Question #173: How do I help my friends through breakups?

Jerry Orbach as Lenny Briscoe
Protip: If you are feeling sad about a breakup, stare at this face for approximately 125 hours of Law & Order reruns and you'll be on the mend in no time!

Dear Captain Awkward,

I have never been in a relationship and yet somehow I often wind up being among the first people told about break-ups of others. Today a friend I haven’t known for long (couple of months but we hit it off right away) send me an email to apologise for not replying to my emails because her boyfriend had unexpectedly broken up with her. I don’t know what happened, but it doesn’t sound like it was a good break up!

I was at a complete loss what I should say and eventually merely said that to let me know if she wants to go for a meal sometime and that I find keeping busy helps. I suggested a night in w/ film/pizza/drinks (the usual) but I am not sure how to handle the situation should she want to do this. What kind of film? Preferably no rom-coms I guess. I don’t generally hug people although this feels like a situation in which I probably should…  My flatmate recently broke up with her boyfriend and we never spoke about it although I made sure to be around plenty for meals and stuff so she wasn’t alone.

As life goes on, I can only assume that as break ups are part of life, I will be in this situation again. What would your advice to awkward geeks be on how to handle other peoples problems?


Dear Not-Sure:

As someone who was recently a member of Team Sad Panda, I have a lot of thoughts about this. Well, one run-on sentency sort of thought like usual.

It’s very good to reach out to your friends who have broken up and make time to spend with them. You are a good friend and you are doing it correctly!  I lived with my partner, and while living alone again gave me the opportunity to hit “Play Next Episode” approximately 300 times* as I worked my way through many seasons of Law & Order and all of Breaking Bad and Downton Abbey & Sherlock and re-watched  a bunch of Dr. Who and started getting into Being Human, it was really fucking lonely to go from “Every day is a slumber party with my best friend!” to “No one will know if I eat cheese & crackers for dinner again and that I last cleaned myself 3 days ago and am starting to kind of enjoy my own feral stink.” The breakup came very close on the heels of the death of my grampa, who was very close to me, so it was like there was this big slowly exploding grief-bomb in my chest for a long time.

My friends were great at both taking my mind off it and letting me wallow in it and at not making me feel embarrassed when suddenly a FEELINGSBOMB would detonate without warning.  I also had this weird thing going on where I felt I should be able to be smarter than the feelings?  Like I *knew* that it was the right decision to break up, and I *knew* that things get better with time and I *knew* exactly how to ride it out (I did not realize when I wrote that that I would be writing it for myself), and somehow knowing that should make me feel less shitty, so why didn’t I feel less shitty? So then we went here for a while. Awesome, right?

So here’s what my friends did that was great (noncomprehensive list):

-They invited me to do stuff, like go to Hot Doug‘s and to the movies and to plays and over for dinner.

-My best friend GAVE ME HER OLD APARTMENT (she got hitched and didn’t need it anymore). That is above and beyond the call, you guys, and not a baseline of what all friends should have to do, but it meant that I had a place I could go right away and didn’t have to keep living in the old apartment, like, “good morning, ex boyfriend, did you have a good date with a shiny new lady last night? Oh, she is still here? I guess it went well! Does she want breakfast, I can throw another egg in the skillet, no problem! Have you seen my shoes, and all of our hopes and dreams for how our lives would work out? No? Maybe they are under the couch? Well, have a GREAT day!“**

-They didn’t assume anything and straight out asked me what I needed.

-They told me I was smart and pretty and that they loved me. I’m fortunate that we are a demonstrative bunch and sometimes have conversations like ‘YOU ARE THE BEST’ ‘NO, YOU ARE’ ‘ONLY BECAUSE YOU INSPIRE ME TO BE THAT WAY’ ‘OKAY, WE ARE ALL THE BEST’ ‘YES WE ARE AWESOME, IT IS TRUE.’ When you are down, it helps to be reminded that you’re loved. When you are up, it is awesome to be reminded that you are loved. Sometimes FEELINGSBOMBS are made of love and kindness.

Edited to Add: I forgot kind of a big one:  My friends gave me veto power over when/whether my ex was invited to parties and events in the friendspace and respected the 2-3 months when I needed to have no contact at all. I feel like this is a big one for nerds/geeks/dorks/chosen urban families, like, “If I break up with my partner will I also lose all my friends?” but I feel like if everyone is grown up and cool you can have a few months of space and then if everyone is meant to stay friends it will work itself out.I can’t tell right now if this led to less crying (knowing I wouldn’t run into him) or MORE crying (safe to cry – he’s not here to see it!) but it was a huge help to me to feel like I had some control about when and how I interacted with him./Edit

So, Not Sure, your instincts to make yourself available and ask your friends to do stuff is right on. The best thing you can do (when anyone is sad about anything) is to ask them – “Do you want to take your mind off it, or do you want to talk about it?” and be ready to roll either way.

You’re right to avoid rom-coms, mostly because they are shitty and full of stereotypes of romance that are simultaneously exaggerated and unrealistic and also so much less than what actually falling in love with someone is like? And because watching two boring plastic white heterosexual people with blindingly white teeth fall in love within the same 10 square blocks of New York or LA is really fucking boring and played out? Once upon a time I wrote this nonsense, so I am obvs. not immune to adorable people and their love stories, but I agree that right after a breakup is Not The Time.

The other stuff, the stuff not to do, is the same stuff you would avoid saying to anyone who is grieving about anything. We don’t tell the recently bereaved that it’s okay because their loved ones are “in a better place” now and it was “God’s will.” And we do not remind the bereaved person of the deceased’s more annoying qualities and suggest that they will be better off not having that person around. My grampa delighted in being a provocateur…one might say “a pill” or a “noodge” or “narcissistic pain in the ass ” and he was old as fuck and lived a really great, giant, huge life and was as ready as anyone can possibly be to die and I don’t miss his many-fonted and animated .gif’d forwards from the Cranky Old Man Internet but I miss the hell out of the person who I loved and who loved me. Anyone who tries to suggest that I’m better off without him on the earth is going to get punched right in the cunt.

So we don’t do that whole American! Optimism! Must! Prevail! “But don’t you see how this is really a GOOD thing?” with recently broken up people, either. Respect that even for a doomed, dysfunctional relationship that there is grieving and the grief is real. Your friends may need to tell you all the terrible stuff about their ex that they won’t miss. Listen. Or they may need to tell you about all the great stuff that they miss. Listen. Or the stuff – the terrible and the great – may come out all jumbled together, and the picture of Horrible Person, Glad S/He’s Gone! and The Love Of My Life, Why Did S/He Leave Me? might overlap like a film dissolve. Listen. Don’t derail or look for consistency – “But yesterday, you said….” “But I thought….” Listen. When you need to say something, start with “I’m sorry, that sucks” and you’ll never be wrong.

So there you go. It’s “Stop, Drop, and Roll” for the dumped:  Invite, Ask, Listen.


Captain Awkward

Who Is Kind of In Love With The World And Her Friends Right Now (But Not In That Way)

*Not an exaggeration.

**Note: Intern Paul and I are AWESOME friends now, and I fiercely love his cute smart ass forever (thought not in That Way). This is largely because I got the fuck out of there ASAP and took the advice of The Sexy Gay Jesus.

13 thoughts on “Question #173: How do I help my friends through breakups?

  1. I am perennially in the place of the letter writer, and this advice is pretty much how I handle things and I have received no complaints. Acknowledge how much it blows, even if it was the best decision; if your friend is in your city, keep offering invitations (even if they want to wallow, keep on asking); if they live somewhere else, make yourself available for phone calls or Gchat or Skype so they can vent if they want to and discuss the latest episode of Sherlock if they don’t. Really it is, as the Captain says, much like any other bad news. Be compassionate and be there. Those are the most important things regardless of whatever cultural scripts we have that say breakups require us to sob over Dirty Dancing on repeat and stick our heads into a tub of Chubby Hubby. (Not that I don’t endorse that last part.)

  2. Letter Writer: This was my role in middle school and high school, right up until I moved to a different state (then many things changed). I’d never had a boyfriend and yet friends and acquaintances would come to me when they had broken up.

    You’re a good friend, I can tell by your response to your friend’s email. It’s hard to know the right thing to say or do. But it’s also important to only do what you yourself are capable of. If you aren’t comfortable with hugging, it’s absolutely not a requirement that you hug. If you’re okay with hugging, it’s just that you don’t hug much, tell your friend that you’re available for hugs should she need one. Your friend is probably aware that you don’t hug much, and she does not want to make you uncomfortable.

    Also, all of the Captain’s advice is great.

  3. This is all pretty much the best stuff you can do. Let your friend be upset, and offer (and be willing) to either listen to them talk about it or help them get their mind off it. If they start wallowing more than you can stand, you have every right to step away for a while, but if they’re just being upset for a little while, just listen.

    In my experience, the worst thing you can do is tell them not to be upset. That’s probably true of any bad news, much like the rest of the Captain’s advice. Once, after I broke up with someone, a friend of mine came over to keep me company, and proceeded to spend about an hour telling me to be happy. I think I would have preferred almost anything over that. Feelings exist, and you can’t just wish them away. So mostly just be there, and don’t try to direct anyone to be happy.

  4. Going to throw this in there: Don’t forget to take care of yourself, LW! It’s kind of you to be thoughtful and supportive of friends, but it is also okay if you sometimes have to say “I’m sorry, I’m feeling really sad myself right now, so is it okay if we don’t talk about your breakup and instead watch this movie?” or whatever it is that you need.

  5. “The best thing you can do (when anyone is sad about anything) is to ask them – ‘Do you want to take your mind off it, or do you want to talk about it?'”

    Firmly agreed.

    Also, don’t give unsolicited advice on their future love lives, or how they should react to their ex, or how they should cope, or how they should still be “open to love” even in the wake of their break-up. It might be true. It might be good advice. But if they didn’t ask you for your opinion, they will probably resent it.

  6. Those fucken sausage fuckes close at four in the motherfucken afternoon???? Thatte’s fucken ridiculous!!! People need fucken sausage sangwiches when the motherfucken bar closes at four in the fucken AM, not in the fucken afternoon!

  7. After a break-up, your friend is grieving the relationship, and also writing herself a new story about that relationship and her life. She’s lost the story about living happily ever after with her ex, and it can be so hard to craft a new story. Talking with you can be part of the process. You can’t control what the story ends up being. She might need it to be “my ex was an asshole and I’m better off alone”, or she might need it to be “my ex is wonderful and we still have so much love for each other but it just couldn’t work between us”, or any number of other things. Each of these can be good stories for healing, so don’t try to push her in any direction. It isn’t necessarily important for the story to be accurate (in your mind). If she seems to be coming up with a story about how she got dumped because she is worthless and unloveable and will die alone, that’s the time to remind her that she is awesome and you love her. You sound like a great friend to me, so trust your instincts.

      1. Brilliant re: writing the story! And as always the Captain has the simple truth of it. I had a couple of ostensible friends who, after a tribe-shattering breakup, did everything the direct opposite: they assumed they knew what I needed (if they thought of it at all), stayed clear of me (living alone after a six year cohab), never invited me places but posted all their fun times online, and basically proved themselves lousy friends. So I had new relationships to mourn.
        You’re doing it right, LW, and Captain.
        PS the “nonsense” with the couple on the blind date: lovely.

  8. I have no advice to add. I just wanted to say that I love Jerry Orbach and am very sad he’s gone. He was a Broadway singer, too. And an organ donor!

  9. To emphasize one point CA said: never, ever tell them what a jerk the person is/was/how you hated the person all along. No matter how true, it is not helpful, it just sounds like you’re saying they’re stupid to be feeling hurt and upset, on top of how stupid they were to waste all that time with such a dud in the first place.

    PLUS broken up does not always mean forever, even when it should. Even if it is a bad relationship, you don’t want to have said all that, because if your friend gets back together with the dud you will have put yourself firmly on the outside as a known critic of the person/relationship, so no matter what dreadful thing the dud does that makes you need to counsel your friend to get out they’ll just say “well, you have never liked/understood him/her so your perspective doesn’t count.”

    Or else it can just be one of those phases that a relationship that will actually ultimately turn out to be a good one has to go through in order to *get* to good, and it can be really awkward when your friend remembers you ranting about what a twit their now-spouse is.

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