How To Comfort Someone After a Breakup

By Eric Helmsley | | People
How To Comfort Someone After a Breakup
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Breakups suck. Nearly everyone goes through at least one in their lifetime, and many of us go through many more. This means at any given moment, someone in the world is talking a close friend through post-breakup sadness.

Helping is the right thing to do. But knowing how to help a friend through a breakup? That’s another matter. Say the wrong thing and they could start to see you as the enemy; say another wrong thing and you could set them up for further heartbreak. Say nothing at all and they could easily start to feel abandoned in their hour of need. What’s a conscientious friend to do?

How to help a friend through a breakup

Knowing what to say to a close friend after a breakup—or any close friend or family member, for that matter—is never 100% straightforward.

“As a friend, you may feel a heart tug to help—but you don’t know how,” said Sameera Sullivan, head matchmaker and relationship expert for her own consulting company. “You may want to check in on your friend but don’t want to overstep.”

Still, she explained, “Being a source of support and creating a support system for a friend who has been through a breakup is vital.”

You may want to help them forget, or simply get over their feelings immediately, but what’s actually most important for long-term healing is that they get to process their feelings. So let’s take a look at six tips for being that source of support.

1. Check in on them

Perhaps the most important thing to do is to reach out to your friend, according to Virginia-based psychologist Jessica Stern. That could mean calling them, visiting them, sending them a text or an email or any other form of communication.

“As a friend, don’t underestimate the power of your presence," Stern said. “Simply showing up and being there for a friend’s breakup means they don’t have to go through it alone, and it means that they are still valued in their close relationships.”

2. Validate their emotions

It can be tricky to know what to tell a friend after a breakup, but a good approach, according to Stern, is to recognize the validity of their emotions and communicate that to them. It’s okay to feel sad, angry, confused, lost, hopeless, exhausted, relieved, happy or some mix of all of the above.

“From my research and teaching on relationships, I view breakups as a special type of loss that comes with complex emotions like grief, anger, shock and numbness–and in some cases relief or a sense of freedom,” Stern said.

These emotions can come and go in waves, and their progression is not linear. Each person going through a breakup goes through a unique set of emotional states, based on their unique relationship and breakup experience.

“The most important thing to understand is that grieving the loss of a relationship is normal after a breakup,” she said. “Instead of talking someone out of their emotions, try something like, ‘It makes sense that you feel that way. I’m so sorry it’s hard right now. I’m here, and we’ll get through this together.’”

Sullivan also advocates for creating a safe space with your friend, meaning a kind, judgment-free communication environment.

3. Engage in activities they enjoy

Sometimes having fun is the best way to get someone out of a funk. Which means that a great way to be there for a friend after a breakup is to have some fun with them.

“In the wake of a breakup, it’s common to feel like a part of yourself has been taken away, or that you are incomplete without a partner,” said Stern. “In these moments, it’s so important to remind people that they are complete and whole as they are.”

“Remind them of their strengths and help them recover their sense of self—especially interests, activities, goals and passions they may have pursued before, and perhaps neglected during, the relationship,” she said.

This could mean inviting your friend to play soccer, cook dinner with you or spend time making art or music.

4. …Or just sit with them in their sadness

However, fun isn’t always the answer. Your instinct to help cheer your friend up may be a good one, but in practice, trying to force happiness on someone who’s just not there yet can backfire. What your friend might really need is someone who can acknowledge the reality and intensity of their sadness without pressuring them to come out of it.

If that’s the case for your friend, “Sit with them when they are down,” suggested Lexi Joondeph-Breidbart, the founder of the New York-based Lonely Hearts Club. “Let them know it is okay for them to feel sad. This will help them feel more comfortable going out and socializing, and less like they need to put on an act, if they know they have a friend who knows what they’re going through.”

5. Help them with the day-to-day load

One of the trickiest parts of going through a difficult period, whether it’s after a specific loss or just an extended mental health struggle, is dealing with chores and responsibilities. See if you can help them with that part. If you’re able to see them in person, you can literally help shoulder the load by bringing them food, showing up to clean and tidy or just getting them out of the house for a bit of fresh air.

You can also try to help them with these things from a distance, said Joondeph-Breidbart. “Give your friend a ‘breakup survival guide,’” she suggested. “Write four to six things that you want your friend to do each day to survive the breakup. This will show your friend you care and motivate them to get out of bed. Some tips for the survival guide can be: brush your teeth, eat, shower, call a friend and/or family member.”

6. Ask them what they need

If you’re wondering what to say to someone going through a breakup, perhaps the most important thing to utter is a question: “What do you need right now?”

“Do not just assume how a person wants to be treated,” said Sullivan. “Everyone is different. The only way to be sure is to ask your friend directly what they want or need. Let them take the lead.”

Of course, given they may be in dire emotional straits, they may not know exactly what they need at the moment, which is where the above advice comes in. But if you genuinely care about your friend, making sure you’re giving them what they need, not what you or anyone else thinks they need, is paramount.

How not to comfort someone

Most attempts to help come from a place of good intentions, but it doesn’t change the fact that there’s a lot of bad, cliché advice for someone recovering from a breakup. Some suggestions and mentalities could make things even worse. So if you’re a friend’s point person for getting over a relationship, or one of a few close people they’re counting on right now, what should you not do?

Don’t withdraw from them when times are tough

If you’re not sure how to comfort someone after a breakup, the one cardinal rule is: don’t disappear on them.

“It can be hard to sit with a friend’s grief—you might start to feel overwhelmed, impatient or annoyed by their emotions in the wake of a breakup,” said Stern. “But in those moments, what they most need from you as a friend is to stick by them. Show them that they are loveable and worth sticking around for, especially in a moment when they may not believe it.”

If you really do need some space from helping them carry the load, clearly communicate that it’s not their fault, that you’re not abandoning them, and that you’ll be back when you can. That way they won’t be left agonizing over your sudden disappearance.

Don’t bad-mouth their ex

It can be hard to know what to say to a friend going through a breakup, and seeing someone leave your good friend despondent and heartbroken is never fun. So it’s no surprise that even if the breakup was relatively amicable, it might stir up feelings of protective anger in you. It’s understandable that you’d want to trash-talk the ex, especially if you have a list of their bad traits you’d been keeping quiet about while the two were together.

But according to Joondeph-Breidbart, tearing into your friend’s ex-partner isn’t always a great move. “Your friend may still have love for their ex, and villainizing them won’t help your friend heal,” she said.

…But don’t suggest they get back together, either

Still, it’s possible to go too far in the opposite direction: Rather than bad-mouthing, you might imply that the two are sure to work it out and get back together. If you’re searching for what to say to someone after a breakup, it can be tempting to try to give your friend a feeling of hope. Stern cautions against this, too.

“Resist the urge to reassure them that their partner will come back, or that they’ll definitely get back together,” she said. “Often the reality of breakups is somewhere in the messy middle. Some people need space from their ex for a period of time that could range from weeks to years, some people get back together after time apart, and some people have cordial friendships with exes down the road.”

Don’t push them to move on too quickly

It’s no fun listening to a friend’s sob stories, but it’s important not to push them to get over it—even if it feels like it’s taking too long from your perspective.

“Like any loss, a breakup takes time to grieve,” Stern said. “As much as we’d like to, it’s not possible to ‘just move on’ from someone with whom we’ve shared a deep emotional bond. This is especially true for long-term relationships that come to an end. In these situations, the truth is we may never fully ‘get over it.’”

“Instead, the goal is to live with the loss and continue to grow and enjoy our lives—and to enter new relationships when we’re ready,” Stern said. “Certain romantic relationships, and breakups, can shape us in important ways. It’s important to acknowledge the impact that people we once loved had on our lives, for better and for worse, in order to move forward.”

…But don’t insist they jump through hoops to find love again

On the flip side, there’s no need to pretend there’s only one path back to happiness, and the idea that they definitely need to check off certain boxes—like finding self-love—isn’t helping anyone.

“Don’t tell them they have to ‘love themselves again’ before dating,” Joondeph-Breidbart said. “Breakups and relationships are not a math equation. No one knows exactly when they are ready to date, and self-love is a journey.”

Disclaimer: The above is solely intended for informational purposes and in no way constitutes legal advice or specific recommendations.