Love Better

Deadlines Don’t Wait: How Students Cope with Break-Ups During Exam Season

Surviving a study season split is possible. Support workers tell us how.
university classroom

It’s your first day in Halls and the common room is packed with expectant freshers waiting for their welcome induction. The RAs get up to speak and, within a minute, there’s that overused statistic— “one third of people meet their future spouse while at university”. Nervous laughs echo around the room of fresh-outta-high school faces. The pressure is on.

Students go through multiple defining life experiences while at university, and many of them involve getting into – or falling out of – relationships. While the future-spouse premonition may be true for some love-birds, for the remaining two-thirds of us, we’ve got a less sparkly fate to look forward to: breaking up.


Emotions run high for any under-grad student who is juggling part-time jobs, course workload, exams and study stress. Throw in a break-up and you’ve got a pressure cooker of emotions ready to blow.

To prevent an emotional disaster akin to a failed dorm room rice-cooker meal, how can students prevent chaos? 

VICE NZ sat down with university student support workers to find out how to stay sane in the wake of a university break-up.

Ludo Palffy is a Victoria University student and a senior leader in The Bubble, a student community space at VUW that provides space for study, snacking, catch-ups, or reaching out for help. 

Palffy’s main role, he says, is peer support. “Even if it's just a conversation, I'm not underestimating the power of talking to another student and relating to them. Let them know, you're not alone.”

Many of the challenges students come to Palffy about revolve around the stress of study and assignment build up. University is hard on its own – add in emotional stress from changes in one’s personal life, whether it’s a break-up or another difficult period, and you put that emotional pressure cooker on high.

While students aren’t always open about personal challenges, “even without talking explicitly about break-ups, you could tell people were struggling more emotionally, [and] their study experience was really suffering as well,” Palffy said.

The sentiment is shared by Penny Lyall, a wellbeing advocate with Te Tira Ahu Pae, Massey University’s Student Association. She’s been working in the student support space since 2006 and, in that time, she’s seen a lot of change. “There's a high level of emotional distress generally, for students these days,” she says.


Students’ ability to focus on study is impacted by many circumstances outside of their control – at Massey University, the staff cuts and ensuing department changes are actively impacting student’s futures at university. Combined with a break-up, it creates a “double whammy”, Lyall says.

While the emotions of a break-up are tough, it can impact other aspects of life, like the ability to afford rent on a noodle-thin student budget if you previously lived and split costs with a partner. “If it was an unpleasant break-up, they may be sleeping on a friend's couch and it’s exams,” she adds.

For break-ups, or other emotional challenges, Palffy’s first step is recommending counselling. Many students have been put off these services because “they didn't gel with the therapist or it wasn't quite the right style or at the right time for them.”

In Aotearoa, there’s a stigma about opening up about personal challenges, something Palffy definitely notices. “I feel like people are more likely to put a front on and hide, rather than talk about it.”

He doesn’t underestimate the power of self-disclosure – that is, sharing your own stories and validating how tough it is to “put on a brave face” and focus on uni when relationships or other difficulties are taking up space. 

“If you can be vulnerable with someone, then you're opening up the potential for them to be vulnerable with you and create a huge ripple effect,” he says.


Lyall is not a counsellor, so she also strongly suggests students seek out those services where needed. In the advocacy space there is emphasis on “practical solutions''. That might mean accessing hardship grants if your ability to afford rental costs has changed through separating from a partner you previously lived with, or finding emergency accommodation.

But these sorts of actions aren’t easy. Lyall suggests looking at the study workload to see if there’s any way to take some pressure off. Another option is accessing an impaired performance application, which requires proof of distress and is based on academic results already delivered.

“Above all else, and I say this no matter what the scenario, is that a student's mental health comes first, academics come second.” Lyall says. “The most important thing is if there is emotional distress, to allow themselves to grieve.”

Lyall suggests strategies to balance emotions and study – like making a schedule not just for study and work, but for time to process and feel emotions. “What you can try to do is say, ‘Okay, right, I'm going to dedicate certain times when I'm just in it’, and that might be speaking to your best friend or your mum about it.”

“If worse comes to worst, you can always sit exams again, you can always re-study. Just because it's invisible, doesn't mean that your mental health is not important.”

The pressure cooker of student life combines many things: University staff cuts, living costs, study stress and academic pressure – all of which are confounded by break-ups. There’s no silver bullet to make things easier. But accessing help in the form of counselling or support services, opening up to friends and loved ones, and prioritising mental health first and foremost, can all ease the pressure.


 Own the Feels is brought to you by #LoveBetter, a campaign funded by the Ministry for Social Development.

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Maia Ingoe is a writer based in Wellington, Aotearoa.