Five knee-jerk break-up responses that do more harm than good

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Anna Brech
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Gloria Gaynor says we'll survive -  but we can be forgiven for shedding a tear or two when faced with the unremitting pain of a break-up.

Research has found that the effect of romantic rejection is akin to kicking a drug addiction

The part of our brain associated with cravings and motivation still expects the 'reward' of being in love.

And when we don't get it, we're thrown into a deeply negative state, where emotional regulation is off-kilter and logic runs askew. 

In other words, we are as rational as a cocaine addict going clean. No wonder we're a little unpredictable and prone to damaging behaviour.

Here are five common break-up reactions that do more harm than good in the event of heartbreak, and what to do instead: 

Don't obsess over everything that went wrong

Do: remember the positives too, and seek professional help

Research has shown that when we're under stress - such as going through a break-up - we're more likely to focus on and build negative memories, while overlooking positive ones. 

"Part of heartbreak is the inevitable ‘rehashing’ about the relationship to anyone who will listen," says Dr. Sheri Jacobson, founder of Harley Therapy. "Not only does it cause us to re-experience the pain of the breakup, it can become a ‘story’ we are addicted to telling, and one that is scientifically unlikely to even be true. When you hear yourself going through the details of the relationship again in a negative way, try to remember one positive for every negative."

Jacobson suggests approaching a therapist to talk about your feelings, rather than automatically defaulting to friends. 

"Sometimes friends, despite best intentions, sympathise and encourage our negativity and righteous indignation and send you on a spiral of upset before you know it," she says.

Don't cut social media contact straight away

Do: take time to mull over your needs

Obviously stalking your ex on Facebook is an unhealthy move, but psychiatrist Marlynn Wei recommends taking time and thinking carefully about your motivations and needs before pouncing on the 'un-follow' tab.

"Maybe you’re afraid that your ex will unfriend or unfollow you first, so you decide you need to react preemptively," she says. "Or perhaps you are frustrated that your ex isn’t answering your texts or emails anymore, and you want to show your ex you're angry.

"It can be more effective to be direct in expressing your emotions in a conversation with your ex instead. Using unfriending/unfollowing as a way to signal being upset or angry can lead to more waiting and more frustration if you feel like they don’t get your point."

This decision can only be made with a bit of perspective, she argues:

"In the aftermath of a breakup, it can be difficult to figure out exactly what you need. By letting yourself figure it out over time without self-judgment, you can be back on the path towards personal growth and groundedness - whether or not your ex stays in your Twitter feed or not."

Don't distract yourself with an overload of wine/shopping/flings

Do: take time out alone to honestly confront your sadness

More often than not post break-up, we throw ourselves into a frantic routine of dating, booze and retail therapy. Anything to ease the pain, right?


Relationship coach Heather Lynn Temple says seeking out this form of short-term pleasure only serves to mask our wounds, with the added the risk of projecting them onto a new partner once we move on.

"We often distract ourselves from sadness - or any 'negative emotion' - with technology or other socially-acceptable ways to feel somewhat numb: eating, shopping, drinking with friends, to name a few," she says.

"In some ways, immersing ourselves in these things makes coping with loss easier. But the thing about emotions — like those we experience when a relationship doesn't work out - is that they demand to be felt. 

"Rather than distracting yourself from the pain of your next break up, sit with it. Clear out a chunk of time from your schedule. Power down your devices. Light some candles, if that's your thing. Close your eyes, and invite in the pain or anger or bitterness."

Don't tell yourself to 'get over it'

Do: accept your pain is normal, and give it time

"Many people get frustrated with themselves for feeling sad and not just 'getting over it,'" says psychologist Jennifer Kromberg.

"I tell them that sadness (even a large amount) is a normal reaction to a break up and I don’t cure normal. The thing is, I know you would happily 'get over it' if you could. And you will. But right now you’re feeling sad or whatever else you’re feeling. Try not to fight it. Letting yourself feel your feelings will help you move more quickly into 'over it.'"

It's important that this process isn't rushed; let yourself feel better in the time that it takes.

"There really is no other answer than to let your recovery run its course," says Kromberg. "Please be patient with yourself and keep in mind that losing your partner might not be the only thing you’re grieving - this breakup may be stirring up other issues from your past that are also very painful." 

Don't be tempted to beg or bargain

Do: accept that temporary pain relief - and a one-sided relationship - will never work

The misery of break-up is such that we can quickly spiral into denial, prompting a plea bargain situation where we promise the earth. Logic and rationality go out the window as we try to convince our partners - and ourselves - that we'll do anything to make it work.

"The thought of being without your ex is so intolerable that you will make your own pain go away by winning him or her back, at any cost," says psychologist Suzanne Lachmann.

"You are standing on the edge of what feels like an abyss, trying not to fall into the unknown. You cling to any hope you can, to prevent yourself from losing what you have come to depend on, for better or worse. 

"Bargaining can only briefly distract from the experience of loss. Reality inevitably comes crashing down, over and over again. Further, when you bargain, you are trying to take responsibility for why the relationship doesn't work, which may give you the illusion that you have control over it, perpetuating the belief that it's salvageable as long as you can just keep performing superhuman acts."

Photos: ThinkStock

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Anna Brech

Anna Brech is a freelance journalist and former editor for Her six-year stint on the site saw her develop a vociferous appetite for live Analytics, feminist opinion and good-quality gin in roughly equal measure. She enjoys writing across all areas of women’s lifestyle content but has a soft spot for books and escapist travel content.