Breakups can be challenging not only for you, but for the people who care about and support you. You are in too much pain to explain what you need, so they have no way of knowing the best ways to help you. To help them help you, I have created a guide to prepare and instruct them on some things they can expect to encounter as you go through your agonizing grieving process. It describes some of your feelings, reactions, and tendencies as a result of the breakup so that they can better prepare for and manage some of the frustrating, challenging, even overwhelming situations that lie ahead.
Here are five key guidelines written from you to the person, people or group you may turn to in your life for how to best prepare themselves and support you as you go through withdrawal from your ex.
1. Please Respect my Process
When I’ve been leveled by breakup, distraction can seem like a way to ease my pain, at least temporarily. You might be getting tired of hearing me say “I’m not ready,” and you just want to show me a fun night. Part of it might be you’re sick of me being so down, and part may be that you just want to jolt me out of this state because you miss the way I was before the breakup. But no matter how much you want me to “move on,” there is nothing you or anyone else can do to speed up my grieving process. In trying to rush the process, you might be able to distract me from my grief, temporarily, but grief that is avoided or repressed doesn’t just disappear. Instead it starts showing up at inopportune times. Please be there for me now, even though it seems endless, because this is when I need you, and do your best to allow me to grieve at my own pace.
2. I Might Make Some Bad Decisions
It’s possible that I will be so distraught that I will to attempt to avoid that pain through reckless behavior and possibly even an impulsive relationship that looks to you like as much a mess as the previous one. All you can do is remind me and yourself that I may not have taken adequate time to grieve the loss, and remind me to think clearly about how best to proceed. And, try to remind me that I might not think I care what I do now, but in reality I do. I want to do everything possible to avoid pain, because it is so intolerable to be in my own skin. I might even resort to reckless methods to escape myself. Everything I am feeling and doing after my loss is a part of my unique, individual experience of being devastated. I am struggling to reinvent myself in the face of this loss and find a way to continue to exist until I feel ready to live again.
Whether it takes six days or six months or longer, this is my process. You don’t have to like it, just know that for whatever reason, right now, I can’t help acting and thinking in ways that you know the “real me” would not. Decreasing your expectations for my recovery will decrease your frustration. If you are less frustrated with me, then I won’t feel as much shame for letting you down. If I feel less shame, I will become less likely to make decisions that we both know are bad.
3. You Have Your Limits Too
Any relationship is easier to be in when you are both feeling good about life, each other, and yourselves at more or less the same time. It’s harder when there’s a person in your life that seems to need you desperately one minute and avoid you the next. That is because I’m feeling waves of fear, despair, disappointment and shame that overwhelm me and end up leaking out all over you.
Provided that you do not feel that I am abusing you, your challenge is to accept that while my anger seems to be directed at you, it actually isn’t. If you can recognize that, try to stay as kind and compassionate as you can within your limits. It can take some pressure off you to know that listening, being there, and helping me feel understood is all you can do. You can’t change what I feel. But by “being there” you are signaling that you’re weathering the storm with me.
And most importantly, when you need some R&R from me, take it. Please, though, reassure me that, yes, I am driving you crazy, but that you do still care, and you are taking time off because disengaging before reengaging will help you to help me again when you can.
4. As Hard As It Is, I’ve Gotta Find My Own Path
Of course you don’t want me to contact my ex if I don’t absolutely have to, no matter what reason I come up with. You know much more clearly than I do that contact will set me back again. Somehow I have convinced myself again that I can mend the relationship. I am hell-bent on trying again no matter what you or anyone else says. Maybe this time I believe I am being disloyal to my ex by truly giving up on the relationship, even though it’s over. Since you can predict with a fair amount of certainty just how badly this scenario will unfold, it’s tempting to offer advice and issue reminders about the last several times I tried this. Please take one shot at reminding me how it turned out last time, point out once how it’s likely to turn out this time, and then do your best to stand down.
Advice in this situation does two things: First, it puts you in a position of having an investment in the outcome—you have dispensed valuable advice. When it’s not followed or is painfully misinterpreted, it is likely to heighten your frustration. Second, you may (without realizing it) compel me to do the opposite of what you prescribed. Why? Because I so miss the relationship and crave what it feels like, that I am looking for any reason to go rogue anyway, and you just made it easier by telling me what a bad idea it was (nobody said this is rational). Maybe I do exactly the opposite of what you want because, “Dammit, I am going to prove you and everybody else wrong!”
If you remember that I have to find my own way through, in my own time, mistakes will happen, and they are not a reflection on you, then you and I will both survive my epic breakup. Even though it’s clear to you, the situation remains a great fog of disbelief for me, until the day it doesn’t anymore.
5. Take Care of the Details, Please?
Grief absorbs every spare moment of thought. This is true of traumatic loss through death and can be true of a breakup as well. One difference, of course, is that when someone we love dies, there are often friends and neighbors to take care of the little things like food or other basic necessities. Consider offering the same help to me when I am grieving the loss of a relationship. Remember there are a lot of basics I may currently be overlooking in trying to figure out my life without my ex. For example you may want to do a grocery run, or remind me to get my car inspected this month. Most importantly, know that your efforts are deeply and profoundly appreciated, even if they are not recognized while I am all consumed and feeling like the world has become a foreign and surreal place.
A Final Reminder That This Is My Process
Remembering that my grieving process is not on your timeline can help you can stay as patient as possible. Guiding, cajoling, and pushing will by not speed up the process. As much as you might want to, there is nothing for you to do. Rather, just being present and tolerating my pain even though you can’t fix it opens up a safer, less judgmental space, which allows me to feel less pressure and shame, and less alone in it.