There is a literal pain that comes with the loss of a relationship: a sharp, palpable pain that most people feel at the point that their lower ribs connect. It’s a pulsing, weepy pain that digs into your diaphragm, and takes your breath away. It’s a pain that defies distraction, repels food, and throbs even through sleep.
For many broken-hearted people, this physical pain is one of the worst parts of going through a bad break up or divorce. For one thing, it scares them. They can’t make it go away, so they wonder when it will ever stop, or whether they will ever feel better.
Furthermore, maddeningly, it feels like contact with their ex is like the only thing that will stop the hurting. This is true even if they know intellectually that the relationship with their ex is toxic, and any contact will only bring more pain in the end. They still crave the temporary relief it might bring.
If you are in this aching, confusing place here are some tips to help you get through it:
1. Stop beating yourself up.
Most people who are going through this experience believe that there is something wrong with them for feeling the way they do. This is because there is a powerful, and false, myth circulating in our culture that you should just be able to “get over” a relationship without such massive pain and devastation.
Not true. Everyone who has lost a deeply cherished relationship goes through what you are going through. The people for whom breakups were easy simply weren’t bonded to that particular person as deeply as you were to your ex. You hurt so badly because you loved so deeply.
But ironically, the people who experience this sort of devastation often feel ashamed and like there is something wrong with them. So they hide / numb / suppress the pain, and try to get through it alone. You are not alone. And there is nothing wrong with you. On the contrary — you are good at bonding and attaching to others. That is a wonderful thing, in the context of a healthy relationship.
2. Reframe this as withdrawal.
Human beings are built to bond, and form extremely powerful attachments. There are physical systems in your brain and in your body that emotionally weld you to other people. These systems have a great deal in common with the physical systems of addiction. When your attachment bonds are broken, you go into withdrawal.
Heroin addicts, deprived of their fix, writhe sweating on their beds in physical pain, craving the only thing that will make it stop — even though they know, intellectually, it could kill them. They often literally trade their lives for the hope of a few more hours of peace in the arms of Morpheus.
Similarly, heartbroken people lay curled on their beds like shrimp, in the grips of pain that feels like being slowly impaled through their solar plexus. In their agony, they crave the temporary peace of contact with their ex, even though they know it will almost certainly only lead to more disappointment, rejection, and shame.
The difference is that heroin addicts know that they’re in withdrawal. And they know that if they can make it through a few days, it will get better. People suffering through the pain of a breakup have no such assurances, and just feel scared and helpless.
Reminding yourself that you are in physical withdrawal will help you make sense of what is happening. It will also help you remember that this is temporary, and a sign that your recovery has begun.
3. Give yourself time.
Would you expect someone going through the agony of withdrawal to function like nothing was wrong? Of course not, but somehow we don’t allow broken hearted people the time and space they need to put themselves back together again before we brightly encourage them to get out there and date, make some new friends, or enthusiastically take up a new hobby.
Recovery does not work that way. You are going through something big, and you are allowed to not be okay for a while. Embrace your sadness. Feel your pain. Acknowledge the losses. The paradox of grief is that the more bravely we allow it, and allow ourselves to not be okay for a while, the faster we heal.
This is a fragile, vulnerable time and giving yourself time and space to heal from this emotional injury, just like you would a physical injury, will help strengthen you so that when the time is right you can start moving forward again.
4. Go cold-turkey.
Decide to be done. If it’s too hard to think about never seeing your ex again, commit to not connecting with them today. And that means not interacting with them literally, virtually, or in your mind.
This last part, “mind cleansing,” is the hardest, but the most essential to your recovery. It’s one thing to stop having contact with your ex, cut the digital cords of social media, and avoid likely run-ins. But just because you’re not with your ex physically doesn’t change their constant presence in your mind. And herein lies the issue: Every time you think about your ex, it reinforces your emotional and physical bond.
It can be enormously difficult to redirect your thoughts and come mindfully back into the present moment over and over again. But developing this kind of mind control, and stopping yourself from going down the angsty rabbit-hole of daydreams, rumination, and rehashing will set you free quicker than anything else
5. Don’t panic.
People can get really worried about themselves when they are wracked with pain, and feeling like they are falling apart in the aftermath of a breakup. When you can’t stop thinking about your ex even though you know you should, and you can’t “get over it” as speedily as everyone wants you to, it’s easy to get tricked into believing that there is something wrong.
There isn’t. You’re in withdrawal, and your body feels it. You’re craving something that you can no longer have. Embrace the process of recovery, give yourself time to heal, and have faith in the process. You’ll be on the other side soon.
Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby, LMFT, BCC is the founder of Growing Self Counseling and Coaching in Denver, Colorado, author of “Exaholics: Breaking Your Addiction to Your Ex Love,” and the host of The Love, Happiness and Success Podcast.