You knew it was coming. But hearing them say, ‘It’s over,’ and imagining it are two totally different things. In your fantasy, they take both your hands in theirs and deliver the tragic news in a voice cracked with emotion. Invariably, they’re leaving for a reason that has nothing to do with you (the army needs them, they’ve decided to devote their life to God). You nod quietly, delivering one, hauntingly touching parting line (‘Go – but you take my heart with you’). They head for the door then stop dead as they hear you catch a sob. Their back still turned to you, one hand on the doorknob, they say (struggling for composure): ‘I have to do this. I can’t ask you to wait for me but . . .’
Reality is somewhat different. You both sit awkwardly on the couch because you know what’s coming. ‘It’s just not working,’ they blurt out. ‘FINE!’ you say. ‘That’s just BLOODY WONDERFUL!’ Then you start screaming, ‘You CAN’T LEEEEEAVE ME!’ fall in a pathetic heap at their feet, wrap both arms around their legs and burst into a hysterical sobbing fit punctuated with unattractive hiccups and snorts. They start to head for the door, you’re forced to endure the indignity of being dragged across the carpet because you won’t let go of their legs. Desperate to get away, they kick you free and sprint for the door, slamming it behind them. You’re after them quick smart, throwing yourself and anything else you can get your hands on in their general direction. Their parting words aren’t ‘Wait for me’, but ‘Get away from me, you psychopath!’ You follow with a supremely clever ‘Get stuffed, you bastard/ bitch! I hate you!’
Then the anger goes and you go back inside, slide down the wall, hit the floor and give in to total panic. You’re crying so much you can’t breathe. You feel dizzy, think you’re going to be sick and are, right there on the carpet. Stumbling toward the bathroom, you visualise the packet of razor blades in the cabinet and sensibly do a detour to the kitchen in search of vodka. One swig and you’re sick again. You think, This is what dying must feel like. Because that’s exactly how you do feel: dead. What’s the point of life if they’re not going to be there to share it with you?
Getting through the next 30 seconds seems impossible when someone’s put your heart through a mincer. But you will get through the next minute and the next hour and the next day and the next year. However painful it is now, you will survive. How do I know? Because I’ve been there, everyone I know has been there, and I’d bet money on it that you could fit all the people who haven’t been there into one small, sad little room. You loved, you lost – but at least you loved. We all came out the other side – so will you. Clear the tears long enough to stop the page blurring and I’ll tell you how it’s done.
How to use the get-over-it guide
I admit it. The time frame of this guide is ridiculously optimistic, deliberately so. It’s not just designed to give you practical advice on how to get through, it’s designed to give you hope. The time frames I’ve organised it under are probably irrelevant anyway because every split-up is different and every person heals at a different rate. But most of you will go through all the different stages usually in this order:
• Stage 1: the intensely painful bit. This can last anywhere from two weeks to two months depending on your ¬relationship. Getting through each day is difficult and you think you’ll never be happy again. • Stage 2: is spent adjusting to being single again. It might take a month to six months to stop yourself saying and thinking ‘X and I’, and come to terms with being ‘one’. • Stage 3: is when you start truly healing. If you went out for a year or so, and thought it was forever, this will probably happen about six months after the split. If it was longer, it could take up to a year. You feel normal most of the time but are still battling memories or analysing what went wrong every week or few weeks. • Stage 4: you made it! Official recovery can take anywhere from one to two years. Don’t panic if you appear to move onto the next stage then slip back one for a few weeks – it’s normal. But that’s what you’re in for. Hopefully, the following guide will help get you from one to four in record time!
The day it happens. Initially, you’re in shock. You keep thinking, She’ll get over it. Any minute now, she’ll call me to say sorry and everything will be fine. You consider sending flowers – that’s worked before. Except you know this is different. She doesn’t call, and when you call her four hours later, she says, ever-so-gently, ‘I meant it. I’m sorry. It really is over.’
If you can do it (yes, you can), let yourself have a good cry. When you’re done, pick up the phone and call someone. If you’ve got a close female friend, she’s first on the list. Tell her your partner’s left you and you’re feeling down. Could she come over and cheer you up? She’ll be over at your place in a nanosecond, dispensing hugs and all sorts of soothing there-theres (and no, she won’t tell everyone how pathetic you were, so drop the macho act). No close female friends? Call a mate. He’ll drag you down to the local pub for a game of pool, give you a slap on the back and say, ‘You’ll get over it – I did.’ It’s not much, but it is true. Whatever you end up doing, tonight is not the night to start the Liver Cleansing Diet. If a few beers make you feel better, have them but keep it under control. The idea is to send you to sleep – not stumbling over to her house drunk. Cling to this: Think back to when you helped someone get over a painful break-up. Remember how they said they’d never smile again, but you knew they’d get over it? They did – and so will you.
Day two If someone picked up the ‘phone and said ‘Congratulations you’ve won the lottery’, your reaction would be ‘I wonder if a few million pounds would change her mind?’
Fill up your day with activity. Play sport, watch reruns of old sitcoms, strip the car engine then put it back together again: anything to keep yourself busy and keep your mind off it.
It’s the weekend Get on the ‘phone and don’t get off it until you’ve organised non-stop entertainment for the entire weekend. Tell people you’ve split up, even if you do play it cool and insist you don’t care (they’ll make their own conclusions). If you don’t want to talk about it, tell people. Say, ‘It’s over. I don’t want to talk about it. I’ll tell you the details later.’ People will want to spoil you: let them. It’s not being ‘weak’ to accept offers of roast dinners, it’s what friends do. Your main aim today: convincing yourself that turning up at her front door with enough red roses to fill her entire flat really won’t work. If she’s serious about splitting, she’ll just feel sorry for you.
It’s a work day You’re one up on your female equivalent: chances are you’ll get through the day without dissolving into tears. If you think you can get through on autopilot, do it. If you can’t, tell your boss what’s happened. If possible, arrange to meet a friend for lunch, but steer clear of the nearest pub. I don’t care how fabulous she was or how bad you feel, she’s not worth losing your job over by going back to work drunk.
Cling to this: Before you finally go to sleep, tell yourself, ‘I’m okay. I’m just upset. I will get through this. I survived today didn’t I?’
Day three Okay, enough of this namby-pamby wimpy stuff: today is toughen-up day. I’m being cruel? Humour me, anyway, and give it a go. You’ve got nothing to lose except a day feeling powerless. Today it’s time for some action: I want you to gather up all those relationship reminders and put them out of sight. That’s right: books, cards, letters, photographs, CDs with your song on them, cute little notes, anything at all which connects them to you. If Special K brings back memories, plonk it in the bin. (If everything does, perhaps you’d better wait a week.) Put all that memorabilia into a big bag and either throw it all out (best), give it to a friend to look after (okay) or shove it in the back of a cupboard where you can’t get to it without a huge effort (a cop-out, but better than leaving it in sight).
Wash the sheets and towels (yes, you must), then go through your diary and cancel any events where you’re bound to run into each other. Stay away from all your old haunts: the secluded beach you both discovered, the great little Thai restaurant that was your favourite. Avoid anything that reminds you of your ex. Why? Because you really are kidding yourself if you think lying around listening to ‘your song’ and rereading old love letters is going to help you heal or magically get them back. It won’t. In fact, if there honestly is any hope of a reconciliation, seeing you get on with your life is far more likely to do it. It’s been proven over and over: act like you don’t need them (even if you do want them) and they may well realise they want you too.
So if they come over to beg forgiveness and notice their picture’s been removed, you’ll win respect not disapproval. The quicker you accept they’re gone for good – even if they aren’t – the quicker you’ll get over them, and the more likely it is they’ll want to return. It’s a win–win situation. You’re not only upping the chances of getting back together, you’re upping your chances of happily getting on with your life if they don’t. The reverse is also true: send letters begging another chance, pester them with phone calls, follow them around and they’ll thank God they got out when they did. Besides, your ego’s been bruised enough, it can’t take any more knocks right now, so don’t set yourself up for them.
Cling to this: There are whole minutes – perhaps even two or three together – that you don’t think about your ex. You are recovering.
If you’re a typical bloke you probably haven’t spoken too much about how you’re feeling. Now’s a good time to call that female friend and pour it all out to her. If you don’t have one, or feel uncomfortable talking about your feelings, write it all down or log onto the Men Scorned Forum and speak to others who are going/have been through the same thing as you. Get yourself a beer (or coffee) and take an hour or so to write down everything you’re feeling and going through. No-one’s going to see it (burn it afterward, if you’re paranoid), so be totally honest.
Record how you seriously thought she was the one, the plans you had, how you started reading the fine print at the bottom of the diamond ads. What you miss about her, how she made you feel ten feet tall and now you feel about one inch high. Why you think you broke up, how you’ll never, ever trust anyone ever again or fall in love. Ever.
Yes, it sounds pathetic and you’ll feel pathetic as you’re writing it all down. But it truly will help. So just keep writing and let it all come out. You’ll cry a lot and feel exhausted when you’ve finished but at least you’ve released some of the pain and it’s not festering inside. Face your emotions now, feel the pain now and you’ll give yourself a chance to recover. If you push them to some dark place deep inside you, you risk them resurfacing when you next meet someone you really like. It’s hard enough making new relationships work without having to grapple with all the old stuff Jayne or Joseph left behind at the same time.
Now, let’s be logical here: if the former love of your life suddenly decides they want to live forever in your pocket they’re not going to give up if you’re not home when they ring. If they do, it was a spur-of-the-moment (they didn’t score last night) thing. Or they’re simply calling to see how you are. Don’t return the call or pick up the phone if you’re pretty sure that’s all they want. Talking with them will send you straight back to longing-for-them land. Call a friend and ask them to relay a message: you’re hurting but you’re okay and don’t want to hear from them for a little while.
By day four you’re still utterly miserable – though more in a depressed than out-of-control way. Nevertheless, keep surrounding yourself with understanding friends and protect your heart. If a soppy song comes on the radio, switch stations. Ditch any novel that has love scenes for gutsy thrillers, choose your movies very carefully and stick some party music on spotify to replace those banned tunes.
Clng to this: All this heartache has made you remember how bloody awful you felt when you split with another ex. You got over them – maybe, just maybe, you’ll survive this one too.
Today you officially take back control of your life by doing some spring cleaning. If it’s a work day, start with your office. Spend your lunch hour going through every single ‘to do’ pile and organising it properly. Clear out your drawers, ruthlessly throw out everything you don’t need or file it where it belongs.
When you get home that evening, turn the music up full blast (boppy music, not sad stuff) and do the same at home. Empty all the cupboards and throw out or donate anything useless or stuff you haven’t worn or used in the last two years. Rearrange the furniture. Make a list of things to buy that’ll brighten up the place. You’ve just started on the kitchen and it’s midnight already? Who cares? You’re not sleeping that well anyway – you might as well completely exhaust yourself and have something to show for it in the morning other than knotted sheets. Tomorrow you’ll wake up to a clean, organised flat and office and feel a sense of satisfaction.
Cling to this: Believe in fate. Everything happens for a reason. Perhaps you broke up with your ex because someone even better is out there waiting for you or you’re about to get that promotion and need all your energy for work. Trust in your future.
Okay, you’re still down and feeling terrible but after five or six days should have a little perspective on the situation. You did some physical spring cleaning yesterday; today we’re going to do some emotional spring cleaning. If you’re a guy (and did as you were told), you will have already written down all the emotions you’re experiencing. If you’re female, you’ve no doubt verbalised them to your friends. This list is different.
The best strategy to accept someone is gone is to collect as much evidence as possible to prove a) you’re a wonderful person who deserves better, and b) they weren’t as fabulous as you thought. I’m not being nasty or vengeful, just realistic. After all, if they were that perfect for you, they wouldn’t have dumped you in the first place. There were obviously areas where you didn’t see eye to eye and things you didn’t like about them. They were human, weren’t they?
Start with list number one: get a good friend to help you write down everything great about yourself, all your successes and achievements. You’re a great friend. Popular. A terrific listener. Your family adore you. You were crucial in helping your team win the final. You can sink 12 beers and still stand. Write down big achievements, serious things, silly things – as many as you can come up with.
List two: set to work on your ex. It doesn’t matter how much you did or do love them, no-one is perfect (not even them). Write down every single flaw and weakness you can think of. How they didn’t share your passion for the sea, how your Mum never really liked them, the time you caught them admiring themselves in the mirror, how they flirted at parties, the embarrassing green trackpants that made their bum look six times bigger, how they’d give you a hard time for wanting to watch ‘crap’, how he vomited all over the bathroom floor after a night with the boys, how she used to leave little hairs from shaving all over the bath.
Every time a friend calls, ask them to help you add to the list – but make sure you explain your motives. Friends will be suspicious if you ask them to bag the person, because they’re worried you’ll use it against them if the two of you get back together. Explain that it’s a silly little exercise you want to do to support you right now and you’ll be amazed what nasties they’ll come up with!
Cling to this: Look at yourself in the mirror every morning and evening and say to yourself, ‘It’s over. They’re not coming back. I will survive.’ Keep on doing this until you can look yourself straight in the eyes, speak confidently and believe it.
Get out your diary and phone book and spend the day calling all the people you’ve neglected during your relationship. Prepare what you’re going to say when they ask about your ex (a simple, ‘It didn’t work out,’ is fine). Make dates with everyone until your diary looks satisfyingly full. Give opposite-sex friends preference: they’ll give you the ego boost you need, but be careful with exes. It’s extremely tempting to convince yourself they really were ‘the one’ when you’re feeling vulnerable and lonely. (They weren’t).
I wouldn’t accept invitations to go out and party just yet – you’re still too raw. Instead, plan evenings with good friends and happy couples. No, you won’t look at them and feel envious – you’ll see living evidence of people who’ve been through what you’re going through and had the courage to fall in love again. Ask them (separately) to recount the details of their past break-ups. How they never thought they’d love again but here they are doing just that.
Cling to this: Do I honestly believe I’m not going to meet anyone else in the next ten years?
Congratulations! Here you were thinking you couldn’t make it through a minute and you survived an entire week without a) joining the French Foreign Legion; b) joining a cult; or c) moving back to the country to live with Mum. A shred of self-respect should be resurfacing. By now, you’re probably making about three ‘God, I feel awful’ calls to friends a day and are able to spend half an hour on your own without feeling suicidal. Now’s the time to cut the umbilical cord completely. Ask mutual friends not to report back every piece of gossip about your ex – and vice versa. Don’t spend your life trying to find out about theirs. If they’re depressed, it’ll give you false hope. They’re out dancing until dawn – your ego will take another dive.
Beware of friends who encourage you to believe your ex will ‘wake up to themselves’ and come back: they’re not doing you any favours, just trying to make you feel better. If your ex seriously does think they’ve made a mistake, they’ll call you themselves. Don’t believe it unless the words come out of their mouth.
On the subject of friends, remember they have lives too. Make sure they know how much you’ve appreciated their support and put up with you knocking on their door at 3 am and phoning 65 million times an hour. It’s okay if your conversations are still largely dominated by your break-up, but make an effort to spend even a quarter of it asking about them. As for striking up a friendship with your ex, it’s too soon. Leave it a few months or longer to put some distance between you.
With seven days under your belt, it’s time to organise and make sense of the thoughts and theories about the split that are whizzing around in your brain. If you have a good friend whose judgement you trust implicitly, ask them to help you diagnose the break-up so you can learn from the experience. Was it just bad timing and incompatibility or are you constantly falling for people who are bad for you? Do you grab onto anyone because you’re scared of being on your own? Encourage them to be brutally honest and take whatever they say on the chin: if they know you well, there’s at least a grain of truth in their theories. If you have a history of bad relationships consider seeing a counsellor for a few sessions. At the very least, flick through Chapter 8 for clues on why you keep getting kicked in the teeth.
Feel especially tempted to call your ex after all this analysis? Don’t! If you really must pour out all your intimate revelations (and are they really any of their business?), write a letter and wait two weeks before posting it. Chances are, you’ll decide they don’t need to know after all.
Okay, you cried when you found her old T-shirt at the bottom of the laundry basket or a lipstick of hers under the bin in the bathroom. But you may find sadness being replaced by anger – white-hot, good-job-you-don’t-own-a-gun type of anger. By all means, fantasise about taking revenge but don’t do it. Instead, get rid of the anger in a constructive way. A girlfriend of mine started running. ‘I was so angry, I didn’t know what to do with it so I started pounding the pavement.’ She now has the best legs in Sydney. Join a gym, take on extra work, get stuck into the garden: just do something!
By now, a certain amount of logic should be creeping in. Even if they came back, could you trust them not to leave you again? Even if you did call and beg for another chance, wouldn’t you always wonder if they did it just because they felt sorry for you? Your brain’s exhausted from diagnosing and dissecting the break-up and, quite frankly, you’re a bit sick of thinking about it. You stop taking all the blame for the split and realise it’s rarely, if ever, one person’s fault. Your friends stop worrying you’re about to jump off a bridge and call less. Their eyes start to glaze over when you mention your ex’s name. By week three, you’re forced to spend nights alone and you feel okay about it. Not great, just okay. You still feel an overwhelming sense of loneliness and still wonder (for the 600th time) what they’re doing at that moment, but it shouldn’t be the focus of your existence. If it is, again, get yourself along to see a counsellor.
Week four Life goes on. You’re surviving without them, your heart is mending but this makes you feel despondent rather than satisfied. True love? Yeah, right. Forced to watch a soppy film, you scoff at the romantic bits and your friends accuse you of being cynical. You are – but that’s normal. We all lose faith for a little while. If you’re feeling depressed and unmotivated, take a good look at your health. You’ve probably been eating little and grabbing takeaways when you do. Resolve to eat healthily, cut back on the alcohol and ciggies and get a solid eight hours’ sleep a night. The better you feel physically, the better you’ll be able to cope emotionally.
If you find you can’t stop thinking about your ex, try some aversion therapy. Put an elastic band around your wrist and flick it each time you think about them. You’ll literally snap yourself out of it because it hurts. Your brain will start to associate thoughts of your ex with physical pain and subconsciously stop you thinking about them. When you flick the elastic band, say to yourself, ‘I don’t need you. I have my own life. I’m over you.’
The next month
Take a long look at yourself in the mirror. Are you happy with your appearance, your image and your wardrobe? The sort of person you are? If not, do something about it. Indulge in a personal trainer, get a friend with great dress sense to help you shop for new clothes, treat yourself to a course of massages and let a professional get rid of the tension of the last few weeks. Work on areas you’d like to change. Start being a better friend, work harder, take some evening courses. Get back in touch with your sexual side as well. Start masturbating again, if you’ve stopped. Once your libido kicks back in you’ll find yourself checking out others in the gym (on the street, in your office) even if your heart and brain aren’t interested in following through.
I still wouldn’t suggest you date online or try a dating app but you are ready for a restaurant, café, bar or pub. You’re not out there to meet anyone, just for the experience of going out single. Don’t take it personally if no-one checks you out, chats you up or appears even remotely interested. You’re still exuding ‘poor me!’ vibes, even if you don’t realise it. Your self-esteem should be climbing back up, but don’t test it. Asking out the new-and-most-lusted-after person in the office isn’t a good idea. You’ll take it as a rejection even if they turn out to be married with six kids.
By the end of the month, you begin to feel remotely normal. The word’s out that you’re single and everyone’s inviting you to this party or that dinner. Your diary is nicely packed full of dates and you’ve got things to look forward to. You feel rightfully proud of yourself for having coped and think you’re well and truly over them until – a song comes on the radio and suddenly it all comes flooding back. You’re laughing with friends and she walks past – only it’s not her at all, just some girl with the same haircut. You go to dinner with friends and your eyes slide down their bookcase and see a travel book on Bali and a memory of the two of you poring over that holiday brochure hits you smack between the eyes. It hurts intensely and you think, Oh God, I’m kidding myself. I’m not better at all. But you are because the pain does fade – even if you feel faded from the experience.
It’s most unfair but you’ll probably find all the memories of the two of you are good ones. Blame your brain. We idealise past relationships because our brains are programmed to throw up pleasant memories rather than painful ones. It’s an instinct which usually works in our favour (to keep us as happy as possible) – but not in this case. Beat it by consciously dragging up a really unhappy, unpleasant memory about the two of you every time your brain throws up a good one. It puts things into perspective and helps ease the pain. Don’t panic too much if you’re still having the odd dreamy daydream about your ex months and months later. It’s natural to think fondly of your last lover if you’re a bit lonely single.
Two months later
You’re laughing again. You’re noticing things – like that great shirt or dress in the shop window (and the cute assistant standing at the counter). Life feels full of possibilities and after all those weeks of mooning around you desperately want to get on with it.
It’s around now that you suddenly feel the urge to meet someone new IMMEDIATELY! You still miss your ex but wonder if it’s more the relationship you miss than the person. By all means get out there and flirt your bottom off but do yourself (and them) a favour and keep any relationship you have on a casual basis for now. Give yourself time to grieve and heal and sort through all the baggage. The right time to start a fresh, new, serious relationship is when you honestly believe you understand what went wrong the last time and – even more importantly – feel confident of your judgement to pick someone who really will be good for you. Even then, take it slowly and keep both eyes wide open. Not just to protect yourself, but to see the new love of your life. Because if there’s one advantage to breaking up,it’s this: you get to go through that delicious falling-in-love stage, all over again!
If you lived together or were married
If you lived together or were married the pain of separation is more intense and you’ll take longer to get over it. The above guide applies to you but you need to multiply the time frame by about a thousand.
Live-in lovers don’t get as much sympathy as marrieds who split, but if living together is a trial marriage, then splitting up is a mini divorce. And it’s obviously going to hurt more if you lived together rather than simply went out. You shared the rent, the bathroom and the cat: you’re not just losing the relationship you’re losing a life that you’ve built together. One of you has to move out, you have to decide who gets the fridge. His parents feel like your parents. Your big brother is now his best friend. You’re used to sharing your life with someone and it’s difficult to close the gap when they’re gone.
If you were married it’s even more heartbreaking. You’ve got the divorce to face. A whole house full of furniture to split up, bank accounts to divide. If you have children, you need to work out custody and visiting arrangements and accept the fact that, despite what’s happened, you have to live with this person in your life forever.
It’s beyond the realms of this article to delve too deeply into the serious psychological fall-out of a divorce or major separ¬ation and I would strongly suggest you see a counsellor to help you get through the first few months. At the very least, buy a few books which deal specifically with this topic and lean on your friends specifically those who’ve been through what you have.