How to Get Over a Bad Relationship
Ending a relationship can feel devastating, especially if you still have strong feelings for the person you’ve lost. It’s even worse if you didn’t want the relationship to end, and your partner did.
Sometimes it’s a blessing in disguise. It may be that the person you were with is not really right for you. Worse, it could be that the person you were with was actually bad for you, and in this case, the grief you feel gets pretty complicated.
This article is about that last scenario, and I chose this subject because it comes up a lot in therapy. Someone comes in and they’re in a lot of emotional pain because their boyfriend, girlfriend, or spouse has left the relationship. Often they’re emotionally worn down and feeling worthless, or not good enough, and just want their partner to come back.
Usually when I investigate a little more, I find out that the partner who’s left was emotionally abusive or absent, and the relationship was toxic for the person who now sits in front of me.
So what helps?
The first thing is to understand that coming out of a relationship requires time for healing. It’s not a quick thing, but done correctly, it can create growth, insight, and movement forward. Here’s seven things that will help facilitate that.
#1 Allow time for grieving.
All too often, people expect to get over a significant loss too fast. After a month they complain that they’re still in a lot of emotional pain. Friends tell them to cut their losses and move on. They say things like “Put it behind you.” “He’s a jerk. Why do you even care?” “Date other people – the sooner the better!”
Everyone means to help, but none of those suggestions are helpful.
When you lose someone you love, it hurts. Period. And the hurt needs time to lift and resolve.
Allow yourself to feel it, and understand that you hurt because you’re able to attach to someone and maintain feelings of love and affection for them. That’s actually a good thing.
The pain will eventually subside, but it needs its own time. Most likely it will be non-stop in the beginning, and then you’ll have small interludes when you forget it or feel better, and then it pops up again. You hear a song that you both liked, or someone tells a story that hits a soft spot, or you see something that reminds you of him, and the pain seems to start all over again. This on and off sadness can go on for a while, along with other feelings, especially anger.
You might have fantasies of the person coming back to you. You may even have revenge fantasies, but all of this is normal and part of grieving, especially when you’ve been left by someone. It’s particularly confusing when that someone really wasn’t good for you.
There’s not an exact time period for grief, and it may vary per person, but when you’re only three months out, don’t expect to be free of the sadness. Think 6 months to a year and maybe longer. What does change over time is the intensity of the grief. Keep in mind it’s a gradual shift. Just know and accept that, and allow it.
#2 Spend some time evaluating the relationship.
Once you know the relationship is over, it’s a good idea to examine it carefully and see it as it really was. This means reviewing both yours and the other person’s behavior patterns throughout the relationship. This is probably the most important part of grief work. Nothing will change in your future if you don’t do this part.
The purpose of this is to uncover dysfunctional patterns and see them clearly. For example, if you were involved with a woman who criticized you often, didn’t consider your feelings, said attacking things that were personal and abusive, got upset if you wanted to spend time with friends, and made you feel unattractive, then you need to see that and come to terms with it.
We tend to put our romantic partners on a pedestal, and see only what we want to see. We make excuses for behavior we know in the back of our minds is not okay.
We push those insights aside and replace them with defensive arguments of why this person is so wonderful and why we need to hang on to them.
Okay, that’s your partner’s part. Now what about yours? Were you afraid to confront the problems? Did you cater and adapt to the unreasonable demands? Did you keep doing more to try and please your partner even though you knew it was one-sided? Did you allow him to personally attack you and say damaging and negative things to you without objecting? Did you change who you are to accommodate him? And if you did any or all of these things, why? What were you afraid of? What are you protecting?
The point of this examination is not so much to blame, but to see. See what really happened and understand your part in it. You don’t want to repeat this same pattern in another relationship, but that’s very likely to happen if you don’t go through a thorough examination of it.
Just as your grief will take a while to resolve, seeing the relationship clearly and accurately takes time. Just keep at it.
#3 Don’t go back to the bad relationship.
The biggest danger when someone gets out of an abusive or bad relationship is the pull to go back. Sometimes the pull is even stronger because the partner who tends to be abusive will come back around at some point and make a plea to get back together. After all, he had it good! You were catering to him and his demands, and taking care of him.
It doesn’t always happen, and if not, all the better, but it may. And if it does, you need to be ready.
The danger is that after you’ve been out of the relationship for a while, you forget how unhappy you were. You focus on what you miss, and you may again idealize this person and forget the pain you endured while you were with him.
This danger is particularly acute when you haven’t had enough time for your feelings to wane. You need to keep your distance until you’re strong enough to say no and mean it. The best case scenario is no contact at all. This can be complicated if you have children together, or some tie that can’t be permanently undone. Under those circumstances, strong explicit boundaries are a must.
#4 Make a list of what was wrong.
One thing that helps is to keep a list of the things that you know were bad about the relationship, and read it daily.
By making yourself tune into and remember what was dysfunctional, and what was harmful to you, you’ll find it easier to stay away until you’ve had the time you need to move forward.
When you quit any bad habit, you can maintain your resolve by remembering in what ways the habit was harmful to you.
- Did this relationship live up to values I hold dear?
- Were my feelings, thoughts, and desires considered on a regular basis?
- Could I voice my concerns and opinions without recrimination?
- Was I free to pursue my interests?
- Did I feel like I had a real partner?
- Did my partner affirm me as a person, or tear me down?
- Was I ever afraid of him?
- Was the relationship inclusive of others such as friends and family?
- Did I feel safe?
These questions will help you articulate to yourself what was good and bad about the relationship. There are always things to work on in a relationship, but there’s a difference between normal issues and deal-breakers. Deal-breakers are behaviors that attack you and make you feel less than or lacking. They’re personal. A communication problem is an issue to work on. Being verbally attacked regularly and made to feel small is a deal-breaker.
Write down your deal-breakers. It’s important for you to know what they are. Then compare them to your relationship. How many were there?
#5 Take care of yourself physically.
When you experience a loss or emotional rejection, the areas of the brain that light up when you’re in physical pain also light up when you’re in emotional pain. In other words, your brain processes a social rejection similarly to the way it processes physical pain or a physical injury. In a more poetic frame, you can say with validity that “your heart hurts.”
That being the case, it’s extra important to take care of yourself physically.
This is a good time to go on a healthy diet that feeds you nutritionally and keeps your energy stable. A clean diet composed primarily of whole foods, and with adequate proteins, healthy fats, and carbs is optimal. Don’t starve yourself during this time, but don’t overeat either if you can help it. Stay away from high carb comfort food. It’s fine to eat healthy carbs like fresh fruit and veggies, whole grains, and starchy veggies like sweet potatoes. Don’t starve. Just eat clean.
If you exercise regularly, you’ll have an easier time staying on a healthy diet. They work together.
Exercise also increases both serotonin and dopamine levels in the brain. Serotonin is associated with regulating mood and anxiety, reducing depression, and aiding sleep. Dopamine is associated with motivation, learning, attention and focus, mood, and pain processing.
Exercise is a natural anti-depressant, especially aerobic exercise that’s done regularly.
You don’t need to do a lot at any one time, just be consistent. Walking is fine, although you might enjoy something more strenuous to work off your stress.
Sleep deprivation is known to most of us at some time or other. It’s particularly a problem after a bad breakup. Do your best to get regular sleep.
The side effects of not getting enough are negative mood such as depression, anxiety or irritability. Memory issues and an inability to concentrate or make decisions are also problematic.
If you find you can’t sleep, don’t lie in bed for hours ruminating. Get up and do something, and then try to go back to sleep. However, don’t grab your phone and start scrolling. Bad idea. The blue light screens emit interrupt your natural circadian rhythms that help you sleep. Reading is a far better choice.
#6 Seek out a support system.
A support system can be very beneficial when you’re transitioning out of a relationship. Having good friends to hang with helps to alleviate the pain and feelings of isolation.
Talking to a close friend who understands and cares about you is soothing, especially if your friend was aware of the situation and can appreciate how you’re feeling.
You do have to be careful in the above situation. It isn’t useful to have someone just bad-mouth the ex-partner. What you need is someone who can listen to how you feel or what you’re processing without jumping on the band wagon and going on a negative tirade about the ex.
In general, the support of friends and family who love you and want the best for you can be very helpful.
A major support can be a good therapist. Therapy can provide the type of support you need, while also assisting you in navigating the feelings of loss, sadness, and anger. Therapy can also assist in evaluating the relationship and figuring out the dysfunctional behavior patterns.
What’s most important is to review, evaluate and evolve, not just get over. Even a bad relationship has a lot to teach you so that you can eventually become involved in a healthy one.
#7 Don’t hop right into another relationship.
It’s very tempting to start dating someone else quickly. Not always, but if you find someone who’s very sympathetic to what you’ve been through, and who makes you feel attractive, you might find yourself jumping in because it:
- Makes you feel the opposite of the way you did in the bad relationship.
- Helps you avoid feelings of loss and sadness (emotional pain).
The problem is that you’re not done with the first relationship. You still have feelings for the other person, and you really aren’t emotionally available yet.
When you’re in a relationship with someone over a period of time, you partially merge psychologically with that person. It’s like the diagram below:
Each of you are represented by the circles. The parts on the outside that aren’t connected represent your individuality. The overlap part in the middle represents the emotional/psychological merged part. It’s the couple part. It’s the part that’s intertwined, interdependent, and attached. This diagram shows an even distribution of all the parts, but in abusive or toxic relationships, the abusive partner is represented by a larger circle, and the couple part is also larger and skewed.
When you end a relationship, you have to withdraw the part of yourself that was in that overlap. This takes time. You can’t just think it and be done with it. It requires emotional work.
That’s why you can feel devastated when a loss occurs suddenly without any warning, or without a build-up or clues that it was coming. It literally feels like your insides are being ripped out or torn up. In a way, this is true.
Sometimes a relationship begins to atrophy while you’re still in it, and you emotionally disengage long before calling it quits. In cases like these, you don’t feel such an overwhelming loss when the relationship ends, because you had already let go to a large extent.
It’s when you lose someone that you really don’t want to lose, or that you’ve been in fear of losing and it finally happens. Or it happens suddenly because you learn something you didn’t know that makes it impossible to continue. This kind of loss is very painful.
If you have a loss like that and get right back into another relationship, what usually happens is that as time goes on you begin to feel discontent with the new relationship. You might start finding things wrong with this new person. You may compare her with your previous partner and decide she doesn’t measure up. You might nitpick or start fights to gain distance. You might start thinking about dating other people, or even wish you were back with your ex.
The truth is, you aren’t able to evaluate the new relationship on its own merit because you weren’t emotionally free to get into it in the first place.
Also, you haven’t worked on any of your own dysfunctional patterns. You may even have found another person that’s just as toxic as your ex. This happens all the time. And it will continue to happen if you don’t take the time to become more self-aware and confront the unhealthy emotional patterns that played a role in the previous relationship.
You know people who go in and out of the same flawed relationships over and over. This happens because they don’t take the time for self-examination. They don’t stand back and evaluate previous relationships to see what happened, and what was unhealthy. In many cases, these relationships have their roots in your family history. You may not realize that.
If you suspect this applies to you, read Your Emotional Home. It will help you sort out dysfunctional patterns you learned growing up, and help you see how they affect you in the present.
This is where therapy is very helpful. You have someone to help you figure all of this out and make sense of it.
- Take the time you need to grieve, process, examine, evaluate, and heal.
- Learn more about who you are and who you want to be.
- Think about the kinds of characteristics you need in a partner, and don’t settle for less next time.
- And remember, you will get over it eventually and be free to create a better life for yourself.
Please leave your comments below. Your experiences are invaluable, and what you have to say is always important.