Alex J Brown
Break-Ups are Hard, Even When They're Necessary.
It’s unsurprising to me that the most popular blog on This is the Work is about healing from heartbreak. When a relationship ends and we don’t want it to, our entire world comes crashing down on us. Not only are we stuck with the unbearable pain of losing something we wanted, but that pain is compounded by wounds from our past and finding the will to continue to press forward when all we want is to hold on to the remnants of what was lost. For those of you navigating this kind of pain, you are not alone. It makes sense to need reassurance as we navigate that wilderness of not knowing whether we’re going to be okay.
As I navigate life, I’ve started to think about the other side of break-ups, too. The kind that we know we need, the kind we initiate because the relationship we’re in isn’t right for us. The near-misses, or the ones we try on and realize aren’t sustainable. The often comfortable and safe spaces that may be perfectly fine (great, even), but just aren’t IT. It really is a different kind of experience, and it warrants our attention. Because friends, break-ups are hard, even when we know they need to happen.
Since having my heart broken, I have had the experience of being in an good relationship, then coming to realize it's still not the right relationship for me. It’s hard in a way I never could have expected, and there’s a potent kind of learning we can do in this space.
So, whether you’re looking for solidarity, guidance, support, or affirmation, you’ve come to the right place.
Here's some advice to help you during tough break-up transitions.
1. Grief is Complicated (and Inevitable).
So, you’ve made the right choice for yourself. You’ve chosen your long term well-being over something that may have been and/or felt good but didn’t align with you. You’ve recognized that something more is out there for you, even if you don’t know what it is yet.
So, you may be asking yourself, “Why do I feel so sad?”
Grief is complicated, and it’s also inevitable. Before you can start this new life, the life you are choosing, you need to say your goodbyes to the one that might have been. At one point, you chose that version of your life. At one point, you considered it to be the best path forward. You made a home of it. It’s rare to be able to pivot to a new space and not feel doubt, fear, and sadness at the ending of a chapter.
And you know what? That is both completely valid and completely okay. You are making room for a new version of you that you don’t know yet, and in order to do that you are essentially letting an older version of yourself and your story die.
Just because you chose this, doesn’t mean you don’t have the right to grieve it. You don’t have to be okay. This is part of the process, and it’s real and it’s healthy. So if anyone – including yourself – is telling you that you somehow don’t have a right to these complicated, confusing feelings, I hope you can look past that and find some compassion for your own humanity. No one ever said living your best life was going to be easy – in fact, in my experience, it has always been quite the opposite.
A "For Now" Mantra: It will all make sense.
2. Stay In Your Integrity.
Some break-ups happen and all contact with your ex is cut off. That hasn’t been the case for me, nor the people I talk with about break-ups. It makes sense to keep some form of contact with your ex, especially at first, because it’s hard to switch from that familiarity and routine cold turkey. Maybe there’s some processing that still needs to happen around the break-up. Maybe you’ve got business to take care of before you can fully separate. Maybe you are going through boat loads of change and having some connection to that safe space makes it a little bit easier to navigate – for both of you.
Here’s the kicker: Because this ending was your choice, you need to listen closely to your integrity, and you may be responsible for maintaining boundaries in this dynamic. If you truly know this is what’s right for you, it is critical that you are clear with your ex about that, too. If they didn’t want the relationship to end, they may be looking for your doubt and hoping you will change your mind. That’s a messy place to exist, and it’s unlikely that it can last without some space and separation.
While you’re there, get clear on where you’re going, and be willing to kindly communicate that – maybe even more than once. Leaning too much on a relationship that has ended can be harmful to everyone involved, and to the healing that needs to happen in order to find a new chapter – separately or together in a new way (as friends or otherwise).
I care about you and respect you, and I feel confident that this is the right thing for me.
I have been trying to be very clear about where I am at, and I need you to hear that.
I know we are both doing the best we can. This is hard, and it’s what I need.
I know you are hopeful that we might get back together. I need you to know that is not my own experience or need.
I don’t want to lean too much on this dynamic because I really want to stand on my own two feet and process this on my own.
Do not be surprised if your reactions are more sensitive than normal, if you feel confused, if you are quicker to overwhelm and frustration while you are experiencing all this change. Staying in your integrity also means taking a breath before you react or respond by knowing the bigger picture of who you are -- and knowing what it means to navigate challenging seasons with your values intact.
3. Space May Be Just What You Need.
Eventually, the relationship truly does need to end, and that might mean taking space from your ex so that you can truly feel and process what’s going on for you. Unfortunately (or fortunately), when we take new steps into the unknown, we need to take them alone to truly come into ourselves and our new experience.
Sure, you care about your ex and cherish the time you had together. There may still even be love there for you. But somewhere on the line, you decided that your love for yourself was bigger and more important. Not everything may be clear yet, but that much is true.
When you truly lean in to that love you have for yourself and that hope for your future, does keeping some sort of hold on this relationship positively or negatively impact that vision? If you aren’t sure or if the answer leans toward negative, it may be time to try on some space.
A friend recommended something that helped me in making this necessary transition: making space time-certain. If you aren’t ready to cut off all contact, if that isn’t possible, or if that’s just not going to work for you in the short or long term, try taking periods of time away from contact.
Spend a week without any contact and notice how it feels, what you do, and whether it makes it possible to be more present to your experience. Spend some time noticing and reflecting.
Make plans with your ex to grab coffee or lunch in the next month. This way you know you will have the chance to connect and catch up, but you will also have space to tend to your new life.
Plan a weekly check in, either over the phone or in person, with your ex, and plan to avoid communication outside of that time.
Try on removing your ex from social media so that the digital space can be yours to express yourselves individually.
Your ex will be making choices for their own well-being, too, and those choices may involve removing contact with you entirely or may not align with your hopes or visions. Honor those boundaries, turn care toward yourself, and remember that this is what change feels like. It will get easier.
4. Be Mindful of Avoidant and Obsessive Behaviors.
I once read an article that described feeling stuck with the image of an arrow being pulled back from a bow. You may not know it, but that stuck-ness is part of the process of moving forward. When the arrow is drawn back, you might feel anxious about why forward movement isn’t coming. But this moment of stillness is preparing you for when the arrow is released – when life finds a new and beautiful meaning. The problem is, we have a big problem in this space of stuck-ness, and we do whatever we can to ignore, deflect, or otherwise avoid it.
Do you find yourself picking up your phone every few minutes? Calling or texting friends as often as you can? Jam-packing your schedule to keep yourself busy? Finding projects to take up your time? Maybe even obsessing over another person or potential romantic relationship? While it’s normal to try on new things in your self-exploration and processing, be mindful of when these behaviors turn to crutches or opportunities to run from your own company.
Loneliness hurts, but feelings demand to be felt. If you’re using the world around you to make you feel okay without spending time tending to yourself and your truth, you may be side-stepping parts of the process that are integral for your healing and personal development.
Endings are an opportunity to rediscover yourself, reignite your passion, and lean into self-love in entirely new ways. If you can’t sit still, can’t be with your experience, or are hyper-focused on something new and shiny, you are not leaving room for self-exploration and truly processing the break-up/ending and what it means for you.
We all do a little avoiding in our lives. The key is to find intentional balance. Reserve time to just sit and tune in to your body and your experience. Process your energy through journaling, meditation, or body work. Notice and be honest with yourself about when you’re running from your feelings, and make space to come back to them. Remind yourself that this is part of the process, and that stillness and rest may be just what the doctor ordered right now.
Tune in. And when it feels hard and you’re wondering how you’ll ever find your way, think about the person you are becoming and know that they are waiting for you. Your future self is counting on you.
5. Notice What You're Feeling - The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.
Have you ever heard someone say that growth is easy? That’s because (spoiler) it’s not.
When you are newly single, especially after a relationship that provided feelings of safety and comfort, being alone can be an overwhelming experience. You may have envisioned bursting with new life and the promise of a new and beautiful beginning. You may have pictured feeling free and at peace with your choice because it was the choice that’s most aligned with your wholeness and well-being. No doubt, that’s coming. But first, there’s going to be the messiness of adjusting to your new reality. You are now your own confidante. You are now your own witness. After having someone to turn to and experience all these ups and downs with in your day-to-day, it’s quite a shock to the system to realize your first and last line of defense is now yourself, and your most prized relationship is now the one you are cultivating with yourself.
While there may be excitement about that glorious process, there may also be a whole host of not-so-pleasant emotions that come with it. The most beautiful thing you can do for yourself – and for the person you are meant to be with eventually – is tend to those feelings and integrate them.
Grief. Guilt. Sadness. Peace. Joy. Calm. Anger. Confusion. Frustration. Tenderness. Compassion. Grace. Loneliness.
The quality of your life depends on your ability to experience the full range of human emotion with as little judgment as possible. To know these feelings and let them be what they are. To name them without trying to change them. To know and trust they will ebb and flow for your entire life. Your entire life will be better for it.
Disclaimer: There may be a time when those feelings become so overwhelming that you simply cannot deal with them alone. Some of these feelings may be entirely new to you. Now may be a great time to get connected to the support of a licensed professional to help you process this and find the tools you need to get through it. There is no shame in reaching out for help.
6. You are Not the Story your ex is Telling You.
Remember when I said that your ex will be going through their own process during this break up? Well, as they are making meaning of the relationship and its impact for them, they will be creating stories of their own about what happened, why, and your intentions. Here’s to hoping that story paints you in a positive light (you tried your best, after all), but as they are hurting and healing, the story they have may not match yours. In some cases, they may tell you the story they believe.
While it’s okay to listen if it is what feels best for you, it’s also okay to a) set boundaries around what is shared, and b) to take care of yourself by realigning with your own truth. Only you know what your heart needs. Only you know what’s best for your life. Only you know your intentions and reasons. Don’t get stuck trying to explain them or defend yourself against stories that don’t fit for you. We all have a right to our own telling.
It is important to tend to yourself in the midst of feeling misunderstood, and to remind yourself of what is true for you – even if it’s not totally clear. Trust that you are doing what’s best for you. Trust that you are doing it the best you can. Trust that even if you don’t have all the answers, they will become clear. Trust that you can and will have a good life because you are doing this work.
Trust. Trust. Trust.
And if you made mistakes along the way, make space for that, forgive yourself, take accountability when and where it makes sense, and do better next time.
7. You are Brave as Hell.
By now, this should go without saying. This is the work, and walking into the unknown in order to create the life you’re meant for is brave as hell.