The Biggest Mistake After a Relationship Breakup

Positive coping after a breakup requires consideration of the purpose of loss.

Key points

  • Starting a new serious relationship too soon after a long-term relationship ends can have many negative emotional consequences.
  • Starting a new relationship too soon indicates an attempt at avoidant coping, which is a dysfunctional strategy.
  • Reflecting on one’s part in co-creating a dysfunctional relationship and relearning how to live singly are key to effective healing from loss.

Because every relationship and every personality are different, there’s no ideal or correct way to manage a breakup. Breakups are inevitably painful and complex because they involve a loss and a host of complex and sometimes contradictory emotions. While there’s no psychologically healthy way to avoid negative feelings post-breakup, there are behaviors that can make the emotional experience even more difficult. Specifically, starting a new serious relationship too soon after a long-term relationship ends can have many negative emotional consequences.

Based on anecdotal data of having counseled individuals and couples for many years, in addition to receiving extensive clinical training and researching relationship dynamics for many years, individuals often move on too soon after a serious relationship ends. On a commonsense level, the motivation to replace a lost relationship with a new one is understandable. Losing a relationship is painful not only because of the associated symbolic and emotional losses but also because of the disruption and loss of so many shared behavioral routines.

Starting a new relationship too soon indicates which type of coping strategy?

The motivation to start a new relationship is often an attempt at emotional avoidance. Rather than confront uncomfortable feelings, an individual propels himself or herself into a relationship for a quick mood and ego boost. Avoidance as a strategy, however, is dysfunctional because it is impulsive, born out of childlike wishes and fantasies as opposed to the thought-through, long-term thinking and planning that should characterize adult decision-making.

What is the purpose of the time period after a breakup?

Having an action plan for coping makes relationship dissolution more manageable, and one’s action plan should include consideration of purpose. In particular, the time post-breakup has one primary purpose: to grieve the loss that occurred and to learn from it.

As a practicing psychologist, I’ve heard many individuals say they didn’t need much time to heal because the grieving process started long before the official end of their relationship. Put another way, they would say they already mourned the loss of the relationship while they were technically in it. That argument has some validity; it’s true that sadness and disappointment typically precede the formal end of a relationship for months or even years, and that the subtle awareness that the relationship is ending accumulates to the point of actual termination. Yet the argument doesn’t account for the need a person has to learn to be happy enough on one’s own – without needing or depending on another love interest to make them feel good and valued.

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Your responsibility in the relationship ending.

The most helpful practice anyone can engage in post-breakup is to reflect on what they did or did not do that contributed to the relationship disintegrating. This framework does not ask what you did that caused the end, but rather what you may have done to help co-create a dysfunctional relationship that ultimately ended.

Ask yourself the following question: “What did I do in the relationship that contributed to problems in the relationship?” Following that, ask yourself “What are three or four things I will do differently in my next relationship to be a better partner?”

If you’ve recently ended a relationship, you may tell yourself that you already know those answers after a month or two of being single. As a practicing psychologist, I can assure you that additional valuable realizations will come at six months, a year, or even further in the future. Those who experience a long-term relationship ending would serve themselves well to go through at least a couple different seasons in the calendar year as a single person before considering looking for a new romantic relationship.

How to practice positive self-talk.

Because positive self-talk (the running internal dialog we have with ourselves) is crucial to mental health, remember to show yourself compassion as you heal from a relationship loss. Take your negative feelings about the breakup and flip the script on them, using what clinicians call cognitive reframing. Tell yourself that the fact that you want a relationship – when you’re ready – shows that you still value emotional attachment and that you weren’t so destroyed by the previous relationship that you gave up on relationships altogether.

The positive point is that you have the capacity and desire for attachment; the change you must make is to be cautious and deliberate in the way you go about seeking that attachment. Taking time to reflect and live comfortably as a single person post-breakup is a far better strategy to find a meaningful connection than jumping into a new relationship quickly, magically thinking that the new one will be better than the last without having done the proper mental work.

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A strategy for seeking healthy companionship when you’re ready.

After many months have passed and one has relearned how to comfortable live singly, casual dating is a wise option for companionship rather than setting out on a course to find the next long-term partner.

With dating, two individuals get their needs met for socialization and playfulness, but they avoid the pressure of long-term emotional contracts. Communicate directly from the start, “I need to date slowly” or “I’m not ready to jump right into a serious relationship.” Limiting the frequency of seeing each other once per week or once every other week may also lead to more successful dating outcomes.

Too often, people see each other too soon and later feel overwhelmed or pressured by the intensity of the new relationship. If dating couples start slowly, two individuals bypass unnecessary pressure and fairy-tale expectations for a future relationship, and lay the foundation for a relationship that can be healthy and lasting.