How to move past a painful breakup, according to relationship therapist

One month after I ended my relationship, I went to see Esther Perel speak at the 92nd Street Y. She polled the audience, as she always does, asking, “How many of you are in a relationship or married?” For the first time in a long time, this wasn’t me. Then she asked, “How many of you are single?” As I raised my hand, a tear ran down my face. I felt vulnerable. It seemed so official.

This may seem overly dramatic, but if you’ve ever de-partnered from a long-term relationship, you will know that it is a trauma that requires a major dose of deprogramming. Breakups, even when self-inflicted, are like undergoing open heart surgery. Nothing prepares you for this type of loss. Culturally, we don’t hold space for the complexities of a relationship’s ending. Whether family, friend, or partner, we don’t acknowledge or honor the depth of such losses. After an ending, getting closure and moving on become the primary focus.

Let’s talk about rom-coms for a sec. Romantic comedies often depict a straight woman in the “getting back to me” phase, with men being portrayed as less emotionally complex. The narrative typically involves the woman’s taking time for herself, going on a trip, dating again, or experiencing some wacky misadventures before meeting her next partner. Alternatively, she may end up living happily ever after, but alone, in a state of self-acceptance, independence, and strength.

Welp. It’s a wonderful fantasy, but it isn’t reality.

I was not prepared. I too thought it would be a rom-com. I booked retreats. I searched for myself. I practiced yoga. I meditated. I “got back to me.” Well, sorta. Ending my relationship forced me to (again) confront a variety of past, present, and future challenges. It was an algebraic equation: Childhood + trauma + being gay + family estrangement / breakup = prolonged grief. What’s the equation for your context?

It’s usually childhood + trauma + personal identity + social community + career + financial safety + access to resources and healthcare. It is important to acknowledge all the factors present during any life transition, as neglecting one of them could result in leaving out a significant piece of your story.

This isn’t some “happily ever after” love story. I’ve been single since Alex and I broke up. I wanted him back on several occasions, but only when he didn’t want me back. I still think about him every day. I still dream about him at night.

I’ve been alone for a long time. And it’s hard.

I have had great success with work. I’ve made new friends. And my self-confidence? I finally know who I am, am confident, and have landed on a self-definition I can say I genuinely like. But I remain stuck romantically. Everyone I date frustrates me. No one communicates. It seems impossible to get someone interested to the point where they’ll stick around. Plus, it’s not just other people. It’s me. I haven’t felt something in a long time.

Birthdays and holidays have been absolutely awful. They are only reminders of my loss and loneliness. My first Christmas without Alex was terrible. I of course spent it with Alex; we cried. His family expressed their wish that we remain together. Alex and I had sex. It was a mess. Nevertheless, I am glad I spent that time with them. They still felt like my family. He still felt like my family.

Subsequent holidays were just as hard. I dreaded them. I missed his family (and still do). I missed our routines. I missed having someone to surprise, to go holiday shopping with for cute gifts. To buy beautiful wrapping paper and fancy bows. (I used to go all out.) The absence of such moments had left a void; I missed them dearly. Alex felt the same way, and during these times of the year, my yearning for these shared experiences was particularly acute.

OMG and don’t even get me started on Valentine’s Day! Alex and I had this tradition where we would make sushi and exchange presents. It was very sweet, and I used to look forward to it. So, I wasn’t prepared for what it would be like to be an observer and not a participant on this stupid holiday. It really sucked.

I still miss Alex often. It’s not just him that I miss. It’s the metaphor. It’s the life we had. It’s being able to say “we.” “We” are doing this, “we” are visiting friends, “we” are going to France this summer. Instead of, “I booked flights alone. I don’t know who I am going with yet.”

Whenever I talk to people about these feelings, they’re quick to say, “Do you think you’re over it?” When they do, I’ll scream inside while politely saying, “I think so.” But my relationship with Alex played such a huge role in my life that I’m not sure how one gets over something like that.

I know they’re thinking, Wow, he is still so not over it.

But we don’t get over loss; we move through it, but the loss stays with us. If you lose a family member, do you simply move on and get over it? No. Your life changes. You add to your life, and the loss evolves into something smaller and more manageable, something you may not even think about very much. But the loss remains. Alex was my family, and losing him was significant. Will I “move on”? Will meeting someone new alter my perspective on my relationship with him? Undoubtedly, time and new experiences will bring healing and change. Nonetheless, the memories of our time together will always remain with me.

It’s undeniably hard to be alone, yet culture, family, and friends rarely provide us with the space to navigate the emotional difficulties that accompany single life. Instead, there are all those reductive phrases that convey implicit judgment—comments like “You should enjoy being single” or “Maybe you need to love yourself more.” They are only reminders of society’s expectations regarding independence and grief rather than empathy.

Some people do in fact “move on,” no longer feeling preoccupied by thoughts of their ex. Others don’t. Neither response is inherently “healthier” than the other. You might think, Well, I would choose never to think about them again. But our feelings aren’t a matter of choice. We have to accept where we are, tolerate it, and resist the urge to judge ourselves against some imagined ideal. It’s a flawed assumption to think that if you stop thinking about your ex, your life will automatically improve. Life will remain complex and challenging regardless of who occupies your thoughts.

It’s often through (not around) pain and heartbreak that we learn the most about ourselves and what it means to be alive. While ending my relationship was difficult, discovering who I was as an independent person without any relationship to shape my identity was even more challenging. This is where I became myself.

 Rodale Books

Excerpted from HOW TO LOVE SOMEONE WITHOUT LOSING YOUR MIND by Todd Baratz. Copyright © 2024 by Todd Baratz. Used by permission of Rodale Books, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.  All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.