Even if you somehow manage to never experience a bad breakup yourself, all of us will have at least one friend going through a bad breakup at some point. It's just a part of life — but as friends, seeing our BFFs in pain we can't fix can feel especially helpless. We know the standard things you're supposed to do, and much of it is intuitive — go over to their house and cuddle up to some TV and a pint of ice cream. But really bad breakups can be long and drawn-out, and you can't live on your friend's couch through all of it. What's a friend to do?
This past year, I helped one friend from college through an especially tough divorce, and got a crash course in learning how I, as her best friend, could help her through the breakup. Now, my best friend from high school, Liana, is going through a painful breakup that also involves the difficult logistics of dividing a household up. She lives in Portland, Oregon and I live in LA, so I've been doing my best to help from afar.
As someone in the midst of this, I decided to give Liana a call and ask her what her friends have been doing that's been helpful as she goes through this breakup. Here's the list of little ways to help a friend going through a breakup that we came up with together.
Remind Them They Haven't "Failed"
We tend to speak about breakups as if they are somehow failures, as if the more years you're with someone you're somehow "winning" the game of life. Well, that's just BS — if the relationship isn't working, or has simply run its course, there is zero failure in acknowledging that. In fact, it's very brave.
For this reason, I think it's important to remind your friend, first and foremost, that they haven't "failed." Celebrate the lessons they learned from this relationship, and help remind them how it wasn't a waste of their time — they now know with more clarity what they want and need in a partner, and had valuable practice being in a relationship. If their relationship was toxic, you can celebrate their strength for leaving it behind, and remind them that they've still learned valuable lessons from the experience.
Don't Victimize Them — Or Overstate Silver Linings
Acknowledge their pain, but avoid using pitying language that makes them feel victimized ("How dare he do this to you! He's evil!"). Being Ms. Silver Lining is also annoying ("You get to be single now! This will be awesome!"), but you can walk that line between hearing her pain and reminding her of the exciting things that will likely grow out of it ("I'm so sorry you're having to feel all this right now. But I truly believe something exciting for you is on the other side of this").
Encourage Them To Spend Quality Time Alone
One of the first pieces of advice I give my friends going through bad breakups is to try to make sure they are spending quality time alone with themselves. That means trying to do something every day that feels good and doable — like committing to taking a walk to a cafe alone a few times a week and ordering their favorite latte. Acknowledge that you know this isn't an easy time for them to be alone with their thoughts right now, but that confronting them is crucial to feeling less helpless.
"Making sure that I was not becoming a hermit and doing things I felt good about has been helpful and empowering," Liana tells me. They don't have to meditate or journal if that's not their style or is too intense right now — you just need to encourage them to do activities that will help them remember they are strong, independent people who can spend time with themselves.
Suggest The Fear/Love Gut-Check
When I make decisions based in blind fear, I usually regret them. When I make decisions based in love — even if that means compassionately acknowledging my fear and listing to it with awareness — I don't regret a thing. While you're encouraging your friend to spend more time alone, suggest that gut-check as a way for her to begin listening to herself with increased clarity.
So, for example, if she's wondering if she should stay home and watch TV or make herself go out, encourage her to do the fear/love check-in. Sometimes the more compassionate, loving thing will be to listen to her own need to curl up and comfort herself. Sometimes, that check-in will reveal that the only reason she isn't going out to that concert alone is fear that she'll look lame. So long as she keeps trying to follow the direction of love, she can rest assured she's making the right choice.
"I feel like I've experienced so many things in relation to how [my ex] would see them over the last few years," Liana says. "Being able to find my own point of reference and stuff I can do with alone time, or something as simple as remembering I can make my own choices, has been empowering."
Offer Practical Help
As with anyone in crisis, it's better to offer tangible help than to simply ask "What can I do?" — since that places the onus for coming up with a task on the person in pain.
"I had a couple friends who were like, 'I'm coming over now,' and we watched TV and ate ice cream, and that was helpful," Liana says. "The most useful thing, though, are friends who are able to keep approaching me and give options for what they can do — like helping me move furniture — rather than just saying 'whatever I can do to help, let me know.' Friends who've been specific — saying, 'I'm making cookies, I'm bringing you some.' That's meant a lot."
Hear Their Frustration — But Don't Bash Their Ex
If they're venting, it can be tempting to bash their ex with them, especially if they were a jerk. But if you talk smack about their ex, your friend will resent it — it's like you're saying they had bad taste that whole time — and why didn't you tell them what you really thought earlier? It's like family — you can talk sh*t about your parents, but if anyone else does, you get offended. So while you should acknowledge your friend's anger, saying things like, "ugh, that sucks" or, "I'm really glad you're standing up for yourself," is much more useful now than airing all the grievances you had with their ex.
Be Their "Get Out Of Jail Free" Card
If you can swing it and you live far apart, one of the best things you can do is to let your friend know you will help pay for their gas or ticket to visit you. I told Liana that I would come visit her, but that she can also come stay with me anytime. "When you offered a get out of jail card, that was helpful," Liana says. "It reminded me that, hey, there's a world outside of what's going on with me, and I can go there whenever I need to."
If you're lucky enough to be in the same city, offering to take them on a daytrip over the weekend is also great. I took my best friend going through a divorce on a weekend trip earlier this year, and it was the best money I've ever spent. It was quality time for us to have together, I got to get out of town too, and it lifted her spirits more than I'd seen in months.
Make It Clear Your Home Is A Safe Space
If you live nearby, let them know your home is open. If they need a couch to crash on for the night, or just to come over and vent, it's key you make it explicit that they aren't imposing. Of course, you have to set the boundaries that are right for you (and the people you live with) but just stating explicitly that your place is a safe space is super useful to hear, even it seems obvious to you.
Keep Checking In — But Take Your Cues From Them
After she told me about her breakup, I texted Liana some sort of reminder that she was not alone every day. After a week, though, I started to wonder if I was cramping her style — or maybe reminding her too much of what was going on. Was it helpful to check in so much? "I think it depends on the context," Liana says. "If it's a more prolonged breakup, like where you're still living together, more check-ins are good —you're reminded every day what's happening anyway, so the check-ins are just reminders that you're not alone."
She suggests taking cues from your friend's responses, but texting or calling whenever you feel like it. If you're worried you're checking in too much, just ask them if you are — but chances are, they appreciate the extra support. Part of what's so hard about breaking up with a partner is the feeling that you've lost that person you can text random things to, or give the most mundane updates to. Remind them that you are still that person.
Send A Care Package
Put together a personalized care box of things you know they'll love off Amazon, or subscribe them to a beauty box (I love the LOVE GOODLY box, personally). Sometimes getting a present at your door really does help — especially if it's stuff to pamper them, or inside jokes that will make them laugh.
Offer To Help Them Reinvent
If you live nearby enough, offer to help your friend redecorate their space, clear out their closet, get a haircut, or otherwise get their fresh start.
"I had a neighbor suggest I throw a housewarming party to make my place feel new again," Liana says. "That was something I hadn't thought of, and it was helpful." If you have the means and don't live in the same city, now might also be the perfect time to splurge on that ticket to see them and help them yourself. You can't have her getting some drastic haircut without you!
Make Them A Special Breakup Playlist
A breakup playlist filled with plenty of Fiona Apple is where it's at — but it also doesn't need to all be sad or angry songs. Songs that will remind your friend of great times you've had together and life before their ex are also important! What matters most is that you take the time to do it.
Remember That It's Not Your Job To Fix It
When I went through my first time supporting-a-friend-through-a-really-bad-breakup in my early 20s, my impulse was to try to "fix" her situation. I wanted her to leave him sooner, to cut off communication, to just move on. I wanted to fix it by telling her what to do — and it never worked. That experience taught me that you can't rush your friend's process, no matter how much you might want to. You can listen, you can make your opinion known, you can set boundaries, offer support and help — but you can't fix their pain. You can just bear witness to it.
If you expect yourself to fix things, you're making their breakup about you — and that's actually selfish. Do your best to remind yourself that it is not on you to fix their pain or situation, and that the best thing you can do is to give what support you can genuinely offer without resentment, exhaustion, or desire for payback.
Get Them A Magic Ring
When I was in high school, I inherited a diamond ring from my grandmother, and wore it all the time. By the time I went off to college, though, it began to feel like it wasn't meant for my finger anymore. I wanted to give Liana the ring as a promise that we would stay in touch and always be friends. I liked the idea that we would pass it back and forth as the years went on whenever the other person needed it. She wore that ring all through college and then some, and then gave it back to me for safekeeping. I've felt a sense of comfort and protection whenever I wear it — it's like our Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, only somehow more romantic. Now, I will be gifting the ring back to her. I know she'll pass it back to me at a time when I need it down the road, and that brings me comfort.
Women especially are taught to covet the idea of the marital engagement ring as some measure of adulthood or security in our society. Give your friend a ring (fancy diamond or not) and you are reminding her that she can wear that sense of security anytime she wants — and that she is far from alone. The meaning behind the gift will give her the sense of protection she needs right now, and if you agree to share the ring over your lifetimes, it is also a promise to her: romantic relationships may come and go, but this friendship is for life.
Images: Rachel Krantz/Instagram, Rachel Krantz; Giphy