“How to Build a Life” is a column by Arthur Brooks, tackling questions of meaning and happiness. Click here to listen to his podcast series on all things happiness, How to Build a Happy Life.
Literature is full of brutally jilted lovers and cruelly broken hearts, whether Anna Karenina’s or Heathcliff’s in Wuthering Heights. But for my money, the most extreme case is Miss Havisham in Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations. In the classic novel, she never gets over the pain of being abandoned at the altar on her wedding day, decades before. Shut away in her dark house, Miss Havisham is described as a cross between a skeleton and a wax statue, frozen in a state of traumatic rejection.
As cartoonish as these characters are, they can seem achingly realistic to readers in the midst of the terrible heartbreak that can come when a romance ends. Miss Havisham’s fate seems plausible: You will never again see love as anything more than an exercise in futility. Little by little, of course, most people do get over a breakup, move on, and, eventually, love someone else. In those early days and months, however, the pain can feel like it will never end.
There is no magical remedy for a bad breakup, but that doesn’t mean you have to just suffer and read Victorian novels while you wait to feel better. There’s actually a lot you can do to speed the healing process, learn from the experience, and find new love (and, ideally, not make the same mistake again).
Breaking up is part of an ordinary life. Although the data are limited and results vary widely, some U.K. research estimates that people average roughly two serious relationships before settling into one that is considered permanent. In 2013, the average number of times Americans said their heart had been broken was five.
If your breakups have been awful, that’s normal. According to a 2018 poll from YouGov, 58 percent of American adults say breakups tend to be “dramatic/messy.” Only 25 percent said they tend to be “casual/civil.” No wonder people try to avoid them: Scholars who recently surveyed adults ages 18 to 29 found that about half said it was either moderately or exactly true that “I sometimes stay in a relationship longer than I should because I don’t know how to end it.”
Breakups, at least for the breakee, are literally painful. Modern neuroscience has found repeatedly that social pain—of which abandonment is an especially acute example—can stimulate many of the same brain regions as physical pain, notably the anterior insula and the anterior cingulate cortex. When you are in great pain, it can be hard to comprehend that you’ll ever feel better. Indeed, people experiencing depression often say that they forget what “normal” feels like.
But the pain does diminish. Psychologists writing in 2007 in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology found that when a romantic relationship dissolves, the average person rates her stress at a bit more than three on a one-to-seven scale of severity. Each week, that number falls, on average, by about 0.07. Think of it this way: If your grief is a solid 3.5 after a breakup, assuming you follow the average pattern, you can expect to feel better each week and only about half as bad after six months—a longer time than you perhaps want or expect, but not a permanent state of affairs.
Especially after a long relationship, a breakup can make you feel like you’ll never find love again. You most likely will, though, and maybe sooner than you think. One 2013 study published in the science journal PLOS One found that the length of the dissolved relationship is positively correlated with the proclivity of the newly single to rebound into a new relationship. Whether your specific rebound relationship is a good thing is something you have to decide, but the data suggest that you will be able to open your heart again.
Knowing your emotional wounds will heal with time doesn’t necessarily make sitting through the pain any easier in the early aftermath of an ugly split. There are a few things you can do to hasten the process of feeling better, however.
1. Think about what a jerk your ex is.
In one of the most novel experiments I have seen in the past few years, researchers at the University of Missouri recruited people upset after a breakup to try different techniques to reduce their feelings of love toward their ex and lighten their unpleasant mood. The researchers measured the effectiveness of each approach by showing the participants photos of their ex-partner while observing their brain activity on an electroencephalogram and asking them how they felt.
When participants were instructed to think about what they truly disliked about the person they loved—for example, by focusing on questions such as “What is an annoying habit of your ex?”—their feelings of love fell by a whopping 18 percent. It didn’t come without a cost, though: It also temporarily lowered the overall pleasantness of mood by 17 percent. You have to decide whether reduced heartbreak outweighs the unpleasant memory of your ex’s bad habit. If it doesn’t, move on to technique No. 2.
2. Go have fun.
Another strategy tested in the paper above was distraction. The participants were instructed to think about positive things in their lives, such as their favorite food. This was also effective, but in a different way: Although love feelings for the ex did not decrease, mood improved by 8 percent on average. So if your principal problem after a breakup is fixating on how much you love your ex, meditate on him picking his nose. But if your problem is that you’re feeling depressed, do something fun and enjoyable to occupy your mind. Read a good book, maybe, or go for a hike (perhaps not where you and your ex liked to go).
3. Put on some sad music.
Psychologists over the years have repeatedly remarked on what seems like counterproductive behavior when people feel sad: listening to sad songs. After a breakup, you should listen to “Happy,” not “I Will Always Love You,” right?
Actually, sad music can benefit a broken heart. Writing in the journal The Arts in Psychotherapy in 2016, a psychologist reviewed the available studies and found that people seek out sad music in order to help themselves understand and find meaning in their emotions. Breakup songs can help you feel less alone in your suffering and less unique in your misfortune. And sitting with your bad feelings (rather than pushing them away) is important for your emotional well-being and growth.
In this essay, I have offered you a few ways to shorten your heartbreak. Here is one way to extend it: Keep tabs on your ex on social media. This is strikingly common; in a 2011 study, 54.3 percent of college students confessed to having perused an ex’s social-media posts in search of photos with a new partner. In the race for fresh ways for tech to hijack our brain chemistry and make us insane, there is a huge, obvious market for an app that surveils exes and sends alerts to your phone when they look happy. You might call it Creepster, or perhaps, Havisham.
As tempting as it might be, such surveillance is a huge mistake for happiness. Research on Facebook stalking shows that it is associated with greater distress, longing, negative feelings, and sexual desire for the ex-partner; it also inhibits personal growth in the wake of the split. It is a near-perfect way to ensure that you don’t feel better.
In order to get over a breakup, you have to let your life move on and let your ex’s life move on as well. Don’t hold on to the source of your suffering. Your pain will decrease, you will be able to love again, and you can leave Miss Havisham to wander her lonely house without you.