Friendship

14 Things That Will *Actually* Help A Friend Through A Breakup

Including an Ariana Grande-inspired token of affection.

A woman supports her friend after a bad breakup. Experts & people who've been there share how to hel...
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Sometimes, you’re Elle Woods getting unceremoniously dumped by Warner Huntington III; other times, you’re the sorority sister dragging Elle out of bed and to the nail salon. While helping a friend with a breakup doesn’t mean you have to cram for the LSAT with them, your role in getting your bestie through their relationship’s end depends on what, exactly, your BFF needs.

“I felt like I was dying,” Colleen, 28, tells Bustle, of one of her own bad break-ups. “I thought it would be fine after a while but it really wasn’t. It just kind of got worse, particularly because they moved on first and then got married! Super quickly! It was awful. And all my friends got invitations.

The first step to helping someone with a breakup is acknowledging that the process is similar to, well, any other kind of loss. “Your friend is most likely grieving right now,” therapist Heidi McBain, LMFT, tells Bustle. Supporting somebody through that grieving process can be multi-faceted and sometimes a bit counter-intuitive. Not everybody needs the day-spa-and-red-lipstick treatment; sometimes giving them space, or filling their freezer with food, is the most helpful way to help a heartbroken friend move forward, therapists say.

Here's a list of potential ideas on how to help a friend through a breakup.

Remind Them They Haven't "Failed"

Feeling low after a breakup is very common; a 2019 study in PLoS One found that people who were heartbroken were likely to develop symptoms of depression. And one of the distinctive features of depression for a lot of people is a feeling of failure, or that they’ve somehow let those around them down. It can be helpful to remind your friend, first and foremost, that they haven't “failed” because their relationship didn’t work out.

“Not only are they grieving the loss of their ex-partner, but they are also grieving other losses like dreams for the future, shared social connections, their identity as part of a couple, and their support system,” Talkspace therapist Liz Kelly, LICSW tells Bustle. That can feel like a big round of zeros on life’s exam — but as a friend, you can remind them that this isn’t true. She suggests using scripts like, “I know this is a really hard time for you and I am here to support you.”

Be Mindful Of Your Phrasing

It can be hard to figure out how to help someone through a breakup without tripping over your words. “Most of us didn’t learn much about negative emotions growing up, so when people we care about have them, we sometimes feel uncomfortable,” life coach and grief expert Krista St-Germain tells Bustle. That might mean you scramble to solve or fix their feelings by hyping them up or distracting them because you’re not sure how to deal with their sadness.

But that has a tendency to backfire. “If one more person told me it would all be fine and I’d meet my special someone some day, I would have resulted to violence,” Colleen says.

“Negative emotion is a normal part of breakups, not a problem to be solved,” St-Germain says. She doesn’t recommend saying things like, “You’re better off without them,” as that might minimize their grief. There’s also a risk to being Ms. Silver Lining and using statements like "You get to be single now! This will be awesome!"

“Have empathy and compassion,” McBain says. “Have space for their pain, as well as hope that things will get better in the future.” A potential script might be something like, "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." “If you aren’t sure what to say to your friend, that’s OK, too,” Kelly says.

Encourage Them To Spend Quality Time Alone

Experts say it can be helpful to make sure they are spending quality time alone with themselves, if they’re not ready to hang out with others (including you) just yet. You might want to save this for the period when they have more time and space away from the initial hurt and pain, McBain says. “Then, they may be ready for next steps.”

McBain notes that meditation or journaling can be helpful, but that it’s not necessarily for everybody. “Suggest things like starting individual therapy or finding a support group, or ways to volunteer and give back,” she says.

Offer Practical Help

It’s sometimes 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 your BFF. One way to provide some assistance? Blocking their ex on social media for them. A study published in 2015 in Information, Communication and Society found that seeing ex-related content on Facebook, whether it was new stuff or old memories, significantly increased peoples’ distress after a breakup. Going through and hitting the Block button on all their feeds if they feel they can’t do it themselves may be a really easy way to help.

Hear Their Frustration — Without Bashing Their Ex

“Avoid negative comments about the ex,” Talkspace therapist Cynthia Catchings, LCSW-S LCSW-C tells Bustle. “You are there to support your friend, not to attack anyone else.” Talking smack can have drawbacks, even if it makes you or your bestie feel better in the moment: A study in 2011 published in Journal of Family Psychology revealed that the happier the relationship had been, the easier the breakup actually was. Things still sucked, but their satisfaction with life didn’t plummet. So focusing on the good parts of the relationship — or at least not emphasizing the bad — may help your friend to adjust.

Be Their "Get Out Of Jail Free" Card

If 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. If you're lucky enough to be in the same city, offering to take them on a daytrip over the weekend can also work.

There’s little data on whether jetting to another place can help the broken-hearted, but studies on depression reveal that a new place or experience can be a boost. A 2020 study published in Frontiers in Psychology found that people who were novelty-seeking — as in, they actively looked for new things — were less likely to experience stress, anxiety, or depression. So taking in a fresh environment may really boost your friend’s mood, particularly if they’re usually an adventurous type.

“I flew to Toronto to see my best friend after my breakup with my last partner,” Bette, 33, tells Bustle. “She booked the tickets for me and it was awesome, even if it was really cold.”

Open Your Home To Them

If you live nearby, let them know your home is open for them to come and vent. “[The invitation] is a way to counteract feelings of loneliness or abandonment, which is often what someone is feeling post break-up,” Catchings says. If they need a couch to crash on for the night, or just to come over, you can also 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 a place for them to escape can be very helpful.

Revisit The Big Night Out

It can be tempting to get them back on the horse, so to speak, but it may end up being counter-productive, experts say. “As tempting as it might be to soothe your friend’s sorrow with a boozy night out, alcohol makes feelings of depression and anxiety worse,” Kelly says. And Catchings adds that encouraging them into a rebound or a new relationship too quickly could make them feel rushed, or like their feelings are going unheard. If you’re wanting to spend time with them, Kelly suggests things like walking, a joint yoga class, or just sitting in the kitchen of your apartment making pasta.

Keep Checking In — But Take Your Cues From Them

Take cues from your friend's responses, but text and call whenever you feel like it might be welcomed. If you're worried you're checking in too much, ask — but chances are, they appreciate the extra support. According to a study published in Families, Relationships and Societies in 2019, relationship breakdowns can often challenge friendships, too, as everybody adjusts to the new dynamic. Reassuring a friend going through a breakup that you’re still present in their life can help smooth the transition.

“If in doubt, ask your friend how you can keep supporting them,” Catchings says. “What feels good to them?” Maybe they’ll want a movie night, a few long weepy phone chats, or just an occasional .gif of a corgi. And expect some zigzags. “Grief is not linear, and there’s no timeline to do it in,” St-Germain says. Some days for them may be way worse than others, though hopefully they’ll feel better over time.

Mark Your Calendar

Some dates post-breakup will hurt a lot more than others: anniversaries, first kisses, birthdays. “Continue checking in with them on a regular basis and ask if there are any particular dates or events coming up that may trigger difficult emotions,” Catchings says. Mark those dates down and try to check on them around the day, even if it’s just a casual hello.

Get Them A Token Of Your Friendship

Remember Ariana Grande’s banger “7 Rings,” where she sang about buying “matching diamonds for six of my bitches” after her engagement to Pete Davidson fell through? Maybe you don’t have “thank u, next” levels of money to splash on your friend in Tiffany’s, but buying a token for them, like a ring, can be a helpful way to cement how much you love and support each other.

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. Studies reveal that breakups can really mess with somebody’s self-concept, or how they feel about their own identity; being really bonded to a partner means that when they’re gone, you can wonder who you are without them. A 2011 study published in Personal Relationships found that people who felt confused about their identity after a breakup had a harder time getting over it emotionally. Reinvention might give them more clarity about who they really are and what they love about themselves without their ex.

Do What They Once Did For You

Not sure how to help your friend through a breakup? Remember the times they’ve helped you through really hard periods — it could be a guide to the sort of support they really value. “Think about your friend's personality and what they have mentioned or done to support you or others,” Catchings says. “Using a similar approach may be appreciated.” If they made you meals when you were really down, show up with a lasagna; if they’re more about random acts of Venmo, send them $5 to grab a fancy coffee.

Remember That It's Not Your Job To Fix It

“Although you probably want to bring your proverbial tool box to try to heal and fix their pain quickly, what they probably need most from you in this space is support,” McBain says. While it may be your instinct to try to take the pain away, Kelly explains, it’s your place to offer support, space, and healing, not a magic wand. Sometimes the healthiest thing you can do, as a friend, is simply be the person who listens to all their painful feelings, while handing them fresh cups of tea.

When you’re helping a friend who’s going through a breakup, you also need to take care of yourself, Catchings says. “You will need to have the energy and enthusiasm to inject your friend with positive vibes and thoughts,” she says. “So, make sure you sleep well, eat healthily, and lean into your own support systems.” Coordinate your support schedule with the rest of the group chat so nobody starts to feel burned out.

Whenever you suspect your friend is feeling low, tailor your response to what you think they’ll like. “Everybody’s different,” Catchings says. Nab a bunch of their favorite flowers, queue up a Spotify of their most-loved guilty tunes, and give them the recovery time they need.

Experts:

Cynthia Catchings LCSW-S LCSW-C

Liz Kelly LICSW

Heidi McBain LMFT

Krista St-Germain

Studies cited:

Aeby, G & van Hooff, J (2019) Who gets custody of the friends? Online narratives of dealing with changes in friendship networks following relationship breakdown. Families, Relationships and Societies, 8 (3), pp. 411-426

Kuria, M. W., Ndetei, D. M., Obot, I. S., Khasakhala, L. I., Bagaka, B. M., Mbugua, M. N., & Kamau, J. (2012). The Association between Alcohol Dependence and Depression before and after Treatment for Alcohol Dependence. ISRN psychiatry, 2012, 482802. https://doi.org/10.5402/2012/482802

Li, W. W., Yu, H., Miller, D. J., Yang, F., & Rouen, C. (2020). Novelty Seeking and Mental Health in Chinese University Students Before, During, and After the COVID-19 Pandemic Lockdown: A Longitudinal Study. Frontiers in psychology, 11, 600739. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2020.600739

Lukacs, V., & Quan-Haase, A. (2015). Romantic breakups on Facebook: New scales for studying post-breakup behaviors, digital distress, and surveillance. Information, Communication & Society, 18(5), 492–508. https://doi.org/10.1080/1369118X.2015.1008540

Marchetti, I., Everaert, J., Dainer-Best, J., Loeys, T., Beevers, C. G., & Koster, E. (2018). Specificity and overlap of attention and memory biases in depression. Journal of affective disorders, 225, 404–412. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jad.2017.08.037

Mason, A. E., Law, R. W., Bryan, A. E., Portley, R. M., & Sbarra, D. A. (2012). Facing a breakup: Electromyographic responses moderate self-concept recovery following a romantic separation. Personal Relationships, 19(3), 551–568. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1475-6811.2011.01378.x

Rhoades, G. K., Kamp Dush, C. M., Atkins, D. C., Stanley, S. M., & Markman, H. J. (2011). Breaking up is hard to do: the impact of unmarried relationship dissolution on mental health and life satisfaction. Journal of family psychology : JFP : journal of the Division of Family Psychology of the American Psychological Association (Division 43), 25(3), 366–374. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0023627

Slotter, E. B., Gardner, W. L., & Finkel, E. J. (2010). Who Am I Without You? The Influence of Romantic Breakup on the Self-Concept. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 36(2), 147–160. https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167209352250

Verhallen, A. M., Renken, R. J., Marsman, J. C., & Ter Horst, G. J. (2019). Romantic relationship breakup: An experimental model to study effects of stress on depression (-like) symptoms. PloS one, 14(5), e0217320. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0217320

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