone.

This brings me back to the issue of mutual friends. If it feels like all of your friends are also friends with your ex, you might decide not to talk to them in as much detail as you would otherwise. Involving your friends in all the painful details of the break-up can be difficult and complicated for both you and for them. They may feel they have to "take sides" and you might wonder if they've picked your side or your ex's. You can still socialize with mutual friends and can even let them know that you're having a hard time, but if you need to get out the whole story and get into details, consider talking to a family member or counselor instead.

A third tip for coping with break-ups is to refocus on yourself. Oftentimes in relationships we get focused on our partner or on "couple" issues rather than focusing on our own individual wants and needs. The post-break-up period is a great time to reconnect with yourself. What can you do to pamper yourself? What's your favorite food?Have you been neglecting school work? Can you go visit a friend at another school?Maybe go home for the weekend?

Part of refocusing on yourself means taking extra good care of yourself physically.Eating well and exercising regularly are common ways to manage stress. Making sure you get enough sleep and avoiding alcohol and drugs are also helpful during this time. Using alcohol and/or drugs can amplify any existing emotions, making whatever painful feelings you have more intense and upsetting.

Fourth, sometimes it helps to think about all the things you've learned from your relationship and the ways that these things might help you in your future.People tend to grow and learn from all relationships, even bad ones, and focusing on these positive experiences can help to counterbalance the pain of the break-up. Maybe you learned about true intimacy and trust, how to fight fairly, what you want sexually, what you would do differently in another relationship, or how to take care of yourself while being part of a couple. Maybe you got a very clear lesson about what you DON'T want in future partners. These are all very valuable lessons that you can take with you even if you never talk to your ex again.

Finally, it is important to pay attention to your level of distress. If you feel desperately sad or angry for weeks on end, feel that you are unable to attend to daily aspects of your life, and/or find that your sleep patterns have changed, your appetite has changed, or you're feeling nauseous or dizzy, it is time to seek some help.Sometimes normal grief over a break-up can become a more long-standing depression that requires professional help to come out of. This may be more likely to happen if you are someone who has experienced unresolved loss, trauma, or serious relationship stress in the past, as these old wounds may be re-opened by the pain of your break-up. Your grief might also be more likely to turn into a depression if you're someone who has struggled with depression in the past and/or has a family history of depression. If you feel that your distress over the break-up might be depression, seek the help of a mental health professional.

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