8 Stages Of A Breakup And How To Navigate Them - Max Jancar
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8 Stages Of A Breakup And How To Navigate Them

By Max Jancar | Updated: February 12, 2022 | 20 Minute Read | Letting Go

Stages of a Breakup

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This article is based on one of the key lessons in my Radical Recovery Course. If you like it, consider purchasing the course.

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 three of their fundamental characteristics that often go unmentioned. Becoming aware of them will tune out any confusion you may feel during recovery. These are: order, linearity, and exclusivity.

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 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 stages are inexistent — the most vocal being professor Robert J. Kastenbaum and Dr. Christopher Labos. 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. (2) (3) (4) (5)

The Stages Of A Breakup Do Not Unfold Linearly

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross may 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.

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The Stages Of A Breakup Aren’t Exclusive To A Certain Role

Both the dumpee and the dumper go through the exact same breakup stages. They both suffer, ponder, and reflect on their lost relationship, even grieve.

The only difference in experience is that dumpers get through their stages quicker than dumpees. This is because most dumpers actually fell out of love weeks, months, or even years before they actually pulled the plug. Therefore, they have a head-start in letting their ex go.

The only time a dumper will go through a different array of stages is when they start feeling dumpers remorse. That is, an emotion one feels when they break up with their partner but regret it later.

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 in which stage your ex resides and what that means for your chances of getting them back.

Breakup Stage #1: Shock, Disbelief, And Denial

As the name implies, the first breakup stages 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.

The best way to combat this breakup stage: Don’t try to suppress your pain with drugs and alcohol. Focus on self-care and improvement instead. The more you try to suppress the pain, the more you’ll suffer. And while some people do pull off deluding themselves they’re okay, you’re better off just acknowledging and accepting your loss. It’s a much healthier way of dealing with a breakup. Also, consider hiring a therapist or a licensed relationship coach to help you recover.

Are you in this breakup stage?

If you answer most of the questions below with a “Yes,” then you probably are:

  • Do you think you’ve overreacted?
  • Do you think your ex overreacted?
  • Are you ignoring reality, or at least trying to ignore it?
  • Are you still waiting for things to turn around?
  • Do you have a hard time admitting that your relationship is over?

Breakup Stage #2: Rumination

Here’s a common thought process a person has during this breakup stage:

“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’s, despite his age. I wonder if I can learn to cook as well as him. I hope he’s not preparing a meal for some other woman right now. Is he thinking about me? Maybe I should reach out. Why can’t I stop thinking about him? Stop it! Stop thinking of your ex. This is hopeless…”

Thinking about your ex and the life you had with them in excruciating detail can make you go mad. But nevertheless, it’s still just another fleeting web of feelings you’re dealing with.

While you do go over the best and worst moments of your dead relationship one scene at a time, on repeat, viscerally reliving each breath, and it feels like torture, this experience ultimately helps you, not hinders you. For reminiscing your old relationship, particularly its problems helps you figure out what mistakes you made and how to avoid making them in your next relationship.

The best way to combat this breakup stage: As tempting as it is to try and bottle up your thoughts during this stage, 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 this breakup stage?

If you answer most of the questions below with a “Yes,” then you probably are:

  • Do you keep reminiscing about your past relationship?
  • Do you keep thinking about your ex — the best, happiest, or worst moments?
  • Do you see your partner everyone you go, yet know it’s not them (e.i, in the faces of other people.)
  • Do you keep starring at your phone, waiting for that text, that one call that could change everything?
  • Do you keep checking up on your ex via social media, wondering what they’re doing, with who they’re going out, and what’s new in their life?

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 prior, is now gone.

The best way to combat this breakup stage: Write down your thoughts. It will help you make sense of your thinking and propel you into creating habits of making to-do lists, calendars, reminders, etc. And because of these habits, you’ll eventually reclaim the focus your breakup took away, and will be able to function normally again in crucial situations in the realm of work and school.

Are you in this breakup stage?

If you answer most of the questions below with a “Yes,” then you probably are:

  • Do you find it difficult to focus on work or just about any other meaningful task?
  • Do you suffer from any kinds of sleeping problems?
  • Do you have moments where you feel overly lethargic, sluggish, and your brain foggy?
  • Are you overeating/undereating all of a sudden?

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. Here’s how to combat each of these emotions as effectively as possible.

1. Combating 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 normal to feel devastated. But devastation is not the biggest problem. The fact that it locks people into a victim mentality is — one that, while feeling good in the moment, only leads to misery in the long term.

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.

2. Combating 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. So don’t suppress your anger or label it “wrong,” “inappropriate,” or “unacceptable.”

Instead, let yourself feel your anger, and it will dissipate eventually. 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. Combating Sadness

In the words of Susan J. Elliot, sadness is anger turned outward. So if you feel sad, anger will probably help you express and process more of that sadness, which will paradoxically make you feel better.

Here’s how I’d go about it: Grab a punching bag and start beating the shit out of it when you’re pissed off. Eventually you’ll break down and start to cry uncontrollably. Let yourself do it. After this pain period, you’ll feel better.

4. Combating 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 that 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. Combating 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. But it happens. 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. That said, if your mood is somewhat manageable, you can try getting a better hold of it through activities like meditation, yoga, qi-gong, gratitude practices, calm breathing.

Are you in this breakup stage?

If you answer most of the questions below with a “Yes,” then you probably are:

  • Do you want your ex to suffer?
  • Do you fester hate toward your ex and blame them for the breakup?
  • Do you find enjoyment in your ex’s suffering?
  • Are you furious with yourself?
  • Do you feel hopeless and lost?
  • Do you want to stay in bed the whole day?
  • Do you feel miserable?
  • Do you want to die?
  • Do you feel unloved, worthless, abandoned, or inadequate?
  • Do you feel overwhelmed to the point of crippling anxiety?
  • Do you bounce back and forth from being angry/sad to content and at peace?

Breakup Stage #5: Wanting Your Ex Back

During this breakup stage, your emotions will reach their peak intensity. This reaction is to be expected. After all, attachment to something familiar makes us feel safe and secure, even if that attachment is unhealthy. And besides, when we lose our relationship, our first instinct is to try and get it back — to try and get our old 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 combat this breakup stage: Realize that getting an ex back is 8 times out of 10 a shitty idea. So instead of trying it, cut contact with your ex entirely and start a) investing in yourself (specifically in your self-esteem and self-worth) and b) untangling the mystery behind cultivating healthy relationships. Now, if you ever do decide you want to get back with your ex, read this guide.

Are you in this 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.

The best way to combat 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 this breakup stage?

If you answer most of the questions below with a “Yes,” then you probably are:

  • Are you confused about how you feel towards your ex?
  • Does hearing your ex’s name unleash a frenzy on overwhelming emotions?
  • Are you pissed off at them one day and content about the breakup the next?
  • Do you think you’re switching the opinion of your ex too quickly to assume natural?

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 it:

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 this breakup stage?

If you answer most of the questions below with a “Yes,” then you probably are:

  • Have you made peace with the fact that your breakup happened?
  • Do you feel like you’ve finally made it? Almost as if a weight was lifted from your shoulders.
  • Are you sure you can go on and live life on your own?
  • Are you over the idea of reconciliation?
  • Does dating or simply meeting other people seem exciting now?
  • Do you feel like you’ve got some of your confidence back?

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 find it in a few weeks; others don’t find it for years. The same can be said about where people find meaning. Some 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 or chaotic breakup, while simultaneously moving on with your life, making the best of it, following whatever feels most meaningful to you.

(Optional) Top Questions About The Stages Of A Breakup

How long do breakup stages last?

There’s no definitive answer. Some people go through them in a week. Other people go through them in X years. Everyone is at a different place in life, which plays a major role in how quickly or slowly a person goes through these stages.

What is the hardest stage of a breakup?

It’s the Wanting Your Ex Back Stage. It’s not necessarily the longest stage, but it is one when your emotions are most intense. And when you’re dealing with intense emotions, you quickly lose sight of rationality. And that can be lethal for one’s mental health.

How do you know when a breakup is final?

While I did write an article on this topic, here’s a quick rundown of the most common signs: your ex told you to move on, they’ve blocked you, they’re avoiding you, they removed you from social media, they’re being indifferent toward you, they don’t want to meet up, they talk shit about you and return your stuff.

How long does it really take to get over a breakup?

Roughly speaking, months or years. But it also depends on lots of factors: the intensity and length of your relationship, your age bracket, your attachment type, your amount of sexual experience, whether you’re the dumpee or the dumper, the type of breakup you’re dealing with, etc.

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, getting an ex back, rebound relationships, 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.

So 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:

If you need 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.

A Cheat Sheet For Turning a Devastating Loss Into The Best Thing That Ever Happened To You

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