Grief After a Breakup: Three Things You Should Know

Types of Grief and Loss / Types of Grief and Loss : Eleanor Haley


Breaking up is really hard to do. Most of us know what it’s like to suffer a broken heart. Many of us know how complicated it is to separate two lives intricately intertwined. Being that we’ve all probably experienced some form of breakup grief, we know stressful, ongoing, and overwhelming this experience of loss can be.

Yet, for many reasons, people grieving a breakup aren’t always comfortable saying, “This is an earth-shattering loss that I need time and space to grieve.”  So here we are today, ready to affirm your losses and share with you some of the factors that might impact a person’s grief after a breakup. Specifically, we want to share three things you should know about breakup grief.

Of note, we realize we’re casting a broad net by addressing breakups in general, as relationships come in all shapes and sizes. We will likely get more specific in the future, for example, an article specific to divorce grief or supporting children impacted by parental separation. If you have thoughts or perspectives you think might be helpful as we get more specific about related topics, please leave them in the comment section below. 


Three Things You Should Know About Breakup Grief

1. Yes, it’s possible to grieve a relationship

A common misconception is that grief is experienced only in response to the death of a loved one. In reality, there are many experiences besides the death of a loved one that can cause life-changing grief, and the loss of an intimate relationship is undoubtedly one of them.

When people grieve someone who is still alive, it is called ambiguous grief. As we stated in our article, 7 Types of Grief You Should Know Right Now

“Ambiguous loss happens when something or someone profoundly changes or disappears. A person feels torn between hope things will return to normal and the looming sense that life as they knew it is fading away like a Polaroid developing in reverse.”

In the case of a breakup, the relationship ends while the people who were a part of it keep living. Except now they are different, at least towards each other. Things that previously underscored their interactions, like love, loyalty, intimacy, attention, caring, obligation, may no longer exist.  

In many instances, these characteristics had been fading from the relationship for a long time. So the breakup marks the end of a long tail of prolonged hurt and confusion, but also the start of grieving things you perhaps anticipated losing with great fear and trepidation. 

Regardless of the circumstances, people within the relationship have to renegotiate boundaries and figure out new ways to relate. And though that new way may be better or much (much) worse, you can still grieve the relationship that came before. It doesn’t even have to have been a good relationship in hindsight – if there was something about it at one point you felt you needed, wanted, liked, or loved – there’s probably something to grieve.

This may be made even more difficult by the fact that you live with the possibility of seeing your ex at any moment. You try so hard to cope with your losses, only to have a run-in at the grocery store or a glance at their Instagram feed throw you completely off balance.

Also, if you share kids with your ex or are going through prolonged divorce proceedings, you have no choice but to see them on a regular basis. And for a while, this may make you feel like your distressing grief emotions are chronic and never-ending.


2. People may make you feel like you don’t have the right to grieve your breakup

When you consider all the songs, sonnets, and stories written about lost love since, well, forever, it’s a wonder this type of loss ever gets minimized. Perhaps it’s the very universality of a broken heart that causes people to say – it happens to everyone, you’ll get through it. But the fact that it happens to everyone doesn’t make it any less devastating.  

As we mentioned, the misconception that grief happens only in response to a death is perhaps the main reason why breakup grief is often mislabeled and misunderstood. 

People also make a lot of judgments about whose experience is worthy of sympathy and compassion. Categorically speaking, there’s often the idea that only divorce can turn a person’s world upside down. And, of course, it can and does! But much of what people grieve relative to a relationship ending has to do with love and attachment and not just legalities.

Additionally, people often think that blame, responsibility, and choice negate grief after a breakup. The person who initiated or is “to blame” for the breakup is often moved out of the domain of empathy.

In these instances, others might say to them (or they might say to themselves), “Why are you upset? This is what you wanted!” But, you can know something wasn’t healthy or right for you and still grieve the loss of it.

Though the person who is deemed the injured party may receive more sympathy, they may also feel pressure to quickly get over their breakup grief. People might say, “Don’t be upset – she was a jerk – you’re better off – think of all the fish in the sea!” Any or all of these things may be true, but the person still needs to grieve all the loss their breakup has caused them.

I think it’s important to close this section by pointing out that it’s not only other people who can make you feel like your grief and loss aren’t worthy. Since childhood, we’ve all internalized messages about love and relationships.

We’ve also developed very specific ideas about how we “should” be in our relationships and our ability to cope with loss. So it’s entirely possible that someone may minimize or stigmatize their own experience.

breakup grief

3. One major loss leads to many little losses

When there is a primary loss as disruptive as the end of a relationship, there is often a domino effect of subsequent losses. In the grief world, we call these losses “secondary loss.” 

Secondary loss can be tangible and concrete, like the loss of a home or finances. They can also be abstract, like a changing worldview, the loss of a dream for the future, or an altered sense of self.  Some common secondary losses include, but are in no way limited to, the following examples.

Many people don’t realize how loss can impact their sense of identity and self-esteem. Changes in the roles a person fills and their interpersonal interactions on a day-to-day basis force them to redefine who they are. 

Going through a breakup can specifically impact your sense of self-worth and self-esteem. Feelings of betrayal, abandonment, guilt, responsibility, or uncertainty about how things ended may change how people see themselves, at least temporarily. 

  • Changes in how you see others

Depending on the breakup circumstances, a person might experience thoughts and feelings related to betrayal, shock, embarrassment, shame, anger, bitterness, or resentment towards one’s partner. And these thoughts and feelings sometimes get generalized to broader groups of people. 

For example, someone who feels like they had the rug pulled out from under them by their partner may all of a sudden feel like they can’t trust anyone. They may say they never want to date again or that all other couples are totally doomed.  

  • The loss of friends and family members

Regardless of the type of loss, an extremely common experience is the redefining of relationships. From a positive perspective, many people say that going through hardship taught them who their friends are and helped them value things that really matter in their relationships.

On the other hand, people often find that those they thought would be there for them aren’t. With a breakup, you have the added hurt of people taking sides or just disappearing because they were closer with your ex. Additionally, you may have “couple friends” who seem unable or uninterested in redefining the relationship now that you’re single.

When you break up with someone, your hopes for a shared future end as well. Though you may still maintain a relationship with them, it’s not exactly what you had envisioned. Whether you envisioned growing old with this person or having kids together, you now have to grieve the loss of what might have been.

You may also grieve the loss of the time you spent together. Though you may ultimately say it was time well spent, you may also think about other dreams you could have accomplished. For example, maybe you wanted to get married, have kids, or find true love. Or maybe you just wish you were having more fun on your own – whatever it is, you may now worry it’s too late.


This is just a fraction of this conversation, but this article has now achieved “way too long” status. As we mentioned, please leave your thoughts and perspectives in the comments because we will continue to discuss topics related to breakups and divorce in the future.

Let’s be grief friends.

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20 Comments on "Grief After a Breakup: Three Things You Should Know"

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  1. Sonya  September 19, 2021 at 8:30 am Reply

    My partner of 22 years has just left me. I was with him since the age of 17 and we have three children together 12, 16, 20. We weren’t that close near the end but I kept asking him to take me out so I didn’t just feel we were mom and dad. He said he would make a change after lockdown but it never happened. He wanted sex but I just couldn’t as I needed the connection. Or I’d do it to keep the peace. I love my ex still but I craved some time for the two of us My ex works away and my middle son has been really rude to me. My ex always says he will speak to him but then twists my son’s behaviour on something I’m doing wrong. Infact the week he left it wasn’t over me it was over an argument he had, had with our son. Then all of a sudden he wants to have the kids at the weekend and saying we weren’t working. Obviously my feelings are everywhere at the moment.

  2. David  August 31, 2021 at 9:05 pm Reply

    I am 61 and was in an intense seven year relationship with a woman I loved more than life itself. One day in July, she just ended it, in a drunken rage. I was utterly blindsided. She owned the house, we were planning to marry and share everything. I had to move out in a few days from a house I called home for years. One week later she moved in a man she had dated 40 years earlier and they bought another home 2 weeks after that. I can say, that this has destroyed me in every way possible. She is now someone I don’t know. He had sold his house in another state and move to her house. It had to be all planned. Needless to say I am very bitter and hurt. I will never trust again. If anyone has to go through this, I feel for you. This was the ultimate betrayal. It has affected my health, I have lost 35 lbs in 35 days, I don’t sleep. I never dreamed someone could be so cruel.

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    • Claire  September 11, 2021 at 6:38 am Reply

      Oh David, I hope you’re doing better now. 4 years ago my ex left after a silly argument and never came back. I was destroyed and like you I couldn’t eat or sleep, non-stop anxiety and I felt almost manic all the time. I was desperate and did things I wouldn’t normally do and acted like the ex from hell for a long time. I was almost sectioned (psychiatric hold) but my mum persuaded them that she could look after me better at home. She hid all my medication and gave me strong sleeping tablets and benzos to get me through the first week.
      I didn’t believe it at the time but it’s true what they say…time is the greatest healer. It really is. 4 years on and I can look back without crying, even talk about him. I feel reasonably content by myself and have fallen into my own routine that doesn’t feel alien and ‘wrong’ as doing things without him used to.
      I hope you believe me that with time you will sleep and eat again, you will laugh and have enjoyable times. You will come to terms with what has happened to you. Just take each day at a time, each hour or minute if needs be, and the time will pass.
      I’m so so sorry this happened to you, and to me and to everyone else. People don’t know the damage they do, do they? Take care xx

  3. D  August 30, 2021 at 1:39 pm Reply

    At 66, I am grieving the loss of a 20 year affair with a married man. I am married too and we both were extremely careful to protect our partners who have very low expectations for their own life and relationship. His health and then his wife’s serious health issues, and raising my daughter who has now left home, kept us from taking action to be together but we talked seriously about a future together which we hoped could happen as things started to resolve. Recently he concluded that he is unwilling to upend everything this late in life (68) and still deals with serious health concerns. I actually understand it and can see his perspective. He is willing to stay connected with me, and to keep the relationship we have built as it has been all these years, but I am experiencing intense grief over the loss of those future plans and dreams, as well as fear for myself facing what could be years remaining in a friendly, committed marriage but without any intimacy or physical affection. My husband is older and is also experiencing health issues so I am committed to making sure he is well cared for at the end of his life. I would have taken the leap if my lover was willing and still helped make sure my husband was taken care of so our daughter wouldn’t have to do it. The grief comes in waves and is getting in the way of trying to preserve the friendship and intimacy we have had all these years. I have the chance to keep this relationship as the joy it has been for me but seem stuck in the grief about what will not be. I don’t know how to move forward in a more grateful and joyful way.

  4. Jan  August 12, 2021 at 6:25 pm Reply

    Reading these comments makes me feel less alone. I am still grieving the end of a 2- 1/2 year relationship with the love of my life, a man I completely trusted and was sure I’d grow old with. I was 63 when we met. Every day he told me he loved me, and he’d say it was a miracle that we’d found each other, I was perfect for him, he completely trusted me, etc. We’d seriously discussed marriage and he’d partly moved into my house. We trusted each other so much we were each other’s Power of Attorney (that’s the person who can pull the plug if you’re in a coma.)
    He suddenly walked out one day with almost no warning (we’d rarely argued).
    He’d just told me how much he loved me the morning of the day he left. When he walked out, he said he didn’t believe I loved and respected him, which wasn’t true. We’d argued about how he manages money. He gave almost everything to his adult daughters, who treated him like an ATM. I had my own money, but I was afraid I’d have to support him when he was old. That’s the only thing we argued about. When he left, he said I was demeaning to him – I was merely scared about being old and broke.
    He left his stuff at my house and never even came back for it. I thought he’d maybe had a heart attack or a car crash, so I looked for him on Facebook – and I saw he was very much alive. I made dozens of attempts to talk to him – email, text, phone – and he refused to talk to me. I was the love of his life, he often said – but he completely broke off contact with me. For a long time I hoped he’d come back, I emailed him that if we’d agreed to keep our money separate, it could solve the problem. I watched him on Facebook and it was obvious he didn’t have a new girlfriend – he was constantly on FB on the weekend. Then I realized he wasn’t coming back, but I was still hoping for some closure. Still, he ignored my attempts to have a conversation, tho I kept trying.
    The only closure I ever had was what I could piece together in therapy. I have a good therapist and she’s the reason I didn’t take my own life.
    I’m trying to date, but haven’t found any man I’m interested in. I’ve just turned 69 years old which doesn’t help.
    The “secondary loss” is that my confidence in my ability to judge men’s character is destroyed. I’ve re-read everything I wrote in my journal during our relationship, and I’ve been in therapy – and I still don’t see much that would have predicted he would have turned out to be the kind of man he was, to completely turn his back on me with almost no warning. Some friends say “You’re better off without him,” and maybe that’s true – but how was I not seeing any warnings in our 2-1/2 years together? He wasn’t perfect, but if we reject everyone who isn’t perfect, there will be no one left.
    Making it worse is the idiotic comments from most of my friends. People say I’ll find someone else. Most of my friends are 15 years younger so they don’t know what it’s like. I’m 69 now.
    I’ve also learned that most people I know, have never been deeply in love – many women I know see men as basically interchangeable. Many are in what sound like arranged marriages; more than one married friend has told me she’s never been in love. Many of my married friends live separate lives. One friend said “Men are like busses, there’s always another one coming.” Two of my single friends are only looking for sex, one will actually only date married men because they won’t expect anything from her except sex.
    Some people I know have had such bad relationships that if they find a “nice” man they think that’s enough. One friend was constantly beaten up by her ex, so she thinks if a new boyfriend doesn’t push her down the stairs, he’s a keeper.
    People don’t understand how much I’ve lost. Not only have I lost the man I love, but I’ve also lost confidence in my ability to discern a man’s character.
    Thanks for listening to my rant.

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  5. Elizabeth  May 27, 2021 at 1:27 pm Reply

    I just got out of a 3-year relationship that I was told I can’t grieve. Everyone in my family is pressuring me to get over it. And want a timeline on now much time I need. In reality I am not sure. Some days.are easier than others. Plus with this man we were planning a little few together. Which is making it so much more harder. At some point I want to go back to him. But there are so many problems which means I can’t. I miss him and randomly things remind me of him. I keep being told just forget him. That is definitely not possible when I am in love with him still.

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  6. Nicky  May 9, 2021 at 12:33 pm Reply

    Thanks for this article. I feel the most terrible grief for someone (jason) I had in my life for just 6 months. He came along after a previous 10 year relationship ended where that partner had left me after supporting him through years of serious, life changing illness. Jason then came into my life and for the first time in years I had fun, I could be myself & I didn’t have to look after him.. for once someone looked after me. Jason was amazing, my partner & soul mate and I wanted to be with him all the time…I’d never felt so connected to anyone before, and I could just be me. Each day he would tell me he loved me, send me hand written love letters, we talked every day for hours when we were apart. Physically together I had never had such a bond with someone… and I’m 54 years old! Unfortunately I realised after some time he is a narcissist and at times the side he tried to hide, would emerge and it was horrible. However, despite that, I adored him completely. After 6 months, the day after him saying ours was a love story worthy of a film, 2 months ago he left without a word. He then ghosted me for weeks. I was devastated. Especially after my previous relationship had ended the same way. I have seen him twice since then, the last time was today. And still I am completely devastated that he no longer wants to be with me and has no feelings whatsoever for me. I miss him terribly and the pain in my stomach and heart is like a massive hole. He’s left a huge gap and I’m struggling to deal with the loss. I find myself following his social media and I feel ashamed as I know its unhealthy. Friends and people around me think he’s an idiot and I should just move on, what’s the issue.. it was only 6 months they say…so I’m scared to confess how I actually feel which is completely shattered and I keep this to myself. I myself, can’t believe how down, depressed and utterly sad and hopeless I feel. I feel totally hopeless in my life without him in it. Writing here is the only place I have said this. I’ve started seeing a therapist but 3 sessions in and I still feel distraught. I hear the comments that things improve and I will feel better but for now and in the present, I just feel overwhelmingly sad.

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    • Anne  May 23, 2021 at 4:10 pm Reply

      Your feelings are valid! in my opinion, putting your grief into words- yes, anywhere!- is a healthy thing to do. The things you are able to articulate in such a relatable way are helpful & validating to at least one of us today. This is intense and temporary… i repeat this to myself.

      This is the first I have written this part: i think i haven’t reconnected with anyone in my life due to shame and feeling they do not know me unless i tell them i have somehow gotten lost in judging myself for all of my “unrequired” grieving. It feels like I’m choosing emotional solitary confinement, which I would argue against for anyone. Need to hold a hand but only able to see my own right now.

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  7. Mary  April 11, 2021 at 5:27 am Reply

    Thank you . It’s lovely to read your letters. It’s true anyone that’s has come out of a long marriage does grieve. It’s the hardest decision you would have made. For me it was so very hard I think I was just not the same person in the end . I lost sight of what been married was. I started a journey with a man and it was a hard one I loved him but I feel I didn’t get the love back. I waited for change but knew it would never change untill I did something about it. No one wants to end there marriage we go into something with joy, hope, plans of growing older but when it’s filled with sadness more than happy times then I guess u know. I think I gave up I think my heart gave up . 6 yrs on and I’ve tried my hardest to move forward there are days are brillant and then there are days are not so. He has met someone new now and I feel myself slipping not as strong as I use to be and the grieving starts all over. He still blames me for leaving as marriage is for life so true it is but only with respect and kindness .i still hope and believes that one day my soul mate will be there holding my hand . To those of u that has lost loved ones that grief is totally the hardest maybe we should write letters to those people we have lost and make our peace . Maybe even do something they would of like of done with us but now can’t. Like maybe planting a flower it’s a new beginning. For me I found running helped but now I think I’ll plant that flower so it will help me move forward and be a better person for my self and kids. I will always feel guilty for leaving but in my heart it wasn’t what I really wanted but I had no choice. Take care . I’m glad I read your stories. PS I’ll see u later!

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  8. Leilah  March 12, 2021 at 8:35 pm Reply

    Hey Jill,

    I’m so sorry you had to go through that. I really hope your able to find some peace in grieve on your timeline. I do want to share though from the other side, I’m the partner of someone who is grieving the loss of two siblings in a tragic accident and i feel selfish when I say this but it’s been so hard for me too because my partner has changed so much, and is extremely closed off now and it just makes me feel like I’m grieving the partner i had before and i don’t know when he’s coming back. But at the same time i know my partner is dealing with a much more profound loss so i can’t express how alone i feel now to him because it pales in comparison to his grief. Everything does. So idk i just wanted to say it’s very complicated from the other side too. I don’t expect my partner to “get over it” but it feels like he’ss just gone, i can’t confide in him, joke around with him, talk to him without carefully thinking about what to say, and i worry always about saying the wrong thing. I feel pushed to a breaking point and just stuck. I want to be there because I know my partner needs support but it’s really stressful to support someone who grieves by pushing others away because if i don’t remember that grief is the reason for his behavior then it just feels like I’m in a super unhealthy one-sided relationship. At the same time though when i think about if i should end it, i wonder too if he’d just think i wanted him to just “get over it” because that’s definitely not how I feel and it makes me sad to even think about him feeling like that because I’ve tried so hard to be supportive. Anyway just sharing this other side in case it helps, and i really hope you get the support from others that you need.

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  9. Lorraine  March 7, 2021 at 9:18 pm Reply

    You’re absolutely right people don’t seem to understand or maybe they just haven’t experienced losing someone through death I just lost the love of my life on 1=20=21 suddenly he was here one day and in a blink of an eye he was gone no goodbye no last kiss or hugs I’m truly heartbroken my so call friends think I should go back to as things were normal and can’t understand why I feel like I do I have my family but they have their own lives and sometimes the pain is almost unbearable and I pray to God to please help me I’m totally lost

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  10. Tara  February 9, 2021 at 5:39 am Reply

    Hi Luisa, I just wanted to say that I’m really sorry for the pain you are going through, and that I understand first hand what you are feeling, the complexity of losing someone who lost their way and the judgement that follows from that with family and friends, and the utter heartache in having to let go of someone when you love them more than anyone can understand who has not been in your shoes.
    i myself have experienced the very same thing, as my partner literally lost his way and it’s a devastating situation that i went through, for him and me. i am trying to move through this part of my life as best as i can although it feels very isolating and overwhelming.
    I just wanted reach out for what it’s worth and let you know if it is of any comfort whatsoever, that you are not alone in your pain in this particular way, and I’m sending out thoughts of healing to you. And may peace of mind come in time…

  11. Renee  February 4, 2021 at 1:37 pm Reply

    Thank you. I lost my husband in divorce and later death. I can’t understand the grief I feel daily. I lost much more, also, as in friends, family and identity of who I am as you say in the article. Definitely a double whammy. Also, a very humbling experience.

  12. Alyssa K  January 8, 2021 at 8:16 pm Reply

    Thank you so much for this article! I am going through a recent breakup and it has been difficult for others to understand the grief that I am experiencing.

    I am wondering if you could explore in future articles how grief if complicated from a break up if there was a betrayal. Like if your breakout was due to an affair or another type of major betrayal.

    • Cris  March 22, 2021 at 4:21 pm Reply

      My husband left me recently after 6 years together. I feel hopeless and lost. I don’t know how to go on all by myself. In December I attempted suicide because I thought he was going to leave me, when I left the hospital he actually left me. I was in shock for the past months.

  13. Jill Brown  January 8, 2021 at 11:11 am Reply

    There is another layer to breakup grief that many do not think about because it is attached to an already unspeakable grief; a breakup caused by the trauma of the death of a child. I lost my oldest son at the age of 19 seven years ago next week. I have been divorced from his father for 14 years, but was in a relationship with who I thought was a strong, competent and caring man. My continued grief over the loss of my child became our undoing; it wasn’t his child (both of his are still alive) and I wasn’t “getting over it” fast enough to suit him. After many, many attempts to help him understand my grief, I finally realized he was incapable of getting it. He could be sympathetic at times, but he does not have the capacity for empathy which I desperately needed from him. I recently admitted to myself that I would have to walk away from this relationship because he is never going to understand and I can’t process my loss on his timetable. In addition to losing my son, I lost my job, my home, most of my friends, some of my family and my significant other. And due to the pandemic, the majority of my support people due to overwhelming strain placed on their lives. It is devastating.

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    • Eleanor Haley  January 8, 2021 at 12:29 pm Reply

      Jill,

      My heart breaks for all the loss you’ve experienced. I think many people will be able to relate to what you share about how the death of a loved one can impact a relationship. This is definitely a topic that we want to cover more in the future, so thank you so much for sharing your valuable perspective.

      Eleanor

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    • Luisa H  January 9, 2021 at 11:13 am Reply

      There is a part of me that will never let go of the 20 years we had together. I love this man and will love him forever even if he will no longer be part of my life. Somewhere along the way he lost his way and I couldn’t get him back. I have good friends but I dislike when they say things will be better or you will be happier or better off. Just good advice for friends who have friends that are grieving, these are a few things that you shouldn’t say: “Things will get better, – everyone has gone to a breakup you will get over it- your life will be better without him, – he didn’t deserve you,- in the long run it’s the best thing for you.” These are not things we want to hear in our moments of grief. We just want someone who is there to listen without judgment. Just be a good friend and be there for that person. Great article!!!

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    • Helena  January 12, 2021 at 7:19 am Reply

      I am very sorry for what you have been through (and still are).
      I think this kind of pain needs to be witnessed and, most of all, respected by others.
      I can’t say a lot, just please…. don’ t give up…
      I wish you can find healing and walk a new path where there will be peace and meaning.

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