8 Stages Of A Breakup (And How To Navigate Each One) - Max Jancar
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8 Stages Of A Breakup (And How To Make Each One Suck Less)

By Max Jancar | Updated: November 25, 2021 | 21 Minute Read | Recovery

When we’re talking about the breakup stages, what we’re really discussing are grief stages. You’ve probably heard a lot about them already.

They were introduced by the famous author and psychiatrist Elizabeth Kübler-Ross in her book On Death and Dying, published in 1969, and form possibly the world’s most prevalent explanation for how we experience grief. (1)

And while these grief stages may appear as a wholly different topic than breakup stages, they are more or less the same thing. For a breakup is, in a way, a death of a relationship.

In fact, the terms “grief stages” and “breakup stages” are almost always used interchangeably. For simplicity’s sake, we’ll stick to the latter term throughout this article.

Now, breakup stages, as popular as the topic is, are misunderstood by many. So before I jump into listing them, I want to cover two of their fundamental characteristics that often go unmentioned: order and linearity.

Becoming aware of these two characteristics will tune out a lot of the confusion you might feel during your recovery. So stick with me here.

The Stages Of A Breakup Do Not Follow The Conventional Order

Despite their popularity, the stages Kübler-Ross put forward — The Kübler-Ross Model — have some major flaws. For one, none of them follow the conventional order:

  1. Denial (shock and disbelief that the breakup has occurred).
  2. Anger (that someone we love no longer wants to be with us).
  3. Bargaining (the what-ifs and regrets).
  4. Depression (deep sadness).
  5. Acceptance (acknowledging the reality of the breakup).

There have been numerous reports from scientists all over the world critiquing The Kübler-Ross Model for its lack of empirical research and evidence. No one could essentially prove that breakup stages followed the trajectory Kübler-Ross put forward.

This predicament made scientists embark on two radically different ventures.

Some went on to assert that Kübler’s grief stages (in our case, breakup stages) are inexistent — the most vocal being professor Robert J. Kastenbaum and Dr. Christopher Labos. (2) (3)

And others went on to refine her work. These were people like George Bonanno, Susan J. Elliott, and David Kessler — the same titans whose research forms the basis for this article. (3) (4)

The Stages Of A Breakup Do Not Unfold Linearly

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross may have got a few things wrong in her research, but the fluidity of her stages is not one of them.

To paraphrase her: breakup stages don’t unfold linearly — you don’t go from one stage to the next and never revert to any of the previous ones. Typically, you’ll cycle back-and-forth through each stage several times before you reach acceptance, that is, the final stage.

In practicality, this process translates to dating and having a blast one week, and missing your ex and wanting to slit your wrists the next.

Depending on the person experiencing them, these shifts between stages can occur every few weeks, days, or even hours.

Here’s a visual representation of how they pan out.

Breakup recovery

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The 8 Stages Of A Breakup

Below, I’ll go over each breakup stage in turn, examine their anatomy, point out what you may expect in them, and what to do to transition from each as fast as possible.

This knowledge will allow you to understand the entire mental and emotional process you (or your ex) go through in each stage so you’ll be better prepared to surmount them (or so you can more accurately determine whether or not you have a good chance at getting your ex back).

Breakup Stage #1: Shock, Disbelief, And Denial

The first stage of a breakup makes you feel shocked and in disbelief regarding what just happened. You may start thinking things like:

The next thing, you know, denial joins the chat, and you start telling yourself things like:

According to psychology, denial is a person’s choice to deny reality as a way to avoid a psychologically uncomfortable truth. In your case, the truth that you’ve broken up with your partner and that they’re no longer a part of your life.

A few tips while you’re in denial: don’t try to suppress your pain with drugs and alcohol. Focus on self-care and self-improvement instead. The more you’ll try to suppress the pain, the more you’ll suffer. That said, some people do pull off deluding themselves, but you’re better off just acknowledging and accepting your loss. It’s a much healthier way of dealing with your breakup.

In cases where you’ve been dumped, you’ll feel a certain amount of rejection and embarrassment during this breakup stage, and acknowledging those feelings will become much harder because they will spike your shock and denial levels. So be prepared to put that much effort into breakup recovery if you’re the dumpee. At best, get professional help.

Are you in the Shock, Disbelief, And Denial Breakup Stage? If you answer most of the questions below with a “Yes,” then you probably are:

Breakup Stage #2: Rumination

“I sure miss having him by my side when I wake up. I wonder what he’s doing right now… We still haven’t assembled that new Lego set we bought. I wonder if he still likes to play with Lego, despite his age. I wonder if I can learn to cook as well as him. I hope he’s not cooking anything for some other woman. I hope he’s thinking of me… Maybe I should reach out. Geez, why can’t I stop thinking about him? Stop it! Stop thinking of your ex. This is hopeless…”

Thinking about your ex and your life with them in excruciating details can make you go mad, but nevertheless, it’s still just another breakup stage.

Truth is, while you do go over the best and worst moments of your dead relationship one scene at a time, on repeat, reliving each breath, and it usually feels like torture, it ultimately helps you, not hinders you.

Reminiscing your old relationship and its problems helps you figure out what went wrong and how not to repeat the same mistakes in your next relationship.

It’s tempting to try and bottle up your thoughts, attach weights to that bottle, and throw the bitch to the bottom of the Atlantic ocean during this breakup stage, but don’t do it. I’ve done it. I’ve kept doing it. And things just grew worse for me emotionally.

The harder you try to forget about your ex, the harder it will be to actually push them out of your mind. Hence the saying, “What you resist will persist.”

Are you in the Rumination Breakup Stage? If you answer most of the questions below with a “Yes,” then you probably are:

Breakup Stage #3: Disorganization And Confusion

In this breakup stage, you’ll have days when you oversleep, days when you undersleep, days when you lack appetite, days when you overeat, days when you’re hyper-productive, and days when you’re sluggish, unmotivated, and overwhelmed. As a result of those emotional ups and downs, you’ll often feel like you’re going crazy.

Relax. This feeling is normal. It’s all part of the healing process. Grief continually calls attention to itself, and being in a state of disarray is just one way it gets your attention. It’s also a result of your mind’s way of trying to re-structure the world because the one it knew, the one it was structured around, is now gone.

One of the best remedies for the unyielding disarray this breakup stage brings is writing your thoughts down. It’s what I tried during my breakup, and it helped. Specifically, the practice helped me make sense of my thinking and propelled me into creating the habit of making to-do lists, calendars, reminders, and so forth.

Because of this simple habit, I have reclaimed the focus my breakup took away, and I could function normally again in crucial situations in the realm of work and school.

Are you in the Disorganization and Confusion Breakup Stage? If you answer most of the questions below with a “Yes,” then you probably are:

Breakup Stage #4: The Emotional Mess

This is the most complex breakup stage on our list. In it, you’ll be inundated by a plethora of intense emotions. Most commonly, devastation, anger, sadness, guilt, and anxiety.

1. Devastation

Regardless of the type of breakup you had, the reality is always the same: you don’t have a partner anymore. You lost a part of who you were. It’s all but normal to feel devastated.

Still, devastation is not the biggest problem, even though it seems that way. The fact that it locks people into a victim mentality is the biggest problem. And I understand why people fall into this mentality: it feels really good to blame someone other than yourself for your breakup.

Yet, most people overlook the fact that playing the victim only leads to misery in the long term, even though it feels good at the moment.

The way you go about overcoming this victim mentality is by taking responsibility for your breakup. Sure, maybe it wasn’t your fault, at least not entirely. But you can still take responsibility for it and stop blaming the other person.

Your ex is not always a bitch, an asshole, or a toxic fruitloop for hurting you. Sometimes, it’s you who fucked up and *is* fucked up. And other times, you’re both to blame for your breakup.

2. Anger

Grabbing your ex by the throat and drowning them in a tub full of goat blood is somewhat of an appropriate reaction after a breakup. It’s good to be angry when you’re heartbroken. It means you’re nearing the final breakup stage.

Therefore, don’t suppress your anger. Otherwise, it will simply manifest itself in other ways. And while you’re at it, avoid labeling it “wrong,” “inappropriate,” or “unacceptable.” This is just another form of suppression.

Instead, let yourself feel your anger, and it will dissipate eventually. And notice how I emphasized feeling anger, not acting out on it. You can think about drowning your ex in goat blood while you’re punching a sack of potatoes, but actually going out, prepping the goats, the knives, the tub, is something you obviously shouldn’t do.

3. Sadness

As Susan J. Elliot wrote, “Sadness is anger turned outward.” If you feel sad after your breakup, anger will probably help you express more of that sadness.

Ever seen those movies where a chick started beating the shit out of her man and then suddenly broke down, fell into his arms, and started crying while he calmly hugged and embraced her. That’s what I’m talking about.

Try this yourself. Grab a punching bag and start beating the shit out of it when you’re angry. Chances are, you’re going to break up down eventually and cry uncontrollably.

This is an exhausting exercise, but it will help you feel the depths of your sadness, so you’ll be able to glide through the breakup stage faster.

4. Guilt

Guilt is nothing more than an incapability to accept your situation. And everyone is prone to feel it during this breakup stage. If you feel bad for what you’ve done or haven’t done, the things you said, or haven’t said, know it’s normal.

You’ll always find yourself with just a few more things you’d want to tell your ex — a few more things to get closure and feel better.

Don’t linger on this desire for long. You don’t need to get closure — you don’t need to “make things right.” Your relationship ending and your ex being unwilling to work things out is by itself a form of closure.

What has happened has happened, and it couldn’t happen any other way.

5. Anxiety

Anxiety often comes as a surprise. We expect people to be sad, angry or frustrated, and confused after a breakup, but anxious? That’s just weird. Nevertheless, it happens. I see it times and times again.

People become overly sensitive to their surroundings. They start feeling agitated and easily disturbed by noises, wind, and general movement. They get sweaty, their heartbeat speeds up drastically, they start developing sleep problems, etc.

If you feel your anxiety is getting out of control, get professional help. But if your mood is somewhat manageable, you can try getting a hold of it through calming and relaxing activities.

Are you in the Emotional Mess Breakup Stage? If you answer most of the questions below with a “Yes,” then you probably are:

Breakup Stage #5: Wanting Your Ex Back

The hallmark of this breakup stage is that during it, your emotions are at their peak intensity. It’s during this period that people desperately search for content on getting back with their ex.

This reaction is to be expected, of course.

Attachment to something familiar makes us feel safe and secure, even if the attachment is unhealthy or destructive. When we lose our previous relationship, our first instinct is to try and get it back — to try and get our old life and identity back.

This breakup stage also marks the spot where most fall prey to the many scammers of the “get your ex back” industry and develop unhealthy habits like:

The best way to avoid these needy behaviors is to immediately cut contact with your ex and begin investing in yourself. Still, if you insist on going back to your ex, just be sure it’s the right choice for you. For most people, it’s not.

Are you in the Wanting Your Ex Back Breakup Stage? If you answer most of the questions below with a “Yes,” then you probably are:

Breakup Stage #6: Ambivalence

Ambivalence is one of the trickier breakup stages. In it, you feel as though you love and hate your ex at the same time.

People also tend to have a lot of conflicting feelings about their breakup that they don’t know how to even feel about in the first place, and they usually juggle between the ideas of “I want my ex back” and “I’m better off alone.”

Sometimes ambivalence grabs you by the neck, and you have no control over it. Other times you can quickly calm yourself and get a more realistic grasp on your situation.

These shifts in moods, emotions, and feelings are also sporadic and random. One minute you may feel one way, the next another way.

When you find yourself in this breakup stage, don’t try to force yourself to lean to one way of your feelings. Just observe them, let them be there, and accept them. They’ll go away in time. The fact that you’re feeling ambivalent is a sign you’re nearing the final stage of a breakup.

Are you in the Ambivalence Breakup Stage? If you answer most of the questions below with a “Yes,” then you probably are:

Breakup Stage #7: Acceptance

Acceptance is the final breakup stage. But, contrary to common belief, it doesn’t relate to happiness. Here are a couple of hallmarks of this stage:

For those of you who want to get back with your ex, this stage is your time. In it, you have the highest chance of reconciliation because you’re not enveloped in neediness, fear, and desperation as much as in prior breakup stages.

And because getting to this stage takes a long time, you can adequately reflect on your relationship and begin to discern where you’ve gone wrong (insecurities, boundaries, compatibility, etc.) and what has to be done to avoid breaking up again.

Are you in the Acceptance Breakup Stage? If you answer most of the questions below with a “Yes,” then you probably are:

Breakup Stage #8: Beyond Acceptance

Some people call it uncoupling or disengagement. Some call it letting go or moving on. Others call it the meaning-making stage or the sixths stage of grief.

However, most experts don’t even consider this a stage at all. They regard it as a period in which people start ascribing meaning to their breakup based on their response to the event.

Now, meaning is relative and personal, and the time until one finds it is different for everyone. Some people don’t find it until months or even years after their breakup. The same can be said about where people find meaning.

Some people will find it in religion or spirituality. Some in excelling at their career. Some in taking care of their kid. Some in staying healthy and fit. Others in keeping a bustling social life. Again, it’s different for everyone.

Ultimately, meaning comes through finding a way to keep loving your ex, even after a harsh breakup, while simultaneously moving on with your life, making the best of it.

Stages of a Break Up for the Dumper Vs. The Dumpee

There’s a question that keeps popping up across countless breakup recovery forums and groups.

Do only dumpees (the people who’ve been dumped) go through breakup stages, or do the dumpers (the people who’ve done the dumping) get the same treatment?

The question has a pretty straightforward answer: yes, both the dumpee and the dumper go through the exact same stages of a breakup. They both suffer, ponder, and reflect on their lost relationship, even grieve. That said, there are some minor differences between their experience.

The only difference is that dumpers get through their stages quicker than dumpees from what I’ve seen. This is because most dumpers actually fell out of love weeks, months, or even years before they actually did the deed and so have a head-start in letting you go.

If the dumper starts feeling dumpers remorse, however, then a whole different array of stages start to apply to them. But I digress. As of now, let’s address intentions.

The usual intention people have when asking if a dumper goes through the same stages of a breakup as them is because they’ve been dumped, and they want to hear how their ex (the dumper) is suffering just as much as them.

If that’s your mentality, know that you’re only prolonging your recovery by having it. Rather, forget about your ex entirety and shift your focus to yourself.

Ask yourself, how can I recover? How can I get better? How can I avoid a future breakup? How can I create a love life that I’m proud of?

Don’t Take The Stages Of A Breakup Too Seriously

Like the conventional breakup stages Kübler-Ross introduced amounted to heaps of criticism, so did the later, refined versions. Therefore, I insist you take those I listed as best guesses on how you’ll be experiencing grief and not facts.

You see, stage theory — be that relating to stages of a breakup, a rebound relationship, no contact, etc. — became stage theory, not because there are actual stages in it, but because it helps people impose order on their chaos and offers them predictability over uncertainty.

We are pattern-seeking beings trying to make sense of an inherently chaotic and unpredictable world, after all. So it makes sense to develop theories that help us achieve that.

Ultimately, while breakup stages serve as valuable and helpful, descriptive guidelines, there’s no correct way to experience grief. We all experience it differently. Some people, for example, skip stages five and six. And other people immediately end up in stage two, instead of the first.

You can even expect that your own experience of grief will change over time, and there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that. In fact, it’s likely a good thing and a sign that you’re making healthy progress towards acceptance.

Top Resources For Navigating The Stages Of A Breakup

If you’re struggling to navigate your breakups stages or simply want to learn more about them and how to transition from each one faster, I encourage you to check out the following resources:

This article is based on a popular lesson in my Radical Recovery Course. If you enjoy reading it, consider purchasing the course.

If you need more more help healing from your breakup, check out my Radical Recovery Course. With over 5h of video, 200 pages of writing, and personalized 1-on-1 coaching, I'll walk you through every step of the recovery process from start to finish.

Learn How To Stop Obsessing Over Your Ex And Feel Great And Like Yourself Again In No Time

Get a free cheat sheet that will help you emotionally recover from your breakup (whether you want your ex back or not) by giving you quick information about what to expect along recovery, as well as over 40 tips on how to recover faster.

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Learn How To Stop Obsessing Over Your Ex And Feel Great And Like Yourself Again In No Time

Get a free cheat sheet that will help you emotionally recover from your breakup (whether you want your ex back or not) by giving you quick information about what to expect along recovery, as well as over 40 tips on how to recover faster.

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