While there are many emotionally challenging experiences, few are as common and as complicated as a breakup. A breakup can feel like rejection or betrayal. It overturns your whole vision of your immediate future. This turmoil is often compounded by practical issues like having to find a new place to live. The difficult nature of breakups is one reason people are often advised to have at least a year of solid recovery before they enter a new romantic relationship. However, life is not always so neat. You may have already been in a relationship or maybe you felt like your recovery was pretty strong until you got blindsided by a breakup. If you were in a relationship that recently ended—especially if it wasn’t your choice to end it—here are some tips to keep a breakup from ruining your recovery.
First of all, stick to your recovery plan. We’re all familiar with the trope of the spurned lover drowning his or her sorrows. You may have thoughts like, “What’s the point of staying sober now?” Those kinds of thoughts are understandable under the circumstances but it’s not nearly as easy to get your recovery back as it is to throw it away. Decide right away that your best revenge will be to stay sober and be happy.
Sticking to your recovery plan will also help you feel better about your breakup. Much of what’s in your recovery plan is designed to help you be more emotionally resilient. Getting plenty of sleep and exercise, going to 12-Step meetings, and spending time with friends will soften the blow and help preserve a feeling of stability during a chaotic time.
Breakups stir up many difficult emotions—anger, sadness, loss, anxiety, doubt. None of these are pleasant but trying to avoid or suppress your emotions only makes them stronger. The desire to escape emotional pain is also a common motivation for using drugs and alcohol. Instead of trying to avoid the pain, try accepting it and experiencing it mindfully. What kinds of thoughts are coming up? Happy memories? Plans you made together that are now meaningless? Where do you feel the pain in your body? Your throat? Your stomach? Pay attention to these thoughts and sensations without judging them. One 2018 study by Langeslag & Sanchez found that participants who used acceptance as a strategy for coping with a breakup were less emotionally reactive to a picture of their ex.
One reason breakups are so hard is that you have a strong emotional bond with a particular person. In that way, a breakup is not totally unlike quitting drugs or alcohol. And, just as when you’re trying to quit drugs and alcohol, avoiding triggers is a useful strategy for getting over a breakup. Put away the pictures of you and your ex. Move the pics on your phone to a storage device or just delete them entirely. Unfollow your ex on social media. Store or get rid of any items in your house that remind you of your ex.
It’s also a good idea to cut off communication for a while. We all like to think we can stay friends with our exes but that usually just makes things harder. Maybe, after you’ve both moved on you can be on friendly terms but trying to stay friends right after a breakup will only prolong your suffering.
When someone breaks up with you, your mind is typically dominated by two competing thoughts: how happy you were together and how angry and hurt you are that they left you. In other words, a common yet perverse reaction to a breakup is to think about how great the person is and all the wonderful memories you have together.
One thing that might help is to take a more objective view. Every relationship is a mix of good and bad. If you’re selectively remembering the good, then you are probably causing yourself to suffer unnecessarily. To counteract this tendency to glorify the past, think of the times that weren’t so great. Think about your exes annoying habits, the ways they let you down, the demands they put on you, and so on. The study referenced above found that this strategy not only reduced participants’ emotional reactions to pictures of their exes but also reduced their feelings of love for their exes. One downside to this approach, though, is that it tended to put participants in a worse mood, so be aware of that tradeoff.
Many people have a tendency to isolate themselves following a breakup. They feel depressed, perhaps slightly embarrassed, and they may not be entirely sure which of their shared friends are sympathetic to them. However, it’s important to resist the temptation to isolate yourself. Let your friends and family be there for you. Go out with friends. Go to 12-step meetings and share. There will certainly be other people who have had similar experiences. Part of the difficulty of a breakup is feeling rejected and lonely. Spending time with supportive people counteracts those feelings.
Sadness over a breakup might seem pretty tame as far as mental health issues go, but don’t let that stop you from talking to your therapist about it. Talking to your therapist can help to take a more objective look at your situation and identify beliefs that are making the breakup more painful than it needs to be. Also, your sobriety may be at stake, so it’s better to be safe than sorry.
Finally, sometimes it’s just helpful to distract yourself. Start a new hobby or level up on an old one. Take a class or join a club. Go for a bike ride instead of sitting around feeling sad. The study above found that distraction didn’t reduce a participant’s feelings of love for their exes, but it did help them feel better temporarily. Assuming you do something constructive to distract yourself and assuming you are still willing to process the experience, a distraction can give you a break from feeling sad.
It would be great if life didn’t throw any big challenges at you in recovery until you were ready, but that’s not how it goes. Breakups are pretty common in your teens and twenties but they don’t have to endanger your recovery. At Steps Recovery Centers, we know that a lot can happen during your first year of recovery. We want to give you all the help you need to stay sober in the long run. To learn more about our alumni services, call us at 385-236-0931.