If you think back to all of the breakups in your life, you might start to pick up on some patterns. Of course, some breakups stand out as being particularly worse than others. And some, well, you facilitated them because you were really just over it, and the pain wasn’t so terrible. But the ones that stung, those sent you spiraling into a series of behaviors and phases that you just had to get through in order to get over it. When you’re in it, it seems like every breakup is different. But looking back, you may realize that your post-breakup behavior fell into a range of activities.
Like with any difficult transition, such as grief or addiction recovery, it’s important to know that there is a process, it’s rather universal, and you really aren’t alone in it. There’s comfort in knowing what feels like an emotion-fueled mess of actions is actually falling neatly into place in one of the regular steps. And that’s the case for getting over a breakup. So next time you’re in a messy one and feeling like you’ll never recover, you can step back and say, “Ah. I’m just in that stage right now.” We spoke with Shanita Burgess (IG: @shanita__b), a licensed clinical mental health counselor and owner of ShanitaBurgess.com about the many stages of getting over a breakup.
It is a loss
Burgess agrees that going through a breakup is, at times, like suffering a more severe loss. “Getting over a breakup is a journey. The process of emotional recovery afterward is very similar to the grief of losing a loved one.” And, like the process of getting over the death of a loved one, breakups involve a stage of denial. Which is the first stage we’ll cover.
Denial: everything is fine
In speaking of denial, Burgess points out that it can begin before the relationship has officially ended. “Denial is the stage where we have a difficult time coming to terms with the fact that our partner or we are no longer happy in the relationship. You may want to act like everything is normal, and go on about the relationship as if nothing has happened.” It’s that time when the love and happiness may be gone, but you’re still holding onto the title of “in a relationship.”
Why do we deny?
“We engage in this stage to numb the pain that we’re experiencing in that moment. This is normal to want to delay pain but it is a short-term solution,” says Burgess. It’s sort of like holding onto a dead limb you know needs amputation: it’s no longer serving you, but seeing it just there gives you the delusion that it’s working.
Anger: how dare he?!
Burgess says that anger comes next, but anger is just the outward manifestation of pain and sadness. She explains that “After we’ve been through ‘He’s going to leave?!’ anger is the surface emotion we use to express all the other hurt emotions that are brewing underneath the surface.” When you’re in the anger phase, Burgess says, “It’s important during this time to be careful of how we express these feelings, and not to lash out or hurt anyone because we’re feeling hurt.” This could be a good time to refer to our piece on what not to do right after a breakup. There can be permanent repercussions to actions taken in response to a temporary emotion.
Bargaining: it’s just a break
If you’ve decided to take a break rather than have a full breakup, or you’ve told yourself this breakup isn’t really the end, you may be in the bargaining phase. “At this point, you may want to try to make bargains with your partner, maybe even God, to keep your relationship,” says Burgess. She says you might say things like, “Maybe if I give them more space, they’ll become who I need them to be and we can fix things.”
Or, actually, “I’m fine!”
Bargaining can happen before a breakup, too, says Burgess. “You may try to bargain with yourself to stay in a relationship that you know isn’t working. I know, being out of control is tough. The hardest part of this stage is coming to terms with the fact that we can’t change who our partner is or what they choose to do if they are the one ending the relationship.”
Depression: the first part of the acceptance
“This is the phase where all you want to do is lay in bed, eat some Halo Top, and watch your favorite movie,” explains Burgess. “The most underrated part of this stage is that you are coming to terms with the reality of where the relationship is, and you can heal from here.” So, take some comfort in the pain of this stage, because it can be a gateway to healing.
Don’t get stuck in this stage
“Pay attention to what you’re saying to yourself,” advises Burgess. “Make sure you are speaking to yourself kindly. If you are engaging in negative self-talk, whether it be about your role in the relationship or possible things you wish you’d done differently, you can risk being in this stage for a long time. How you think will affect how you feel.”
“So this isn’t the fully recovered, I’m free, walking on sunshine stage, but more so the stage where you make peace with where things are,” says Burgess. “You forgive yourself and stop going through the ‘what ‘if’s’ in your mind. You let go, trust that you have everything you need to move on, and have learned how to cope with the pain that the breakup may have brought up.”
The order can be unpredictable
“The stages of grief are never linear. You may jump from denial to depression or experience anger and bargaining at the same time. That is okay. When we’re grieving a relationship, we must give ourselves permission to acknowledge and feel. As time goes on we learn how we need to go through these stages individually and allow us to feel them with permission and acceptance,” says Burgess.