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:
- Denial (shock and disbelief that the breakup has occurred).
- Anger (that someone we love no longer wants to be with us).
- Bargaining (the what-ifs and regrets).
- Depression (deep sadness).
- 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.
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.
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:
- “How could this have happened.”
- “It was crushing”
- “Was I blind?”
- “It was the furthest thing from my mind.”
- “My world has collapsed”
- “How could she/he fucking do this?!”
- “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 things 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.”
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:
- 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
“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:
- 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, 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:
- Do you find it difficult to focus on work or just about any other meaningful task throughout the days, weeks, or months?
- Do you suffer from any kinds of sleeping problems, like insomnia?
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
- 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 like your life lost meaning?
- Do you feel overwhelmed to the point of crippling anxiety and an utter lack of motivation?
- Do you bounce from being angry and sad to content and at peace and back on the regular?
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:
- 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 other forms of relationships you don’t really want.
- And more.
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:
- Are you typing “how to get an ex back” into Google?
- Are you spamming your exes phone? Do you want to?
- Are you looking for signs that your ex still loves you?
- Are you looking for signs they never want to see you again?
- Are you planning on breaking the no-contact rule?
- Are you thinking of asking your ex for friendship?
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:
- 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 a bit 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 this stage:
- 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.
- You grew from your pain.
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:
- 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 mojo and/or 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 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:
- 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.
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.
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