In this post I’m going to break down the emotional rollercoaster that follows after the end of a relationship. I went through this process and I’ve found it’s common. When you realize how universal the experience is it sometimes makes it easier to accept.
When I wrote this post I had just experienced a traumatic breakup myself (so I know from first hand experience how it feels). Since then, though, I’ve graduated from psychiatry residency and built a successful private practice where I help people just like you cope with grief and rebuild their lives.
Before I get into The Five Stages of Suckiness, I want to share this 8-minute video I created for anyone who is struggling to cope with, or get over, a break up.
Because I like to obsessively analyze my emotions, I diagramed the cycle of emotions I went through after my breakup. I realized later, unsurprisingly, that this drawing greatly resembles the Elizabeth Kübler-Ross stages of grief.
If you go through a difficult breakup, you’ll likely cycle through these emotions. Each emotion will have it’s own narrative- the voice that speaks from the anger, sadness, guilt- that you’re feeling. You’ll tell yourself you’ll never meet anyone else, that you’ll be alone forever, that if this relationship didn’t work no relationship ever will. Don’t get lost in the narrative. The stories you tell yourself will feel true- maybe you’ll even rationalize them to the point where they seem like logical, obvious conclusions- but they’re not. I’m going to use “him” to refer to the generic ex to avoid awkward pronoun switches, but of course this concept applies to women and men alike.
1. Sadness. At first you’ll be depressed. You’ll blame yourself for the breakup. You’ll tell yourself:
“Its all my fault”
“I’m a horrible person”
“I must not be lovable”
You’ll feel varying degrees of despair after the end of a relationship depending on how attached you were- at it’s worst, the anguish can be pretty soul-crushing. During this stage, you’ll be focused on the immediate pain of the breakup. You’ll feel like you’ll never get over it. The very thought of starting to date again will seem like some kind of sick joke. Your mind will turn over the events of your relationship, wondering what you did wrong, because if you’re suffering so much you must have done something horribly wrong.
[Note: You didn’t. Or nothing that bad anyway. Cut yourself some slack because no one is perfect and sometimes things don’t work out, no matter how much we want them to, for reasons beyond our control.]
2. Anger. Emotions after a breakup tend to fly in extremes. You may feel sad for a while, and then angry, or you may switch rapidly between the two. You may feel consuming, enormous hate toward your ex. You’ll tell yourself:
“It’s all his fault”
“I can’t believe what a [insert expletive] he is”
“I’m lucky that’s over, I don’t even care about him anymore”
Anger may feel like a relief from the sadness, but the narratives are still part of your psyche’s defense mechanism against the pain of the end of the relationship. No matter the person’s flaws or what he or she did to you, your ex is not all bad, and it’s not all their fault- in the same way it’s not all your fault.
3. Everything’s okay. At some point, you’ll reach some degree of acceptance about what’s happened. You’ll tell yourself:
“This breakup is horrible, but it’s not the last time I’ll be in love”
“Maybe I’ll be alright after all”
This is probably the first time you’ll emerge from the pain and imagine a future that looks, if not bright, at least tolerable. The idea of getting out there and dating again won’t seem like such a ridiculous and laughable idea. You’ll feel a sense of calm and acceptance.
Unfortunately, early on in the recovery process, the periods of feeling “ok” will likely be short lived, followed by:
4. Longing. Also known as bargaining. Unfortunately and ironically- once you start feeling better, and once you have enough energy and emotional reserves to start feeling hopeful about the future- you’ll also have enough energy to regress into the seductive thought of getting back together with your ex. You’ll tell yourself:
“Now that I’m feeling better, maybe we can be together”
“I feel good. I want to be in love. I’m still in love with him so he must be the right one for me”
“Maybe we shouldn’t have broken up- could it have been a mistake?”
Longing is particularly painful because you’ll trick yourself into questioning the progress you’ve made. You do this because you feel good enough to remember what a wonderful thing love is, and you grasp for it, and the closest thing you reach is your recently-ended relationship, even though it wasn’t the right one for you. Remember: if it were as great as you remember it now, it wouldn’t have ended. Great relationships don’t end, even temporarily. People may disagree with me on this one, but I’m sticking to it. A great relationship is not perfect, but it isn’t constantly difficult, and it isn’t painful, and no one breaks up with anyone.
5. Fear. Once you realize the futility of your longing, you’ll swing quickly into panic. You’ll tell yourself:
“I’ll never meet anyone ever again”
“No one else will ever love me”
“I’m too old to meet anyone, I’ve lost my chance to be in a relationship/get married”
I love this narrative because it’s the most absurd, yet seems the most realistic at the time. I remember being totally and utterly convinced that after my ex broke up with me at 26 I had missed my chance and was doomed to be single forever. Even my brother, after his first big breakup at 25, told me with a straight face he was going to focus on his career in the military “from here on out” because he was obviously too old to ever meet a woman, get married and have kids. (At 25!!). If he were 35 I would have told him he has oodles of time. And I wish I had told myself that too, because it’s true. I’m not saying you’re guaranteed to meet someone and have kids when you’re 50, but I’d venture to guess that 99% of the time people have this worry everything turns out all right in the end. At the very least, I can guarantee that you’ll never regret NOT acting out of fear.
Whew. It’s been a long ride. But it’s all been for a reason. Your journey may not be direct, and you may continue to cycle through the stages, but over time the negative emotions will be weaker and your acceptance will be more powerful.
When I emerged from the dark tunnel of my breakup and finally saw the light, it was brilliant. I felt more hopeful than I had ever felt before. Because when you go through something so painful and get through it, you realize, I can handle anything. You also realize, I deserve better. And you feel motivated to go out there and find it.
Please don’t believe the negative narratives. They feel so true, so poignant, and you feel you are the only person who could possibly be suffering in the way you are suffering, but you are not. Let the universality of your suffering comfort you. Two people stumbling upon each and falling in love may seem as likely as two meteors colliding, but it happens all the time. In fact, it happens to almost everyone. I can say with almost definitive certainty that how you feel after a breakup will not be how you feel forever.
During the process, you need to remember that whatever you had with that person, you will find something better. It doesn’t feel like it, but it’s true. Every relationship ends (usually poorly) until you have the one that doesn’t. And then everything is great. That’s pretty much how the story goes. So don’t pessimistically forecast the future just because you feel discouraged at this moment.
Thanks for reading, I hope you enjoyed it! When I wrote this post I had just experienced a traumatic breakup myself (so I know from first hand experience how it feels). Since then, though, I’ve graduated from psychiatry residency and built a successful private practice where I help people just like you cope with grief and rebuild their lives. I also met my husband and got married!
If you’d like more information about coping with grief and finding a path to wholeness after loss, you can join my email list here: