Hearing that a close friend or relative is going through a breakup is upsetting for anyone and when it happens, the normal response is to be concerned and sorry for the person affected. Usually, we will send a text or pick up the phone and maybe try to involve them in more of what we’re doing in a bid to get them out of the house.
But unfortunately, many of us will still somewhat miss the mark when it comes to being really supportive in this situation. For starters, we have our own things going on. Rarely does someone have a breakup at a ‘convenient time’ and in fact there probably is no such thing as a ‘convenient time’ for the majority of us. Then there’s the fact that we don’t know what to say to someone who is going through such an emotionally traumatic experience. Often, we won’t even know if the breakup is ‘final’ or not and this can make it hard as well to know how to navigate the situation.
The biggest obstacle of all though, is that many of us won’t realize just how much pain our loved ones are going through. The thought that ‘no one has died’ will often go through our heads and we tend not to be quite as sympathetic as we should be.
So how do you avoid these pitfalls? What is the best thing to say? And how can you make sure that you’re there for your friend at a time when they really need you?
Understanding the Situation
If you have never been through a breakup, or if you haven’t been through one recently, then it can be easy to underestimate the impact they have on our lives.
When you go through a breakup, you lose the friendship, love and support of someone that you will likely have been spending the vast majority of your time with. That person was a best friend, a confident, a support and a partner – and while you might still be able to be friends, that relationship is never going to be the same.
What’s more though, you also lose all your plans for the future with that person. If a relationship lasts more than a year, then it’s normal to begin making plans, however vague, that might involve getting a house, moving to another part of the country, changing careers, going travelling… or all of the above. Many of us will have already made big sacrifices for our friends and changed our lifestyles in big ways at this point.
Then there are all the photos and the things that remind you of that person – that you now have very mixed feelings about. And there are the friends you shared together and the new family members you may have come to love – in a single moment you lose all these things.
If your friend has been ‘dumped’, then they might also have suffered a major blow to their confidence. They will probably be feeling unwanted, unattractive or just unsure of how they can open themselves up again to someone else.
This is only scratching the surface of the myriad emotions and complications that come out of a breakup. So the first and most important piece of advice is to take this strongly into account and to realize the scope of their pain.
Everyone Is Different
That said, none of this might apply in your friend or family member’s particular case. Everyone is different and moreover, every relationship is different. Of course someone who has been in a five year relationship is going to take a breakup very differently than someone who has only been in a relationship for a few months. Then again though, the intensity of the relationship can also play a big part – a short but intense relationship may actually be more traumatizing than a long one that wasn’t as involving. Likewise, if someone has staked a lot of their future and their plans in that other person and invested in them emotionally, they will likely be more distraught than if they were more cold and distant. Some people similarly ‘feel’ their emotions more intensely than others.
So everyone is different and you should let them take the lead and set the tone for your discussions. That said though, you need to understand just how deeply they may be hurting – and that this isn’t something that will go away overnight.
Things Not to Do
In many ways it may be easier to look at the things you shouldn’t do, rather than the things you should. Be supportive the best way you know how but likewise, try to avoid these common faux pas.
A big mistake that many people make is to get too angry on their friend’s behalf. This isn’t an opportunity to start shouting and ranting about their ex – even if you always had mixed feelings about them. Remember that there is a chance they will get back together (which will make things pretty awkward if you said some choice things) and at the same time, they probably still love that person and certainly like them. While they might be angry, it doesn’t mean they want to hear your character assassination.
This is a hard one as pretty much anyone human is going to be itching to hear all of the gory details post breakup. Keep in mind though that this isn’t helpful and they may not be ready to talk about what happened. In fact, it may be personal meaning that they don’t want to talk about it at all.
Be Devil’s Advocate
It’s great to have a balanced attitude to life but this is not the time to defend the ex. Your job here is really to be impartial and to just listen and express sympathy.
Make it About You
Remember when we said that every person and every relationship is different? That’s why you can’t necessarily compare one with the other – and it’s why it’s not helpful to tell your friend how what they’re going through is ‘just like’ what you had with your ex. This isn’t helpful and it removes the focus from the one who needs to be speaking.
Again, it bears repeating that your job is to listen not to offer advice. While you likely don’t mean it that way, advice often comes across as if you’re belittling what that person is going through. Not everything can be ‘fixed’ and there’s a good chance you won’t know all the ins and outs of the situation – so don’t try and ride in and save the day – it’s just irritating.
In the Short Term
When you first get the news, all you can do is to head over to your friend or relative’s home and then explain that you’re sorry and listen to their side of the story.
It also doesn’t hurt to bring with you a few things to eat and drink. If they’ve been crying or haven’t had much sleep, then their body will probably be craving vitamins, minerals and replenishing these can actually help them to feel a lot better. Going outside for a walk is also a good move and if you can convince them to take a bath, they’ll feel a lot more human. The old cliché of binging on chocolate ice cream also isn’t a terrible idea, as chocolate contains tryptophan, a precursor to serotonin.
While you want to listen to their side of the story and be someone for them to talk to, you should also try to turn the conversation to more cheerful things after a while and lighten the mood. Don’t be disrespectful but it doesn’t hurt to have a laugh over some aspects of the situation, or to put something jolly on TV.
In the Long Term
The mistake in the long term is to head over once or twice and then think you’ve ‘done your duty’. This person will have just gone from messaging someone or speaking to someone nearly every day, to feeling very alone. Checking in with a text or a phone call to see how they’re doing can go a long way to making them feel loved and cared for. Likewise, turning up out of the blue can help to get them out of a slump. Once they’ve had a little time to heal, try to make sure you invite them to lots of events and generally do whatever you can to keep them busy. This way you’ll be able to get them out of their own head and out of their usual environment and to distract them for a while and that can actually do a world of good.
Ultimately, the point to keep in mind is that you can’t make it ‘okay’ and really all you can do is to listen and to be a shoulder to cry on. This is enough though and as long as you keep them in mind and try to include them in activities/check in on them from time to time, you will have done your duty as a friend.