“Dear Dana: After you break up with someone, how do you move on?”

My friend Dana Norris writes a good companion piece to our plethora of “or you could break up?” posts here: “Dear Dana: After you break up with someone, how do you move on?

“Staying with the wrong person won’t make you happy, but leaving the wrong person also won’t make you happy. Leaving the wrong person doesn’t create happiness—it only creates space. And that space can be filled with any possible thing. At first it will be sadness and loneliness, then restlessness, and then, maybe, eventually, hopefully, a form of happiness. But at first, you take your slight daily misery of being with the wrong person and you ratchet it up so it becomes an acute daily misery of mourning a relationship that has ended.

In order to completely change your life, to leave the person you love and set out anew, you have to basically take a portion of your life and set it on fire. You have to metaphorically burn it down to prevent yourself from going back. Some people may be well-versed in the art of breaking up with a long-term partner and still staying friends, but I think only 10% of the population can pull that shit off. The rest of us light a match, throw it, and run.

Burning down your life sucks because you’re surrounded by ash and rubble and you’re also on fire. Because, you see, in burning down your old relationship, your old life, you’re really burning down yourself. You’re the one who’s on fire. Lots of profiles on dating sites and apps state strongly that they aren’t looking to date anyone who’s fresh out of a relationship. Why not? Because people fresh out of a relationship, especially fresh out of a long-term relationship, are kind of awful. They’re metaphorically aflame and can’t be any good to anyone until enough time passes that they can put the fire out. But, in the meantime, they walk around, burning, singeing everyone they try to kiss. They can’t be of any use to anyone until they calm down, accept their new single state, put out the fire, and allow for something new to grow.”

Read the whole piece for how to do the next steps, which Dana calls “1) Wallow 2) Fuck Around 3) Do The Damn Thing.”


94 thoughts on ““Dear Dana: After you break up with someone, how do you move on?”

  1. Wallowing is key. You can only wail at the top of your lungs so long before you run out of air or that particular wave of feeling passes, so you may as well do it and move through the grief.

  2. Unfortunately there is zero mention of having had children with said Ex. You really don’t have the option of burning the place down if you want to preserve any sort of normalcy for your kids. It’s the awful speed bump in a process that doesn’t quite allow you to just focus on yourself. Ideally, that would be great but well… life. Sometimes you have to do things you don’t want to do because it will benefit those who don’t have a say in the matter.

    1. Most of the letters I get about this are from people who haven’t had kids, true!

      Do you have any tried & true ways for surviving that kind of separation?

      1. I don’t think you can burn it down per se, but you can get to “meh” about it.. To go as no contact as possible save for the issues regarding the kids. It’s still a process for sure.

      2. I hope some people do have tips on that. My own experience with kids involved was a sadly necessary hard-stop ending to a relationship that had turned abusive and violent, yet there was still some degree of contact required because of the children.
        The best tool I found for getting through that was what I called relentless civility. No matter how nasty the ex became, my responses that he heard were calm and measured, and the way I spoke to the kids about him was mild and focused on their priorities / perspective.
        No need for them or him to know how I vented to friends separately, or yelled and cried when I was alone in my car.
        It was a very hard thing to do, but it helped immeasurably. Over time his attacks and digs slowly diminished until he stopped, and most importantly, the children didn’t get caught in the middle of angry words, at least from my side. Don’t know if that’s any help, but for me the end result was worth the painful struggle. Mostly.

        1. This is the tack my dad took, and it worked out better for him (and us kids) than mom’s strategy of “kids in the middle” vitriol. In all honesty, he’s still relentlessly civil and takes great joy from it, because it confuses my mom beyond belief.

          1. My husband’s father, Sly, left his first wife and his two little boys (both under five at the time) over 50 years ago for my husband’s mother.

            Sly was married to Doris for more than 50 years when he died. He left her. He paid the minimal child support possible and refused to pay for his first two sons’ college (because it wasn’t in the custody agreement). (He paid for my husband’s entire college education.) He had almost nothing to do with his ex-wife.

            Yet on his deathbed – he died eight weeks after Doris did, he was still complaining about his first wife. That’s how he wanted to spend his last days of life – complaining about someone whom he had not seen in decades.

            Your dad has the right approach! (And love the part about, “he’s still relentlessly civil and takes great joy from it, because it confuses my mom beyond belief.”)

        2. Relentless Civility is awesome advice, BetterInGreen. My kids dad has a habit of telling the kids I’m a c**t every time he doesn’t get his own way & I have got it down to a fine art, soothing the kids, deflecting the nasty & refocusing the purpose. We have family discussions around how his behaviour makes us all feel, who owns what actions & how we can reduce his impact. He’s personality disordered & I’ve learnt & taught the kids not to personalise. Also to absolutely minimise any contact & keep it relentlessly civil. My kids & I have built a really strong, open & honest relationship around this. They know they can ask/tell me anything & we will work through it. Separated over 10 years & he’s still high conflict, but we’ve moved on. Yay team me & childerbeasts!

          1. You sound like and awesome parent and like you’re absolutely minimizing the negative effect this has on your kids.

        3. This was the approach I took. My mantra during the whole divorce and separation process was ” I can’t burn any bridges because I’m going to be dealing with her for the rest of my life.” I made a point of telling my attorneys that I’d rather have a somewhat less favorable financial settlement if it meant my wife and I could still talk to one another when the dust settled. It worked. We are able to be civil and I can even be supportive to some degree, although I still have to diligently police my boundaries. I do Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner for the kids and her and it goes well.

          She said a lot of mean things about me for quite a while, but I made a point of not bad-mouthing her to the kids. I did have to say less-than-complimentary things about her when my kids would complain about how she treated _them_, just so they would know that they were not as awful as she would say. Somewhere around 10 years after the separation, they started to see why I divorced her. I still urge them to treat her decently (e.g., remembering her birthday, Mother’s Day, helping with chores at her house) because, well, you just don’t treat people badly, no matter what. And she’s still their mother.

          The break-up was very hard for me. I really loved her, and it wasn’t until I realized that being that (emotionally) close to her was killing me that I left. I have always felt like I was stuck in a leg-hold trap and had to gnaw a limb off to get free. It still hurts. I still care about her. When she got ovarian cancer, I wanted to come and care for her, but I knew it would have been a disaster. In many ways, she’s a wonderful person and a good match. But the ways in which she is not mean I can never be closer to her than arm’s length.

          (Preferred pronouns: she, her, etc.)

      3. ^I probably have a lot to share on this (my ex and I are excellent friends now, post-divorce-and-two-kids but it did take Some Time – we are at the 7-years-later point now) and will try and ping back here later.

      4. Seconding the comments above me: hard and fast boundaries around communication. I made it clear that I will only engage in discussion about the kids, never about our relationship. When the ex refused to accept that and would send ranty feelingstexts anyway, I cut him off from texting me and will only talk to him in person or on the phone. Some specific phrases I had to use during my burn-it-down phase (most of which came from CA):

        “There’s nothing to discuss. We don’t have a relationship.”
        “Your emotional maintenance isn’t my responsibility.” (in response to “but my therapist reads our texts and we talk about them!” Seriously.)
        “If we didn’t have kids, I would have cut off ALL contact with you months ago.” (this one sucked, but I think it’s what finally got the point across).

        Everything else Dana wrote is on point. You still need to give yourself the space to mourn the relationship in private and to fuck around a little bit (thank you, non-custody weekends!) before you’ll be ready to Do the Damn Thing and move on.

      5. The thing with kids is that you may not have much opportunity to wallow, to fuck around, or to do a *new* damn thing. You might have the advantages, though, of still being in close and regular, physical and emotional contact with people you love who need and love you, of routine and its comforts, and of huge motivation to keep your head on straight and your feet beneath you. Life with kids may make it hard to forget to eat, sleep, and play so it can be good for self-care (as well as taxing) but the best advice I could give a parent experiencing a break up is to eat, sleep, keep fun and creativity in your life, find some time alone, and let it all process slowly through you while you take care of the business of being a parent. Plus minimal, business-like interactions with ex in your favorite, least disturbing medium, if possible.

  3. Thank you Captain Awkward for posting this! I feel like it’s an answer to the email I sent recently.

  4. Omg, that description with the fire resonates with me SO HARD. And can I just say, it’s 100% true of breakups, but it’s also true of other major life changes, frex: dropping out of grad school felt like that for me. I just set my life and myself completely aflame and was no good to anyone for _months_ and needed to wallow and fuck around for a while before finally starting to do the thing.

    1. This is a brilliant insight. Abandoning my tenure appeal and giving up on academia felt like a breakup, for me too. Only, with the breakup, my Team Me was full of reassurance that I didn’t have to be friends with them or be part of their same social circles and it was okay to stand up for myself in the property division rather than be a “good sport”, and it was normal that I would take a while to figure out what my dating life should look like next. But when I left the university, I felt pressure to find another teaching-related job quickly, to keep socializing with some people in that department, to clear out my office fast, and to hand over all the course materials I’d developed to the people who would be replacing me. I didn’t end up doing any of those things, but it was harder to find a Team Me to tell me it was okay to not.

      1. That’s really tough. Honestly, sometimes academia feels like a cult; it’s not just your job, it fills every aspect of your life, down to how you think about things. it’s weirdly so much harder to leave than, say, nursing or something, even though nurses also need four year degrees and spend a lot of time with coworkers.

        I’m glad you successfully broke up with your career though. Just like Dana says, it’s a good decision in the long run.

  5. This is extremely timely and a great article. My husband and I have just separated after 20 years of being together and I think we’ve managed to be in the 10% of the population who are still friends and supportive of one another. However, that doesn’t mean that things aren’t on fire and that any of this is easy. I think I’ve reached the point she refers to as ‘growth’ where the new things can grow out of the ashes. On one hand? It’s great. We needed to break up and I can see each and every reason why we needed to break up and the sense of relief is incredible. On the other hand? This really, really effing hurts and is incredibly sad. And I don’t see any reason for it not to be. A part of my life has just been set on fire and I have to wait for it to burn itself out before I can do anything else.

    (Apologies for the feelings-dump, I’m just still reeling through ALL the feelings!)

    1. Yeah, I and most of my exes have been in that 10% of the population (even those I’m not still close to ended on good enough terms that if we bumped into each other on the street we’d happily grab coffee and catch up).

      You’re so right, just because you still care and want to be friends doesn’t mean your life isn’t on fire. Kindness helps. You’re both burning, but if you can manage to be kind first and foremost to yourself and then to your ex partner and anyone else caught up in it, it’s easier to get out without scarring.

    2. As someone who has been through that (and with kids), and has a lovely and wonderful friendship with said exhusband: it does get easier, and also, some space can be really helpful (I don’t know where in this process you are, but it was vital in the beginning for us). He is one of my best friends, very much on Team Me, and I am so thankful for everything that our marriage, and our divorce, brought me, but…it took quite some time to settle into this enjoyable place.

      1. While my Significant Ex and I were not married and did not have kids, we were together for what was a considerable time at that time in our lives (5.5 years together, broke up at 24). We have managed to remain close enough friends that we speak every day and I often go up to visit him in his new city. Time and space were absolutely vital for us, as was the acknowledgement on both sides that we’d had something intensely emotional that would take time to recover from. We hadn’t intended on remaining friends at all, actually, but he had a family tragedy and needed somebody who understood to be there for him. It’s emotional work I wouldn’t have done for many people, but we put things aside and fumbled our way towards a functional, healthy, happy friendship (that I’d trade away in a heartbeat if it meant the tragedy had never happened).

        It’s a hard road and not for everybody, but in the rare times it works, it can also be a very pleasant thing. I hope that anybody aiming for it is able to reach it.

    3. This is beautiful. I keep a notebook of wise Captain Awkward comments and this is totally going in there.

  6. Last time I Did A Wallowing I literally couldn’t sleep in my own bed for weeks. The only way I could sleep was on my sofa, bundled up in a sleeping bag, watching endless Netflix till I passed out. Got almost all the way through 9 seasons of Scrubs before a friend intervened and reminded me that I don’t like Scrubs, I never liked Scrubs all that much and if I was going to be wallowing on the sofa feeling utterly miserable then I should at least start watching Brooklyn Nine-Nine.

    There’s not really a happy ending to that one where I watched a few episodes of B99 and then suddenly realised my life was pretty darn good, ex or no ex. But B99 and Captain Picard got me through and y’know? It sucked. It really really sucked. And it’s a fair-while later now and it took a hell of a long time but I’m finally properly-grokking that I’m whole just as I am and that instead of looking for love to complete me I’m a lot happier with a really-interesting-job and hobbies that make me happy and the raddest Team Me on the planet and nope, that didn’t make SomeoneAmazing show up right on cue like they do in the books-and-movies. But although I feel lonely sometimes I don’t feel desperate for someone else to like me anymore. And that took going through a hell of a lot of shitty shitty relationships and breakups with people who were mostly-lovely but so-not-right for me. It sucked and it hurt and nothing can sugarcoat that but damn, is it better here.

    1. Dude, your line about “at least watch Brooklyn nine nine,” made me burst out laughing at my desk. Because, honestly, that is the best kind of friend intervention.

      Unfortunately, too many people in my friend group seem to underestimate the importance of wallowing phase and want to yank friends straight into “fuck around” after a few days. You can’t force the grieving process to speed up, tho.

  7. Dana is so wonderful, and always gives one a lot to think about. She’s like a concise Ask Polly.

    Pity about the Disqus Comment Death situation on the site, but you can’t have everything.

  8. I wish the end wasn’t so invested in the fantasy that everyone is desired and will eventually end up with someone else. For some of us, unlovability and the understanding that no one will love you romantically is a reality, not a fear. Sometimes there just is no happily ever after.

    Signed, a woman who has been on ~2.5x the number of dates this person thinks is notable in the past 3 years & is still single.

    1. I get where you’re coming from, but do you think the lack of guarantee that there is anyone else out there makes it worth staying in relationships aren’t working? If we removed the idea that hey, you found one person, you can probably find someone else eventually, wouldn’t we just reinforce the idea that Relationships Take Work And You’d Better Make This One Work Because It Might Be Your Last?

      1. As someone who has deliberately stopped dating (and not in the “if you stop looking they’ll appear” way), it would be nice if “being single can also be good and whole and fulfilling” was also mentioned. I spent so long buying into the idea that a romantic relationship is a necessary Adulting Life Step that it wasn’t until recently that I realized I don’t actually want it especially.

      2. I don’t really have an answer to that, honestly. I think people need to be able to accurately assess their situations without the romantic fantasy of “a better thing is right around the corner” because often it’s not. People with less romantic currency need to weigh their current partnership against the potential of decades of romantic solitude because *that* is what we’re likely to face. If you’re facing “I went on only 71 first dates and then a really nice person showed up and wanted to be my partner”, that’s nice and I’m a little jealous! But for some of us, it’s less likely than “I went on hundreds of first dates and was repeatedly treated like garbage, discarded, and disregarded as a potential romantic partner, thereby destroying my self-esteem and requiring heroic amounts of effort to keep my self-worth at stable levels” — and staying in a just-mediocre relationship might or might not be preferable to that, uncomfortable as that may be to hear. But without being able to talk about it (or *think* about it) honestly, you cannot make a decent risk/benefit assessment and you can’t make healthy decisions. That’s why I push back on the fantasy.

        1. Thanks for this – really. I think it’s super necessary for women to hear and it’s not said nearly often enough.

          I recently got in an online argument on a forum that gears heavily toward feminism/gender equality. Basically, one person was asking “is this really how it is? Should I leave?” in the context of her relationship where she did a lot of the emotional and practical domestic labor.

          My response to her was that everyone was different, but that my own anecdotal experience AND the anecdotal experience of literally all the women I had discussed day-to-day living with was, unfortunately, yes. That really is how it is. Women still do all that work; that’s normal. Not good, obviously, but normal, and it was likely that in any subsequent relationship she would end up doing it all anyways, so she ought to think about the other aspects of the relationship before leaving.

          The argument stemmed from the assurances from others on the forum that men who were willing to be totally equal in a relationship were everywhere, that I hadn’t looked hard enough, and that I could easily leave my current partner and find a man who would pull his weight, and that I was more-or-less failing at being a feminist by accepting the current relationship situation I was in. Along with a heavy implication of, “oh you poor thing, you just don’t know better.”

          I spent a lot of my 20’s searching for this partner that I had HEARD of but never SEEN: the man who would do his fair share of the labor. And, honestly, he did not exist for me. Maybe because of culture, maybe because of geography, maybe because I’m just not that “valuable” of a partner and therefore can’t attract that kind of man. And so I am in a relationship where I still get plenty of benefits, but where I also have to do all the emotional/domestic labor.

          Maybe those women had plenty of romantic currency, and plenty of opportunities to meet such men, but I don’t. They simply could not believe that it wasn’t easy for me to go out, find lots of dates, screen those dates for my desired qualities, and then begin a relationship with someone who had all of those qualities. They could not understand that, for me, there is no grass is greener. This is as green as it gets. It’s either this, or being alone. I know. I’ve tried. I’m not going to pretend it isn’t my truth. If I don’t admit it, then I can’t – as you say – do a realistic and honest risk/benefit assessment.

          (Mind you, I don’t want this to seem like I don’t genuinely love my current partner and want to be here. If I didn’t want to be here, I would not stay. My point is, I’m not going looking for something better based on a fantasy that doesn’t exist for me.)

          1. I think a lot about my mom in discussions like this. She is definitely the person doing the emotional and domestic labor in my parents’ marriage. (Caveat: so far as I know, my parents are happy in their marriage. I just think about it a lot because I sort of worry I’m doomed to repeat their relationship, and I’d rather not.)

            My mom is totally financially dependent on my dad and always has been. Her earning potential is probably 25% of my dad’s at maximum — and very possibly less than that. Her quality of life would take a huge dip if their marriage ended. I don’t want to be flip about this, because I would like to move toward a world where people aren’t pressured to be coupled up, but: I’m not sure that every woman is willing to risk financial stability/safety for the possibility — and it is only a possibility! — of a more fulfilling relationship, especially if their current relationship is basically okay. Right now, my mom has a lot of financial and scheduling freedom because of her marriage to my dad. If she wants to buy an antique quilt, or drive across the state to spend four days with my grandma, she can pretty much do those things. The price that this stuff comes at is letting my dad feel like he’s always the smartest person in the house and taking care of house stuff. (To give my dad his due, he does do some house stuff.)

            It sounds like I’m arguing for people to have lower standards for their partners, but, ugh, I guess I’m just trying to process this kind of relationship that I see all over my family. I feel like for my mom this is the arrangement that allows her to get fulfillment from the most parts of her life — maybe she could find a relationship with someone who was more sensitive than my dad, but if that relationship meant she didn’t have enough money to see her family often or have enough time to read for a few hours every day, I don’t know that she’d be any happier.

            I’ve met het couples with fair distributions of labor, but they are . . . generally speaking, not from the same culture milieu that I am. (To be more specific: these couples are usually northern Europeans, and I’m from the Midwestern U.S.) I do not have a wide coupley acquaintance, however.

            I mean: personally, I think I would prefer being single to making the specific compromises my mom has made. But I’m not going to lie: I find the prospect of a single-creative-income lifestyle for the rest of my days pretty grim.

          2. I’ve been married nearly ten years. I’d call us fairly happy, and committed to seeing each other through the various crappy things of life. My husband is a feminist. He does a lot around the house. But even with all that… The Running of the Household is still my job. And it can be totally exhausting to put in work to try to change that.

          3. “the assurances from others on the forum that men who were willing to be totally equal in a relationship were everywhere”

            This stood out to me, because honestly, even if you are a lady who is into dudes and you meet a dude who is totally into you and totally willing to be equal, in general we’re still socialized in ways that make that equality take a pretty fair amount of work.

            My husband was raised pretty non-traditionally so he was really open to non-traditional roles in our relationship, plus, in our situation, it makes sense for me to be the primary earner while he’s the primary caretaker, but it still takes work to get past some of the things we’ve been socialized to “automatically” take on, and to figure out what “equal” really looks like for us.

            And I also think it’s important, especially for women (who are socialized to believe romantic love / desirability is the end-all, be-all), to talk about ending a relationship strictly thinking about “would I be better off alone than with this person?” There are so many things that go into a relationship, and everyone has different deal-breakers, so I think it’s better to do that comparison / calculation based on what I currently have and would go without, vs. what I might someday hopefully find.

          4. Thank you for putting into words something I have been thinking through for several months! Growing up, my parents’ relationship was (and continues to be) very gendered. They are very happy with this arrangement but as a kid I wanted something completely different. I decided that my future partner and I would split things 50/50 in the house no matter what. My husband grew up in a house that was much more equitable in terms of household tasks and actually flipped gender roles when his father had an accident and stopped working. I thought I had hit the jackpot!

            Then we moved in together and I realized that this wasn’t the case. Due to my upbringing I have a specific skill set for household tasks and no ability to do the “guy things” (such as anything aside from driving my car to the mechanic). I am highly organized and always “put things away not down” while H is a master procrastinator who often does not notice when things are cluttered/messy/have been lying around for ages. We have been living together for 4 years and I still have to remind him to do “his” chores the majority of the time. He will always do what I ask him to do but will often not think of it first. This includes making dinner together – we have very different work schedules and usually make our own food, and I’m almost always the one that has the idea to cook/get take out together. It’s super annoying sometimes (and during this time I do call him out on it) but this a very small thing in the grand scheme of our relationship. I know that it’s something that we will probably always have to work on and be mindful of.

            It makes me feel like a “bad feminist” or a sellout! But honestly, there is only so much I can do to undo my own upbringing and culture. I liked the quote below “It’s hard not to drink the Koolaid when you’re swimming in it.”

            TL;DR Thanks this totally resonates with me and I agree!

        2. This is the first time I’ve heard the phrase “romantic currency.” I did a quick Google, but could you please educate me on what that refers to in your context?

          1. the closer you are to the feminine “ideal” (thin, white, cis, het, young, not a sex worker, not mentally ill or physically disabled, HIV-, middle class or wealthy, etc) the more you have and the fewer sacrifices you have to make, because you have more (and more desirable) romantic options open to you. we don’t all have the same options open to us and i think that’s important to keep in mind. furthermore, the process of looking for a partner in and of itself is more toxic and violent the less romantic currency you have — meaning that even if you believe that there is someone eventually out there for you, just finding them is a more hellish experience than it might be for someone else.

          2. @ coffee in the morning – another HUGE thing that I see not always being taken into account is whether people are rural or urban (this is also mentioned by Grannarchy in her comment below.) Women in rural areas just . . . have fewer options. Obviously if you’re willing to move, more options open up, but there are many people who either can’t or don’t want to.

          3. Perversely, my Dependent Personality Disorder ensured that I have never been single for more than 6 months since age 17. I never lacked for company because a lot of people like childlike women. I must be the only person out there whose dating life was enhanced by a mental illness…

        3. I think I see what you’re saying and partly agree. Sometimes things that are said after a breakup feel like platitudes that are obviously not always true “You’ll find someone else who is so much better” is demonstrably not true for everyone – not everybody does find that perfect person in life. It’s like when people say “Things will work out” about a tough situation. Well….I can think of several examples of people where things did *not* work out so just saying it like it’s a given is something I can’t believe. Like, when I was really struggling with employment if I had an interview everyone would say “oh, you’ve got this in a bag!” and then I’d feel like even more of a failure when I didn’t get the job. The overconfident statements never made me feel better, because…why do I have it in the bag? There are dozens/hundreds of people applying. Only one person gets it.

          And it’s hard to get practical advice about it, because people are horrified or think you have terrible self esteem by considering the possibility things won’t just “work out”.

          1. ” Like, when I was really struggling with employment if I had an interview everyone would say “oh, you’ve got this in a bag!” and then I’d feel like even more of a failure when I didn’t get the job. The overconfident statements never made me feel better, because…why do I have it in the bag? There are dozens/hundreds of people applying. Only one person gets it. ”

            yeah, encouragement that is just empty bloviating cheer-leading is more like a kick in the teeth when it turns out that you are not the most wonderfulest, most specialist snowflake in the available snowstorm of candidates.

          2. This really hit home for me the day my beloved horse died. I spent most of the day with her and several vets in a very central location of the very busy property, where everyone knew us. As the day wore on and it became increasingly clear that there was nothing we could do, the number of people walking by and saying things like “Cheer up! It can’t be that bad!” And ” don’t worry, she’ll be okay” seemed to multiply until I finally snapped and yelled at someone at top volume: “NO, IT WILL NOT BE OKAY, SHE IS GOING TO DIE.”

            People were trying to be helpful and comforting in a distressing situation, but these comments made it much, much harder. I vowed to never be that person and I am doing my best. I think the problem is that we want to comfort people, but sometimes there is no comfort. Sometimes things just suck. I wish our culture were more willing to acknowledge that.

          3. I loath platitudes with the fire of a thousand burning nuns. My hyper-logical aspie brain can’t cope with “It’ll be fine!” because, really? Can you prove that? Have you evidence? Then what’s the point of saying it? Why are you lying to me? My friends know to go to other people for emotional support, and then come to me for Practical Solutions.

            When it happened to me, my best friend was the one who said “…well, that’s a pile of shite. I’ll put the kettle on.”

          4. @Buni
            “I loath platitudes with the fire of a thousand burning nuns.”
            I just wanted to say that this typo made me snort and then cringe and feel guilty about my tar-black sense of humour. I guess there’s no platitude able to ever make some things, like burning nuns, okay.

      3. Unfortunate truth on both sides. Unfortunate because there are so many negative views of singleness and single people that are overtly and covertly endorsed by the culture. It’s not difficult to rationally know that you are a whole person of value when not in a romantic relationship, but truly feeling it is elusive. To put it another way, it’s really hard to not drink the Kool-Aid when you constantly have to swim in it.

        I wish we could do more to promote the idea that it is far better to be alone, happy or unhappy on one’s own terms, than to be miserable in a bad relationship with wrong person.

      4. Another thing is, you can work on the relationship you have with all you’ve got, despite recognizing in your clearer moments that you have no idea if you will find a way to be happy, and have your beloved leave you. You can’t work at a relationship that the other person has opted out of– it isn’t a relationship anymore.

        So even if you are a person who is by proclivity prone to seeing difficulties as a rough patch to be worked through, it is still important to make a plan for surviving a breakup and eventually building a life that doesn’t include your beloved.

        I didn’t want to have an exit strategy ahead of time, because it felt like not being all-in in a way that was important to me, and the consequences were pretty bad. It is 1.5 years on, and I’m not food- or housing-insecure anymore, but I’m still in flames emotionally, despite a lot of work on my own and in therapy. It is the hardest, when some part of me believed that I could stave off a breakup if I could just get rid of my pesky preferences and be ok with the relationship terms the other person wanted. It is hard to rebuild myself, when I spent so long being convinced that we had relationship problems because I hadn’t yet sufficiently eradicated my self.

        It stank to learn that part of why I was so devastated to lose Ex from Team Me was that I’d stopped being on Team Me long ago. If I date again, it will only be after I’ve figured out how not to do that.

      5. Seconding the idea that more focus needs to be on the idea that being single isn’t a terrible thing! What if looked at it as “being single is preferable to being in a relationship that isn’t working” with one of the reasons why being single may be better is that it opens you up to the possibility of finding a relationship that does work?

        1. Or not. people tend to look at singledom as the “friend zone” of statuses–like a consolation prize, instead of a worthy goal all on its own. I struggle mightily with this myself, but I’m trying to look at it as a desirable state in and of itself, with good and bad points like any other status, rather than a placeholder until something better comes along.

          1. I’m a huge proponent of the idea that a good single life is hard to beat – I get to do what I want, when I want, go where I want, and come home to the place that I want. I have a roommate right now and it’s a lovely situation, but if I didn’t have her, I’d have a cat and books and lazy coffee mornings just the same. I get time to do things that matter deeply to me without accounting for that time to anybody or justifying why I would rather do that than something else. My whole life is mine and it’s incredibly freeing. I try to explain to my friends how relaxing it is and how deeply satisfying it is, and some of them get it, but some of them don’t. It’s really, truly a great thing if you tell yourself to make it one – but you’re right, we don’t have a lot of narratives people can look at to see it that way.

        2. I think that works, or at least it works for me. I don’t think the idea of the potential for a new relationship needs to be taken out of the discussion entirely. It’s a strong pull for many people, and something many of them will eventually find. Setting it up as one of a set of possibilities, but not the only hopeful one, seems like a good balance.

      6. “If we removed the idea that hey, you found one person, you can probably find someone else eventually, wouldn’t we just reinforce the idea that Relationships Take Work And You’d Better Make This One Work Because It Might Be Your Last?”

        Hmm. I don’t know how broadly applicable this is, but here’s what mentalities and actions have helped me. (Me, in this case, being a somewhat disabled lesbian on the asexuality spectrum, in a city where I barely know any other wlw people, but feel stupid moving just because I might meet someone who’s a wonderful partner…somewhere….at some point…)

        1. Really focus on the kinds of love in my life, even if they aren’t romantic. Focusing doesn’t just mean, like, mentally envisioning the friends and family who love me. It involves naming the things they do that bring me joy, the aspects of them that I like, and investing in energizing those relationships. How can I show love to my friends and family? How can I encourage them, entertain them, or help them out.

        2. Understand that romantic desire is not bad, but also that, contrary to hippie-psuedo-Buddhism, not all desire that goes unfulfilled leads to suffering. I don’t need to curb my desire for a romantic relationship; in fact, I can do a bit of what Dana suggests, in a small way, if I’m feeling especially romantically unloved: let myself grieve for a dream that, regardless of whether or not I eventually get it in the future, seems wholly unattainable now. It might seem weird to grieve / wallow for something that never existed, but I maintain that it is still healthy. You can still blow off a few days and watch Netflix or whatever before moving onto metaphorical fucking around and moving on.

        So, mm, in that sense, Dana’s advice still works even without holding out hope that, eventually, you’ll find Mr. Right / Woman Of Your Dreams / the Cunning Pliable Chestnut-Haired Sunfish of Your Heart.

        And finally 3. Make my single life as enjoyable / empowering as possible.

        So, basically, take the mentality that, “my [potential, future] girlfriend’s job isn’t to take my sorry, lonely life and make it good. Any potential girlfriend has to be someone who makes my pretty rad and enjoyable life that much better.”

        This is easiest when you’ve been single long enough that you can arrange your life and routine as close to what you want as possible. It’s a lot harder to imagine what this might be when you’re in the middle of a not-abusive-but-not-great relationship already. “This sucks, but how could it possibly be better to be alone?” is a hard question to answer until you’ve done it.

        So, tl;dr, I don’t think the notion that “you could potentially find someone even better” needs to be removed entirely. But, if people find it validating to focus more on “your life as a single person will eventually, definitely be better than the life you have now; it will be filled with non-romantic love, places and company that bring you joy, and time and space to make art. You will still feel lonely, or even need to grieve, from time to time, and that’s normal. But in your relationship now, you feel lonely too, because your partner doesn’t respect you [or whatever the DTMFA issue is].”

        1. After reading the rest, I want to add: think about relationships like they are Dar Williams songs.

          Is your relationship like “As Cool As I Am”? Get out, girl. Likewise if it’s like the first half of “The Pointless, Yet Poignant, Crises of a Co-ed.”

          But if it’s more like the second half of Poignant (“I am older now, I know the rise and gradual fall of a daily victory”), or if it’s like “In Love, But Not At Peace”, then…you are probably going to be okay. Only you can decide that for sure.

          1. “…and my ex-boyfriend can’t tell me I’ve sold out /
            Because he’s in a cult
            And he’s not allowed to talk to me.”

            … sometimes that would be so *convenient*!

      7. It might be your last, though. It’s possible you won’t find another partner, or that you will and your new relationship will have either similar or different problems and will also end. It’s not comforting, but it is what’s true, and I don’t think lying to people about things that are so easily disproved by observation works. I think most of us know people who might like to find people to be in relationships with but who haven’t for various reasons. Women, who are less valued as romantic partners and just in general by society, are especially likely to have seen some of these effects firsthand, particularly women who are told that they are less valuable for other reasons as well.

        There are still reasons to end unhappy relationships even if no better partner is promised. Being by yourself, or surrounded by people who love you in ways that aren’t sexual or romantic, is far better than being with someone who makes you unhappy. There’s loss, but there’s life after loss. Talking about that isn’t as immediately reassuring as promising a new partner, but I think it’s more likely to stick in the long run, especially through those phases when it feels like a new partner just isn’t coming along.

      8. I think the duality here is itself a misconception. It frames things as either ‘I have to tolerate this because nothing better will come along’, or ‘Something better is out there and I will find it someday’. In reality, there’s a third option: People don’t have to be in long-term committed romantic partnerships to have full, happy, fulfilling lives. It’s our cultural norm, sure, but that doesn’t make it the only option!!

        For example, my aunt divorced her abusive ex-husband probably close to 20 years ago. She never married or seriously dated since then. She’s not isolated or lonely or otherwise struggling, though; she’s got enough money to manage for herself, she’s got some seriously awesome friends, she’s near family, she lives with a menagerie of animals, she’s got tons of hobbies…overall she leads a really happy life. I think many of us know a woman or two with a story like that–they find themselves single (for whatever reason–death, a breakup/divorce, just never finding a partner in the first place) long after the ‘normal’ partnering-up age, and don’t suffer at all for it.

        Un-partnered-ness is so often presented to women as misery, isolation, or suffering, so that partnering up looks like our only option for long-term happiness. But life just doesn’t work that way–sometimes a partnership is harmful, and being single isn’t inherently isolating or miserable. I would love to see intentional singleness presented more often as a legitimate, viable option for women.

        1. I’d like to point out, also, that unpartnered-ness can be part of a happy and fulfilling life even if unpartnered-ness is not intentional or preferable to a person. I’ve been reading “It’s Not You: 27 (Wrong) Reasons You’re Still Single,” which critiques a lot of the things single people hear from their partnered friends and family members. I found it heartening to be reminded that everyone is lonely sometimes, and that missing having a partner doesn’t change the fact that, on balance, my life is actually pretty good: My housemates are delightful. I don’t have a pet, but I have access to multiple pets. I have satisfying paid work (though I’d like more!) and independent projects that I care about. There are multiple sources of community in my life. At least for the moment I have meaningful access to health care. Therapist is awesome. I have a sense of purpose.

          I feel scorching sadness about my last breakup, and yearning for my ex, and unease at not having a “default person” who’s the first one to hear my news (good or bad). But I don’t feel those things all the time. And those feelings don’t negate the good things in my life.

      9. I think this is a false dichotomy really. ‘There’s a new one just around the corner’ and ‘Better make this work even though it’s not working for me’ aren’t the only options out there!

        To me, the lack of guarantee that there is anyone out there means that I need to start figuring out how to build my life in such a way that I have what I need regardless of whether a partner shows up. I need to be able to support myself financially. I need to have a wide enough network of close friends and family that I can get support when I need it (even when some of them may be in the middle of their own nonsense and unable to help at that moment). I need to have fulfilling things to do with my time so being alone feels like freedom to do those things, rather than boredom. I need a local community so I don’t feel isolated or lonely. I need to have at least basic skills in running daily life–cooking, cleaning, general handiness around the house, that kind of thing. Basically, I need to have my single life be good enough that it’s better to be single than to be in a relationship that isn’t working.

        If I do find a partner, those will all still be useful things for me to have. After all, even the best possible partner isn’t going to meet my every need (that’s not a reasonable expectation to have of anyone), and they’ll have times where they’re not available for much of anything (sickness, a really intense period at work, whatever); me being able to handle life without them will give flexibility and security no matter what life throws our way. And if I don’t find a partner, those skills mean that I’ll hopefully be able to take care of myself and have a good and fulfilling life regardless. In short, they’re a ticket out of the either/or system above.

      10. I think it’s worth deconstructing both ideas at once: a) contrary to the platitude, it’s possible you WON’T find someone again and b) that doesn’t mean you should keep bending and breaking and shrinking yourself to fit into a relationship that’s not working. Other people have touched on this below but I think it’s so important and I want to highlight that you really can’t weigh your happiness today against some hypothetical perfect relationship that may never come along. It’s too abstract and not something you can control. It’s far better to weigh your happiness in this relationship against the possible happiness you could find when you’re single. Weigh the benefits of being with someone against the freedom of getting to do everything your own way.

        I’m pretty sure I learned this way of looking at things from this website, so I can’t imagine you’d disagree with that.

        I really just think it’s more effective to kill the idea that being single is the worst thing that can happen to you, or that it should only be a temporary state while you’re waiting for your real life (your partnered life) to begin, than to try to convince people that there’s definitely someone better out there. For what it’s worth, I believe down to my soul that there are thousands upon thousands of people in the world who, under the right circumstances, could be the perfect match for any given individual. I have met quite a few of the ones who could have been it for me, maybe even dated more than one of them, and now I’m happily married to someone who makes my life better in every single way. But looking at it this way helped me a lot when I was single, even when I wished I wasn’t. I tried really hard to make my single life the best that it could be, and I was really, really happy, and I felt complete, and that made it so much easier to walk away from relationships that weren’t right, and it made it so much easier to figure out that I really do want to be with my spouse. If I was only thinking about a hypothetical future relationship, I could easily have married the wrong person (and oh, they would have been good for me in some ways but I was shrinking myself to fit what I thought they wanted me to be because I was afraid I’d lose them if I didn’t, and one day I woke up and thought, “so what if I do?”). If I was only thinking about a hypothetical future relationship, maybe I wouldn’t have married the right person because I was afraid of a hypothetical future I might miss out on (and of course, there would be other chances for me to find the right person, another right person, and never finding them would be ok too, but as it is I wake up every day and count the ways I love my spouse, count my blessings to have found them).

        At the end of the day, I think the only question that really matters is, “does being with this person make me happier than not being with them would?” The hard thing is getting objectivity on that when all you can think about is the miserable next few months where you’ve just burned your life down and you’re trying to wallow your way back into something that makes sense. But if you can get to the heart of that, and get past the idea that romantic love is the only kind that matters, that partnered bliss is the only real happiness…. At least for me, my life got a whole lot simpler.

    2. I see lovability as something a person is, regardless of whether a person is around to date them. Obviously, being loved is an experience that it’s natural to long for so I’m not gonna suggest that self esteem is going to take that ache away. But the concept of being unlovable at your core, at carrying that with you everywhere, that sounds like a heavy burden of self loathing.

      I hope you can connect to feelibg sure that you are lovable with all your imperfections. I hope that you do find the people/creatures/community that will affirm it. But you remain lovable until that day comes.

      1. I am very sure of my platonic and familial lovability and theoretically romantic lovability, but I’m not sure there’s a practical difference between “lovable in theory but not in practice” and “unlovable”. Thanks though.

      2. It seems to me there are 2 definitions of “unlovable”: 1.) Undeserving of love; and 2.) Statistically unlikely or incapable of eliciting love. The first definition does not describe me or anybody here, but the second one might.

        I’m in my mid 60s and I’ve been single and dateless for over 10 years. Between being & looking old, living in a small town, and flying the NEVER AGAIN WITH THE EVIL BEES flag after a lifetime of dreadful relationships, my dating pool has shrunk to a dating puddle, replete with mosquito larvae and oil slicks. Meanwhile most of the single men I know who are my age are dating, falling in love with, and marrying women 15-30 years younger, starting new families, never doubting for a second that they’re lovable. I’ve adjusted and am making the best of my singleness. I have a great job, love my kids and grandkids, have many dear friends, practice self care, stay active and engaged with life. I’m not miserable. But there is a lingering sadness about the statistical likelihood that I will never again be romantically loved.

        1. 2 sounds less like brainweasels talking.

          I’ve got a bit of an anxiety trigger re: widowhood (four women I know lost their husbands within the span of a year; two were my peers) but I’ve always just told myself that if it happened to me, I’d either just be happy-single or remarry one of the yet-unpaired guys I know. (Two friends in particular, I just don’t understand why they are single. That’s humanity, I guess.) But at the same time, I still try to set them up with people, with their permission, because they have their own lives, y’know, and I don’t want to feel like I’m bogarting them?

          Sorry. Brainweasel tangent.

      1. I’ve done that as much as I am able — in the past six years I’ve completely transformed my life from what my therapist describes as “a scared bunny into a leader” and have made enormous strides into treating my depression and liking myself better. Like coffee in the morning says though, knowing my lovability only gets me so far when there is zero practical evidence for my romantic lovability, and lots of evidence against it, and literally every person I know who is not a child has had experiences of loving relationships (even ones that ended! even ones bookended by long periods of unhappy singlehood! I still envy them) that I haven’t found. As more and more of the people I’ve found non-romantic love with make families and withdraw from me and/or our shared activities, find myself applying the Sheelzebub principle: how many years can I withstand these continuing losses and having to expend a significant amount of energy carrying the weight of this deeply-felt absence, while also aging and moving on in my career and having less time and energy to throw into the business of Doing the Awesome Stuff that saved me the first time around? If it’s more than the six incredibly painful and exhausting years I just went through, is it worth sticking around?

      2. When I’m missing the feel of skin against skin and great sex on a regular basis, that makes it very hard to be my own happily ever after. I’m surprised nobody mentioned this aspect. Platonic hugs from friends don’t fulfill this kind of longing.

        1. That’s a good point. I wonder if this whole issue (the calculus of what constitutes a dealbreaker) is variable based on the individual?

          Well…when I put it like that, I guess it’s obvious. But things like, if one person is content with masturbation but another can’t really make do that way, then the first person is not going to rank “does good sex” as highly in their own personal knapsack problem.

  9. This is very timely, thank you. (I got dumped last night, oh wait I’m sorry. We’re “on a break” while my ex is in therapy for their issues.)

        1. yeah it is kind of frustrating. even more so since I begged them to go to therapy months and months ago because it was clear that they were getting worse as time went on. they had the gall to say “What do you think?” when they brought it up as though I could say “no not happening” and we’d stay together. *eye roll*

      1. Thank you very much for that c: it’s gonna be a “wait and see how I feel a few months from now” kinda break since this was a Big Deal relationship (as in I moved across the country to be closer to my ex four months ago) and I just… don’t know how long the Wallow stage is going to take?

  10. Hi,

    Long time reader here. What’s inspired me to join and comment about your post was realising how this applies to my life. It was the perfect metaphor for a pattern of behaviour I have. I burn down my professional life on a semi-regular basis, when I feel that I no longer belong someplace and need to move on. I’ve worked hard for several years to build up skill and trust in a field I really wanted and somehow, there’s kindling all around and a can of gas in my hand…

    … Thanks. I needed the insight. I also need to go get myself some help.

    1. Fireman! I am heartened reading your insight – I’m genuinely excited – and in all my qualifications as a random internet commenter, I fully support you getting help, support and guidance in breaking through a pattern that doesn’t serve you.

      (I really benefited from the approach by Internal Family Systems – the website is The Center For Self Leadership – it’s great for examining seemingly disparate/conflicting actions, and they have tons of good free articles if you don’t have the means for a professional)

      1. Thank you most kindly. I’d no idea this even existed. Being riven by conflicting actions is definitely me to a t!

  11. When I ended my last long-term relationship (with an abusive partner) I did not mourn much. At all. I had gotten all the mourning done while in the relationship. I was just done. I am saying this because people expected me to be like this (mourning, wallowing, on fire, etc) but I just wasn’t. The exception proves the rule, maybe, sure, but really, truly, this was not me.

    1. Thanks for this. I feel like my timeline is an alternate version, as well. My marriage started turning sour/even more emotionally abusive during its last 3 years. That was almost 5 years ago, and I filed for divorce almost 2 years ago.

      So there was a lot of wallowing/burning/therapy/learning/personal challenge and growth in those last 3 years of the marriage (plus a cross-country move, plus a job change, plus spending much of that last year apart from each other). But the thing is – the divorce has not yet been finalized, so I’m still dealing his crap treatment of me, and haven’t yet been able to fully close the door and mourn to the full extent… and I keep on being given more things to mourn, the more he goes through this process in a terrible way.

      However, the 12 months after I communicated my intention for a divorce looked a bit like this:
      – months 1-7: fuck around some days, wallow others
      – months 8-11: mostly wallowing, some Doing The Thing in non-romantic-partner ways, stop trying to fuck
      – month 12: meet a person with the intention of fucking, wind up developing FEELINGS and the healthiest communication and relationship pattern I’ve ever experienced. We’ve now been dating for almost a year. In some ways I don’t understand this – I thought I’d be single for longer. But I also can’t deny how much joy he brings to my life.

      I often think about my heart — how is it possible to mourn and put up with ongoing bullshit while nurturing and celebrating a new something that is so wonderful and heart-filling and healthy? Am I still on fire and should I not be touching this new person?

      When that gets overwhelming, I remind new person “hey, I’m on fire and this is scary” and his response is “I know, I’m proud of you and I think you’re doing great, and I’m here for you in any way you need – even if that means less of me while you sort this out.”

      So I keep checking in with myself, and with my therapist, and make sure that I’m taking the time and space I need to still wallow and mourn and let the flames burn. And then I Do The Things that are bringing me new joy and happiness. And repeat. So far, so good, I guess? I’m exhausted and exhilarated in equal measure, it seems.

      1. Thank you too! Good to know I am not the only one. I did also (re)start dating someone within 3 months . . . . and it was tough to wait that long. We are still happily dating 3 years later. So there.

        Also, I am so sorry that your divorce is not yet finalized. I hope that happens already!! Mine took a little over a year after I left and it felt like forever.

  12. Speaking as a widow, this x10 anywhere to x100. The breakup is permanent. It’s not like simply breaking up or divorce; the other person still lives. For those who are widowed, the person does not exist anymore. It is the most permanent breakup there could possibly be. It’s been a hair over a year since my husband died. I did years and years of anticipatory grieving, but nothing prepares you for their simply being gone, never to return. I wallowed a bit when he was still alive, bawled when he was still alive, and am now moving on.

    Surprisingly, I did very little wallowing or bawling after he was gone; I had gotten all of it out of my system before he died, and in my usual INTJ way, realized that once he was gone, my sorrow about him would be, too, since my sorrow was related to his incapacity/inability to take care of himself that had finally manifested in cancer, after years and years of decline.

    This weekend for the first time, my best friend has a play-date with a much-loved child, and I’m on my own. I can now structure my own weekends on my own. Every little step. Thank you for this article, and for all of you Awkwardeers for being so kind.

  13. “Some people may be well-versed in the art of breaking up with a long-term partner and still staying friends, but I think only 10% of the population can pull that shit off. The rest of us light a match, throw it, and run.”

    I’m glad to hear that. So often people talk about how to be friends with exes, and so rarely do I see them talking about exes they’ve long since cut off and try to not think about. (Um, because they’re trying to not think about them. Of course they’re not talking about the exes.)

    Among other things, I kind of feel like the whole “if everyone you [date] is an asshole, the common element is you” thing applies, because I have cut off contact with all exes and want nothing to do with them. …on the other hand, another common element is also that I dated anyone who asked me, and I was the shy and desperately chill mirror who had no self esteem and was a prime target for people who wanted somebody to control.

  14. One way to interpret that “common element” idea is “if all your exes are assholes, figure out how to find better people to date.” In your case, it sounds like that might mean working on how to say no to the assholes.

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