Updated: May 20
This Article was written by Katie Bogen
(Updated Dec 28, 2018)
Tom and I broke up a few weeks before he was due to start medical school.
Our relationship had been a whirlwind. We had known each other since childhood but had been dating for just 10 days before he moved down from Connecticut to Pennsylvania and into my small one-bedroom apartment. A few months later, we were planning our wedding, deliberating what guest favors we would choose (DIY terrariums were under consideration), and stopping in at jewelers to try on engagement rings. I was elated, effervescent, convinced he was “the one.”
Why it’s so hard to get over your ex, according to a relationship psychologist
Then all of a sudden, we were on the rocks. Arguments interrupted even the briefest phone conversations. Weekend trips ended in tears and yelling.
One afternoon at the end of my workday, eight months after our relationship began, I found myself sitting in my parked car, dialing his number in a moment of panic and confusion. “I’m not getting what I need,” I told him.
In the nights that followed, I had the dramatic push-pull experience that everyone experiences immediately following a breakup: on top of the world and triumphant in my decision one moment, certain that my ex would come crawling back, confident that I had made the right call, and then suddenly heartbroken, afraid, and completely numb, somehow all simultaneously. I cried into his voicemail. I sat by my window and listened to “A Case of You” on repeat. I wallowed.
When I spoke to Brian Boutwell, an evolutionary psychologist at St. Louis University, he gave me some insight into the science behind my sadness. He said that being in love involves the same neural circuitry as a cocaine addiction.
“Falling in love presents very much like an addictive process,” he told me. “You have this drive to get that fix in the form of being around the person that you care about.”
So my breakup was a cocaine withdrawal? Boutwell says yes.
“We have this pervasive idea that, ‘oh, it’s just a breakup, it’s not that big of a deal,’” he said. “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. There is a real analogy of the, quote, broken heart. There’s some physiological rationales behind that thinking. [Breakups] can jeopardize one’s health.”
This description rings true to me: After the breakup, I felt physically ill, exhausted, and devastated. One of these particularly low moments, I scared myself into anger — at my ex, at myself, at this entire stupid situation. How dare he not fight harder for this relationship? How dare something end that was so promising and beautiful? But most importantly, how dare I — an outspoken feminist, constantly touting women’s independence, glory, power, resilience — betray women by behaving like my life was over because of something as trivial as a breakup? What had really happened here? I had lost a man, a friend, a partner, but I hadn’t lost myself.
So I embarked on a quest to reclaim myself, to turn this breakup into an opportunity for renewal and self-discovery, rather than an excuse to feel sorry for myself. I tried all sorts of things, from reconnecting with old friends to blocking my ex on every single social media channel imaginable.
Here’s a list of everything I tried, along with an honest assessment of how each one worked for me. I also wanted to know how my experiences lined up with the scientific consensus on what helps people get over breakups, so I asked relationship researchers to weigh in on my list.
1) I said yes to every social invitation
For the first few weeks following the breakup, I vowed to accept every social invitation that came my way. This was the best decision I could have possibly made. I bought myself new bathing suits and went to the beach. I took selfies in the sun. I went to cast parties and had a snuggle pile on a damp lawn with other tipsy theater kids. I kissed my co-stars and crooned along to Sara Bareilles and played Never Have I Ever around a fire pit. I went clubbing for the first time since I started seeing my ex. I found my freedom.
The clubbing was especially liberating. After the breakup, I reveled and rebelled. I went out to gay bars and embraced my bisexuality, distancing myself from my previous relationship and reasserting my queer identity. I danced on the tops of bars and on club stages. I wore my shortest skirts, highest heels, and reddest lipstick. I dove into my Snapchat story with gusto. I got number after number, smiled as widely as I could, and left the clubs exhausted, sore, satisfied, and solo. I slept starfish on my bed and gave myself permission to take up all the space.
The experience of accepting these invitations not only allowed me to create new friendships but also reminded me that I could be single without being “alone.” I am the kind of person who gets lost in their partner — I plan my weekends and evenings around them, I try to reserve my free time to spend by their side, and, in doing so, I neglect my own friendships and relationships. I forget how to effectively self-care. I allow myself to become isolated and dependent.
After my breakup, I extended friendship feelers in all directions. I let myself be swept along to late-night karaoke and cozy taverns, polo matches, and long walks through Newport. I basked in new people, and found myself feeling more and more at home in my own skin.
Downsides: During the beginning of the breakup, accepting these invitations probably won’t feel genuine. You may feel guilty for going out, or you may go out only to obsessively check your phone for the night, convinced your ex will text you. You might feel dirty for dancing with new people. You might feel ashamed for having fun, while the sad parts of you try to suck you back into the dark hole of Netflix and order-in pizza. Go out anyway. That old adage — fake it ’til you make it — rings true.
Expert opinion: Grace Larson, a researcher at Northwestern University, told me that this desire to accept invitations was likely driven by my need to regain self-concept after the breakup. Going dancing was a reclamation of my independence.
According to Larson, “One of the things we found in our study was that when people were able to really agree with statements like, ‘I have reclaimed lost parts of myself that I could not express while with my partner’ … that predicts people being less depressed. That predicts people being less lonely. That predicts people not ruminating on the breakup anymore.”
2) I nourished by body with healthy food and exercise
The farmers market became a weekend staple. I went shopping with my aunt and bought myself lush greens, miniature summer squash, ripe orchard apples, frozen lemonade. I gave my body what it wanted. I planned recipes. I made mug after mug of green tea and French-press coffee. I absolutely spoiled myself. If I saw a bar of chocolate I wanted at the grocery store? It was mine. Those vegan marshmallows? Why not? The world was my oyster.
Going to the farmers market and creating a treat-myself food mentality was delightful. Coming home and realizing I would have to eat these bounties by myself? Not so much.
Fortunately, my attempts to be good to my body didn’t stop at food. I bought a beginner yoga pass at a local studio, and the entire experience was incredible. I breathed slowly, stretched, shook, and repeated the mantra: I am the only person on my mat. The practice of yoga became a way to ground myself in my own body and my own presence. It was about taking care of myself and healing after an emotional trauma. It allowed me to recognize the way I was hurting without indulging in it. It was glorious. I left the studio feeling powerful, calm, and whole. Even if the feeling only lasted for five minutes, those five minutes were beautiful.
In addition to the yoga practice, I joined a gym close to my home and started attending group workout classes. My ex was a personal trainer and a football player: strong, hard-bodied, and confident in the presence of other athletes. I was a curved, uncoordinated gym-phobe who preferred to work out in the safety and privacy of my living room. I had balked at each one of my ex’s gym invitations.
Now I went to spin classes, barre classes, and a gym boot camp. I met with a personal trainer and planned out a way to reach my fitness goals. I supplemented my gym classes with long walks and choreography rehearsals for the show. I started to see progress. On the days when my motivation to exercise just wasn’t there, I forgave myself. Breakups suck. Sometimes they require lazy nights in front of Netflix and some order-in Chinese food (extra duck sauce and the largest order of lo mein I can get, thanks). My progress wasn’t rapid-fire. I didn’t go vegan. But the trainers at the gym recognize me, and a few even know me by name. That’s something.
Downsides: If you choose to use food as a means to cope with a breakup, do so with a friend. Eating kale by yourself and trying to stay happy is just a bummer all around. Additionally, it is really tempting to grab excessive amounts of sweets and junk to treat yourself. DO NOT. I repeat — do not. You will feel sick and crampy, and you don’t want to make things harder on your body when it is already coping with a massive emotional blow.
As for the workout component of this, there will be days when you think about the gym and you Just Can’t. On those days, you might feel worthless or lazy or like nobody will find you attractive ever again. Forgive yourself, give yourself a rest, and treat your body in other ways. Take a bath with some essential oils. Spend the night giving yourself a pedicure, complete with freshly lotioned legs. Take a long walk through the park and practice mindful breathing. You do not have to sweat every day. You only need to be kind to yourself.
Expert opinion: Grace Larson told me that it’s important to create healthy physical rhythms after a breakup. Breakups, she said, throw our daily routines into disarray: “In order to counteract this chaos and disorganization, it’s even more important to eat regular meals. It’s more important to make sure you’re getting enough sleep. It’s even more important to set a new, steady schedule for when you’re going to exercise.”
3) I reconnected with old friends
Effectiveness: 10/10 (MOST IMPORTANT)
My best girlfriends live in Maine and Massachusetts. Before Tom and I broke up, my relationship occupied most of my time. My lady loves fell to the wayside as I basked in the bliss of romance.
After the breakup, I was able to reconnect. I spent weekend after weekend taking long drives to binge Netflix and wine, snuggle, cry, and process my heartbreak out loud with people who loved me. I made the women in my life my priorities. I spent hours on the phone, catching up with the people I had lost touch with. Nothing feels like home quite like being barefoot on your best friend’s couch with a glass of red wine and a handy box of tissues.
These women reminded me that there were pieces of my past unburdened, or possibly even strengthened, by the breakup. Marie took me on long walks with her puppy, and the two of us sipped mimosas over brunch. She rooted me to my most loving self. She reminded me that I was still (and always had been) lovable. Olivia pulled me out of my comfort zone. She brought me rock climbing and to Walden Pond. She helped me celebrate my independence. She talked me through asking my ex for my things back. Marie and Olivia helped me rebuild a foundation of my strongest, happiest, and most present self. They reminded me that all was not lost.
Downsides: If you’re going through a breakup and live a long distance from your best friends, using these visits as a coping mechanism may be more challenging. If that happens: SKYPE! FaceTime. Plan phone calls. Make sure to hear their voices.
Also, when you’re in a heartbreak space, it can be challenging to remember that your friends have other commitments — partners, jobs, social lives — that they also need to tend to. When they are unavailable, remind yourself that it is not because they don’t want to help you feel better. It’s impossible to pour from an empty glass. Your biggest supporters still need to recharge between snuggle sessions. It’s not because they don’t care. It’s because they want to care most effectively for you AND themselves.
Expert opinion: Larson told me that breakups disrupt what psychologists call our “attachment systems.”
“In the same way that an infant child is reliant on their mother or their primary caregiver to soothe them … adults still have a strong need to connect deeply with one other person,” Larson said.
“And normally there is this process, when you go from being a little kid, your attachment bond is with your mom or your dad, grandparents, a close caregiver. When you transition into adolescence, that attachment bond becomes your closest, most intimate friends. And then when we become adults, our primary attachment is likely to be to a romantic partner.”
The question, as Larson put it, is this: What happens after a breakup, when you can no longer rely on your partner to be your primary attachment?
“What happens for a lot of people is they switch that attachment back to those people who in an earlier stage of life may have been the primary attachment. Your attachment might snap back to close friends, it might even snap back to your parents, or it might snap back to an ex-lover.”
4) I cut off all my hair
I went through the panicked must change everything impulsivity soon after the breakup. I made the decision to get a dramatic haircut, and chopped off about 10 inches. The new look upped my confidence and gave me back some of my sass. My ex had loved my long hair. Getting it cut off felt like reclaiming my body as my own, asserting my autonomy, and taking a risk. I left the salon feeling as glamorous as Rachel Green.
Downsides: The 30 seconds of panic after looking in the mirror for the first time post-haircut. But only those 30 seconds.
Expert opinion: Larson put this impulse in the context of both evolutionary biology and identity reassertion. She said, “Everybody knows you’re newly single. You’re going to try to be attractive — that makes perfect sense. In light of the research, it makes sense that you would try really broadcast this new, strong identity.”
5) I blocked my ex on every social media channel I could think of
I’m a Facebook stalker. I’m a rabid Instagram follower, a Snapchat checker, and a general social media addict. Immediately following a breakup, this quality was poison. I was thrilled to be able to show off my new life and my happiness, but a single update from my ex would leave me devastated and confused and missing everything about him.
The day he started posting pictures of himself with other women, I spent the afternoon feeling ill, angry, and betrayed. So rather than give up my social media accounts and the small comfort they brought me, I blocked him. On. Everything. I blocked his snaps and his Instagram feed. I blocked him on Facebook. I deleted his email address from my address book. I removed his number from my saved “favorites.”
The blocking was a very wise move. Not only did it stop me from seeing any potentially heart-wrenching posts, but it also kept me from posting unnecessary fluff, to make my life look exciting and rewarding on the off chance that my ex decided to look at my profiles. My life is exciting and rewarding, and not feeling the need to prove it helped me to actually participate in and enjoy it.
Downsides: Not being able to see what your ex is up to is actually really challenging. When you’re used to being a part of someone’s every day — when you care about their happiness, how successful they are, whether they are reaching their goals — the sudden disconnection of social media removal can feel overwhelming.
But I promise it helps in the long run. You can’t dwell on whether they are seeing other people. You can’t go through all of their recently added friends, or check to see who might be liking their photos. The pain of not knowing hurts much less than the pain of constantly obsessing — trust me.
Expert opinion: When I spoke to Larson about this habit, she referenced the work of Leah LeFebvre, a professor at the University of Wyoming who studies dating and relationships. Larson told me, “When you post glamorous pictures as evidence of your exciting new life, LeFebvre and her colleagues would call this ‘impression management.’ In contrast, they consider blocking or unfriending an ex as part of the strategy of ‘withdrawing access.’”
According to Larson, “These researchers argue that they are both part of the process of dictating the storyline of the split ("I'm the one who is winning in this breakup!"). … These tactics serve to demonstrate — to yourself, your ex, and anyone else who's watching — that you are self-reliant and flourishing in the wake the breakup.”
6) I downloaded Tinder and started dating again — casually
This was the scariest part of my post-breakup revolution. I vowed not to have a serious partner for at least a year after Tom and I broke up. However, he was the last person I had kissed. The last person I had shared a bed with. The last person who had played with my hair and warmed my (always, always) cold toes. When I thought of intimacy and flirtation, I immediately thought of him. It made the concept of dating an absolute nightmare, which is precisely why I (re)downloaded Tinder and started talking to new people.
At first, I felt cheap and guilty, as though I were betraying my ex or making false promises to these new matches. But after a few weeks, I met some wonderful people. I went for coffee and out to lunch, and got to know men and women who were brilliant, accomplished, ambitious, affectionate, warm, whose company reminded me that I myself was bright, charming, and desirable. These people treated me like I was exciting, and so I felt exciting.
Downsides: You will feel guilty. You will feel confused. You will feel unsure of yourself. You might feel dirty, or ashamed, or cheap. You might feel like you’re using other people. You might feel dishonest. Dating again after a breakup, especially soon after a breakup, is not for everyone. Having sex with someone new after a breakup, especially soon after a breakup, is not for everyone. Listen to your body and your instincts. If you feel gross or uncomfortable during a date, it is okay to cut that date short, go home, get in the bath, and listen to Josh Groban until you feel cozy again.
Expert opinion: St. Louis University’s Brian Boutwell says that dating after a breakup is a good idea because it’s almost guaranteed to result in one of two options: It will make you realize there are other fish in the sea, and therefore help you get over your ex; or it’ll inspire you see the good things about your old relationship, and therefore lead you to the decision to get back together.
“There is the potential for an evolutionary payoff in both respects,” he said. “You might either regain your old mate or you can move on, acquiring a new, maybe more promising mate.”
7) I threw myself into my work and career
The breakup might have hurt my heart, but it helped solidify my career and my professional goals. Since the breakup, I’ve been offered two competitive jobs in public health and a fellowship with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. I have been motivated to study for graduate and law school entrance exams. I have been able to dedicate myself to my work, with no distractions.
The freedom of not needing to consider another person’s aspirations has been a saving grace for my self-love, as I’ve enthusiastically fed my ambition. I accepted a new job with a better title, and transitioned back into a field of work that I am passionate about, gender-based violence prevention. At 22 years old, I gave my first lecture to university students, on sex trafficking and wartime sexual violence as human rights abuses.
I’ve submitted presentation proposals to three academic conferences, written several papers, and co-authored a book chapter on sexual violence prevention. I have joined the Toastmasters public speaking group, improved my rhetorical skills, and explored opportunities in political journalism. In short, I have achieved, in spite of — and because of — the heartbreak. I have learned never to underestimate the power of a woman in love, or the power of a woman recently out of it.
Downsides: There are no downsides here!
Expert opinion: “Breakups make you feel out of control,” Larson said. “They take agency away from you.”
As a result, she said, “Not only are you going to feel more attractive and more valuable if you’re really kicking ass in your career, it’s also an area where you can exert total control.”
These were the steps I chose in order to feel most empowered and soothed during my heartbreak. This is not to say that I am completely over it. When you truly love someone, I’m not certain there ever really is an “over it.” But I am confident and happy. My life feels gloriously like my own, and I’m grateful for this opportunity to have gotten to know myself even better.
Katie Bogen is a clinical research program coordinator at Rhode Island Hospital.
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