How to Move on from a Relationship
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Breaking up is hard to do—but you can turn a negative into a more positive experience with our expert tips on letting go of a relationship.
Ending a relationship
Whether you are the dump-er or the person being dumped, ending a relationship is a painful process—and that’s an understatement.
In a 2019 study published in PLoS One, Dutch researchers found that 26 percent of men and women who broke up with their partners developed depression-like symptoms, even if the breakup happened six months before they were surveyed about the emotional fallout. That’s not surprising to experts, though. (Here are more science-based facts about breakups.)
“You are dismantling normality. Your life has been built around this person who is your person. They are your plus one. They’re your emergency contact. They’re the person that you tell when you’ve had a raise, or you’re mad at Mindy at work,” says Susan Winter, a relationship expert, coach, and author of The Breakup Triage: The Cure for Heartache. “Now in their absence, the entire foundation of what you had as your working model of day-to-day functionality has been disrupted.”
This is true even if you’re feeling relieved or at least neutral about the breakup. (This is how to know when to break-up with your partner.)
“It’s almost impossible to escape a breakup unscathed. You’re always going to have some degree of hurt feelings,” says Gary W. Lewandowski Jr., professor of psychology at Monmouth University, in West Long Branch, New Jersey.
“So people report feelings of lost identity, not knowing who they are anymore. And that’s all on top of the negative emotional experiences of hurt, grief, loneliness, and depressive symptomology. All of those are typical,” says Lewandowski, who’s also author of the forthcoming Stronger Than You Think: The 10 Blind Spots That Undermine Your Relationship…and How to See Past Them. (Here are some other ways your body reacts to a breakup.)
It’s what you do with these raw emotions that can turn a failed relationship into a learning experience—and give you the insight you need to get to a happier place.
To reach a happier place, our panel of experts share their tips on how to move on from a relationship and feel better about it.
Allow yourself to feel sad
You’re heartbroken, so give yourself permission to stay in bed listening to your go-to breakup song on repeat.
“Give yourself a week or two nights or whatever you need to watch sad movies and cry, but then make a specific date and say, ‘By this date, I’m going to get up, I’m going to get dressed, I’m going to go out,'” says Beth Sonnenberg, a licensed clinical social worker and a psychotherapist in Livingston, New Jersey.
“Giving yourself an allowance to be sad is helpful because then you don’t feel guilty. And if you do it for a distinct amount of time, then you can do it in a healthy way,” she says.
It also helps to realize you’re not always going to feel this broken up, angry, or lonely, Sonnenberg adds. “This is just how you feel right now, and next week, next month, next year, you’re going to be in a different place.” (And remember—there are benefits of crying.)
Make plans with friends and family
Distraction is a great way to get out of your own head—especially making lots of time to have fun with friends and family who love you and have your back, says Sonnenberg. (Check out this story if you need a reminder of how friends relieve stress and help us cope.)
Of course, easier said than done while there’s still a pandemic, but you can still be social and stay safe. “Make plans to meet a friend for a walk or hike, Zoom with a group of friends and make it special by playing trivia, doing a treasure hunt or dress up, have an outdoor driveway or fire pit socially distanced hang-out, or get a group of friends together to do a virtual wine tasting or cooking class,” says Sonenberg.
Do some self-care, which is another way to distract yourself. If taking a bath or reading a good book doesn’t help, listen to music that makes you happy or sparks a positive memory, call an old friend or do some virtual or social distance volunteering so you can focus on others, she adds. (Here are some self-care health products to try.)
At the very least, treat yourself to something that you wouldn’t normally do—an indulgent takeout meal, a splurge buy—so that you can be good to yourself. “You have to love yourself for someone else to love you, and sometimes people forget that. Reframing and refocusing on that can be helpful,” Sonnenberg notes.
Delmaine Donson/Getty Images
Remember the good times
Taking stock is important so that you can look at the big picture in a more helpful light. One way to do that is to focus on the positive aspects of your couple-dom.
“So being able to look back and say, ‘We did a good job. We raised two beautiful children,’ or ‘ I couldn’t have gotten through Covid-19 without you.’ Whatever it is that was working, because then we start to see the benefit. And it’s easier to walk away from something when we don’t feel that it’s a total loss,” says Winter. (Check out the other benefits of gratitude.)
Keep in touch with your ex (if possible)
If you’re able to keep in touch with your ex, the loss may not feel as big, says Sonnenberg. “Maybe you have a lot of the same friend group and you’re able to still hang out and have some kind of relationship, even if it’s not as serious of one,” she adds.
Let it happen organically instead of making plans to stay friends during the breakup discussion. Instead, text your former flame a week or two later with a simple “hey.” Or be more direct: “Ask, ‘Is this OK that I’m reaching out? I still care about you and want to hear what’s going on with your work’ (or your mom or whatever was going on at the time of the breakup),” Sonnenberg suggests.
If it’s well-received, that’s great. If not, you have your answer. Just expect that first meeting post-breakup to be awkward (there’s no getting around that), says Sonnenberg. (This breakup hurts most, according to science.)
All of us make sacrifices to be with the person we love, even in the best of relationships.
“You have someone else that you need to account for, and care about, and so you have to consider their preferences, right?” explains Lewandowski, who does research on romantic relationships. For example, he adds, you may love going to the beach but if your partner didn’t enjoy it, you may have given up most beach vacations while you were together.
But going back to the things you once loved can help you manage the loss in a healthier way.
In a study on how people cope with breakups, published in The Journal of Positive Psychology, Lewandowski assigned one group to do activities that they’d given up while they were in the relationship.
“It turned out the rediscovery folks actually did better—doing these activities helped them recapture that person they were before the relationship. And it helped reestablish their individual identity as separate from the couple identity,” he explains. (Here’s how to carve out more “me time.”)
Avoid a rebound relationship
Getting involved with someone right after a breakup is a terrible idea, especially if you were the one being dumped, say experts. But it’s understandable—it’s one way to get rid of the pain and loneliness. It’s also a way to get back at your ex and prove to your former flame (and yourself) that you’re desirable, says Winter.
“If you date too soon when you’re too wounded, I promise you horrific things will happen. You’re going to be even more heartbroken if that new person plays with you or dumps you or ghosts you,” she says. (Also, beware of these gaslighting phrases that are red flags.)
This advice comes with a caveat, though. If you were the partner who walked away, you probably were thinking about it for a long time and once you’ve gotten through the chaos of the breakup and made a life on your own, you could be ready to date again, Winter notes. (If you’re ready to go out, check out these tips on dating while staying socially distanced.)
Write about it
Writing can help people deal with traumatic experiences because it helps them organize and articulate their emotions, Lewandowski notes. In a TEDx Talk led by Lewandowski, he discussed a study where a group of people vented about the negative aspects of their breakups while another focused on the benefits of the breakup.
“No breakup is 100 percent negative, nor is it 100 percent positive. But a lot of times when we’re hurt, it’s really easy to focus on the hurt, and we forget to focus on some of the positives,” he explains.
When people in this study focused on the benefits of breaking up, they realized, for example, that they were incompatible with their partner or that they fought a lot. Or they might acknowledge their feelings of relief: “Like, ‘This had been building for some time, and now I just feel kind of relieved that I don’t have to worry about this anymore,'” Lewandowski says.
The beauty of this exercise? “This forces that perspective thinking,” he says, and stops you from ruminating over the more negative emotions like hurt, sadness, and loneliness. (Was your relationship abusive? Here are abusive relationship quotes to help you move on.)
Avoid getting back together
When you’re grieving over the loss of your partner, rekindling your romance can be appealing. But avoid the temptation. “It doesn’t work,” says Lewandowski.
“If things were bad enough that you were willing to end the relationship, there’s probably a pretty good reason for that. And we know getting back together just tends to prolong the agony,” he explains.
If you do decide on a do-over, just take note: There’s a scientific reason why you’re getting back together.
Do a postmortem
Whatever you do, you want to take the time to process the entire relationship so you can heal and move forward, say experts. Take time to reflect on the situation by journaling, meditating, or speaking with friends and family members. Although it’s not necessary, a counselor could be helpful, too.
“Go to a therapist or specialist so you can systematically review everything,” suggests Winter. That means looking at the whole arc of the relationship and reviewing the good, the bad, and all the in-between, she explains: “What happened, where things went wrong, your part in it, their part in it, and the inevitable ending.”
Lewandowski agrees, noting that nobody is very good at self-analyzing, so it’s good to go to a therapist or someone who could help you be objective and get perspective. (Here are tips for finding a therapist.)
And it’s important to get that help. “Without some sort of analysis like that, people are more prone to make the same mistake again,” he says.
Just don’t pin all the blame on your ex.
“It’s something that I talk to students about all the time in my relationships classes. As much as it can be your partner’s fault—they yell at you, and they’re a horrible person, all this kind of stuff—you picked them. And you stayed with them probably longer than you should have. So you’ve got to own your role in that,” Lewandowski says.
Lastly, go easy on yourself
When it comes to how to move on from a relationship successfully, a key component is to adopt self-compassion. The way you react to your breakup is your business, and there’s no right or wrong way to go about it, says Sonnenberg: some people may grieve at first and then slowly get over it, others do the opposite.
“Maybe you’re distracting yourself so much that you don’t even think about it, and then something reminds you of your partner and you’re overcome with sadness. I just don’t think people can judge for how one person copes with it versus another,” she says.
- PLoS One: "Romantic relationship breakup: An experimental model to study effects of stress on depression (-like) symptoms."
- The Journal of Positive Psychology: "Promoting positive emotions following relationship dissolution through writing."
- TEDx Talks: "Break-Ups Don't Have to Leave You Broken." Gary W. Lewandowski, Jr.
- Beth Sonnenberg, LCSW, psychotherapist, Livingston, New Jersey
- Gary W. Lewandowski Jr., PhD, professor of psychology at Monmouth University, West Long Branch, New Jersey
- Susan Winter, relationship expert and author of The Breakup Triage: The Cure for Heartache, New York City