“Life always waits for some crisis to occur before revealing itself at its most brilliant.” ~ Paulo Coelho
Figuring out how to move on from a relationship is one of the most difficult transitions in a person’s life. And while each of us moves on in our own way and on our own time, one truth is almost universal – and that is that we all face this challenge at some point in our lives. One thing that we are not is alone in our suffering. Recently, it was discovered that, on average, people spend about 18 months of their lives getting over breakups. The good news about this is that, although it takes time, people are able to move on. And when they do, they leave behind lessons – actual, tangible, lived-experience ways to heal. Because, eventually, we do heal.
Before we get into the tools and techniques for how to move on, I hope that anyone reading this would take a second to allow themselves to have feeling for the fact that this is hard. No matter how many people have been down this road before us, this moment we’re living through is probably a painful place to be. One of the best ways to deal with the reality of that pain is to meet it with compassion. Neither denying the feeling nor allowing ourselves to ruminate in it offers us the freedom we need to move on. Instead, we can show ourselves the kindness and treatment that we would a friend – an acknowledgment of what we feel paired with the reality-check that it will pass.
How to move on: A note about timing
When people are struggling after a relationship ends, their first question is often “how long will this last?” Of course, there is no magic formula to answer this question. According to one study published in the Journal of Positive Psychology, more than 70 percent of participants took a little less than three months to move on or “see the positive aspects from their breakup” and to feel goal-oriented and like they’d experienced personal growth. Unsurprisingly, it’s around this same time (just over the three-month mark) that another survey said people start dating someone else in a real way, in which they’re focused on the new situation more than the old.
Of course, every person is unique, as are their relationships. The point of repeating these numbers is simply to emphasize that healing can take time. We should try to maintain a patient and gentle approach to this fact. Bad days are part of a longer journey, and it absolutely will get better. It may not feel like it, but time, truthfully, is on our side.
15-Steps for How to Move On:
Look at your life as a journey
It’s important to keep in mind that everyone who’s doing okay now has had moments when they thought they’d never be okay. A break up may feel like the end of the world, but years from now, a struggle of today will feel like a lesson from the past. The more we can look at our lives as fluid and not fixed, the more we can see our experiences in perspective. The end of a relationship is not the end of our story. Whether we’re with someone or on our own, no one else can possess our story or our identity. We may leave a relationship feeling like we left part of ourselves behind, wondering how to move on without them, but the truth is we are still whole, still evolving, and still growing all the time.
Keeping the imagery of movement in our minds is a way of preventing ourselves from being caught in the whirlpool of an inner critic that tells us we will never be able to move on or to feel ourselves again.
Silence your inner critic
The “critical inner voice” is a term used by Dr. Robert Firestone to describe a negative thought process we all have that is like an internalized nemesis. This cruel “voice” criticizes, coaches, and even pities us (and others) in ways that undermine us when we’re up and kick us when we’re down. A lot of the pain and suffering we experience after a break up is owed to this inner critic. Common post-break-up “voices” include:
- “I told you she would leave you.”
- “You have nothing now.”
- “No one will ever love you.”
- “You’ll always be alone.”
- “You can’t trust men.”
- “You should just forget about relationships.”
- “Have a drink; it will make you feel better.”
- “Just be alone. No one wants to see you right now.”
Getting caught up in this internal dialogue makes the process of figuring out how to move on much more difficult. However, we can get to know this voice as the enemy it really is and learn to separate it from our real point of view by reading about the steps to overcome the critical inner voice.
There is always real loss that comes with breaking up, however, we also tend to look back on our relationships with a zoom lens on the good and blinders on the bad. “Reflect on the relationship for what it was,” advised Dr. Karen Weinstein in an interview with Business Insider. “Resist the common tendency to idealize the relationship. It’s very common to only recall and focus on the wonderful aspects of the relationship. This makes it even harder to accept the reality that it’s over and is the equivalent of ‘denial’ in the stages of grief.” Remembering that there were struggles and issues in the relationship – real reasons why we are no longer together – can help us feel more resilient and resolved toward moving on.
Let go of fantasy
Idealizing our partner or the relationship isn’t just something that happens after it ends. Often, couples enter into what Dr. Firestone calls a “fantasy bond,” an illusion of connection that replaces real relating and genuine acts of love and intimacy. Symptoms of a fantasy bond can include relating as a unit, valuing the form of being a couple over the substance of making contact, falling into routine, lacking independence, engaging in less affection, entering dynamics of control and submission as opposed to equality, and so on. The quality of the relationship often deteriorates as real love is replaced with a fantasy bond. The couple may stay together based on a fantasy that their partner will somehow “save” them. Or, they may break up, because the elements that first drew them together are no longer operating.
When we’re in a fantasy bond and the relationship ends, it’s even harder to move on, because we don’t only mourn the loss of the person but the loss of the fantasy. This fantasy dynamic can also lead us to continue to look at the person we lost through an idealized lens. “When a fantasy bond is broken, we are more likely to mourn the end of our false sense of security than the end of real, loving relating,” wrote Dr. Lisa Firestone. “When we break up with someone, and we are willing to let go of this illusion of connection, we might find that we are far less devastated by the separation.” Breaking the fantasy bond with a former partner is often the key in how to move on.
Feel the feelings
It’s normal to be emotionally raw after a break up. Although, these feelings can feel overwhelming, we should remember that emotion comes in waves. It arrives, peaks, and subsides. Accepting our feelings is part of the path to healing. Treat yourself the way you would a friend, and give yourself a break. We can acknowledge the sadness, anger, or fear that arises without handing these feelings over to our inner critic. Remember that our feelings are acceptable, but the thoughts around the feelings, like “you’ll never find anyone else” or “you can’t live without him or her” are not.
Talk about it
Some people believe the way to move on is to just shut down and not talk about it. According to HelpGuide.org, this is the opposite approach to take. “Even if it is difficult for you to talk about your feelings with other people, it is very important to find a way to do so when you are grieving. Knowing that others are aware of your feelings will make you feel less alone with your pain and will help you heal.” Sharing your experience with someone who’s been through it, someone who you trust and can offer sympathy, or someone who helps put you in a good mood is a smart (and unselfish) idea. People want to be there for you. We may also benefit from seeking the help of a therapist and having a safe and specific outlet for what we’re going through emotionally.
Use this resource to seek help or find a therapist in your area.
Explore your attachment style
A recent study at Pace University showed that how people respond to break ups has a lot to do with their attachment style. The study found that “individuals who reported higher self-esteem, less rejection sensitivity, and lower levels of attachment anxiety reported less adverse effects to break-up.” Learning about how our attachment style impacts our relationships may help us make sense of our own, intense reactions to splitting up. It can also guide us to understand how we operate and why we feel the ways we do in our relationships, in general. For example, perhaps we felt more insecure and clingy toward our partner based on early attachment patterns. Understanding our attachment history can also orient us toward forming more secure attachments in future relationships.
Believe in yourself
Stanford researchers recently discovered that a person’s “basic beliefs about personality can contribute to whether [they] recover from, or remain mired in, the pain of rejection.” They found that individuals who saw personality as fixed were more likely to blame themselves and their “toxic personalities” for the breakup. They were more likely to question and criticize themselves and feel more hopeless about their romantic future. However, individuals who saw their personalities as “changeable” were more inclined to view their breakup as an opportunity to grow, develop, and change. They were hopeful about their future relationships and were able to move on more easily. If we can stand up to our inner critic and believe in our own adaptability, we can actually figure out how to move on more successfully.
Self-compassion can be a key ingredient to healing from a break up. “If you pick all of the variables that predict how people will do after their marriage ends, self-compassion really carries the day,” said researcher David Sbarra of University of Arizona, after interviewing more than 100 recently divorced individuals. According to Greater Good Magazine, Sbarra’s research showed that “those with high self-compassion reported fewer intrusive negative thoughts, fewer bad dreams about the divorce, and less negative rumination. Self-compassion had a greater impact than other traits, habits, or even practical details.”
Dr. Kristin Neff, a lead researcher on self-compassion wrote that it “involves acting the same way towards yourself when you are having a difficult time, fail, or notice something you don’t like about yourself. Instead of just ignoring your pain with a ‘stiff upper lip’ mentality, you stop to tell yourself ‘this is really difficult right now,’ how can I comfort and care for myself in this moment?” She defines self-compassion as having three main elements:
- Self-kindness as opposed to self-judgment
- Common humanity as opposed to isolation
- Mindfulness as opposed to over-identification
Embracing each of these elements can help us on our journey as we discover how to move on.
Learn more about the practice of self-compassion here.
Dr. Lisa Firestone describes mindfulness as “an incredible tool to help people understand, tolerate, and deal with their emotions in healthy ways.” Practicing mindfulness meditation has been shown to reduce stress by teaching us to accept our thoughts and feelings without over-identifying and being overwhelmed by them or judging ourselves harshly.
Headspace is an app that guides people through simple mindfulness exercises, allowing them to easily integrate a practice into daily life. Their suggestions for using mindfulness to get through a break up include paying attention to the stories our mind is telling us, acknowledging them, but not necessarily believing them, letting ourselves feel our emotions, focusing on gratitude, and making time each day for a mindfulness exercise. “Sitting mindfully with intense emotions may seem like the last thing you want to do,” they write. “But it is a critical step in the healing process.”
Find mindfulness exercises and strategies to calm down here.
One of the main benefits of mindfulness is that it helps us to avoid rumination. A recent UK study of more than 30,000 people showed that harping on negative life events (particularly through rumination and self-blame) can be the prime predictor of some of the most common mental health problems. So, while we should certainly talk openly about our struggles and feel our feelings about a breakup, we should be wary of indulging in obsessive or sinking thoughts that lead us down a dark path. We can help ourselves catch on to when we start ruminating when we notice our critical inner voices creeping in or our mood shifting for the worse.
Find a support team
Our friends can be the best tool we have when we’re figuring out how to move on. Whenever we are experiencing any difficulty or transition in life, it’s helpful to put together a support team, a group of people we know we can turn to when we feel our worst. This list can be long or short. It can include family, friends, counselors, or co-workers. The only critieria is that we choose people who help us feel positive and more like ourselves. Seeking the company of someone who tends to ruminate or commiserate with us isn’t the most effective way to help ourselves move on. Our support team should include people with whom we can be open, honest, and comfortable to feel emotional in front of, but who also make sure to help us steer our thoughts away from our inner critic.
When we’re stuck in the pain and confusion of a break up, we often forget to take care of ourselves. Losing sleep or sleeping too much, eating too much or too little, drinking alcohol, or engaging in less activity can exacerbate negative emotions. No matter how low we feel, we should treat ourselves (and our bodies) like a friend and remember to take care of them. We must remember the basics: exercise, sleep, and eat. Even light exercise or just getting outside can boost our mood by releasing endorphins. Lack of rest can make us feel more stressed, anxious, and disoriented. Too much sleep can leave us groggy or lethargic. To be of sound mind, we should strive for a balance and give ourselves the time we need to rest.
The same goes for how we eat. Whether we indulge in a box of cupcakes or start skipping meals, we are doing our minds and bodies a disservice if we aren’t treating ourselves kindly. We should try eating wholesome foods that nourish our body and that we enjoy. And while it can be tempting to drink alcohol or seek the escape of a high, the lows we experience either during or following the use of a substance can be exaggerated and set us back emotionally.
Try new things and old ones, too
Deepak Chopra said, “In the process of letting go you will lose many things from the past, but you will find yourself.” One of the healthiest ways to move on is to find ways to connect to yourself as an individual. If many things we like to do feel tied to our partner, we should seek out new activities and make new memories that are our own. We can try taking a class, visiting a new city, volunteering, going out with a new friend, taking up a hobby, or eating at different restaurants – anything that feels exploratory and unique to us.
On the flip side, we can also do things we used to like to do. Perhaps, there’s an activity we stopped doing as much when we got into a relationship that we can try again – maybe a sport or a creative pursuit. Contrary to popular belief, we do not have to give up friends, activities, or sections of an entire city when we break up with someone. However, if certain things trigger us emotionally that we’d rather take some time away from, that’s fine, too. The main objective is to do the things that make us feel the most ourselves, whether that means discovering new aspects of who we are or reconnecting with old ones.
When we are suffering, we can get lost in our own worlds and minds. The more we can connect with others, the more we can forget about (or at least stop catastrophizing) our own struggles. Being generous has surprisingly healing benefits. Volunteering can be a welcome distraction and valuable use of our time. Even simply practicing small acts of generosity in a given day can help us to move on. Smiling at the person who serves us coffee, initiating a warm conversation with someone at work, making time to ask friends about what’s going on in their lives, helping someone who’s lost on a street corner – these are all little, positive ways to take us out of our heads, make us feel good about ourselves, and improve our outlook on the world around us.