“I think we should break up.”
“I don’t love you anymore.”
“We aren’t right for each other.”
Breakups can leave the lovelorn rattled for weeks, months and sometimes even years. But there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. Grieving a relationship is not unlike grieving a death. It’s healing process.
But one day, you will move on.
“The key to getting through a breakup is accepting that you are going to be a crazy maniac for the next three to six months of your life,” says Elina Furman, relationship expert and author of Kiss and Run: The Single, Picky and Indecisive Girl’s Guide to Overcoming Her Fear of Commitment. “There’s no skipping steps so even if you think you’re over it right away, you’re probably not.”
If you’re recently single, fasten your seatbelt. These five stages of grief can get pretty rocky.
1. Drunken Denial: A nightmarish state with equal parts alcohol and magical thinking.
“After Andy broke up with me I just didn’t accept it,” says Eliza, 29, who dated her ex for two years before he called it quits. “I continued to call him exactly as I had before. We continued to have sex, and then he would push me away and remind me we were broken up. It was terrible.”
As with most matters of the heart, we have nothing but biology to blame for the magnetic pull that drags us to an ex’s front doorstep immediately after a breakup.
“Initially there is often shock,” says sex and relationship therapist Ian Kerner. “When you’ve gotten used to routines and patterns, those routines are hardwired and hardcoded in our brains. There’s a sense of wanting to resume them.”
2. Sweaty Mania: A confusing state, during which you experience intense feelings of regret, euphoria and guilt.
As reality filters in, you find yourself wildly grasping for relief. You’re injected with confusing and invigorating energy.
“People do a lot of crazy things during this stage,” says Kerner. “I always tell women to watch out for casual sex because men don’t produce oxytocin, so it’s easier for them to compartmentalize a one-nighter or something casual. For women, it’s more difficult. You immediately want to bond with who you are physical with.”
Use your newfound recklessness to do something that terrifies you. But pass on the one-night stand! Sign up for improv acting, maybe, or go skydiving.
“Staying busy was really the best cure for me,” says Amanda, 26. After she and her boyfriend of a year split, Amanda replayed each and every one of their arguments and endlessly beat herself up until she found a new outlet for her energy. “I trained for a marathon,” she says. “I swear it was just as good, if not better, than therapy.”
3. Blurry Anger: If stages one and two had your ex etched in a heart-shaped memory box, stage three darkens to a much deeper form of passion: Anger. How dare they.
“I wrote my ex a long, mean and hateful letter,” says Bethany, 30, whose boyfriend dumped her almost immediately after she moved in with him. “Once I came to the conclusion it was over forever I spent a good six months being angry that he didn’t want to work things out.”
While it may seem scarier than the first two stages, experts agree that anger is actually a healthy way of reclaiming your independence and rebuilding your self worth. After all, you shouldn’t pine after someone who doesn’t want you, right?
“To deal with your anger, it’s important to surround yourself with friends who are empathetic,” says Kerner. “Someone who will judge you for being angry is the wrong person.”
In fact, Amy Spencer, author of Meeting Your Half-Orange: An Utterly Upbeat Guide to Using Dating Optimism to Find Your Perfect Match suggests having fun with the anger since it can be “directed anywhere you want.”
That being said, don’t accidentally steal his dog or break into his apartment by mistake and—whoops—burn all his clothes. Find an outlet. Painting, writing, kick boxing—any kind of medium that’s as extreme as you very well please without hurting yourself or anyone else.
4. Extreme Sadness: Yeah, you’re officially one of those single people who gets weepy during a Jennifer Aniston flick.
Welcome to sadness. The bad news? You’re depressed. The good news? You’re in the home stretch.
“To be healthy emotionally means we go through the highs and the lows of life,” says Spencer. “Feelings are good for us, all of them. Those deep feelings are a part of the path of life—and proof that you’re healthy and emotionally advanced.”
Five months after Janice, 31, and her boyfriend of six years mutually split she found herself in stage four. A rebound relationship had just ended, it was winter, and she was alone on Saturday nights.
“I cried every day for a month,” she says. “It was like a giant rain cloud was following me around. Even though I knew Steve and I were wrong for one another, I felt like my life would never get better and feared I’d never meet someone like him again.”
But beware of getting stuck in stage four—it’s dangerous to linger too long in depression.
So, sure, dedicate a week night to feeling sorry for yourself, but make sure you’ve got plans with friends on Friday and Saturday.
5. Moving On: Wait, who are we talking about again?
The final stage of breakup grief creeps up suddenly and all at once. After nights of forcing yourself out, you finally start to have fun. After one too many mediocre dates you finally have a good one. And on that day you stumble upon a picture of your ex, you don’t feel much.
“It was weird. One day I woke up and felt good again,” says Jason, 34. “I thought about [my ex] fondly and honestly wished her the best. It helped that I had met someone else and was dating, but I think I had finally just made peace with it all.”
Most people who find themselves dwelling in the past don’t get over it until they meet someone new, Kerner says. Until you can do that, you have to suffer through the purgatory. Much like lying in bed with the flu, you’re “healing” as you go through the stages, he says.
“I look back at all the relationships in my past that ended and I sigh with relief,” Spencer says. “Your future self, cuddled up and happy as a clam beside the person who’s so much more right for you, will thank goodness this one didn’t work out!”