How to mourn a breakup so that you can truly move on

How much time is enough time to recover from a breakup and what should you be doing during it to heal? Mental health experts share their advice.
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Experts suggest that you spend time “introverting” and using time alone to be creative and rediscover the hobbies that you may have let fall by the wayside while in a relationship.hobo_018 / Getty Images
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By Nicole Spector

Before I met my now husband, I went through a fair amount of breakups. Occasionally, I reflect on these ill-fated relationships of mine. I line them up in my imagination like seashells, studiously inspecting the cracks and holes in even the smallest husks as I ask myself, “What went wrong there? Why did this once living, breathing relationship die?”

These are the questions I probably should have been asking myself in the wake of each breakup, but that wasn’t quite possible, because as soon as one relationship ended I’d wait approximately one menstrual cycle before throwing myself into the next ultra serious romance. I was a textbook serial monogamist who simply refused to be single for long. In retrospect I have no doubt that I moved too fast and that I would have saved myself (and even some of those men I dated) some anguish by taking the adequate time to heal after each failed romance.

But how much time is enough time to recover from a breakup and what should you be doing during it? Can casual hookups be helpful, or should you abstain from amorous activity altogether for a while? How can you know that you’re ready to date again?

We consulted a number of therapists to learn what they recommend for newly single people who perhaps aren’t so thrilled about being single.

It’s important to take time to detox and unpack your baggage

The main reason we need time after a breakup is so that we can reflect, recharge and as Kiaundra Jackson, LMFT, puts it, detox.

“My rule of thumb after someone has a breakup is to have a period of detox,” says Jackson. “This is where you take time for yourself. You do not date. You do not have flings. You do not do anything that would be contradictory to your healing process.”

The goal of this healing process is to “unpack and deal with any baggage from your previous relationship(s) before entering into another,” Jackson explains. “If you don't address those things head on, you will be bringing the same baggage, issues and drama into your [next] relationship. This is where people have a hard time understanding why the same issues keep occurring.”

Grief plays by its own rules and timelines

In addition to taking the time to detox and unpack our baggage lest we bring them into the next relationship, we also need to take time to mourn.

“The process of dealing with a breakup is comparable to grief,” says Dr. Tricia Wolanin, Psy.D., a clinical psychologist. “It's the death of a relationship, hopes and dreams for the future. The person we are losing was [a big part of] our world and therefore has taken up so much of our mental and heart space.”

Jackie Krol, LCSW, notes that every person grieves and heals at their own pace, while Elena Jackson, LPC, finds that how we respond to “failure, rejection and abandonment” also plays a role in the mourning process.

Because grief is so subjective and the issues we leave a relationship with are so varied, it’s impossible to slap a definitive timetable on how long it will take before we’re over a breakup.

“There are some schools of thought out there that say you should be single twice as long as you were in a relationship. Or at least the same amount of time," says Kisha Walwyn-Duquesnay, LPC-S. "But there really is no magic number. You should take as much time as you need to heal, and that’s different for everyone.”

Other factors, like how long you were together and at what stage you were in your life may also play a role in your healing timeline.

“For example, a one year, long-distance relationship for a 21-year-old, may not need as much recovery time as six year, cohabiting relationship for a 34-year-old,” says Walwyn-Duquesnay.

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Casual hookups can be more trouble than they’re worth

How much time you need will depend, but know that you will need time, and that even an ostensibly carefree hookup should be off the table for a bit.

“I advise against casual hookups because they just blur emotions,” says Ibinye Osibodu-Onyali, LMFT. “[They’re] a distraction from the pain of a breakup.”

Dr. Dani Moye, Ph.D., adds that casual hookups can bring their own “emotional disruption,” stating, “It’s all about preserving yourself, energy, and sense of well-being so that you can enter the next relationship with clear focus and intentionality.”

Hopping on to Bumble for some easy fun sounds harmless, but you could end up getting stung, and then you’ve got to deal with that pain on top of the turmoil from the breakup.

Time, by itself, doesn’t heal much. Making the effort to understand what went wrong in the relationship is what heals.

Lesli Doares, LMFT

Use these exercises to help recover from a split

“Time, by itself, doesn’t heal much,” says Lesli Doares, LMFT. “Making the effort to understand what went wrong in the relationship is what heals. This means looking at yourself as much as at your partner. Understanding your part in the patterns is what is going to make you more successful next time. Taking this time will help you get clearer on your expectations (were they realistic or not), what worked in the relationship and what didn’t, what you learned about yourself, etc.”

Here are some specific exercises you can do to help recover from the split and reorient yourself as an single person.

Spend time ‘introverting’

E. Jackson recommends “introverting”, which she defines as “using time alone to be creative, reflect and rejuvenate. When we are introverting, we are using our down time for our passions, entertainment and to rediscover the things and hobbies that we may have overlooked in a relationship.”

Do what you want to do without bending to accommodate someone else

Relationships require compromises and if you’ve been in one for a while, you may have forgotten what it’s like to do things your way. Kara Laricks, a LGBQT+ matchmaker and date coach, encourages newly single people to reconnect with their personal preferences and habits. “Revisit the time of day you like to get up and go to sleep, eat when and where you feel like it, watch the shows you want to watch on Netflix and take your time doing the things you enjoy whether that is roaming around Target or taking yourself out to an exhibit opening,” says Laricks.

Let the sadness and anger rise and share it with your support system

“We have to allow the sadness to arise, to let the tears come,” says Dr. Wolanin. “Share this with your support system. Allow yourself to cry and get it out. There may be moments of anger: take time to yell, dance it out, paint, journal, run, create a fiery playlist [and just] do whatever you need to do to release this. Opt for therapy if needed.”

Do things that make you feel good about yourself

A breakup can take a toll on our self-esteem, so spend this alone time doing things that make you feel good about yourself. “If you love yourself and enjoy your own company, then you can pick from a higher quality pool of potential partners,” says Beth Sonnenberg, LCSW. “Conversely, people who don’t have good self-esteem and don’t think they deserve better often wind up in abusive or unhealthy relationships.”

Connect with the things that made you so easy to fall in love with

“I think sometimes couples fall into a routine of sleepovers, brunches, movies, dinners, gym [and so on], and while all these activities are a normal part of building a life with someone, you kind of lose yourself in the relationship,” says Kat Haselkorn, a matchmaker and relationship expert. “Spend enough time by yourself to figure out what makes you special so someone else has a reason to fall in love with you all over again.”

Notice your emotional reactivity when thinking of your ex

“Process through the stages of grief and [aim for] more moments of acceptance than moments of pain when you think about the relationship that has ended,” says Dea Dean, LPC. “Denial, bargaining, anger, depression and acceptance don’t occur in order and don’t last for a set amount of time. Someone could move in and out of different stages in a matter or minutes, days or months. The best rule of thumb is to notice your emotional ‘reactivity’ when you think about your ex, and if you’re clear enough to acknowledge the good and the bad about the relationship and simultaneously acknowledge your worth of a new relationship, you’re likely ready to move on.”

Don’t feel heaviness over your ex? You might be ready to date again

This even-tempered clarity when it comes to thinking about your ex, is, as Dean notes, one good way to know you’re ready to date again.

Dr. Wolanin says that you can also tell you’re ready for a new relationship when “the heaviness” of your last one isn't there anymore, and “you have more mental space to think of other things outside of this one person. [You can] create new memories, develop new hobbies and focus on you. This is when you can begin to know you are healed, and can begin dating again in a healthy way.”

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