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Breakups are a unique experience in that they can resemble the passing of a loved one. A breakup can occur between lovers and friends and has the power to knock us completely off our feet for several day, several weeks, and oftentimes even longer.
Like the stages of grief when dealing with a death, ending a long-term relationship may conjure some pretty intense emotions that feel incredibly difficult and isolating; in fact, the experiences are close to identical.
Entering the Grieving Process
[If you aren’t already familiar with the stages of grief, check out The Five Stages of Grief After Betrayal as an extra resource during these five stages of a breakup.]
As you enter into this grieving process, it may take time before you reach acceptance. In fact, according to numerous mental health websites, there are a whole
four stages preceding that of acceptance.
That may sound overwhelming, but at least you can exhale knowing that what you’re feeling during the relationship’s dissolution is
There is no template for how long each of the five stages last. All you can do is go at your own pace and implement a support network that feels right for you.
According to relationship experts, building a support system during the breakup stage and thereafter will help mitigate the pain you experience during this time, and may even speed up the process.
Your support system may take the form of one or more of the following:
💔 Seeking professional help
💔 Focusing on future plans
💔 Thinking logically and realistically about the severed relationship
💔 Implementing self-esteem practices to build and maintain inner peace
💔 Accepting that this is a healing process and that experiencing
all the emotions is completely normal
Understanding the Five Stages of a Breakup
The information to follow offers insight into emotions you’ll feel during certain stages. Because we don’t all experience the same level of grief after a breakup, paying attention to your own needs is paramount to your healing.
Ensure that you safeguard your self-worth and make space to metabolize your grief. If you aren’t quite sure how to do that and worry you’ll get stuck, fear not! With each stage, we’ve included tools that will reduce self-doubt.
The early stages of anything can feel awkward and difficult, but I assure you that once you’ve moved past one stage, you will gain momentum. This isn’t to say each stage doesn’t come with its own set of feelings and “what ifs”, but your endurance to withstand and accept reality will strengthen.
The Two Hidden Phases
Although many experts focus on the five stages of a breakup, I’d like to acknowledge two more.
The reason why I call these “hidden phases” is because not everyone experiences them or realizes they are occurring. They can show up before or in between any of the five steps of a breakup, so pay attention, and take care of yourself.
The first is the
. shock phase
During this initial shock, you may quite literally feel bewildered, and disoriented. For some, this phase happens because they feel blindsided by the breakup.
If you feel your former partner gave no sign of dissatisfaction, or they didn’t explain why the relationship ended, making sense of the breakup can feel impossible!
Also, when we get
used to a particular relationship – even an unhappy one – it can be surprising when one partner decides, “enough is enough.”
Truth is, people who experience this phase may become obsessed with getting answers. The trouble is that the ex-partner may not have those answers, let alone be willing to provide them.
The best thing any of us can do during this phase is to be patient with ourselves and surround ourselves with people whom we love, trust, and who want the best for us.
The second hidden phase of a breakup is the diversion phase.
This is the phase in which we try to
fill the hole in our hearts with someone or something else as quickly as possible. This includes behaviors that are meant to push the pain down and away. It can take the form of partying and substance abuse, regular sexual encounters (that leave you feeling unsatisfied*), jumping into a relationship with the first person who shows interest, and so on…
These behaviors are a Band-Aid for your grief.
Regardless of what you may think, they do not alleviate the pain, they
prolong it – pushing the timeline of your healing further down the road. All that is happening here is repression, and when we repress something long enough, it pops out somewhere else.
Because you’re in a highly emotional state, taking time for yourself in a certain capacity is important. You need space to metabolize the reality of your situation without the influence of
Like the shock phase, the best thing any of us can do is be patient with ourselves and surround ourselves with people whom we love, and trust, and who want the best for us. It’s also in recognizing when we need to chill on our own.
Although I do believe sex can support healing, there are certain types of encounters that do quite the opposite. Positive sexual experiences should be pleasurable and expansive and do not require another person.
Come and Go
Remember, not everyone experiences a breakup in the same way. This is dependent on how emotionally invested a person is, the length of the relationship, and self-perception (i.e., someone with self-concept issues may find breakups more difficult than someone who has a strong sense of self-worth).
Healing is not a straight line. Some feelings may come and go throughout each stage. That’s okay! Stay self-compassionate and implement support systems when possible.
Change Isn’t Always Comfortable
During the five phases of a breakup, it’s normal (inevitable!) to experience change. Some of the changes, however, may come with discomfort. Below is a list of things you may experience. If you are concerned about any item on the list or are having thoughts about death or suicide, reach out to someone you trust, and get in touch with a mental health professional. I recommend
Better Help, an online platform where you can choose and speak to a certified counselor based on your needs.
💔 Changes in appetite
💔 Fluctuations in weight
💔 Under or oversleeping
💔 Loss of interest in people or activities
💔 Feeling distracted
💔 Wanting to isolate
💔 Avoiding being alone
💔 Crying or experiencing panic attacks
💔 Feeling despair or inability to cope
Now that you’re prepared, let’s dive into the five stages of a breakup…
1. Denial Stage
The first stage of a breakup is, of course, the
This stage tends to occur right after the breakup, when one person finds it difficult, or outright refuses, to accept the split.
According to experts, this is a common defense mechanism. It’s the brain’s way of avoiding the harsh reality and the incoming emotional consequences.
Although this sounds rough, it’s actually a mechanism that slows down the blow of the breakup. In other words, in this stage, many of us still have hope that the relationship will work itself out; we may even try to bargain our way into a “better” version of the relationship with our ex-partner (this also shows up later).
Like a tire slowly releasing air, this stage gently brings about the truth:
The relationship is, in fact, over.
Tools for the Denial Stage:
Sounding like a broken record, the best thing any of us can do at any stage is to be patient with ourselves and surround ourselves with people who we love, trust, and who want the best for us.
Additionally, we can seek professional help right after the breakup.
Leaning on an expert in the early stages will help construct a foundation of emotional self-regulation and give an objective space for us to unpack the breakup and rebuild our identity as a single person, separate from our ex.
2. Anger Stage
The second stage of a breakup is the
This stage takes different forms for different people. What one feels anger over is dependent on the context of the ended relationship. Some general examples of why we feel anger post-breakup include:
💔 Not forgiving our partner for something they did or said during the relationship
💔 Not forgiving ourselves for something we did or said during the relationship
💔 Revisiting all the mistakes that were made, and assigning blame
💔 Judging or blaming our ex-partner for the breakup
💔 Judging or blaming ourselves for the breakup
Anger is an adaptive response, and although accompanied by some unpleasant emotions (i.e., jealousy, helplessness, feeling betrayed, etc.), it has the power to create positive change within us.
Tools for the Anger Stage:
Of course, anger is also an emotion that can easily spiral out of control. To properly manage this stage, you may consider the following outlets:
💔 Seek professional help to navigate this emotion
💔 Do something physical, such as working out, going for a run, taking up a sport
💔 Intentionally expose yourself to humor (i.e., funny movies or books, comedy shows, hang with a goofy friend, etc.)
💔 Implement a journal practice and write down how you’re feeling throughout this stage
💔 Go to a rage room
3. Bargaining Stage
The third stage of a breakup is the
Think of this stage as a kind of relapse. Bargaining is where the “what ifs” flood in.
What if we made a horrible mistake?
What if I lost my one chance at true love?
What if I’ll never find someone who accepts me the way they did?
What if, what if, what if…
In this stage, we may try to reconnect with our ex in a romantic sense or convince ourselves we can remain friends. Either way, this is the moment for some self-reflection to remember why the relationship ended in the first place (maybe refer back to that
Also, whenever we’re trying to heal from something, keeping the source of our pain nearby (i.e., as a friend) is not a practical response. Distance and time are the answers for your heavy heart.
Tools for the Bargaining Stage:
In this stage, try to be realistic about why the relationship ended. If you’re too consumed by the desire to reconnect, and it’s skewing your sense of reason,
talk to a friend! Ask someone close to you to share their perspective on why the relationship didn’t work and why it’s a bad idea to reach out to your ex. Then, believe them.
Of course, if you and your ex share responsibilities (i.e., children), limiting communication to the necessary topics – schedules, appointments, school, etc. – will aid you in this stage.
As always, leaning into your support system will keep you focused and accept reality, bit by bit, while moving steadily into a promising future.
4. Sadness Stage
The fourth stage of a breakup is the
You may be rolling your eyes, thinking, “didn’t she just say I had a
Listen, this is where you’re going to dig deep and overcome the final, greatest obstacle: grief. It’s going to be a difficult stage, but one worth the pain. This is where your anger and desperation give way into sadness.
Sadness is an important emotion (have you watched
Inside Out?). It is the internal gauge that tells us when something isn’t working and when something isn’t quite right. Being sad is not a sign of weakness, rather, it’s a sign that you are alive and coping.
Situational depression is a short-term, stress-related type of depression . It can develop after you experience a traumatic event or series of events. – HealthLine
When we experience a deeply emotional event, such as the breakup of a long-term relationship, it is common for processing to take several weeks, if not longer.
SWNS Digital outlines
a poll on breakups that were conducted by Market Researchers OnePoll between January 19 and January 27, 2017. The poll was taken by 2000 US adults and uncovered how long it takes for Americans to fulfill certain actions post-breakup:
💔 Stop looking at an ex’s social media regularly – 5 weeks
💔 Stop crying about the break-up – 6 weeks
💔 Delete the ex’s number – 6.5 weeks
💔 Get rid of all their stuff from your place – 7 weeks
💔 Delete or remove pics of them – 7.5 weeks
💔 Stop talking about them/ bringing them up in conversation – 8 weeks
💔 Start dating someone else properly – 13.5 weeks
What this list depicts is a general timeframe for distancing oneself from an ex-partner. Of course, these are averages, and there is no right or wrong way to continue down this path; however, when we
commit to letting go, as clinical psychologist Dr. Jen Chrisman puts it, we turn our “breakup into a breakthrough.” Tools for the Sadness Stage:
💔 Surround yourself with people who bring out the best in you
💔 Implement a self-care practice, such as gratitude journaling or meditation
💔 Be sure to drink lots of water, eat good foods, and spend time in the sun
💔 Speak about your sadness to loved ones and your mental health professional
Find a mantra that resonates with you and say it every day and every time you need strength. Here are a couple of my favorites:
“True belonging never asks us to change who we are. True belonging requires us to be who we are.” – Brené Brown
Don’t try to lessen yourself for the world; let the world catch up to you.” – Beyonce
…or a simple:
pleasure over pain. Always.
5. Acceptance Stage
The fifth and final stage of a breakup is the
You’ve been strapped in and riding the rollercoaster for how long now? Well, it’s time to stop, unbuckle yourself, and step out into a whole new world.
In this stage, you are at the opposite end of the denial phase – all the what-ifs have been met with realistic expectations, and you’re ready to meet the person you’re meant to become.
Yes, you’ve sought professional help, leaned on friends and family when needed, and have been patient with yourself. Your emotions are balancing out and, although you still get a twinge of
something at times, the dominant feeling is excitement for what the future holds.
Your next step is simple: Move on.
Tools for Acceptance:
There are so many things to do and so many people to meet. What do you want and need from life, and how can you start moving in that direction?
Unsure where to start? That’s alright, here are a few prompts to help out:
💔 What is something you’ve always wanted to do, but never had the time for?
💔 Is there a place you always wanted to visit? What would it take to go?
💔 Who in your life are you most grateful for? Can you see them more often?
💔 What is one new thing you can do this week?
The greatest path forward is one of joy. Find the people, activities, and things that light you up. You’ll be amazed where it’ll take you. Once you start down this path, the five stages of your breakup will feel distant, but invaluable, nonetheless.
Until next time,
Love yourselves, friends!
Quean Mo xx