Singletude: A Positive Blog for Singles

Singletude is a positive, supportive singles blog about life choices for the new single majority. It's about dating and relationships, yes, but it's also about the other 90% of your life--family, friends, career, hobbies--and flying solo and sane in this crazy, coupled world. Singletude isn't about denying loneliness. It's about realizing that whether you're single by choice or by circumstance, this single life is your life to live.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

How to Help a Friend Through a Break Up

It's almost midnight, and you've just brushed your teeth, turned off the TV, and pulled back the bed covers when the shrill ring of the phone interrupts your nightly routine. It's a raspy stranger asking if you're lonesome tonight.

Okay, no, not really.

It is, however, your friend, all choked up, announcing that he or she has just been dumped.

As a single, you've probably been there before, although your last breakup may have receded into the past, making it difficult to dredge up the feelings associated with it. Furthermore, your objective view of your friend's recently expired relationship may interfere with your ability to empathize with his or her loss. And then there's schadenfreude, that all too human tendency to snicker at the suffering of others, which may creep into your exchange unbidden. All in all, when you get that desperate, late-night phone call, you may feel about as eloquent as Elmer Fudd, stuttering and stammering in the face of your friend's distress.

If you find yourself at a loss for words when your friend is suffering, you may want to try one of these simple approaches:

DO sympathize or, better yet, empathize. If you can remember what it was like to break up with someone you loved, share that so he or she knows you understand. If you can't, at least express how sorry you are that the relationship has ended and that your friend is hurting. Acknowledge that he has experienced a significant loss, validate her feelings, and confirm that it's okay to grieve about it.

DON'T minimize the loss by telling your friend how much better off he or she is without the ex. While it may be true, it's not what your friend believes or needs to hear right now. Later, he may reach that conclusion on his own, and, at that time, you can support his opinion if you agree. But in those first stages of loss, she may not be able to see her former partner objectively, and if you slam the the ex, she may feel worse for loving someone you've declared a "loser," "jerk," "idiot," or other undesirable. Furthermore, she may feel alienated because you aren't acknowledging her loss. Remember that even if your friend's ex was the devil incarnate, your friend loved that devil! And absolutely no "I told you so's" even if you did tell him so. Good on you; maybe she'll listen to you next time. But today she needs your friendship, not your judgment.

DO promote realistic thinking. Breakups have a way of distorting our views of ourselves and our former partners. If your friend is beating up on himself or glorifying her former partner, inject some healthy realism into the conversation. If the ex belittled your friend, calling her unattractive or unworthy in some way, set the record straight from your more objective standpoint. Similarly, if your friend has idealized his ex, seize opportunities to remind him that the love of his life was a flawed human being like everyone else. (Be careful not to badmouth the ex, though. There's a fine line between realism and wrath. See above.) Another common cause of distress when a relationship dissolves is the fear that the abandoned partner will never find love again. This is another area in which you can help by reassuring him that he will have lots of new opportunities to find a partner. After all, probability is on her side that she will not be single forever.

DON'T condone negativistic thinking. We're talking about those long-winded sighs of self-hatred, those mournful predictions of a life devoid of meaning or purpose without the ex-partner. Sometimes your friend may be fishing for a boost to his or her wounded self-esteem or faith in life, and it's okay to give it, but it can be easy for her to fall into a pattern of fatalistic thinking. If this starts to happen, let him know that that's nonsense and you won't listen to it!

DO let your singletude shine! You know from experience that there are lots advantages to the single state. When your friend moans and groans about how lonely or depressing or unhealthy it is to be single, you're the perfect person to correct him! One by one, answer each of her anxieties with your voice of experience until she has a fuller, more accurate, and hopefully more positive picture of what it is to be single. If you can convey how genuinely content you are with your single life, you can do wonders to buoy your friend's spirits.

DON'T exacerbate your friend's worries by instigating a rant session about whatever dissatisfactions you may have with your single status. Save that for other single friends who aren't currently enduring a breakup. Single or coupled, both states have their pluses and minuses, but now is not the time to bitch about the latter. Stay upbeat and keep the focus on your friend and how you can alleviate his or her concerns.

DO allow your friend to process the loss in his or her own way. Throughout the healing period, your friend may experience a wide range of emotions, swinging from sadness to anger to ambivalence and back again. This is normal. Along the way, your friend may want to distract himself with work, hang out more often with you, or rehash the details of the breakup ad nauseam. Recognize that any way she chooses to deal with it is okay as long as it doesn't hurt herself or others.

DON'T expect your friend to handle the breakup the same way you do. For you, the most natural response might be to talk it out with everyone willing to listen, while your friend may want to be alone, or vice versa. Just because your friend chooses a method of coping that seems foreign to you doesn't mean it's less effective, so don't push him to adopt your personal coping style. That may actually make her feel worse and retreat from you.

DO offer lots of opportunities for your friend to engage in fun, beneficial activities. Invite him to see his favorite band; take her to her favorite spa for a beauty day. Encourage him to reclaim an old hobby; support her as she explores a new craft. It's important for your friend to realize that he or she can still be happy and effective outside the relationship. Many times, a single will sacrifice some of his interests on the altar of The Relationship and lose his precious sense of individuality. A breakup is an ideal time for her to rediscover or even reinvent herself, recommitting to her own personal development.

DON'T withdraw from your friend because he or she doesn't immediately take you up on your suggestions. Keep introducing them, without taking offense if they're rejected, until your friend is ready to welcome the world in again. On the other hand, don't draw your emotionally fragile friend into potentially harmful distractions like drinking or gambling. While these may seem like benign pastimes under normal circumstances, right now your friend's judgment may be impaired, and he is vulnerable to drowning his troubles through irresponsible behavior. Instead of pushing your friend into risky pleasures, be her lookout and guide her away from pitfalls.

DO help your friend seek out new romantic partners when he or she is ready. Your friend may want to jump back into the dating pool immediately, or he or she may revel in newfound singlehood for years. For some people, a few casual dates right after a breakup help them regain their self-confidence, while, for others, they just stir up unwanted memories. Respect your friend's preference, whatever it is, and do your part to help. Accompany him to the bars, help her write her online dating profile, go together to a speed dating session. Give tips and listen to dating stories.

DON'T coerce your friend into dating before he or she is ready. You've probably heard the crude little adage that the best way to get over someone is to get under someone else. But not everyone operates that way. Many of the newly single cause immense heartache to themselves and others by diving into rebound relationships or a series of meaningless sexual exploits. There's nothing wrong with your friend if he decides to be single for awhile or even forever, so keep your well-meaning nose out of her new love life until she invites you in.

DO prepare to let your friend grieve as long as necessary. The length and intensity of the grieving process can vary a lot depending on the length of the relationship and level of commitment to it, the mutuality of the breakup (or lack thereof), and individual response to loss, among other factors. If your friend had doubts about the relationship for several years before the breakup and had already begun to live a more independent lifestyle, she may recover much more quickly than someone who was blindsided by the news that his beloved girlfriend was leaving him for another man.

DON'T hold your friend to your own timetable for recovery. Your friend isn't you, and the circumstances of his or her breakup aren't yours, so that wouldn't be fair. Careless admonitions to "snap out of it" or "just get over it" are painful to someone who would gladly do just that if all it took really was a magic snap of the fingers.

DO protect yourself. As much as you may want to be your friend's crying shoulder, if your spirits are getting soggy from listening to one too many tales of sorrow, you may need to take a break. Be sure to spend time socializing with your more upbeat friends so you can recharge your batteries, and when there are days that you can't support your friend's weighty problems, it's okay to be unavailable. If your friend's grief is turning into severe depression, the best way you can help is by helping him or her find a professional counselor.

DON'T assume the responsibility of "fixing" your friend. It's possible to be crushed by someone else's unrelenting grief if you don't maintain your own emotional boundaries. Don't convince yourself that you can rescue your friend from suicidal threats or debilitating depression. Again, refer your friend to a mental health professional who is equipped to address these problems.

Breaking up is hard to do, not just for the couple but for their well-intentioned friends. Ultimately, you can't erase your friend's pain or urge him through the stages of grief faster than he can travel them. But as a fellow single, you're in an ideal position to help your friend transition to single life, a state that is much more fulfilling and less scary than married America would have us think. Inspire your friend with the joys of single living, and when it's your turn for a breakup, he or she can remind you what you were missing!

What do you say or do to be supportive of your newly single friends during the breakup process? What are you careful not to say or do?

Fun Link of the Day

Do you have a question for Clever Elsie about some aspect of the single life? Have a rant or rave about singlehood? Write in, and you just might see your question in a Singletude Q&A or your rant or rave in a Singletude Sound-off!


bobbyboy said...

What do you say or do to be supportive of your newly single friends during the breakup process? What are you careful not to say or do?

I listen. It's one of the more important things a person can do in this situation, as well as others.

I have never felt that I would/could react to a friends distress call as presented in the first paragraph (the schadenfreude paragraph.) Or believe that a real friend would, although I guess it can happen.

I have pretty much followed the guidelines presented here with an emphasis on listening.

Good advice Elsie :)

RBK's Realm said...

Excellent, excellent advice -totally on target.

Boy have I been there i.e the dumped one and yes my friends were there but your advice is totally valuable!

It has been a while since I have visited here because I have been busy trying to keep my own blog going and just realized how much I have missed coming here-will make more of an effort- keep up the good work!

Anonymous said...

I listen first, let her cry it out and then encourage her that being single and unattached now may bring some advantages and that, another love will come.

I think jsut by being there,it helps. good post.

s.t said...

hw wld u then console a fren whom decided to end a close to 2 yrs affair with a newly wedded man?

"u r better of w/o him?"
"this is a right decision"
"oh, 3rd party!!"

she loved him so much.. and over the yrs.. torment over being morally wrong, battle wid sharing wid another woman, struggling wid e 3rd party label......

Anonymous said...

Great suggestions all around. I have to CONSTANTLY remind myself not to give advice to a breakupee, which I always thought was strange because isn't it a stereotypical *guy* thing to want to give advice (and I'm a woman)? My advice-giving instinct usually kicks in after the breakupee has been hitting me with their angst over a long period of time (weeks, months), and I find myself wanting/needing to stop being their sounding board. I guess maybe giving advice is a way we try to "fix" the person in order to give ourselves a rest, without coming out and telling them, "Please, I can't listen to you anymore." --CC

lorijill said...

Just found your blog today and am glad I did. Great post. Like bobbyboy, I tend to focus on listening. I know that when my heart's been broken all I really need is someone to listen to me grieve.

Clever Elsie said...

Bobby: It sounds like yours would be a terrific shoulder to lean on in times of need! :) I agree that listening is one of the most helpful things you can do to be supportive.

RBK: I'm sure we've all been on both sides of the break-up coin. One of these days maybe I'll blog on how to cope when you're the one getting dumped.

It's always great to have you stop by, whether often or just now and then. :) I know how demanding it is to keep up with your own blog, much less comment on everyone else's.

Thess: I agree. You sound like a wonderful friend! :)

s.t: What a good question! I think this falls under the realm of refraining from badmouthing the ex or the relationship while your friend is grieving, even if you know that the relationship was ultimately harmful to her. It doesn't really matter whether your friend's decision was morally right or wrong at this point. What matters is that she's hurting, and rather than criticizing a choice she already clearly knows was unwise, the most supportive approach you can take is to acknowledge her pain and grief and let her vent about it. If she hasn't already, she'll probably come to the conclusion that the affair was a bad idea soon enough. When she does, you can reinforce her conclusion by agreeing without judging or chastising her.

This is an excellent question, and I'd love to use it for the anonymous Q&A section, with your permission of course.

Onely: Hah! I can relate; I'm also more apt to find solutions than commiserate.

I think there are a few reasons why we give advice, and you've hit the nail on the head regarding at least one of them. Other times, I think people give advice when they're honestly trying to help or, in some cases, when the position of advisor becomes a kind of ego gratification for them. And then, of course, there are times when friends ask for advice.

Whatever the motivation, it can definitely be fatiguing to listen to hours of angst, which is why it's good to set limits on your availability and recharge with some time by yourself or with other friends.

SINgleGIRL: Thanks so much for dropping by! :) I'm glad you're liking the blog and hope you'll stick around.

Anonymous said...

Just found your blog and really liked this article. Great advice! Listening is the most important help I can give to a friend going through a break-up.

Clever Elsie said...

Diana: Thanks so much for stopping by, and I'm glad you like the blog!

I think everyone is pretty much agreeing that listening is the number one most helpful thing you can do when a friend is getting over someone.