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5 undeniable stages of a breakup (and how to overcome them)

You’ve recently called it quits with your partner and now that sinking feeling in your stomach is growing by the minute.

What comes next? Will the sadness and emptiness ever go away?

Dealing with a breakup is probably one of the most painful moments that can happen in our entire lives. Even the smartest and most resilient people sometimes struggle to bounce back.

The good news? You’ll get over it.

But the bad news? You need to start embracing your feelings — sadness included.

In this article, we’ll find out why a breakup hurts physically and emotionally.

We’ll also introduce you to the 5 common stages of grief and offer you tips that can help you bounce back from a painful breakup.

If you want to learn how to thrive after a breakup, keep reading.

Why breakup hurts

Do you know what’s weird other than being heartbroken after a breakup?

The term heartbroken itself.

If you haven’t heard of it yet, it’s called “heartbreak” because, more often than not, the emotional pain manifests physically. So, no, you’re not overreacting when you say your head and heart are hurting after a breakup.

Because your heart can literally ache, which is why we refer to the feeling as “heartache.”

When we get broken-hearted, our brain responds and triggers all the terrible “symptoms” associated with heartbreak.

Some studies show that the emotional pain people experience from a breakup was rated as equivalent to “nearly unbearable” physical pain.

Other studies have found that heartbreak activates parts of the brain that get triggered when addicts are withdrawing from substances like opioids and cocaine. It’s a surge of powerful withdrawal symptoms that negatively impact one’s ability to focus and function.

5 stages of grief

Confronting the consequences of a breakup may be the last thing you want to do while you’re still in shock, but thankfully, the stages of a breakup are more predictable than you think.

When your ex told you that you can move on without him, we’re sure you couldn’t possibly fathom what lies in the future. It’s like you are being forced to swim in a vast ocean alone.

And the thing is, you have to swim until you reach an island. But where do you start?

Good thing we have the 5 stages of breakup to help you sail smoothly throughout the post-breakup phase.

According to Dr.Tricia Wolanin, Psy.D., a clinical psychologist:

“The process of dealing with a breakup is comparable to grief. It’s the death of a relationship, hopes, and dreams for the future. The person we are losing was [a big part of] our world and therefore has taken up so much of our mental and heart space.”

Since a breakup is comparable to grief, let’s delve into the Five Stages of Grief, a theory developed by Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross.

Commonly referred to as DABDA, the five stages of grief are:

  1. Denial
  2. Anger
  3. Bargaining
  4. Depression
  5. Acceptance

According to her, grief is triggered by negative life circumstances, breakup included.

In her book On Death and Dying, the model was based on her experiences with terminally-ill patients and has received backlash in the succeeding years after publishing.

It was mainly because people mistakenly believed that these stages should be experienced in a specific order. Now, as you read further, keep in mind that these stages are not linear.

Some people only experience a few stages while others only undergo two stages. So, don’t let these stages invalidate your current feelings.

Instead, let them guide you towards recovery.

It’s important to be aware of them because every stage has its unique purpose and benefit, and by finding out where you are, you can take proactive measures towards acceptance.

Here are the things that you can expect from the different stages of breakup:

1st stage: Denial

It still doesn’t make sense, right? That the person whom you’ve devoted your love and loyalty to for months or even years has given up on your relationship.

Your ex has been your lover, your life, your ride or die. And now, your partner has decided to end it without a doubt.

“What just happened? Why does it feel like the world is crashing down on me?”

The state of shock after a breakup

Before denial, there comes the shock — the phase right after your ex decided to end your relationship — may it be during an intimate talk after an eerily silent dinner, through a phone call, or worse, through chat.

And during this moment, you are desperate for answers — an acceptable reason behind the sudden decision.

At this point, you are eager to understand why this happened.

No matter how your ex ended it, the feeling may be compared to that of a sudden accident.

Imagine biking during a warm and sunny morning — just when everything feels perfect until you suddenly run over and trip on a rock — you know that something has happened to you, and it hurts, but you can’t seem to wrap your head around what just happened.

During the shock phase, you are consumed by your emotions and you are likely to go back and forth between the surprise, disbelief, that sinking feeling of loss, and the painful truth that everything’s over.

This phase usually lasts for a day or two, then there comes denial.

“No, this can’t be true.”

In the denial stage, you are not in the “actual reality,” instead, you are in a “preferable” reality. This is where you try to survive the grief.

Instead of being consumed with sadness, you don’t accept it and delay its impact. It’s as if your way to say to your heart that there’s only so much that you can handle.

Once the shock and denial start to die down, then the healing process begins. However, if you find yourself stuck in this stage, you may try to do these tips to help you move forward:

  • Engage in calming activities like meditation, yoga, and long walks. Maybe you can go solo or bring a close friend for emotional support. These activities will help you keep things in perspective and help calm your mind, even for a tad bit.
  • Jot down your feelings if you feel uncomfortable opening up to other people. Otherwise, you can share your feelings with a friend, preferably someone who can listen more than he speaks.
  • Don’t freak out and do things that you may regret in the end. Put away your phone to avoid flooding your ex with “take me back” texts.

2nd stage: Anger

Now that you’ve recognized the breakup, you may be inclined to gloss over the happenings that led to the end. At this point, you may feel guilt, regret, anger, or a mixture of all.

During this stage, you shift from sad to mad. Your heart hardens towards your ex — that person who chose to end your happiness against your will.

“I can’t believe my ex has the heart to say this.”

“He was a huge *insert expletive* for ruining my life.”

You’ll probably find yourself replaying these in your mind. We’re telling you, that’s perfectly normal.

You see, anger feels like a relief from sorrow.

The harsh words directed to your ex are still parts of your defense mechanism against the harrowing pain of the breakup. You’re directing your hate towards your ex because you still don’t understand the events that led to this situation.

Therefore, you over-analyze every aspect of you, your ex, and your relationship.

Obsessing over a breakup?

According to Beverley Andre, LMFT, and the creator of Your Favorite MFT,

“People tend to analyze the explanation of why the relationship was terminated and obsess over the fine details. If the person is confused, they will over-analyze each aspect of themselves, ex-partner, and the relationship to understand why the breakup is happening.”

This also means that your heart may also harden towards yourself — you may detest being on the receiving side of the breakup decision, left with no choice but to deal with it.

Of course, that was unacceptable. Not at all. After all, anger is a natural response when someone disrespects, disappoints, disapproves, and disempowers us against our will.

We feel like we don’t deserve it, most especially when all our efforts towards our ex-partners reeked of love and understanding.

Anger is a necessary stage of grief and it’s important to embrace it while it’s there. Because the more you feel it, the quicker it will go away and the faster you will heal.

At this rate, you’ll find yourself in an endless cycle of frustration, deleting messages and photos together and slandering your ex to your circle of friends. But until you have a solid grasp of why the relationship ended that way, you’ll never get past this headspace.

If you find yourself in this stage, consider doing the following:

  • Compose yourself before chatting with your ex

This is to hash out those unresolved concerns.

Keep in mind that this is a bold move and doing something this drastic when you’re furious can bear negative consequences.

Proceed with caution that your ex may not be able to answer your questions in a way that is satisfying to you, according to Beverley Andre, LMFT.

  • Write about your anger

However, if you are not feeling comfortable about speaking with your ex, write about your anger instead.

Take out a notebook and jot down those unanswered questions, frustrations, and all that’s been bothering you inside for the past couple of days.

Writing down your frustrations will help you get your thoughts out of your head and may help you sleep better at night.

Nicole Artz, LMFT, a member of the advisory board for Family Enthusiast, says:

“It’s okay to reflect on the positive elements of a relationship, as doing so can help with feelings of anger or bitterness. But write down the negative parts of your relationship as well. Like, ‘Did you feel disrespected? Did your partner put other people before you? Were you constantly fighting?’ It’s helpful to remember why you broke up.”

  • Create a list of reasons

Feeling demotivated?

Create a list of reasons to face the day. You wouldn’t want to let a weary heart stop you from doing your daily tasks.

Try to channel your anger into productive activities by focusing on other aspects of your life like your career, family, and hobbies.

When you think about it, we often see anger as a negative thing, but according to lifestyle wellness coach Schekeva Hall, Ph.D.,

“Anger is the most misunderstood and invalidated emotion aside from anxiety.”

Anger can be fiery and destructive, but it can be an asset and, as clinical psychologist Mitch Abblett, Ph. D worded it,

“A glowing source of energy for lighting our way through challenging relationships when others might be stepping on our toes.”

So make sure to use it to your advantage.

3rd stage: Bargaining

Have you ever blocked them on social media only to borrow a friend’s phone so that you can stalk your ex and see if they’re moping as much as you? Or maybe you spend every hour waiting for a message, telling you that it’s about time to reconcile?

Because deep inside, you’re still not over your ex and the “shoulda woulda coulda” still haunts you at night.

Letting go is easier said than done.

If you’ve ever watched ‘500 Days of Summer’, you’ll know how long Tom Hansen was stuck in a loop of replaying all the wonderful memories in his head.

So naturally, you want to protect it at all costs — aggressively, if necessary.

At this point, you just want at least one of the three things:

  • You want your ex back
  • You want to undo things
  • You want to fix things

I miss my ex, what should I do?

Also known as longing, this is the stage wherein you will ironically feel better than a couple of days ago. At this point, you feel as if you have all the energy to readily face a brighter future ahead with your ex once again.

Therefore, you tell yourself (or your ex, if you’re bold enough) these things:

“I feel renewed and so much better, maybe we can get back together?”

“I’m still in love with my ex and I can’t live without him. And I feel I can be a better partner this time around.”

“Maybe the breakup was just a mistake. Perhaps my ex was just frustrated at me at that very moment. What if it’s not yet too late to correct that mistake?”

Can I win back my ex?

Sometimes taking “No” for an answer is out of the question especially in this phase.

You can get quite obsessed with your ex-lover and ask if you guys can “talk things over.”

Why?

Simply because you are still hopeful that by changing some parts of yourself, they might just take you back. And you’re more than willing to go through great lengths just to have them in your arms again.

Deborah Roth, a relationship expert, explains why people go through this stage,

“In the bargaining stage, you might beat yourself up with ‘if only’s’ — ‘If only I’d been a more patient, loving partner,’ or, ‘If only I hadn’t gone away that weekend.’ Which can propel you to desperately reach out to your ex with all kinds of big promises to be or do better. Of course, the reality is that you both were responsible for the success or failure of your relationship.”

Shift from desperation to fear

So, you failed to get your ex back, and now you’re scared because:

  • You’ll never be enough for someone
  • No one else will ever love you
  • You’re too old to get into a new relationship

The fact that you’re not going to meet someone as understanding, lovable, and funny as your ex-partner is frightening.

If you never get in control of your feelings, soon enough, you’ll feel down in the dumps.

To help you get through this stage, here’s a couple of tips for you to practice:

  • Create a self-love list. This is a great, tangible way to remind yourself of all the beautiful things about you, even the little things — remember how your friends always tell you that you have a unique, beautiful smile? Or how they would refer to you as loyal and selfless? Write them down.
  • Reflect to find yourself again after being devastated by a breakup. This moment of reflection gives you the clarity you didn’t have when you were in a relationship with your previous partner. Take this moment to remind yourself what a beautiful person you are, and how much you are worth loving.

4th stage: Depression

Are you starting to feel so much pain that you feel almost numb?

Do you feel the sadness is already consuming you, stripping you of any joy and hope that the future can offer?

If you feel you’re past the sadness, anger, and sheer apathy towards the world, chances are you are already in the depression stage.

All these happenings, from the breakup to the moment you didn’t win back your ex can sometimes trigger severe emotional distress. And this is perfectly fine.

At this point, remembering life before your relationship or what could it be like in the present may be challenging. Just getting started on your work feels exhausting and you may even experience physical pains manifested by deep feelings of sadness and hopelessness.

While situational depression can be normal, you may experience that this feeling may linger for an extended period of time. Keep an eye on these major symptoms of depression:

  • Feelings of helplessness and hopelessness
  • Weight loss or drastic changes in appetite
  • Sleeping too much or too little
  • Loss of interest in hobbies
  • Feelings of worthlessness
  • Listlessness
  • Feeling sad and empty most of the day
  • Fatigue and lack of energy

While family and friends can provide you support and comfort during this stage, it’s important to seek advice from a counselor or therapist if your symptoms are relenting and beginning to affect your well-being and productivity.

The hookup phase

When people are depressed and are searching for a quick fix, they usually succumb to the modern way of moving on, the “hookup phase.”

You’ll probably hear this advice from your friends “the best way to get over somebody is to get under somebody else”.

So naturally, you would log in to Tinder, swipe right to some attractive people, and hook up with two (or a few). For some, rebound sex sounds like a great way to fill the void inside.

After all, nobody said you can’t have a bit of fun when you’re in the process of healing, right?

But if you are unsure of whether this is something for you, here are some pros and cons you should consider before jumping into bed with a stranger.

Pros:

It provides a temporary fix — sex undeniably feels good and if you have been feeling empty after a breakup, sex (especially a great one) can give you a rush of endorphins.

But the sad part? It only lasts a while.

Sure, it’s a band-aid solution to your emotional sufferings but having sex with someone you find sexually attractive can boost your self-esteem and help to get over a broken heart.

After all the self-loathing that happened during the bargaining stage, finally, there is someone who wants you. It’s worth noting that your worth should not be validated by sex, however, we can’t deny the euphoric rush of knowing that we are desired by someone else.

Makes you forget your ex — Well, only for a short while. If you have been ignoring that person that has been asking you out because you are in a committed relationship, maybe it’s about time to give that person a chance.

Go out on dates, catch up, enjoy good sex, and see if the chemistry is there.

If not, then it’s still a time well-spent. At least you got your mind off of your ex for a while. But when it comes to this, keep in mind that you should tell the person your intentions so there are no hard feelings right after.

Both of you should be on the same page and your date should know that you just got out of a relationship. That way, you can both enjoy your time together.

Cons:

You might get attached — When you are feeling lonely, sometimes you blur the lines between casual sex and falling in love.

Before diving into the hookup phase, make sure you are aware of the difference, as well as the reasons as to why you’re doing it if you don’t want to see yourself being attached to a person whom you just met a couple of days ago.

It can be awkward — If you didn’t communicate your intentions from the very start, then you’re in for an awkward rebound situation.

For instance, if you participate in rebound sex and you accidentally called your ex’s name during the act, the person may be weirded out.

Casual sex should be fun, not uncomfortable for the both of you.

So to keep you both on the same page, make sure that you’re ready for it before involving someone innocent in your emotional baggage.

How long will you stay at this stage? It all depends on your ability to accomplish these things:

  1.  Avoid contacting your ex
  2.  Don’t overthink as much as possible
  3. Accept the truth and just move on.

To help you get out of the rut, follow these simple steps:

  • Surround yourself with positive people. Start catching up with good friends you haven’t seen in a while. Unlike hookup, spending quality time with friends strengthens an already existing bond and friendship. So, let your trusted comrades help you cheer up!
  • Don’t fall victim to unhealthy habits like binge-eating or drinking. It can be terribly tempting, don’t succumb to something that bears unhealthy consequences in the end.

5th stage: Acceptance

Finally, the last stage.

After all the sleepless nights, lack of appetite, and a whirlwind of emotions, you’re finally ready to get out of those sweatpants and face the world again.

During the early moments in this stage, you may feel defeated, so you surrender.

You are finally letting go not because you want to but you know you have to finally do it.

It’s the time when you realize you’re never getting back together and it’s just unhealthy and toxic for you to keep holding on.

When you finally accept your new reality, does it mean you won’t feel sad anymore?

Of course not.

Moving on takes time but when you look at how you were on day one vs now, you should be proud of yourself.

You’ve come a long way, and you’re closer now to that light at the end of the tunnel.

Welcome to the acceptance stage (time to bring out the bubbly!), wherein:

  • You can already acknowledge that the breakup happened, and you’ve given up winning back your ex.
  • You feel more hopeful for the future.
  • You can perform your daily tasks better than before.
  • You’re ready to face the possibilities of the future.

Letting go of the past

If your post-breakup story is anything like a Hallmark movie, then the part of letting go is probably the climax. If you:

  • Don’t feel any hatred towards your lover anymore
  • Have acknowledged that you can survive alone
  • Have grasped a clear idea about why the relationship ended
  • Have acknowledged that you’ve finally passed through the hard phases of a breakup
  • Have regained your confidence

Then it’s about time to move on and create new beginnings.

Here are some tips that can get you through this stage:

  • Celebrate getting through the grief. Finally, you are free. Reconnect with your hobbies, passion, and people that matter to you. Go out and treat yourself to a good time, because you deserve it.
  • Accept that sadness comes in waves because it will appear from time to time. Some days you’ll feel great and some days you won’t, so go easy on yourself.

Keep in mind that these stages aren’t linear, so move at your own pace. Not all breakups are equal, some might have a clean-cut, while others are a bit messier.

Nevertheless, you have to keep moving forward. Don’t give up.

Because you are worth it, and in time, someone else out there will love you despite all your silly quirks and even your shortcomings.

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Written by Lachlan Brown

I’m Lachlan Brown, the founder, and editor of Hack Spirit. I love writing practical articles that help others live a mindful and better life. I have a graduate degree in Psychology and I’ve spent the last 15 years reading and studying all I can about human psychology and practical ways to hack our mindsets. If you want to get in touch with me, hit me up on Facebook or Twitter.

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