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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 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 psychiatrist Elizabeth Kübler-Ross in her book On Death and Dying, published in 1969, and form the world’s most prevalent explanation for how we experience grief. (1)
And while these 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. Besides, the terms “grief stages” and “breakup stages” are often 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.
Breakup Stages Don’t Follow The Conventional Order
This order being denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. 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 order 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)
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.
Breakup Stages Aren’t Exclusive To A Certain Role
Both the dumpee and the dumper go through the exact same stages. The only difference is that dumpers usually get through them faster than dumpees. This is because most dumpers 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 what’s called dumpers remorse — when they break up with their partner but regret it later.
The 8 Stages Of A Breakup
Below, I’ll go over each 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.
Breakup Stage #1: Shock, Disbelief, And Denial
This first stages makes you feel shocked and in disbelief regarding what just happened. You may start thinking things like:
- “How could this have happened.”
- “It was the furthest thing from my mind.”
- “Did I really just leave?”
- “Did they really just dump me?”
- “Am I living in a dream?”
- “Is this even real?”
- “Should I break no contact?”
- “Should I give them another chance?”
The next thing you know, denial joins the chat, and you start telling yourself lies like:
- “They probably didn’t mean it.”
- “They’ll be back. I know it.”
- “I didn’t mean to leave.”
- “They just overreacted.”
- “They just need time to cool down, and everything will be back to normal.”
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.
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 emotions 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.”
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 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.
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 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.
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:
- Stalking their ex.
- Showing up at their doorstep unannounced.
- Calling or texting them in the middle of the night.
- Showing them what they’re missing/trying to make them jealous.
- Rationalizing friendship.
- And more.
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.
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.
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:
- You feel little to no negative emotion around your breakup.
- You’re starting to feel at peace.
- You can accept it for what it is and that it happened.
- You’re looking forward, not backward anymore.
- You entirely forgave your ex as well as yourself.
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.
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 sixth 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.
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:
- On Death And Dying — By Elisabeth Kubler-Ross.
- On Grief and Grieving — By Elisabeth Kubler-Ross.
- Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief — By David Kessler.
- Moving Through Grief — By Gretchen Kubacky PsyD.
- The Radical Recovery Course (shameless plug) — By Max Jancar.
- The Breakup Recovery Manual (shameless plug) — By Max Jancar.
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