How to have a healthy breakup, according to a relationship expert

Claire Blackmore|2020.09.03

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Deciding whether or not to end a relationship can be a painful process. And actually carrying out the task at hand can be agonizing, especially if you’re worried about hurting someone you still care about. On the other hand, being on the receiving end of a breakup you didn’t see coming can shatter your heart into tiny pieces. Is it better to be the dumper or the dumpee? One can be laden with guilt, angst, and possibly doubt. The other can be hard to swallow and totally gut-wrenching.

Whichever end of the separation spectrum you’ve been on, most breakups are categorized as negative. Flip back through your heartbreak history. From teenage trysts that ended in tears to adult partnerships that imploded–the end result is often the same. Someone winds up hurt. The Journal of Positive Psychology reckons it takes 11 weeks to recover after a relationship ends, but for many people it may take months or even years. However, despite any past negative experiences, there is such a thing as a healthy breakup.

Teaching us how to harness the good from a relationship breakdown is love coach Nicole Boyar, founder of Love School, who leads coaching sessions and talks at institutions including Harvard, Hive, and Soho House.

What does a healthy breakup look like?

“There are three main ingredients that make a breakup healthy: deep reflection, good communication, and most of all, lots of self-love,” says Nicole. “In order for a breakup to be healthy, you’ve got to have space to process your emotions–both with the other person and even more importantly, with yourself. Explore what you’re feeling and why. Ask yourself questions. And most importantly, don’t judge yourself or your feelings.”

She explains that even during a healthy breakup, you will ride a whole wave of emotions. “You may feel deep loss, confusion, shock, withdrawal–this is all totally normal. What determines if the breakup is healthy or not, is how you process these emotions. If you find yourself acting out in any way–numbing, distracting, or busying yourself–you are entering unhealthy territory. This could look like trying to hurt the other person with your words or actions, drinking or using substances to numb your emotions, looking for a rebound to distract yourself, or anything else you may be doing to avoid feeling your feelings. These behaviors are quicksand, so if you catch yourself doing them, get yourself back on track.”

How do I initiate a breakup?

Initiating a breakup can be really stressful, especially when you’re still on good terms with someone. Ending a relationship if you still harbor feelings, regardless of whether they’re platonic or not, is extremely tough. Nicole's rule of thumb is to treat others as you want to be treated.

"If you’re still on good, terms but you know the relationship isn’t right for you, speak your truth. Do it quickly, clearly, and kindly. You may be scared to rip off the bandaid, but leaving them confused and uncertain is even worse.”

“One of the hardest parts of the breakup process is navigating the stress of the unknown. People end up in a phase of waiting and wondering. ‘What did I do wrong? Are we breaking up? Am I going crazy? Why did this happen?’ It’s helpful to first get clear on why you want to break up, then how you want to articulate this to the other person. Was it something specific they did? Is it a general overall feeling?” She suggests writing bullet points down on paper to get these emotions straight, then practicing the conversation with a coach or an unbiased friend.

How do I handle it if I’ve been broken up with?

Being told your relationship is over can cause a major shock to the system. Nicole has three main points of focus when it comes to receiving breakup news.

"Be gentle with yourself. Being broken up with can feel like a punch in the gut. Emotional pain is just as brutal as physical pain, if not more.” She wants you to slow down, breathe, and take stock before reacting.”

"Secondly you don’t need to say or do anything right now. You will likely have questions, maybe lots of them. You may not know the right thing to say. You may be unsure how you feel about it. That’s all okay. The other person had time to think about this. You deserve time, too." Nicole gives her clients this helpful go-to line: “I need time to process this and would like to have a conversation when I’m ready.” She explains it creates much-needed time and space for you to process raw emotions.

Finally, she wants you to call a family member or friend. "Your natural instinct may be to isolate. You may want to hide at home. But talking to someone you love and feel comfortable with will help you move through the emotions and feel better."

But wait, what if we're on bad terms?

Not all breakups are created equal. In fact, many end with betrayal, pain, and fury. So while there might be a healthy way to receive bad news amicably, there's also a healthy way to process relationships that end in flames.

"If you’ve been cheated on or are on terrible terms, there can be a lot of anger that needs to be released and processed," explains Nicole. "Anger is a healthy emotion, it only becomes unhealthy when it is stagnant and unexpressed. The trick with anger is finding a healthy way to channel and release it. If you don’t release it, it will come out (most likely in messy and unexpected ways) so you want to get ahead of it.”

How can I start to heal?

“Many people see break-ups as failures, I don’t see them that way,” explains Nicole. “I don’t believe the length of a relationship determines its success–that comes from how much you learned, grew, and evolved as a person.”

She encourages people going through separations to write down moments of self gratitude instead. “One of the exercises I give clients after a breakup is to journal with the prompt, ‘In this relationship, I am proud that…’ How did you show up in this relationship in ways that you are proud of? Did you communicate well? Were you more vulnerable than ever before? Whatever you can find that you’re proud of yourself for, acknowledge that. When a relationship ends it’s important to reflect on what transpired and anchor yourself with pride and gratitude.”

The concept of initiating or receiving heartbreak in a healthy way might seem like an oxymoron, but ultimately it’s about avoiding implosion and prioritizing yourself. There is such a thing as a successful split. For people ending relationships, that means minimizing guilt and leaving your ex with a clear understanding of what went wrong. For those on the flip side, it’s taking the time to process painful emotions properly. Sure, it may take a while to reframe everything from “we” to “me,” but you'll get there eventually with a little self-compassion.

Ready for some post-breakup TLC? Listen to Self Love Languages. In this session, we use the love languages framework to help you identify and practice deeper ways to care for yourself. Or, if you want to fantasize about the breakup sex you didn't get to have (or did have—no judgement!), press play on Five Years V.


Claire Blackmore is a freelance writer and editor focusing on women's health, beauty, fashion, travel and sex. She specializes in straight-talking body, sex education and self-care features, plus trend reports on shopping, style, skincare and wellness.

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