Breakups are the worst. Even if you’re the one that initiated the split, and for good reason, it’s still one of the most traumatic experiences you can go through. Huge chunks of your selfhood and future plans and sense of stability and self-worth basically get blown sky-high, leaving some fairly massive craters in the landscape of your life. Even if the relationship was bad and it’s a relief to have your autonomy and independence back, there’s still a lot of readjusting that needs to happen. So, how do you move from the staying-in-bed-dragging-yourself-around-blankly-everything-is-meaningless stage to the vibrant life-is-beautiful-and-full-of-exciting-possibility stage?
1) Accept that everything will feel awful for a while
Don’t put pressure on yourself to bounce back (although by all means do so if you feel it happening!). Accept that breaking up is generally shit and has really difficult practical effects (moving out, shared finances, changing schedules, suddenly having to do a bunch of things on your own instead of partnered) as well as the emotional impact, and forgive yourself accordingly. If all you can do every day is drag yourself to work and back to bed and the cleaning/washing up/vacuuming never gets done, don’t worry about it. Or invite some generous friends around and clear up together with loud music on. Or pay somebody to do the cleaning. Give yourself permission to take the get-out clause.
2) Be sensible
Don’t indulge in any stereotypical unhelpful post-breakup disasters. Don’t continually pester your ex (or their friends for news of your ex), don’t focus on ‘staying friends’ in the kind of way that means ‘acting like you’re in a relationship’, don’t fuck their friends, don’t fuck them unless you are REALLY REALLY SURE you know what you’re doing (and even then, probably not), don’t try and distract yourself with alcohol/drugs/sex to a damaging degree. Sure, it’s fine to have a few (or even more than a few) crazy nights out in the aftermath of trauma and in the long hard road back to some semblance of sanity, but if you’re doing it every night for weeks/months/years and/or using alcohol/substances/sex as a crutch to avoid dealing with the emotional issues raised by the breakup, maybe don’t do that. Maybe have a couple of sober nights a week with a close friend or two, or doing a creative activity like music or writing or drawing. Something constructive or communicative that at least lets the pain exist or gives you something to do with it or lets you concentrate on something else for a while.
3) Allow yourself to grieve
And by ‘grieve’ I mean wallowing, crying, listening to Your Song on repeat, writing long rambling emails that you never send (please note the ‘never send’ element here, it’s crucial), sobbing at romantic movies, staying in bed all weekend, going to stay with friends to escape and still crying your eyes out. All that stuff. There’s nothing shameful about the grief and loss that comes from breaking up, and expressing it (verbally or otherwise) is an important part of processing it and thus recovering. Needless to say, all this is a lot easier to do if you're not still in contact with your ex - but even if you are, and things are amicable, you still need to acknowledge the loss of their former role in your life.
4) Mobilize your friends (and family, cat, dog, whatever works)
Let people know how you’re feeling. Let them look after you. My friends have mostly been an absolute rock when I’ve broken up with people – having me to stay so I didn’t have to sleep alone, making me food, taking me out, talking to me endlessly and yet also providing distractions, gently encouraging me to go dancing/swimming/take hot baths/go for long walks/do all the things they knew I enjoyed doing but simply couldn’t scrape together the motivation for. And forgiving me when I couldn’t manage it. I know some amazing people. Families, too, are often good for this kind of looking-after – if you’re on good terms with yours, let them know what’s going on and ask for their support. Pets also! If you don’t have one and would like to, borrow someone else’s! If you’re feeling contact deprived and like animals, maybe walk a friend’s dog or go play with rabbits/kittens/puppies at a shelter.
5) Look after yourself
You know this, but I’m saying it anyway. Take care of yourself. Eat properly, get some exercise, try to sleep. Do things that feel good, or at least as ‘good’ as anyone can feel under the circumstances. Work on forgiving yourself – which is not the same as not acknowledging your contribution to bad things in the relationship, but is about trying to look at them proportionally and not trapping yourself in that place. Forgive yourself for leaving (if you left), forgive yourself for being left (if that’s what happened), forgive yourself for staying as long as you did. Try to take care of yourself emotionally and physically – note destructive impulses and try and maintain some semblance of control over whether you give into them or not. If you do, fair enough, try not to next time. If you get stuck in a pattern, recognize it and take steps to minimalism it, with help from others if necessary.
6) Get therapy
This can be tricky, but it’s getting easier all the time and definitely worth it. It’s really important that you have somewhere emotionally safe and neutral to go where you can explore the emotional and psychological impact of the breakup, how it connects to other experiences and parts of your life, and work on a plan for what happens next. Therapy helps give you context and perspective on what’s happening, and opens up new possibilities. If it’s good therapy, anyway. It’s definitely worth shopping around for someone you click with and whom you feel gets you – it’s fine to leave after a couple of sessions if it’s not working for you. (If you’re fundamentally uncomfortable with any therapists ever, though, maybe work on that. Avoidance is not a great place to be.) Pinktherapy.com, Queerapy and Gaylesta all offer LGBT-friendly therapy sessions in a variety of locations or over Skype if you’re outside their area. Lots of places, especially in big cities, do pay-what-you-can or price-scaled therapy sessions, so definitely do some investigating, and trust the recommendations of friends.
7) Say yes to new things
After a few weeks or months of mourning, it’s time to start trying to do things again. Meet new people. Try to fill the scabbed-over hole in your life. Precisely how is entirely up to you, but I’d also recommend trying new useful/creative/fun things – dance classes? Swimming? Creative writing groups? Film studies? Learning to code? Gaming meetups? Volunteering? Playing music? Going to gigs? Whatever floats your boat. Say yes to new projects, new ideas, new people. Try things. You’re allowed to not like them. Make sure you also get some time to yourself to process all this exciting new stuff, too!
8) Reach out
Make the effort to engage with new people you meet. Not because they’ll necessarily be potential friends or dating partners, but because people open doors – to new opportunities, new ways of thinking, new academic projects, new senses of humor, and yes, new friends and potential dates too. Don’t neglect your old friends, either – just try and engage honestly and emotionally with people and things as much as is comfortable for you, and see what happens. You don’t necessarily need to throw your poor battered heart out again to be trampled on, but by engaging with friends and colleagues and mentors, all of whom relate to you in different ways, you will be reminded of all the different facets of yourself, and find opportunity to explore them.
9) Follow inspiration and connections
If something feels good and true and fulfilling for you, whether it’s a new friend or a new hobby or a new form of creativity or a new book/game/band, go with it. See where it takes you. I’m not going to lie – it’s not like a bulb flashes at the six month mark and everything you had with your ex just gets wiped away in a puff of smoke, and there will still be hard, sad, tired times – but letting in shafts of light wherever you find them is absolutely crucial to letting the sunlight in again. And it gets easier – there will be flashes, even momentary flashes, in which you start to take pleasure in the little things again. Let that happen. It’s not a betrayal – it’s a sign that something in you is starting to spring back.
10) Just keep going
I’m afraid Ranier Maria Rilke has already expressed this one better than I could ever put it: ‘Let everything happen to you – beauty and terror. Just keep going. No feeling is final.’ Just keep going – getting up, going to work, seeing friends, trying to be creative and honest – and you will, eventually, travel. You will be somewhere other than where you started, and with additional tools and insight and self-knowledge to boot. It won’t be easy – it might be hellish – but if you keep moving, you will end up somewhere else. You will move forward. Where you end up is up to you – but you will have the chance to make it marvelous.