Tips for Surviving the Breakup of a Relationship

When an intimate relationship ends, both people often have hurt feelings and think about what went wrong. But the person who usually feels the most pain is the one who's been left. Being dumped can overwhelm even the strongest people, destroying their confidence and upsetting their emotional balance. If you're dealing with the unwanted breakup of a relationship and dealing with the demands of military training or deployment, getting through it all may be especially difficult. And if you're in a combat zone, your broken heart could put you and those around you at greater risk. The information in this article will help you get through a painful breakup safely and regain your confidence and positive outlook.

An emotional journey

Recovering from a breakup is an emotional journey that begins with the initial shock and pain associated with loss. Healing takes time and effort. Along the way you may experience many intense and conflicting feelings. You may

  • Get stuck in your pain. You may direct your pain inward in the form of unwarranted self-loathing, shame, and isolation. You may even fantasize about death.
  • Be overwhelmed by anger. You may feel incapable of getting beyond your resentment or feel desire for revenge.
  • Stir up unresolved pain from past losses. This slows down your recovery.
  • Lose focus or sense of perspective. Small annoyances or worries may be magnified to seem like huge problems. This makes it difficult to eat, sleep, and attend to personal needs.
  • Experience obsessive soul-searching over the loss. You may find yourself constantly replaying events or conversations and trying to analyze them to figure out what went wrong. This will almost certainly interfere with or prevent you from functioning normally at home and on duty.

If you feel you're not moving forward on the road to recovery, be reassured that you can get over a broken heart. You will laugh again and enjoy life once more. You may even emerge from your journey stronger, wiser, and better able to find love again in a healthy relationship.

High-risk reactions

For some people, a breakup is so emotionally devastating that they're at risk for self-destructive behavior, including suicide. Broken relationships have been identified as a factor in many military suicides. It can take professional counseling or other treatment for a person to recognize that the pain is only temporary and must not be acted upon. If you're having thoughts of suicide, you need to tell someone immediately and ask for help from your unit medic, corpsman, chaplain, Military OneSource, or Military Treatment Facility (MTF). You can also call the VA Suicide Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

Positive strategies

You can take steps to help yourself overcome the pain and look forward to living your life again. In your emotional pain, you may not feel like doing them, taking some action will often make you feel better if you can make yourself do it:

  • Focus on the here and now. Working hard to be "in the moment" will help you to keep thoughts about your loss from taking over your thinking. Notice the people around you, listen and respond to what they say.
  • Participate in activities that make you feel better. Think about the things you enjoy. Focus on yourself and rediscover your identity apart from the relationship. Remember what you enjoyed about an old hobby or look into taking up a new one. Volunteering and helping others is a great way to feel better about yourself and your own life. And contact with people less fortunate can remind you that others are also suffering — maybe even more than you.
  • Take ownership of your feelings. You can consciously work on seeing yourself as an independent person responsible for your emotions and your future happiness by
    • accepting the intensity of your pain ("This hurts really bad." "I never thought breaking up could feel this horrible.")
    • assessing your situation honestly and objectively ("My girlfriend dumped me. She won't be calling me anymore. She won't be waiting for me when I come home.")
    • reassuring yourself that you will get through this experience ("It's a bad situation and it hurts. But I'll get through it somehow.")
  • Find sympathetic people to talk to. Just about everyone getting over a broken relationship needs to have people to talk with about how they feel. Find a friend or relative you can confide in, and don't forget that you can also find a kind and caring professional to talk to through Military OneSource.
  • Try to see the breakup as a way to grow. While you can't undo past actions, you can learn from your mistakes so you can make future relationships better.

Behavior to avoid

You might react to a breakup by acting in ways that will only make your pain last longer or put yourself and maybe others in danger. Focus your coping efforts on positive strategies instead. Avoid doing these things:

  • Self-medicating.  While self-medicating with alcohol, drugs, food, video games, pornography, or any other mind-numbing activity may temporarily suppress your obsessive thoughts and painful feelings, they tend to come back even stronger.
  • Acting on your anger. It doesn't help to unload anger on friends, co-workers, or innocent bystanders. Instead, release your anger without hurting others by putting it into words, either by talking with others or writing about it in a notebook. Journaling can be surprisingly therapeutic.
  • Denying the reality of the breakup. When you refuse to accept the end of a relationship, you can get hung up on futile efforts to stay connected to the other person through unwanted personal contacts, phone calls, and emails. Sometimes denial progresses to actual harassment or criminal stalking. Frequent and obsessive attempts to make contact only push the other person further away and keep you from moving on.
  • Engaging in risky or self-destructive behaviors. Self-destructive coping behaviors signify the need for immediate professional help to get through a crisis.

Knowing when you need help

As a service member, you probably know enough about the signs and symptoms of combat trauma and stress reactions to recognize how similar they are to the feelings and behaviors described in this article. In fact, a broken relationship is a type of trauma, and guidance for knowing when to seek help is the same. You need to ask for professional help if

  • You experience intense pain from the breakup without some relief after several days
  • You can't stay sharp and focused while on duty
  • Your physiological symptoms (not eating, not sleeping, anxiety attacks, lethargy, and other physical signs of depression) have not improved after a few days
  • You feel you can't control your anger
  • You're engaging in self-abuse or risky behavior
  • You're withdrawn and isolated
  • You're having thoughts of suicide

The earlier you get help, the faster and healthier your recovery from the breakup is likely to be. And the less likely it will be that your loss will lead to a more serious condition such as clinical depression.

Where to get help

In theater, talk to your medic, corpsman, chaplain, medical officer, or combat stress control unit. At home, you have the support of Military OneSource, including confidential counseling. Or you can ask for help from your chaplain or your primary care manager at your MTF.

Keep in mind that stigma and fear of career consequences, as with combat stress reactions, prevent many service members from getting the help they need to get over a broken relationship. But if you let that stop you from seeking help, it will only delay your return to peak performance in your military life and a sense of well being in your personal life.


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