7 Stages of a Breakup: Tips for Moving Forward and Moving On
As much as we might wish otherwise, relationships sometimes come to an end. Whether you are the one deciding to move on, your significant other has decided to end things, or even if the breakup was mutual, ending a relationship is difficult for everyone. Recovering from a breakup, moving forward, and moving on takes time. Exactly how much time depends on a number of factors including the seriousness of the relationship, the length of time you were together, the expectations you had for the future, and how much of your life was shared (house, car, friends, etc…).
While the actual experience varies from person to person, the stages of a breakup follow a fairly predictable set of stages that are similar to the stages of grief. Knowing what to expect in each stage of a breakup and how to move through these phases will help you process, grow, and move on.
Breaking Up vs. Being Broken Up With
While both partners are going to feel feelings about the breakup and need time to process their emotions. Being broken up with - especially if you did not see it coming - generally takes more time and effort to move on from. Whichever part you played, being gentle with yourself and giving yourself time and patience are essentials as you move through the states of a breakup no matter if you were left or you did the leaving.
Breakups are a stressful life event akin to losing a loved one. Having a support system in place is essential for helping you work through this difficult time.
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How long does it take to move on?
Therapists everywhere wish they could instantly answer this question. The truth is, moving on from a breakup takes time and it varies from person to person. The time you spend on each state of the breakup process really depends on your own experience. The journey may not be linear, either. Some people may progress from one stange to the next in numeric order while others may bounce back to denial then skip relapse and head right to anger.
Stage 1: Questioning
The first stage of the breakup process is the questioning phase and it is especially relevant for the partner who was broken up with and particularly if the breakup came as a shock.
At this stage you may find yourself questioning both the breakup itself and the relationship as a whole.
- “Why is this happening to me?”
- “Why didn’t I see this coming?”
- “Why did they agree to spend the holidays with my family if they were planning on leaving me?”
Looking for answers, explanations and closure are very normal impulses. Speaking to a trusted friend can help you sort through these questions. Experts also recommend journaling to help identify and work through the early confusion of a break up.
Stage 2: Denial
The denial state of the breakup can follow the questioning phase, or the two can happen simultaneously. Questioning a breakup is understandable, especially if you are blindsided by the split. Why, you may ask, did they tell me they would love me forever or plan a vacation with me if they were planning to break up?
When questioning reveals behavior that seems to contradict the decision to break up, you may believe the breakup was a mistake. Denial can look like:
- Trying to convince yourself or your partner that the relationship should not end.
- Pointing to previous moments in the relationship as evidence that the break up is a mistake.
- Seeking confirmation from friends and family that the breakup shouldn’t have happened.
At this stage, you are still largely in shock and trying to apply logic to an emotional situation is not productive. Instead, talking to a supportive friend or a therapist is a healthy way to work through these thought patterns. Going for a walk or enjoying another kind of movement like yoga can help relieve tension and refocus the mind.
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Stage 3: Bargaining
After questioning and reviewing the relationship, it is very common for people to find themselves in the third stage of breakups: bargaining. If you can avoid this stage you are less likely to relapse (get back with your partner) and you are more likely to move on quickly.
This stage is incredibly tempting, especially if the breakup was a shock to you and you still have strong feelings for your ex. At this stage, it’s common for people to reach out to an ex and ask things like:
- What can I do differently?
- If I change X, will you come back?
- Can we just give it one more try?
The urge to bargain can be very strong, especially if you blame yourself for the dissolution of the relationship.
The real danger of this stage is that in your desperation to rekindle the relationship, you may be willing to put up with things or offer compromises that you are not really comfortable with or aren’t actually healthy for you. At the early stages of the breakup process we are generally not thinking logically. Until the implus to bargain has passed, it is best to avoid reaching out to an ex.
If you have been talking to a trusted friend or a therapist, asking them to hold you accountable for not reaching out is a good way to make it through this stage of the breakup process.
Stage 4: Relapse
Relapsing back into a relationship with the person you broke up with is not inevitable, but it is common enough that it is considered a stage in the breakup process. Perhaps you reached out to your partner with some ideas on how the relationship could improve or maybe your ex got back in touch and said they’d like to give it another go.
If you and your partner rekindle your relationship and it does not work out, you may cycle back through the earlier states of the breakup process before moving on. The urge to reunite is totally understandable. However, if the pattern of getting back together and splitting back does not work for you, reaching out for support from a professional counselor can help you create boundaries, which will enable you to move past the relapse stage.
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Stage 5: Anger
While you may feel angry at any point after a breakup, it often is realized with clarity once you have moved through the stages of questioning, denial, and bargaining.
Anger can look very different depending on the specific conditions of the relationship. Was there infidelity or was your partner dishonest? Did the relationship come out of left field and catch you completely off-guard? Did your partner refuse to work on the relationship? Or do you feel anger at yourself for not investing more energy into or time in the relationship?
Anger often gets a bad rap, but psychologists agree that it is an important and productive emotion. It is designed to promote our survival and discharging feelings of anger can help you feel a greater sense of calm and control. Anger also energizes us and helps us solve problems.
If you reach the anger stage in the breakup process, it is important to find healthy ways to discharge your angry feelings. Remember that all emotions are valid and want to be felt. Journaling, talk therapy, and movement (kickboxing, anyone?) can all be helpful ways to process anger and move on.
Stage 6: Acceptance
Reaching the point of acceptance is a true milestone in the breakup process. Understanding that the relationship is indeed over may lead to more positive feelings, including coming to realize that the relationship wasn’t the right one for you.
It’s key to keep in mind that acceptance can come in all forms and can shift from time to time. One day you may feel wholly empowered and positive about the breakup and feel momentum towards moving on, later you may feel a more passive resigned sense that things are truly over.
A person can also bounce back to previous stages of the breakup process even after experiencing a sense of acceptance.
Once you have reached the stage of acceptance, be sure to articulate your feelings. This is a good time to make goals, try a new hobby, start a new exercise routine, or reconnect with friends. Investing in yourself and your own joy helps strengthen the sense of acceptance that the relationship is over and a new chapter is starting.
Stage 7: Hope
Reaching acceptance is a real turning point, but the final stage of breaking up is feeling a sense of hope for the future. This is the point where you can truly move on.
When you trust that the relationship is over and can disengage from your former partner and any expectation that you will get back together, you can focus on yourself, your future and your own self-worth.
You may reflect on what you have been through and what you have learned about yourself and about relationships and feel hopeful about connecting with someone new.
The stages of a breakup, like life itself, is not a linear process. You may find yourself bouncing back and forth through stages before finally reaching an abiding sense of acceptance and hope.
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