The grief that comes fr..." /> The grief that comes fr..." />

Breaking Up Is Hard to Do

Broken HeartThe grief that comes from a relationship breakup can be excruciating and can follow a similar pattern to grief resulting from a death-related loss. The main difference is that the other person is still around, and this can cause hang-ups in the separation process.

Common grief reactions can be numbness, shock, confusion, anger, sadness, guilt, regret, searching, purposelessness, anxiety, and relief. People tend to experience these emotions and the thoughts that bubble up with them when there has been a loss of any kind. With difficult breakups, however, one can be focused intensely on the emotions and thoughts that one believes can be resolved by talking or getting back together with the other person. This is the yearning to reconnect with the person who was lost and is not the same as stalking or obsessive behavior.

After a breakup, it is important to recognize the old adage that “hindsight is 20/20.” This is true in death-related losses, too. For example, when someone looks back and thinks, “I should have known that the pain she complained about was cancer! I should have urged her to get a check-up sooner, and then she would be alive.” Although a lesson may be gleaned for the future, there are usually feelings of blame, anger, and sadness that dissipate over time. Usually, the survivor has no other choice but to accept what happened and how it happened and realize that there is no going back.

In a romantic separation, because both people are still alive, there is sometimes the possibility of “going back” and “fixing” things. Grasping onto this hope of reconciliation can short-circuit acceptance, because the focus is not on accepting an unchangeable fact of nature, like death. The focus is on changing being separated to being together again—at least on the surface. Underneath the surface, what a person may desire to change is actually his or her feelings: to stop feeling self-blame, to quell anger, and to comfort sadness. There are people who wish to reconcile to make the other person happy, but that strategy can only succeed if the other person is willing and receptive to such generosity.

Much depends on the relationship and the people involved. There are certainly stories of people getting divorced and years later getting married again (and then getting divorced again, etc.). We have all heard of those couples who break up and get back together over and over. There are factors for wanting to reconcile such as marriage, children, family, future plans, property, sex, and love, to name a few.

Sometimes, these factors are not enough. Too much negativity—anger, resentment, and hopelessness—have built up for anything to matter more than breaking up. At this point, the one who wants to return to the relationship may dwell in guilt, regret, anger, and sadness. “I was a horrible girlfriend.” “I shouldn’t have gotten on his case about his drinking.” “If I had only agreed to couples counseling, we might still be together.” “How could she do this to me?” “No one will ever love me the way he did.” When getting back together is not going to happen in the foreseeable future, these feelings and thoughts can keep us connected to the lost person. The connection is based not on love and affection but on pain and yearning. Yet, this is still a connection. It is normal to want it, and most people feel this sort of connection up to a point, but when it seriously begins to disturb how someone functions in other areas of life such as school, work, family, and friends, then this connection poses a greater problem.

The idea of severing this connection is oftentimes too much for the heartbroken to imagine, but sinking into emotions and thoughts that keep us stuck in the past of our mistakes and learning process will lead us to ignore the present and the future. A better way to move through heartache is to integrate the loss and seek self-forgiveness (and forgive the other person) inch by inch.

Integrating a loss is about knowing and accepting that there is a part of one’s heart that will always love the other person. He or she may be “the one that got away,” and there may always be a twinge of hurt when thinking about this person, but shifting one’s focus to the relationship being done, in the past, and with its ups and downs will help ease the pain that wishful thinking, masquerading as hope, brings. Mourn the relationship and why it ended, rather than trying to get the other person to come back, explain, or forgive.

Self-forgiveness and forgiveness of the other person likewise require a practice of acceptance, as well as acknowledgment, and the realization that holding onto one’s feelings of unworthiness, or the other person’s shamefulness, or any other judgments, only serve to keep one connected to misery.

Remember that as with grieving, people have different styles of breaking up. Some recover faster than others, and some take longer. It is individual and can be infuriating or confusing to partners, family, and friends when two people from a relationship grieve the breakup differently. As with all hurt, treat heartbreak with compassion, and generally avoid saying things that may be invalidating and belittling of the experience, like “There are other fish in the sea,” “You’re young,” “You’ll find someone else,” or “You’ve got to just get over it.”

In the meantime, for the heartbroken: being patient with oneself, finding supportive people to talk with (including a counselor or therapist), socializing, exercising, and finding some healthy distractions will make the road to feeling whole again a little less bumpy.

Related articles:
Aloha, Graduate!
What to Do When You Think Your Relationship is Over
Why Does Mr. Wrong Feel Like Mr. Right?

© Copyright 2012 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Ivan Chan, MA, MFT intern Grief, Loss & Bereavement Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • marissa

    July 18th, 2012 at 11:36 AM

    I remember vividly the very first breakup that I endured when I was in love with a person. You know that first one who breaks your heart? I had that times ten! Oh, it just about killed me. I wondered constantly who he was with and what he was doing, and it felt like I would never get over that loss. It was especially hard when I heard that he was engaged. I thought this is the end, I will never be able to move on now, because I think that in my heart I always kind of thought that he would come back to me. But it was only after that reality check that this was not going to happen that I was finally able to start healing. I don’t know why I had to wait until that point, but I guess that’s when it actually felt final to me and I knew I didn’t have any other choice except to move on.

  • Rochelle

    July 18th, 2012 at 12:05 PM

    Great article! Healing from a break up happens inch by inch, with forgiveness and acceptance and a dash of time.
    The last break up I went through, we both handled it in similar fashion, lots of tears, remorse and regret. But over time, we’ve managed to be two people who shared something that had its time.

    For me, forgiveness and acceptance took about two years. It’s a necessary part of moving on in a healthy way.

  • Burke

    July 18th, 2012 at 3:07 PM

    Any time that this has happened to me I try to tell myself that these things happen for a reason.

    You may not understand it at the time, but I could almost promise you that once you are able to look back on it later you will realize that breaking things off is probably one of the best things that you could have done.

    What may feel like a great loss right now you may one day be able to look back on and see it for the great relief that it most likely will be.

  • Gresham T

    July 19th, 2012 at 4:25 AM

    Once you cut those ties, not only do you feel a sense of loss from your mate, but think about the loss that you could feel if you have also become close to that person’s family. I don’t suppose that just because you break up with one means that you have to cut those ties with all, but typically that’s what happens. People who were once close to you are forced to choose sides and rarely does that end with maintaining them in your life. So for many people you are not only losing a boyfriend or girlfriend you could also be losing an extended family and other friends as well.

  • C.H

    July 19th, 2012 at 7:47 PM

    I had a tough breakup with my girlfriend of over three years just two months ago.Tough because the emotional burden of the breakup was entirely on me, or so I thought it should be. She cheated on me and after a lot of talk and tries to make it work we eventually broke up.

    But now that I have realized that she was wrong and if someone is feeling the emotional burden then it has to be the cheating partner and not the one who was cheated on.I feel a lot better now but I just hope everybody who is going through a breakup will find solace in something, because it can hurt just so damn much.

  • corbin

    July 20th, 2012 at 4:37 AM

    especially difficult when you have to see that person around all the time

  • Ivan Chan

    July 20th, 2012 at 10:33 AM

    Hi Marissa,

    Thanks for your insightful comment. I think that sometimes it does take something as drastic as the other person being engaged for us to accept the breakup and move on. As I wrote in my article, with death-related losses, the death is that drastic event that forces us to struggle with, and eventually accept, the loss.

    Sometimes, it is telling ourselves that something is over (again and again) that helps us to let go of that hope. It also helps to prevent ourselves from re-igniting that hopeful spark–stop checking their Facebook page, stop sending them texts, etc.

    A friend of mine taped a message on his phone and put up on his bathroom mirror, “Don’t call her” and “She’s not coming back,” which helped him a lot. I’ve recommended this to my clients, and they’ve found it useful, too.

    Take care,


  • Ivan Chan

    July 20th, 2012 at 10:39 AM

    Hi Rochelle,

    Thanks for posting your comment! Time definitely plays a factor (although it can be hard to tell somebody this, especially a platitude like, “Time heals all wounds.” Most people want something to do to stop the ache, and patiently waiting is near impossible). I suggest to my clients to find a way to mark their progress–how will they know when they are feeling better? When they can laugh at a silly movie? When they can go out with their friends and not bring up the breakup? It’s up to each person to decide what shows that they’re feeling better.

    I also like that you and your ex understood that you were both in a relationship that has had its time. That is a very important realization for some couples: “This relationship has run its course.” There might still be love, or anger, or something else–but the relationship itself, is completed.

    Thanks also for sharing the timeline it took you to reach acceptance and forgiveness. It’s different for everybody, but it’s comforting for people to know that they don’t have to be “over it already” in a short time. Some of my clients expect to get over a long term relationship in a matter of weeks, and although that can happen, it may not, and rushing oneself can exacerbate the pain.

    Take care,


  • Ivan Chan

    July 20th, 2012 at 10:41 AM

    Hi Burke,

    Thanks for your comment!

    I think it’s good that you have a way of thinking about breakups that help you to move forward in your life. We all need something to help us make sense of things.

    The important thing about what you said is that when looking back, and then looking forward again, that you don’t tell yourself a story that makes a tragedy of your life and relationships.

    The stories we tell ourselves about ourselves define us.

    Take care,


  • Ivan Chan

    July 20th, 2012 at 10:51 AM

    Hi Gresham,

    That’s an excellent point!

    Yes, loss is rarely limited to the primary loss itself. When we lose a job, we can also lose co-workers, friendships, income, homes, spouses, respect, etc. The same thing goes for a breakup–we can lose the “in-laws” (whether you’re married or not), which could be very painful.

    As I wrote in the article, people deal with breakups differently. People can draw lines of loyalty (“these are MY friends/family”), and friends and family can feel this pressure or allegiance, too.

    However, I’ve also known several people who have negotiated “a separate peace” with the family members, and seen them apart from the ex. Similarly, there have also been amicable breakups where (after a time), both exes can go to family and friend events without getting the evil eye from one another (or the others). This may be rare (I can’t really say), but it exists, which means it’s possible. It makes me think of a line in Clueless, where the father says, “You divorce wives, not children.”

    Thanks again for sharing your insight into the fallout from a breakup. Could be a future subject for an article!

    Take care,


  • Ivan Chan

    July 20th, 2012 at 11:01 AM

    Hi C.H.,

    I appreciate your post. That’s a long time to be together, and just two months out–it’s tough. You have my sympathy.

    The consequences of an affair on a relationship can be devastating. Although some couples can heal this wound and actually become stronger, this doesn’t always happen.

    I’m sorry that you felt you should have carried the entire burden of the breakup on yourself. That’s unfair to you, and unfair to the relationship, frankly–because the relationship belongs to both of you, so the burden needs to be shared. One person, whether it’s you or her holding all the blame can move you forward a bit, but it can be limiting.

    Rather than blaming yourself or her (placing the emotional burden onto your back or hers), consider that *both* of you may be accountable some how. This is not excusing her for cheating on you! And this is not blaming you for being a “bad boyfriend.” It’s attempting an honest look at why this happened, where you both are accountable, and how you both can do it differently next time. That will help you not only move forward, but move forward cleanly.

    Your accountability may come in the form of, “I wasn’t attentive, and prioritized other things before her,” or even, “I knew she tended to do this, but I was hoping I would be worth her being faithful.” Again, this isn’t to excuse her actions (she’s responsible for her own choices, and the consequences). It’s to allow you to see where you might change a behavior, feeling, or thought next time around, so that you don’t repeat this experience.

    Take care,


  • Ivan Chan

    July 20th, 2012 at 11:04 AM

    Hey there Corbin,

    Wow. Yeah–having to see your ex around all the time is difficult!

    If you can find some time away from seeing the ex, try to maximize that time: go out with your friends, etc.

    That’s a tough one. How do you deal with it?

    Take care,


  • elle

    February 11th, 2013 at 11:08 AM

    I know this article is about having actually broken up… I am in the very beginning stages of separation. I have all those symptoms of grief and recognized them because I have also lived through the tragic death of a previous partner. I actually said those exact sentiments to my wife–It is the same sense of loss, but you are still here.

    However. While some say I may be in the denial phase, I think there is something to be said for not walking away Right away. she has indicated that she wants to separate. We’ve been together 10 years and have 2 kids. Some amount of effort has to be made by both of us to determine if separating really IS the right thing to do. Not only for the sake of the kids, not only for the sake of our hearts. Also, (this sounds cold), for the sake of our financial security. Now I’m not one to say stay together to not lose the house. I’ve been without, I’ve had nothing. It’s uncomfortable, but I’ve weathered that storm. The point is, are we willing to risk losing Everything only to find out down the road that we should have stayed together? Or let’s take finances completely off the table. Am I willing to show my kids, by example, that when something is extremely difficult I quit? No.

    In any case, like I said, I know this article is about having actually broken up (even though, technically, we have), but some others who read it may be in the same position as I… not obsessively hanging on in denial, but needing to still fight for what, in the long run, may be right.


  • Ivan Chan

    February 12th, 2013 at 7:49 AM

    Hi Elle,

    Thank you for sharing your experience!

    Breaking up is a process and we can feel grief at any point, including before the break up “officially” begins or ends. When it happens before it ends, it can be considered “anticipatory grief. ”

    I don’t think you’re in denial. You sound perfectly aware of what’s happening. You sound hopeful, and willing to fight for this relationship. A separation is not a divorce, and it’s not over til it’s over.

    Finances, kids, etc come into play to keep people together. It’s sometimes the glue that holds people together through rough times so that they can get to better times. The idea of individual happiness can be outweighed by collective stability or vice versa; it depends on your values and culture. It’s not a measure of your coldness, because practicalities do figure into our lives and choices.

    All this said, I hope you two find a way to work things out. Ten years is a long time to build up a rationale to break up (or stay together). You may need a skilled couples counselor to help you two find your way back to each other.

    Take care,


  • renee

    February 19th, 2013 at 4:56 PM

    I have been totally out of my 11 years relationship for 3 months- that is after 7 months of agonizing pain of trying to get a grip on why he is a sex addict and cheater. We were best friends otherwise. and now after almost a year- I cannot get rid of the anger and cannot forgive. I just keep wishing “this never happened”. I know it did. this is the most shocking, painful thing that has ever happened to me. and I am 50 years old and have been through a lot in my life. Some days are okay and others, i feel like i am crying very painfully in my heart. I want the pain to go away.I am in therapy, but not enough I guess. I am lonely for my companion and need love again. i am not ready to fall in love again yet. I guess I am one of those people who takes 2 years to recover.

  • Ivan Chan

    March 22nd, 2013 at 1:12 PM

    Hi Renee,

    Thank you for sharing your experience with us.

    I’m sorry that you’re in such pain from your broken heart. It has been almost a year of struggling with what happened and why, but also remember that it has been about four months (at this writing) since you broke up with him, and that means you’re in the beginning part of the grieving process.

    Try to keep track with your therapist about what’s going on at the six-month mark, and the anniversary of the break up. Focus your attention on what has been a little bit better for you over time. For example, if you find yourself thinking about him and getting angry every day of the week right now, has it lessened–even a little bit–by the six-month mark? Maybe only five days a week instead of seven? It’s important that you pick out your own milestones and ways of measuring your improvement, not other people.

    Along with focusing on how your heart is healing over time, check in with your therapist that the therapy is working for you. If your goal is to figure out a way to express your anger and be able to forgive, make sure that this is the direction you are going with your therapist; otherwise, it might be time to find one that can meet your needs. I also highly suggest the book, Forgive for Good. It’s not about “forgive and forget,” it’s about finding a way to forgive that will free you from the burden of carrying your anger and sadness.

    Sometimes figuring out “why” somebody acts the way they act can help, especially if we consider that it may have nothing to do with us, and may be completely out of our influence and control. Addictions and compulsive behaviors are more about the person experiencing (and suffering from) them, than the people around them who may suffer the fallout as casualties.

    You may take two years to recover, or it might be shorter, or it might be longer. Be gentle with yourself when you can, and continue to seek support.

    Take care,


  • Mary

    June 12th, 2013 at 9:05 PM

    I’m still trying to find forgiveness and closure after a two-year relationship with a guy. It ended this February and it’s been exactly four months since. We went through A LOT together and I basically helped him survive for two years. It was a good relationship (or so I thought) for the two years and when things started changing in January, I didn’t know how to deal with it. I begged to hang out and tried to figure out why he changed. He was just waiting for me to break it off. He broke up with me over the phone!! 2 years 2 months and 20 minutes later it was just done. That simple for him. But not for me.

    I cried and sat in my room for about a month straight, stayed home from work and school somedays, constantly talked to my friends and family begging for some answers and understanding, because he was “too busy” to even say a word. I had started to try everything to make myself feel better. I tried to understand why he acted the way he did and why he thought I deserved to feel this way, and then one day I just heard this word that suddenly sparked all of my answers. The word was narcissist. Every definition (which I previously had no clue what it meant) was an exact match to his personality and behavior. I was instantly relieved. I kept searching for things related to this and it helped me so much.

    He is many things but that was the biggest sign for me that I had been played big time. I knew that the relationship had been in his control the whole time. It doesn’t answer all of my questions but it definitely stopped my moping around and crying sessions. I have felt better every day since (staying single for awhile now).

    However, the reason I wanted to write was to get your advice on the days when I break down again… The reason I do is because he promised to pay me a certain amount of money back.. stupid promise, I know. My brother took over and was going to get the money from him so I wouldn’t have to deal with it every two weeks. So I didn’t hear from my brother for over a month because my ex asked for an extra two weeks to get paid. Well, my brother got tricked too. My ex currently has no money, no “savings account” to give me, he spent it. So that to me was another huge loss and another huge mistake thinking that I’d get something from him. I broke down but sort of accepted losing the money.. it was my choice to spend my money on him.

    SO… my last problem is: I want my stuff back. There are about ten things I know we had discussed for him to give back to me. Four months later, I have nothing. No money, none of my stuff, no explanations, no closure. Just his long list of excuses and a lot of regret, sadness, loss of hope, and most of all anger towards him and myself.

    I don’t want to give up on getting my things back. My family is starting to give up on the situation. The items don’t mean much but they’re valuable to me and it would mean a lot to me to get them back. I’ve been thinking about them for four months now. To get anything back would finally give me a way to move on. What can/should I do or not do??

  • Ivan Chan

    June 13th, 2013 at 2:37 PM

    Hi Mary,

    I’m sorry you’re going through what you’re going through, and I’m glad you found something to help you understand your experience.

    Breaking down and picking yourself back up is part of the process of grieving for your loss. There will be times when things (such as this debt) pop up and remind you of painful feelings. It’s important during these times to try and notice for how long and how intensely you feel each breakdown compared with previous times you’ve broken down. Do you recover a little faster each time? When you do, what might have helped you recover faster? When you don’t, what might have contributed to slowing down your recovery? Progress is measured in the change, not what’s the same, and you might feel better when you realize you don’t feel as badly as when this whole thing first hit you.

    Sometimes, thinking about things differently help us to feel about them differently, too. For example, what would happen if you considered the money, “tuition” for what you’ve learned about yourself and people like him?

    Regarding your reasons for getting your stuff back, I would say two things:

    1) Make an arrangement with him to get your stuff back. Go with family and/or friends to get your things, ask him not to be there if that would be helpful. Make it as easy as possible on him, for example, “I want my things back. Let’s set up a time I can be there and collect my things when you’re not there. It will only take a ten minutes. Let’s make this quick and easy. You can call, email, or text me the time and date.”

    2) Make moving forward in your life independent of anything he does or does not do. Otherwise, he’s still in control, and you’re giving up control. Closure and forgiveness are ultimately for you.

    I hope this helps!

    Take care,


  • Lida

    January 26th, 2015 at 2:09 PM

    What is it about an individual that the prospect of being accepted vs rejected by another person motivates them and depends their interest? Because that’s what’s really happening. There’s something about a woman which attracted to avoiding rejection that draws her into these situations. And it’s not that nice guys get boring. It’s that women chronically battling potential rejection achieve their part of the conquest – being accepted – by whom makes no difference, it could be the hottest, baddest, most dangerous and coolest guy she’s ever laid eyes on. Once she feels accepted and the repetition compulsion is played out, particularly if it plays out in a way going against her own self perspective (ie: perceived worthiness), she will become bored an walk. It was never about the relationship or the other person. It was always about her internal struggle for acceptence and ultimate rejection of that of that when she has it.

Leave a Comment

By commenting you acknowledge acceptance of's Terms and Conditions of Use.

* Indicates required field.

GoodTherapy uses cookies to personalize content and ads to provide better services for our users and to analyze our traffic. By continuing to use this site you consent to our cookies.