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Common reactions to a break-up
Everyone experiences the end of a relationship differently. Personality characteristics, relationship history, current support systems, a history of trauma, and mental health concerns can all impact how someone copes when a relationship ends. Often, following a break-up, individuals go through an adjustment period, and difficult experiences and emotions that can be associated with break-ups can include:
- Rumination. Rumination is the act of continually thinking about an event or experience. In times of stress, this act of rumination can be elicited through intrusive thoughts that are not wanted and distressing.
- Difficulty Concentrating. When individuals think or have unwanted thoughts about their previous relationship, it can sometimes make it difficult to focus. People can experience difficulty giving their full attention to study, work, class, watching a movie, hanging out with friends, etc.
- Grief/Bereavement Symptoms. Research suggests that the loss of a relationship can feel similar to grief or bereavement. Grief is a normal and natural, though an often deeply painful, response to loss. Some may experience days of feeling positive emotions or “normal” while other days feel much more difficult.
- Self-Blame/Guilt. Sometimes people can feel guilty following a break-up, leading them to blame themselves. Feeling as if “This was my fault” or “I could have been better,” can impact a person’s perception of themselves.
- Self-Esteem. After the ending of a close relationship, some people may experience feelings of unworthiness which can lead to loneliness or isolation. At times, some people may believe their self-worth is connected to their relationships with others. In this case, some people may feel invalidated and experience lower self-esteem when their relationship has ended.
- Sleep Concerns. Following a break-up, many people can experience difficulty sleeping. Problems with sleep can include insomnia, waking frequently during the night, or nightmares. Each of these concerns can be linked to increased stress related to grief, rumination or feelings of self-blame.
- Physical Symptoms. In times of stress, it is common for individuals to experience concerns related to their physical health alongside their mental health symptoms that can weaken the immune system. These symptoms can include muscle aches, headaches, digestive problems, a fast heart rate, or other physical concerns.
Maintaining Boundaries and Needs
Boundaries are our own personal limitations within a relationship. Having good boundaries in relationships helps to protect someone’s personal space and set limits as to how they would like to interact with others. Sometimes it may be essential to add additional boundaries or reevaluate previously set boundaries. After a relationship ends, setting boundaries with a former partner can be an important component of coping with the relationship ending. Ways to set boundaries can include:
- Redefining connection with your ex-partner and limiting time spent, physical contact or emotional connections with them.
- Limiting contact with your former partner including texting, social media, and socializing. This can include times you access your former partner’s social media accounts, with or without their knowledge. It can be easy to find yourself checking on your ex-partner’s pages, but doing so can prolong the process of healing and cause additional stress.
- Prioritizing your own needs.
- Setting boundaries around physical contact.
- Maintaining one’s own self-care strategies and schedule.
Sometimes it can be difficult to say goodbye and set additional boundaries with someone you were previously emotionally connected to. However, there may be times that additional boundaries may be necessary to maintain your own mental health and well-being. Reasons to set additional boundaries may include:
- If you are feeling uncomfortable with your ex-partner’s actions.
- If your ex-partner is continuing to attempt to contact, you despite your set boundaries.
- If you notice yourself spending more time on your previous partner than yourself and your own mental health.
- If you find yourself navigating mutual friendships and social circles that cause additional stress and complications within the break-up.
Setting boundaries with a former partner can assist in growth and coping after a break-up. If needed, it can be helpful to engage in a conversation with your ex-partner about boundaries, so all parties are in agreement on how to interact with each other. It is appropriate to not engage with your ex-partner if those are the boundaries you have set, even if they initiate contact with you.
In addition, it can also be helpful to ask for help from others when you need support. Providing and receiving support can make students feel closer to others and establish emotional and physical safety in their environment.
Ways to maintain health after a break-up
Romantic partners play a very important role in our lives, and their absence can leave us feeling empty or as if something is missing. Deciding what to do next can be very confusing. Rather than viewing the absence of this person as a negative, individuals could see this as an opportunity to re-invest in themselves. By spending your time engaging in constructive activities, you can grow and become a healthier person. Below are some suggestions on ways to use your additional free time to reflect and grow:
- Social Support. Often when people enter a romantic relationship, they spend less time with their friends and other loved ones. Use this opportunity to re-establish or strengthen your friendships by spending more time with your support system.
- Self-Reflection. Consider using this time to reflect on your relationship through journaling, meditation, and self-reflection. Own the parts where you weren’t at your best, but also don’t take all of the blame for the break-up. Identify something of value that you learned about yourself, and use this information to make you a stronger person. This can also be a time that you spend evaluating whether you are ready for a new relationship
- Focus on Academics. For students, having additional time for yourself can be used to devote more time for study and improving your academic performance.
- Explore Personal Interests/Hobbies. Maybe there’s a skill you want to learn or an organization you have always wanted to join. The time following your relationship break-up can be an ideal time to explore these interests.
- Self-Care/Coping Strategies. Engage in activities that make you feel positively about yourself. These activities will look different for everyone but could include riding your bike/working out, having dinner with a friend, getting enough sleep, reading a good book, and using self-compassion.
When to Seek Support/Professional Help
It’s common to feel sad, less motivated, and even hopeless about future relationships after a break-up. Trying to deal with difficult life events by ourselves can leave us overwhelmed. It can be helpful to seek support from friends and family, but talking with a mental health professional can be beneficial as well. Working with a mental health provider around relationship concerns is a common reason student seek mental health support. Going through a break-up can be a confusing time, and it may be helpful to discuss with an objective professional. There is no official rule as to how long it takes someone to feel better following a breakup,
but if you notice feelings of loss are significantly impacting your daily life activities, such as your ability to study, attend class/work, or engage your friends, it may be helpful to engage with a mental health professional to assist you in coping effectively and regain control over the pieces of your life which have been most impacted.
Want to Know More?
Psychology Today: Psychologytoday.com/us
Love Is Respect: loveisrepect.org
Field, T. (2011). Romantic breakups, heartbreak and bereavement. Psychology, 2(4), 382-387.
Gilbert, S. P. & Sifers, S. K. (2011) Bouncing back from a breakup: Attachment, time perspective, mental health and romantic loss.
Journal of College Student Psychotherapy. 25(4), 295-310.
Kumar, H. A., Lomash, E. F., McCormick, M., & Zhou, J. (2017). Romantic competence, healthy relationship functioning and wellbeing in emerging adults. Personal Relationships, 24, 162-184.
Yildirim, F. B. & Demir, A. (2014). Breakup adjustment in young adulthood. Journal of Counseling and Development. 93, 38-44. theatlantic.com/health/
Get help ASAP
Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741.