Breaking Up: A Survival Guide

It was a simple moment: bare legs, cool sheets, a breeze from an open window. And just like that: I was done. I think I just got tired of being sad.

I am embarking on Month Five of the saddest break-up of my life, and I’m only just reaching the other side of the woods. I’ve learned so much in these four months. I’ve cleared a path through a grief I thought would never end. I am rebuilding: stronger, more whole.Break-ups surround me this season, and so many friends are just beginning their journey. I feel compelled to share what I’ve learned, in the hope that your journey will be easier than mine.Letting go doesn’t mean giving up. Part of loving is loving yourself.Let’s be happy again.

Breaking Up: A Survival Guide

Always have a plan.

My hardest days were the days I woke up without a plan. It wasn’t enough to have things I could do; I needed an hour-by-hour itinerary. Without one, I’d spend the day in pajamas, compulsively checking my phone and crying.Every night before sleep, take ten minutes and make an itinerary for the next day. Instead of a boring to-do list, think of this as planning an adventure. This task may initially feel restricting, but it will eventually become liberating.Some ideas for your itinerary:

  • Pick out a fun, seasonal recipe. Go to your local farmer’s market and collect ingredients.
  • Be a tourist in your own town: go to the zoo, take a tour of a historic landmark, or grab a friend and an oversized pair of sunglasses and have a photo shoot downtown.
  • Get dressed up and go to the movies by yourself (stick to documentaries, spy thrillers, and cheesy sci-fi for minimal break-up triggers). Splurge on your childhood favorites from the snack bar (mine are sno-caps, buttery popcorn, and lemon-lime soda).
  • Sit on your floor, listen to some old school hip-hop, and make a craft project for a friend’s birthday.
  • Put on a frilly vintage apron & heels, play some 1950’s doo-wop, and bake a batch of cookies. (Then, instead of eating them all yourself, bring them to the office to make up for that time you cried through a staff meeting.)
  • Check out the new exhibit at a museum or art gallery. Museums always feel like safe spaces for public crying. Just pretend you’re really moved by that dolphin sculpture; everyone will just assume you’re really deep.
  • Give yourself a makeover: find recipes online for homemade salt scrubs, face masks, and bath salts, and take a day to pamper yourself. If you’re extra brave, give your hair a makeover, too (red is my favorite break-up color).

    {If you squint hard enough, I look just like Joan Holloway. No, harder than that.}
  • Go to a thrift store, buy a stack of weird board games, and host a game night at your house. Homemade pizza & cheap red wine are good collaborators for this event.
  • Go to a coffee shop, disable your internet, and spend a few hours on a creative project: edit a photo montage for a friend, write a short story, or make a mix cd.
  • If your city has a university, it probably has free talks on campus. Find a schedule online and attend a talk on a subject you know nothing about. Some recent favorites: Cognitive Psychology & Soap Operas, The Importance of Sustainable Farming, and The History of Felt.
  • Pack a picnic, grab a group of friends, and head to the drive-in for a double feature.

The bottom line: be proactive. Plan parties, coordinate events, host dinners, and invite out-of-town friends for a visit.

Even more importantly, find your comfort zone for solo adventures. There will be times when you desperately need to get out, but every friend you have is incommunicado. Learn what kind of activities you enjoy doing alone.For me, I hate dining alone and I can’t do crowded shows by myself, but I love reading in a park, scavenging at a thrift store, and seeing movies at the second-run theater. When a friend cancels plans and no one else is around, it helps to have a list of go-to adventures that will be fun on your own.

Meet new people.

After a break-up, nothing depresses me faster than online dating. But I have to admit: new faces are a good reminder that the world is very large. It’s easy after a break-up to believe you’ve met every eligible bachelor in a 50-mile radius. Meeting new people– even platonic friends– is a great reminder that there’s a whole world of people you have yet to meet.

Browse your local paper’s event section to find classes, workshops, and any small events that require interaction. Chocolate tastings, salsa lessons, a cooking class at your local natural foods store, and foreign language practice groups are great examples. My city offers a surprising variety of these events, and yours probably does, too.

Take care of yourself.

Stock your fridge with healthy food. Join a yoga studio or a gym. Do the Couch to 5k program. Sign up for a class on something you’ve always wanted to learn. Keep your house clean. Start a savings account.

It’s so tempting after a break-up to indulge in unhealthy habits. I feel like I deserve it, or that I need it to cope. But ultimately, a messy house, an extra twenty pounds, and an avalanche of credit card debt makes me feel less lovable. And after a break-up, that is the exact opposite of what I need to feel.

Get thee to therapy.

If you’re lucky enough to have health insurance, there’s a good chance that talk therapy is covered in your plan. Call today and ask. The prospect of finding a therapist always feels daunting, but the process is easy once you begin.

For the first three months of my break-up, I couldn’t afford therapy. But what I could afford was a library card and a few cheap books on Amazon. Here is a list of books that helped me the most:

How to Be an Adult in Relationships

by David Richo

I’ve read this book three times, and have recommended it to countless friends. It truly changed my life. This book is a how-to manual for how to love and how to communicate. Every time I pick up this book, I am filled with hope for what could be.

Warning: Don’t be surprised if this book forever changes your standards for what behavior you will accept from others, and from yourself.

Men Who Can’t Love: How to Recognize a Commitmentphobic Man Before He Breaks Your Heart
by Steven Carter

Contrary to the harsh title of this book, it’s not a man-hating call-to-arms. The book was written by a man, a recovering commitment-phobe himself, and it’s written with empathy for everyone caught in these painful patterns. The issues he describes are not specific to men, in my experience.

This book is a quick read; I finished it in one day. It’s filled with fascinating case studies that read more like a book of short stories than a self-help tome. If you’re like me, this book will give you the tools to spot warning signs before you get burned, to see your own role in these patterns, and to realize that you are not alone. Just read a handful of the reviews on Amazon and you will realize how not-alone you are.

He’s Just Not That Into You and It’s Called a Break-up Because It’s Broken
by Greg Behrendt & Liz Tuccillo
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I know, I know. I don’t care.

These books are laugh-out-loud funny and brimming with truth. Rather than a harsh lecture, they feel like that best friend who loves you enough to tell it like it is. I see these books as a feminist manifesto: live your life, be yourself, and don’t waste your energy on a man who doesn’t see your worth.

Don’t obsess.

If you’re like most people after a break-up, you’re engaging in obsessive, unhealthy thoughts. He’s your first thought when you wake up and your last thought before sleep. You’re suddenly forgetful, absent-minded, unproductive. You might even be skipping things like work, outings with friends, or a trip to the gym in favor of staying home to obsess.

This. Has. To. Stop.

For me, this was the hardest pattern to break, but the most important. Here are a few tips that helped me break the cycle:

  • Don’t indulge.

When you catch yourself going down that rabbit hole, give your head a shake and tell yourself no. It’s like training a puppy.

If you find yourself re-reading old emails, compulsively checking his blog, or re-hashing the same story over and over to friends, stop it right now. Stop mid-sentence if you have to. Shut down your browser while the page is loading. Just. Stop.

It’s like starting a diet: it will never work if you say I’ll start after one last brownie. Throw the brownie away. You have to start now.

NOTE: This tip is not appropriate for the beginning stage of a break-up. It’s important to allow yourself a mourning period. But no matter how deep your grief, there will come a point when you know in your heart that grieving has become a habit and is no longer serving its purpose. Listen to that voice when it speaks.


  • Distract yourself.Start a creative project. Sign up for a class. Get a Netflix subscription and watch a TV series from start to finish. Pick up a new hobby. Join a writing group, or start one. Volunteer. Plan a trip. Plant a garden. Throw a party. Remodel your home.I’ve found that it isn’t enough to simply be busy; I have to be doing something that truly engages my mind.
  • Make it about you; not about him.It’s easy after a break-up to play a movie reel in your mind with your ex in the starring role, alternating between villain and victim. In most cases, neither of these portrayals are accurate. The most likely truth: you both made mistakes, you both brought baggage to the relationship, and you were both human beings, just doing the best you could.If you catch yourself creating a mental list of all the things he did wrong, gently shift your thoughts to a list of positive traits you will seek in your next partner.

    If you catch yourself imagining him with a new partner, real or invented, gently shift your thoughts to your own future happiness, and where you might find it.If you catch yourself wondering what he’s doing, what he’s thinking, and why he hasn’t called, gently shift your thoughts to your own plans, goals, and next steps.Make your thoughts about you. Not about him. 
  • Get physical.Obsessive thinking is like a broken record, looping over and over in your head. We feel for it compulsively like a string of prayer beads. Intense physical activity (manual labor, a yoga class, a trip to the gym, a night of dancing, or even a long walk) helps us get into our bodies and out of our heads.
  • Go down the well.This is an often-overlooked step in the mourning process. We’re so quick to tell ourselves to snap out of it, and while there is a time for that directive (see tip #1), it’s important that we feel our feelings fully before we can let them go.Imagine your emotion as a deep, dark well. Take a night, light some candles, and allow yourself to follow your feelings all the way down that well. What do you fear? What images trigger your pain? If infidelity was part of your break-up, you may have invested a lot of energy trying to block the imagined scene from your mind. Walk through it now. Imagine the scene from beginning to end. What do you feel? What memories do these feelings trigger?You may find the well is less deep than you thought. Or you may find it’s very deep indeed, leading you all the way back to childhood experiences of abandonment, engulfment, and loss. Take these discoveries with you to a therapist, if you can afford one, and allow yourself the right to heal.


Don’t stalk him.

Seriously. Don’t.

Don’t obsessively call, email, text, or g-chat. Don’t use your blog, Twitter, or Facebook as a passive-aggressive message board. Don’t check his blog, or check to see if he’s reading yours.

Just stop.

For one thing, it will make you feel pathetic. And it’s hard to feel desirable when you feel pathetic. For another thing, it will make you look pathetic. And it’s hard for someone to want you back when you look pathetic.

Remember that right now, you are not acting as your highest self. You are in an Ego Swirl with a Cherry on Top. You feel rejected, victimized, and out of control. This is not the time to reach out; this is the time to sit with your feelings, learn from them, and allow them to pass.

If you have something to say to him, and for a long time you probably will, say it to someone else instead. A friend of mine had Ex-Texting Fever so bad she enlisted her sister as a Text Buddy. Anytime she wanted to text her ex, she texted her sister instead. This occasionally caused mild confusion, but it really, really helped.

De-friend him on Facebook, delete him from your phone, filter his emails, lock down your Twitter, turn off your blog’s statcounter, block him on Skype– do whatever you need to do to bring some sanity to your life. If he cares about you, he will understand.

And if he doesn’t care about you, then why were you Facebook friends in the first place?

A quote from one of my favorite books:

“Resist the urge to tell your partner one last thing or give him one necessary piece of information… Tell it to the moon instead, and the goddess there will see that he finds out just what he needs to know.”

David Richo, How to Be an Adult in Relationships

I love this idea. Tell it to the moon, and trust he will find what he needs to know.

Know your triggers.

After a break-up, common wisdom tells us to fill our social calendars to the max. To listen to sad songs. To go on blind dates. To dive head-first into a pint of Chubby Hubby.

Some of these tips may work for you, while others may become Known Triggers that send you running for the phone, the tissue box, or even his doorstep.

I have a friend who is a fairly solid introvert. Filling her social calendar after a break-up wasn’t a good distraction; instead, it left her emotionally depleted. She’d come home from a party so drained that her first instinct was to rush to her safe space: her ex-boyfriend.

For you, maybe it’s sad music. If a chord in D minor prompts hours of weeping or ill-advised emails, it may be best to make a rule: no shuffle setting on iTunes. Instead, make a series of Happy Mixes, or better yet, ask friends to make some for you.

Make a change.

I don’t recommend making major life decisions while in a post-relationship haze, but small changes can add a spring to your step just when you need it most. Getting a new hair cut after a break-up is a cliche for a reason: it really helps.

For me, it’s important after a break-up to wear clothes I didn’t wear in the relationship. There’s so much memory tied to a dress he loved, or a shirt I always wore to bed. If you’re like me, your budget won’t allow for a spring makeover at Anthropologie, but $50 at your local thrift store could buy you half a new wardrobe, plus a new painting for your bedroom wall.

For gorgeous bedding he never slept in, I recommend a trip to Target. And the sooner the better.

Let yourself get happy.

When you’ve been coasting for months on Highway Break-up, it can be easy to miss your exit. But no matter how deep your grief, that moment will come: a spark of joy, a whiff of freedom, a moment when suddenly you don’t mind it so much.

For me, it was bare legs on cool sheets, a spring breeze through the window. I felt a shudder of joy, a glimpse of what could be, and then: No. I’m not supposed to be happy. I’m supposed to be sad.

It was a turning point for me, that moment. I realized that my heart was ready for joy; I just needed my brain to give it a chance. You’ll have that moment, too– and when it knocks, let it in.

* This guide is written from a femme / hetero viewpoint, which is how I identified at the time that I wrote it, but I suspect most of it is universal.


Categories: popular posts, relationships/dating

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