It happens to most of us at least once during our lives: What was so wonderful at the start of the relationship, that amazing feeling of being in love, suddenly comes to an end. Our loved one leaves us, one way or another, and we are left with the pieces, feeling broken hearted. Humans bond deeply to one another and when these deep attachments are broken we suffer. We feel bereft, betrayed, depressed, hopeless, furious, deeply saddened, anxious for the future and in pain. Although the following steps are not a miracle cure, letting them guide you may help you to recover quicker from a broken heart. If you need more help then this article can offer seek us out at Sex and Relationships (see resource box) for more advice on sex, sexuality and relationships.
Step 1: Acknowledge that it’s over. However things ended between you and your lover, you need to acknowledge that for now at least, things are over between you. You may not want to give up hope yet and hold on to the thought that your lover will return one day, but you need to accept that for now, right now, you will need to be facing life without him or her, day by day. Acceptance of loss is one of the first steps to grieving, any grieving. Allow your feelings to be whatever they are – loss, rage, hurt, sadness, or nothingness – but keep your thinking clear. He or she has gone and you need to live your life, one day at a time, without them. If you still have hopes that you can win them back this still applies to you. Accept how things are for now and get back on your feet. Being a clingy emotional mess won’t bring your lover back.
Step 2: Acknowledge your emotions. A broken heart is painful. We often experience a whole range of unpleasant emotions from grief, betrayal, hurt, disappointment, anger, disbelief, guilt, yearning, anxiety, jealousy, rage, sadness, hopelessness and despair. Some people go numb and listless rather than very emotional and feel deadened and lifeless. Whatever you are feeling, let yourself feel it. See whether you can name what you are feeling at different points in time and explain to yourself why you are feeling that way. Psychologists call this skill ‘mentalising’ and it’s about creating meaning out of the storm inside. Ultimately that will help you process the feelings and move on. You could also write down your thoughts and feelings in a journal or find some other means of expressing what is going on for you. Talk to people how you are doing, such as your friends and amily, and if there isn’t anybody in your life with whom you can do this you could find a self-help group on the internet to engage with. Be patient with yourself and give yourself time. Look after yourself to the best of your ability by eating well, exercising and being around other people. If you feel loads of emotion, make sure you release the emotional energy by crying, sobbing, shouting and movement (even just going on a long walk can help here). If you tend to feel nothing, make some time and space to grieve and don’t feel scared about the feelings. In the end they are just feelings, just electrochemical energy in your brain.
Step 3: Reflect on who you are now. Losing a loved one doesn’t just mean the most important person in your life is gone, but also that you are not the same person yourself anymore. Losing a loved one affects our dreams, our identity and our hopes for the future. We become the person who has been left behind, or who had to leave, who was betrayed, abandoned or who felt he or she couldn’t stay. The impact of the ending deeply affects our self-image, our identity, how we see others and what we think is possible in life for us. Make sure you are honest and clear in your thinking. Yes, this relationship has ended, but that doesn’t mean all relationships will end or that you will never find someone else. That’s catastrophising. Listen to your friends, even if you don’t believe yet what they are saying, e.g. that you are an attractive person and that your lover has made a big mistake. In the end you need to make sure you can integrate what has happened into your self-image. Keep your options open for the future by keeping your own image of yourself as a good, attractive and worthwhile person, other people as mostly trustworthy and good to be with, and the world as an exciting and fairly predictable place in which stuff on occasion can go wrong. This puts you in a position where you see yourself, other people and the world as generally OK, rather than one or more of them as intrinsically bad. You might also find that as you adjust your self-image and your expectations for the future, losing the dream of what you thought you had with your lover is just as painful, if not moreso, than losing him or her.
And while you reflect, forgive yourself. Some time we don’t let go of relationships, because we keep thinking it was our fault that it ended. If we had only done more, or talked more, or not done this thing or that thing, then maybe we’d still be together with the loved one and all would be bliss. No. Guilt is a horrible emotion which keeps people locked into negative thinking. In the end what you did is what you did. Are there any lessons you need to learn from what has happened? Would you really choose to do things differently next time? Would that be possible or sensible? Most people take too much responsibility for what has happened even if it was pretty much out of their control, or really their lover’s responsibility. If you find you still have regrets then change so that next time round you will be better equipped to deal with your relationship. Guilt and regret with no action are useless and pretty self-indulgent. If you are struggling with being in a different place then get some help through friends, books or psychotherapy. In the end do let it go, forgive yourself. Whatever you did wrong you can do better next time round. We all make mistakes and slowly grow through learning from them.
Step 4: Live your life, day by day. If you are struggling to keep going then the old Alcoholics Anonymous tactic is best: deal with life a day at a time. Don’t get lost in the bigger picture or get scared by all the long and possibly lonely days ahead. Just deal with this one day, today, to your best abilities. In the end we can only live each day in the here and now. It often helps people to really focus their attention on what is around them right now and what their task is right now. If you are doing the washing, then just concentrate on doing the washing. Be conscious of who and what is there with you, the colours, the textures, the sounds. Staying with your sensations will slow down your internal process. It will ground you and anchor you in the now. It will help you survive bad times because there is proof every single minute that you are surviving: just stamp your feet and feel the ground beneath you if you don’t believe me. This is also a good technique to slow life down and be present with yourself and your feelings. There is a good chance that as you truly attend to what is around you right here, right now you reconnect again with the miracle that is being alive, no matter how painful it may feel at any given point.
Step 5: Remember back to your life before your lover. It might seem like a mystery to you how you managed without your lover before you met them, but it’s obvious that you did. You did live your own life without even knowing he or she existed at some point. You did what you did, had dreams and hopes, plans for the future, possibly friends, family, a job and many more things in your life that had nothing to do with your lover. It is important that you find who you are again on your own without your lover so you feel OK about being separate from him or her and being a person in your own right. Going back to your older self, your dreams, hopes and desires, can help you separate psychologically.
Step 6: Work at having a good life. Building up a good life takes effort. The end of a relationship might also mean the end of going to specific places you enjoyed visiting together and letting go of friends or activities you shared. Although this can be a very painful process in itself, you can still rebuild your life to a richer level than it was before. Of course a new life won’t just appear out of nowhere: you will have to put effort and time into creating it. You may also need to take risks and put yourself into new situations to make new friends. It’s important that you move out of your old habits and comfort zone. If you were to move to a new city or a new country you’d also have to put in effort to create a place for yourself. You’d have to become familiar with a new neighbourhood, you’d have to find new friends and invest in new activities. Losing your lover might also create a window of opportunity for you: you could finally start that course or activity you always wanted to do but never had time for, or take that holiday, or visit with friends that your lover wasn’t keen on. This is your time again, you are single and you don’t need to live with compromises any more.
Step 7: Have some hope. One of the persisting human myths is the idea that there is only one single person who is right for us and who we need to be with for the rest of our lives. This idea first originated in Greek philosophy and is about 3000 years old. Humanity has moved on a bit since then and we have much more opportunities to meet new partners and fall in love again than people had in ancient Greece. Imagine all the amazing lovers you might have missed out on if your relationship had continued until the end of your life! Most people meet many others at different times in their lives with whom they could potentially be very happy. Of course each relationship is unique, but while you could be happy with person A, living in city X, having one type of life, you could also be very happy with person B, living in city Y, having a very different life doing different things. Even though your life won’t be the same with a different person it’s very likely that you can be very happy in a different way with somebody else. Who knows, maybe another amazing and lovely person is just around the next corner!