All of us will suffer heartbreak at some time in our lives; possibly multiple times. When this happens we experience genuine physical pain, a sense of bereavement and a strange sense of failure; that we are not ………………* enough
(* insert – attractive / clever / interesting / thin / other adjective of your choice).
However, it is such a universal part of the human experience that we should take solace that we are not alone (even if we are, literally alone). Relationships are difficult. We expect too much of them and of the partners who unwittingly signed up to meet expectations neither they (nor indeed anyone) might reasonably be able to fulfil; that is for them to “complete” us, to be our rock, our soul mate- writes Dr Julia Sen
Why is it called heartbreak?
When an intimate relationship comes to an end, our brains respond in the same way as a drug addict going cold turkey. Stress hormones, cortisol and adrenaline pour into our bloodstream resulting in anxiety, agitation, nausea, insomnia and an inability to concentrate. Our “happy” hormones, serotonin, dopamine and oxytocin plummet. We may crave the comfort and security of being with our ex, even when we know it’s not right for us – we are after all, addicted. The calm voice of our rational brain struggles to be heard over our screaming emotional brain. The reason our physiology campaigns to try to stop the break up is an evolutionary one. We are social animals and across cultures coupling up has been the norm from our earliest ancestors. We needed to form couples to survive, procreate and raise the next generation into adulthood. Even now when we don’t need a partner to stop us being devoured by wolves, we have maintained couple-hood as a social norm and our modern societies look much more favourably on couples than single people, even though more people than ever are now choosing a single life.
All very interesting but I just want to get over it and feel better!
Ok. The good news is – you will. The not so good news is that you can’t rush it and if you try to avoid confronting it by throwing yourself into your work/hobbies/someone new, you won’t allow yourself to reflect on what has happened, fully accept it, take responsibility for your part, learn from it and use it to grow, so that you avoid making the same mistakes again or carrying the toxic baggage into your next relationship. Few things are less attractive than the date who spends the entire evening droning on about the terrible atrocities committed by their ex.
There is no rule book on how to deal with your emotions during this critically difficult time, so I will share my own 10 top tips:
If possible, agree to take a complete break from seeing or having any communication with each other. Having set this boundary you may be less tempted to send an ill-judged text or a make a weepy late night phone call in a moment of weakness (you’re an addict, remember?). It’s a good opportunity for you both to process your emotions so that if you see each other again, it will be less fraught and there will be a chance of calm, reasonable dialogue.
Your family and friends love you and will want to support you. Let them. However, as Psychotherapist Mary Lim points out, those close to us are not impartial and may have their own relationship with your ex. There may also be issues too intimate or embarrassing to share with them, so don’t be afraid to seek professional help.
Try to be as kind to yourself as if you were recovering from illness or surgery. Mary recommends slow breathing exercises with prolonged exhalation, practising mindfulness and spending time in nature. All have been shown lower blood pressure, heart rate and stress hormone levels, which benefit your immune system and help you to feel calmer. Fresh air and physical activity also promote a good night’s sleep, often so elusive in the early days. Try not to depend on sedatives, prescribed or otherwise as they do not promote natural sleep, make you groggy the following day and may be addictive. The same is true of excessive alcohol.
Eat well. If you have no appetite, remember quality is more important than quantity. Your stress hormones may be driving you towards the Haagen Dazs but you will feel much better if you avoid ultra-processed foods. Eggs, dairy products, oily fish, nuts, seeds, pineapple, poultry and legumes (e.g. chick peas) feed the gut bacteria responsible for producing most of our serotonin, so give them the fuel they need to help you feel happier (see my Heartbreak Soup recipe, below).
Consider taking some compassionate leave or if this is not possible, let your boss and/or close colleagues know the situation. This way, they may be able to take some of the pressure off you and if you should have a meltdown they’re more likely to be sympathetic, especially if they have been there too.
Don’t make any significant or expensive decisions. In fact, postpone any decision you don’t have to make until you are able to think straight. No impulse tattoos or drastic haircuts. You may not have the capacity to make a considered judgement and you may regret the outcome. You’ll still feel sad but with an an indelible dolphin on your bum.
I highly recommend seeing a counsellor to help you through this. For around £40-50 per hour you have the undivided attention of a professional trained to listen, empathise and help you process not only your immediate grief but also to ask the important questions which will help you unpick the threads of how you came to be here. Understanding better who you are will give you a clearer idea of what you want from your life and your future relationships. Most counsellors now offer online sessions, so you can do this from the comfort of your own home.
Journalling is something I have also found very helpful. Writing down your thoughts, for your eyes only, means there are no holds barred and you may surprise yourself with what you discover. It is also encouraging to look back and see your progress over the days and weeks post break-up, knowing the worst is behind you.
An important question to ask ourselves is why we chose that particular partner in the first place. What attracted us to them and them to us? There may have been many other people objectively more attractive or eligible and yet the chemistry just wasn’t there but strangely, this person seemed to push all the right buttons. Why? This may sound weird but it’s related to our childhood experience of love from our parents. The way we behave in our adult relationships and our choice of partner are the result of what psychologists allude to as “attachment styles” which are highly influenced by these early experiences. We all know someone who repeatedly chooses the same type of wrong ‘un and wonders why it never works out. Are you that person? Recognising your attachment style can help you avoid making the same mistakes the next time around.
Part of the grieving process is coming to terms with the loss of what you thought your life was going to be. You remember the good times and mourn the ending of an era but it’s also a new beginning and there are endless possibilities ahead of you; opportunities you would not have had if the future you had planned together had worked out. You will always have those amazing memories but you will be a survivor; more resilient and better equipped to deal with the unpredictable nature of life. Embrace it.
It’s hard to forgive someone who has hurt us or to forgive ourselves for hurting someone we have loved. However, none of us are perfect. Acknowledging that everyone is doing their best to navigate complicated lives liberates us from the tyranny of blame. Holding onto hurt and resentment keeps us trapped. Consider what you have learned from this relationship and how you have grown. Live with the pain and then let it go. The only way to form a deep connection with another equally flawed individual is to allow ourselves to be vulnerable, which inevitably exposes our deepest fears of rejection and pain. The fact that your heart is broken demonstrates that you have a heart and that you were able to entrust its safekeeping to another. Ok, so it’s a bit battered right now but you will recover and if you can forgive, you will be able to move forward with dignity and self-respect. You can find future happiness if you decide to do so, regardless of your relationship status. You don’t need anyone else to complete you. You are already complete.
This delicious soup is balm for the soul. It’s warming, rich, satisfying and full of pre-biotics, antioxidants and serotonin-stimulating chickpeas.
Serves 1 (for 4 meals!)
2 tbsp olive oil
1 onion (I like to use a red one), finely chopped
2 leeks, halved longways and finely sliced
1 large clove garlic
1 tin chickpeas, drained
1 tsp ground turmeric
A generous handful of rocket or spinach
1 litre of hot stock – vegetable, chicken or (my favourite) miso
Ground black pepper
In a large pan, heat the oil and add the onion.
Cook on a medium heat until softened.
Add the leeks and garlic.
Stir intermittently until the leeks are soft (around 7 minutes).
Add the turmeric, chickpeas, stock and pepper.
Cover and simmer for 20 minutes
Add the rocket or spinach. As soon as the leaves have wilted, blend.
I prefer to leave a little texture with dark flecks of green from the wilted
leaves still visible.
Enjoy with thick slices of buttered toast