12 In-Depth Lessons I've Learned Because Of My Break Up
RomanceBreaking Up

12 In-Depth Lessons I’ve Learned Because Of My Break Up

June 4th of last year was one of the shittiest days of my life. I woke up to discover that the comfortably rent-controlled apartment that I had called home for 16 years had been sold and I had a month to get out. I immediately made an appointment to view a smaller, more expensive apartment, and without time as my ally, I signed the lease on the new place by 1 p.m. The day was off to quite the start.

An hour later, my brother, who was also my roommate, received a phone call informing him that he had lost his job after his place of employment had been sold and that he would be starting a new, unfamiliar career. This call came in as I was driving him to the airport for an extended trip to Europe. What a fucking mess this day was becoming.

By 4 p.m., I found myself sitting with my girlfriend of five years discussing what was about to be the end of our once happy relationship. There was no debate. It was her call. And it was over. At 8 p.m., I took the last look I would ever get of the woman I had spent half a decade with, and headed off to my formerly happy home without a friendly ear to listen to me sob. It was a lonely, lonely night.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about life, it’s that it has an awesomely sick sense of humor. Twelve hours later, I’d have to strap on my best “I’m totally fine” face and start a new job of my own with a group of strangers who had no idea that my life had just collapsed all around me. June 4th. My own, personal Friday the 13th.

The year that followed was a surreal rollercoaster of emotions, self-assessment and change. I’ve learned a lot in the last twelve months and I’d like to share with you some of the lessons I’ve learned. Maybe you’ve just broken up with someone. Maybe you feel a break up coming. Whatever part of it you’re in, I hope that the things I’ve learned this year are helpful to you no matter what side of the break up you’re on.

Please take note that this article is not going to flame my former partner. If you’re looking for that sort of horseshit you’ve come to the wrong place. I don’t believe you need to write a detailed, public indictment of a relationship in order to share the lessons you’ve learned from it. So with that out of the way, here we go…

1. If you feel like there’s something wrong, there is.

Few break ups should come as a surprise. These things can brew for weeks, months or even years. More often than not, it’s been thought about for far longer than your soon-to-be-former-partner has let on. Maybe they’re bored. Maybe you fucked things up. Maybe they found someone else. Maybe they just don’t want to hurt you. Whatever the reason is, they’ve checked out and once that happens, there’s no going back. The best thing you can do for yourself is to recognize this when it happens. Recognizing it shouldn’t be a problem. You’ll feel the distance. You’ll feel the cold. The gap between the once-loving but now-soulless text messages will stretch from minutes to hours or longer. You may not want to believe it, but they’re already gone.

When the time comes for you to talk about saving your relationship (if saving it is even on your radar), pay attention. If they want to save it, they will. I have faith that people will go to great lengths to save the bonds between them and the people they love. But if not, you need to be real with yourself and allow the relationship to end. Don’t try to buy them back with gifts, expensive dinners or flowers. Don’t waste weeks or months or years of your life trying to save something that’s beyond saving. It’s not fair to either of you and it only leads to compounded hurt and difficult-to-reconcile resentment. That’s no good for anyone.

2. Never “throw the snake.”

When I was a kid I wasn’t popular. I was “Fatty Matty”. Even as I earnestly attempted to be friends with the “cool kids”, I was often left on the periphery. When I was about eight years old, the kids on my street and I collected and kept garter snakes that we’d find in the local ponds and marshes. We stored them in an outdoor aquarium behind a friend’s house. There was one exceptionally friendly snake in our collection and we would take turns putting it in a big peanut butter jar and taking it home to our houses to play with for a few days. When it came to my turn I was elated! I was finally deemed worthy to take care of the awesome snake!

After a day or two of being the keeper of the friendly serpent, I happened onto the street to see the other kids gathered around on their bicycles. I went over to join in but they wanted nothing to do with “Fatty Matty”. Dejected, hurt and angry, I marched into my house and moments later emerged carrying the peanut butter jar that we used as our mobile snake terrarium. I stepped to the curb and hurled the jar into the air over the street. It hung there for what felt like an eternity as the gravity of what I had just done quickly turned to regret. A moment later the jar crashed to Earth and was obliterated on the pavement, killing the snake in front of everyone. I instantly became the street pariah for a long time to come.

The most twisted part of this story isn’t that I became my street’s first snake-icidal maniac (there were others). It’s the fact that the murder was actually intended to somehow gain the positive attention of my friends in the most backward way possible. “If I kill this snake, you guys will pay attention to me”.

People do this in relationships too. People will do crazy, backwards and unfathomably horrible things just to get the attention of the person they love when they feel that person slipping away. I cannot emphasize enough that this is the single most stupid and selfish thing you can ever do. Whether it’s starting a fight, cheating on your partner, or throwing around wild accusations because you want someone who has stopped caring to recognize your presence, it’s never the right thing to do. NEVER throw the snake.

3. It’s going to be chaos.

The weeks and months following a break up can be fucking surreal. Your house feels unfamiliar. The places you go seem empty. You find beauty in absolutely nothing and no one. You’re embarrassed and humiliated. You may stay in bed for days. You may aimlessly wander the streets for hours and hours. You might stay drunk for a month (or several). You feel like people are treating you differently. You may feel cuckolded or the brunt of everyone’s joke. You might not be able to concentrate on anything that requires more focus than what’s required to flick on a light-switch. Luckily, you don’t turn on the lights anymore so you don’t expend that energy anyway. You may get pissed off that the world isn’t collapsing for everyone else and their lives continue on unfettered as yours roils like a mountain of fire ants devouring the corpse of your self-worth. Get used to this feeling because it’s going to be around for a while. But it’s not forever. And there are things you can do to rein this bullshit in.

I know that what I’m about to say may seem trite, but it’s fucking true so listen up. Find as much normalcy as you possibly can. Develop a routine. Find a hobby. Go hiking. Join a gym. Rise early and sleep early. Read every book you see. Attempt mindfulness meditation (good luck in your state). Create art. Travel. Write it all down. Make new friends. All of this shit works.

Being outdoors and daily exercise trigger more feel-good chemicals in your brain than banging every rando in the hemisphere ever could. And on that note, be reaaaaaaaaaaly careful about sex during this psychotic time. You may think it’ll make you feel better, restore your confidence and make you feel attractive again, but I assure you that there’s the very real possibility that it’ll backfire on you and you’ll end up curled up in a ball on the floor of your shower crying like you just found out that Einhorn is Finkle.

4. Feel every single feeling.

The feelings. Here they come. The ups, the downs, the crazies, the guilt, the regret and the despair. They’re all here for a while and you won’t know which one is on deck after the slugger that’s currently in your emotional batter’s box is done knocking your heart over the Green Monster. Remember two things during this time. First, that it’s ok to feel these feelings. They’re normal. You’re not crazy. You’re not going to die from a broken heart no matter how much you think you are. You need to feel all of these things in order to move past them. Second, there’s no time limit on this experience. This is going to go on for exactly as long as it takes. Don’t attempt to rush your healing. It won’t work. You’ll heal in good time, even if it feels like it’s taking way longer than it should. It may seem like slow, protracted torture, but I assure you that time is your friend.

5. Not everyone will be there for you.

This is going to be a hard pill to swallow for a lot of folks, but not everyone is going to be there for you after your break up. Before the demise of my relationship, my ex and I were an extremely social couple with a tightly knit circle of friends. We were always together. We’d go on group vacations. We would group text all sorts of funny shit to each other. It seemed that we were more often than not planning the next ‘thing’ with the group. We also had a very cool network of bars and restaurants we would frequent and we were friends with not just the people who worked in these establishments, but also with the customers. It was a blast.

After June 4th, all that was gone for me. My entire social circle and social identity collapsed. The people and places I had spent endless amounts of time with over the years were gone. With the minor exception of two or three people, none of our friends reached out to me. Over the course of the coming months, messages from those who did still speak to me died off and eventually stopped altogether. People I spoke to daily for five years had simply vanished.

It was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to deal with.

This is not uncommon and it happens for a variety of reasons. It’s no secret that people pick sides, but that’s not the only reason for this. People may not want to get involved in an uncomfortable situation. Some may simply not know what to say. If you’re lucky enough to have a friendly split, you may avoid this scenario, but more often than not, the hurt you’re feeling will also prevent you from reaching out or responding to people that you associated with, and unfortunately, an untended garden will eventually die. It’s very difficult, but try not to take any of it personally. It’s not really about you or them. It’s about the situation. Not many people want to be involved in grief, especially someone else’s. Do your best to move past this unfortunate truth and don’t allow resentment toward the bystanders eat at your self-esteem.

6. Lean on the ones who love you, but carefully.

Even if a scenario like the one above happens to you, there are people who love and care about you. In all likelihood they’ve spent years, decades or even a lifetime as a constant in your life. Do not be afraid to reach out to them if you’re hurting. They’ll be there. But also remember that grief is a long and unpredictable process. Don’t exhaust these people with your woe. You won’t lose them, but you will wear them down if you’re not careful. They are the type of people who will take on your pain to their own detriment. For the sake of everyone who loves you, treat these people gently.

7. Block, unfriend, and mute, and unfollow are your best friends.

After a break up, the desire to check up on your ex is all but irresistible. In the social media age, it is tremendously easy to keep tabs on them, and seeing them can almost be impossible to avoid even if you’ve made the choice not to stalk them like a lunatic.

Do yourself a favour and disconnect from them entirely… especially if you have unanswered questions about the break up. You will not find the answers, but sweetlordamercy, you will piece together every last morsel of circumstantial evidence to arrive at whatever pre-conceived conclusion your misfiring brain has decided upon. Even worse, you may get answers to things you did not want to know. For example, did you know that when you un-friend someone on Facebook that the things you were blocked from seeing between them and other people suddenly become visible? Well now you do. You don’t need that shit in your life.

So how do you do this effectively? Picture your social media connection to your ex like growth rings on a tree, a series of concentric circles expanding outwards from a center-point. Your ex is at the center. That’s block territory. The immediate rings outside of the center are also in the blocking zone. There you find the besties, the confidantes, the ones who know all the things, and in some unfortunate cases, the co-conspirators. Block ‘em. The layers outside of that ring are where you find the peripherals. The ones you really like, but are usually friends of your ex. If you keep them in your feed you are guaranteed to see things about your ex that you don’t want to see. You don’t need that. These folks can be unfollowed or muted to preserve whatever it is that you have with them. This may seem like a harsh approach, but I assure you that all these people will get it, and if they don’t… fuck ‘em.

Lastly, and I cannot stress this enough, take your ex’s number out of your phone. I assure you it’s not committed to your memory in the digital age, so get that shit out of there. The last thing you need is to get drunk and text them some pathetic shit in the middle of the night when you are literally the last person they want to hear from. Fuck it. They’re gone. Let ‘em go. Unless you have kids, there isn’t a damn thing you need to talk to them about anyway. This approach may seem extreme but this is one situation in which knowledge is not your friend and the less you know, the better.

8. You will continue to hurt people until you address what hurt you.

Several months before the break up I knew something was wrong, I just didn’t know what it was. It was at this point that I decided to enter therapy thinking that if I brought my best self to the relationship that I could fix it. LOL. The break up proceeded as planned. While my previous self may have seen this defeat as a reason to plummet into the depths of self-loathing and self-destruction, the person I was becoming didn’t see it this way.

Not only did I remain in therapy, I attended weekly sessions for well over a year. I was diagnosed with low-grade depression and generalized anxiety, a revelation that explained years of behaviour and fluctuating emotions. Now I could do something about it. With the help of my therapist I was able to identify core values and needs, and conquer issues of anger, suicidal thoughts, self-sabotage and my complicated relationship with alcohol. This allowed me to put to rest an entire host of issues that I’d been carrying since childhood about my relationship with my dad, my disastrous educational career and a litany of other shit that I’d been hauling around for decades. In turn, this led to healed relationships between me and my father, with a woman I had cared for very much in a past relationship, and it led to improvements in relationships between me and many, many people in my life that I care a great deal for, including myself.

But the biggie was still waiting for me…

Prior to this relationship, I had another important one that shaped me for years to come. It was 2006 and I experienced ‘love at first sight’ for the first and only time in my life. The second we met, both of us knew instantly what it was. And it truly was. We moved fast. Within a month we were living together and we had adopted what remains the best cat ever to prowl the Earth (RIP Baby Bones Meowington III). We were building a little family.

Within a year, we were engaged. But even with all the love we felt for each other, there were problems that we could not overcome. She was dealing with things that I didn’t have the intellectual or emotional tools to properly deal with, and the relationship came to a sad, ugly and difficult end. I carried an incredible amount of resentment and animosity toward her for years as she rightfully did toward me. Years later, on the night I discovered she had gotten married to someone else, I found myself bleeding all over a sidewalk after a fist-fight over a cab. It ran that deep. Even if I didn’t know it, I had never truly got over her.

During the process of my therapy, I received a phone call from my former-fiancé’s aunt. She was hoping to acquire some things belonging to her niece that I may still have. I didn’t have what she was looking for, but as the call came to an end, I asked her how the family was doing. They were people who were very important to me at one time, after all. We chatted about the whole family and I was brought up to date on how they were. They were great, and I was happy. Inevitably, the topic turned to my ex-fiancé. I was told that she and her husband had moved overseas where they were happy and doing very well. Shockingly, the next words out of my mouth were remarkably joyful. I asked her aunt to send my love and let her know how happy the news had made me. The crazy part was… I meant it. I really did. I could not have been more pleased that she had found the love that she had always longed for and that she was happy and safe. No anger. No resentment. No hard feelings. I was genuinely happy for her. More importantly, I was finally over her.

It was at this moment that I realized something that hadn’t occurred to me about my relationships in the years after her. I realized that I had rushed to fall in love with every person I had dated since. Why? Because I was attempting to re-create the feeling I felt when I met her for the first time. It was at this moment that I realized that I had dragged partner after partner into my former relationship… and I felt like the biggest piece of garbage on Earth. I had put so many people through difficult times because of my own selfish bullshit.

But in this revelation there was release. I realized that until I got over my own hurt, I would continue to hurt others. I was working through so many things at the time that many of my past-hurts were becoming faint and distant memories. I swore at that moment that no one would be a victim of the feelings I carried for someone else ever again. It was an incredibly powerful revelation and I instantly knew that it would never happen again.

If I can impart ONE thing to you in all of this, my dear reader, it’s that you need never drag innocent people into your past. You may have to spend a LOT of time reviewing your life before you’re able to understand why you act the way you do and why you fuck over people that you love, but for the sake of your future relationships… do it. You owe yourself and your future partners a clean slate. There is not a single person on this planet that needs to suffer because you haven’t gotten over your own bullshit.

Moving on.

9. Don’t let your grief define you.

Grief is an insidious little motherfucker. It’s there from the time you drag your ass out of bed until you take enough medication to mercifully knock yourself out at the end of the day. You feel grief in your chest and in your belly. Your hands shake and your legs won’t stop moving. You cry puddles onto your kitchen table and can actually make yourself physically ill. All of this sucks, but the truly insidious part of grief is that it ends up carving out neural pathways that can become your default setting and extend your pain for much longer than necessary.

There are a few ways you can deal with this. First, don’t talk about your break up all the time. I know it’s the only thing on your mind, but continuing to address it day after day in conversation is not only exhausting for you and your friends, but it’s helping grief dig in its heels. Talking things through is incredibly important, but limit yourself to a short time on the topic when in conversation. And don’t cheat yourself by spreading your grief out among several people either. Sure you’ve limited yourself to five minutes of break-up talk per conversation, but you’re talking to thirty-seven people a day. Not how it works. The more you can reduce the amount of time you spend dwelling on the topic, the better off you’ll be.

Next, reduce your time on social media. I assure you that you’ll do something fucking stupid because of your grief. Even if you post something for a few minutes before taking it down, the potential for thousands of friends, acquaintances, strangers and colleagues to see it is there, and believe me… they saw it. This can be embarrassing, it can cause undue worry among friends and family and it can be a source of tremendous enjoyment for lurking schadenfreudists who are totally stoked to watch you self-destruct. You are defining yourself by your grief on a grand scale. This is detrimental to you, no matter how much you feel you need to do this shit. Just don’t. You’ll thank yourself later.

Another great danger in all this is that misery loves company, your vibe does indeed attract your tribe and the digital age is sending you right into the world of extended grief and depression. Community and support are vital to surviving a break up, but once the algorithms take hold, your entire online experience will become a widening pit of despair designed to keep you sad long enough to sell you every book, seminar and subscription they possibly can and put you and a myriad of other sad people on an inexorable, digital collision course. This does nothing but extend your grief and keep you from healing. Even a year after my break up, I still see sponsored break-up ads in my Facebook, Instagram and YouTube feeds. Fuck the internet. Keep your dignity.

10. Don’t blame your ex. But don’t give them credit.

Everyone reacts differently in the time following a break up. The two most common reactions seem to be radical self-improvement and utter self-destruction.

The folks who self-destruct can fall into drug or alcohol abuse, dangerous sexual activity, or could simply run the risk of becoming a huge piece of shit. Inevitably, they all tend to trace the source of their unfortunate state to their ex and drop the blame on them like an anvil falling on Wile E. Coyote. This is complete and utter bullshit. Your ex deserves no blame for anything you’ve chosen to do after your break up. Sorry to break it to you, but how you react to your break up is entirely on you.

Conversely, radical self-improvement leads people to a different conclusion. Whether you’ve decided to get in shape, get sober or just generally get your shit together, you should never think that your ex is the person who deserves the credit for shining a light on your shortcomings. Fuck that shit. You’re the one who got it together and you deserve all the credit for what you’ve done for yourself and your future. As I stated previously, how you react to your break up is entirely on you.

11. Do the work.

A break up can be an incredible opportunity for enlightenment. If you’re able to objectively look back at the time you spent with your ex, you’ll find an array of things you did very right and many things that you did very wrong. There are wonderful lessons in both. At first, these memories hurt more than anything you can imagine. They’re awesome little grief engines, but they can also be the fuel for great change if you can step back and take a wider, objective look. Even for a minute. This kind of work is scary as hell and if you’re brave enough to face your demons you will find parts of yourself that you weren’t even aware existed. Your demons can be your best allies if you’re willing to sit down with them and talk it out.

So what to do? As I mentioned above, you can attend therapy, or if that’s unaffordable, there are also avenues for inexpensive, publicly funded counselling. There are many support groups with people going through the same shit as you that you can participate in. Whatever avenue you choose, it’s time to open up and take a good hard look. Find out about you. Allow this raw state to expose your true self and don’t be afraid to closely examine it. This is one of the toughest things you can do as a human being, but goddammit take it on. You may discover that there are underlying psychological issues that you’ve never addressed. Finding out what dwells in your most unexplored depths produces results for your future that are worth every single terrifying tear you’ll shed, and you’ll be better informed about yourself and why you are the way you are the next time you decide to be with someone. And who doesn’t want to be with someone who knows exactly who they are? Nazis. That’s who. Fuck them. Don’t let the Nazis win.

12. Leave the past behind and bring the lessons with you.

The most important thing you can do for yourself after a break up is to leave it behind. You can’t change the past and it’s too late to throw together eleventh hour solutions. It’s done. Dwelling in the mire of your break up will only keep you from the steps you have ahead of you. You need to keep going.

If you still have questions about the relationship to which you didn’t get answers… so be it. Keep going.

If you have guilt about things you may have done in your relationship, accept them and commit to not doing them again. Keep going.

If you think the things you’ve learned about yourself since your break up might give your relationship a second life, tie that thought into a sack and throw it in a river. It’s over. Accept it. Keep going.

No matter what it looks like, the time after your break up has taught you lessons about yourself. Commit to those lessons. Commit to yourself. Never forget this time in your life and hold these lessons dear. Apply them to every day moving forward. Keep – fucking – going.

So now what?

As you heal, the most important thing for you should be honesty, both with yourself and with others. It may be a long time until you’re brave enough to date again, but you will. In the meantime it’s important that you’re honest about where you are emotionally for the sake of everyone around you, especially yourself.

Sooner or later the grief will subside, the tears will stop and that shitty feeling in your stomach will go away. Eventually the dreams of your ex that plague your sleep will turn back into normal shit like a centipede taking to you about its inability to skate, or dreams of being shot out of a cannon and getting snatched out of the sky by a giant Queen Elizabeth. Eventually you’ll normalize, you’ll find yourself again and you’ll have the lessons you need to do better next time. The smoke will clear and you’ll have a new life. A blank slate. A chance to do it differently if you decide to do it again. Whatever you choose, you’ve been given another shot and with some work and a more informed approach, you can make your next relationship work better than the one that just shit the bed.

You have a lot of work to do right now so pay attention and learn your own lessons. For myself, I learned about boundaries. I learned about what I will and won’t accept from a partner and what I’ll ask someone to accept from me. I learned about the mistakes that I made in the earliest days of my relationship that caused a less than stellar dynamic between me and my former partner. I looked at causes, effects and how events connect over the span of the relationship, causing shifting dynamics and troubled connections. I learned to accept my fuck ups and learned how not to commit similar fuck ups in the future. I learned about the importance of communication, honesty, boundaries, solidarity, mental health and what a partnership requires to succeed. One day I hope to apply these lessons when I’m ready for a new relationship… but not a second before.

Remember this time in your life, you brokenhearted little soldier. There’s absolutely no shame in having the feelings you’ve had, crying the tears you’ve cried or feeling the pain you’ve felt. Never forget these things. They’re important. They’re shaping you.

As Roky Erickson once said, “If you have ghosts… you have everything”. And he was absolutely correct.

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Matt is a screenwriter, filmmaker & the owner of several plastic owls. Follow Matty on Instagram or read more articles from Matty on Thought Catalog.