How to Deal with a Breakup in Your 20s
It's a rocky road back to happiness, but get over yourself—it's a road that's been traversed before.
Photos by Chris Bethell
Congratulations! You've probably reached this page because it's 3 AM, and you're googling self-help advice and some variation on the words: "Am I dead?" Has this broken heart stopped my blood from working?
Good news: You are not dead. Bad news: You are very much going through a breakup, which means the next week to a month is going to be quite unpleasant. You'll struggle to engage on any meaningful level with other human beings; you'll need to see an actual doctor for a second opinion on that mole; you will believe, with absolute conviction, that this is it now: that your Saga Cruise years will just be you, alone, throwing bread at birds.
But don't fret: There's a template for you misery. When we lose someone close to us, we go through the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Anger, in this realm, is where you unfollow your ex on every social media platform and then immediately regret it because you now can't refresh their Snapchat story every half hour. Depression is the mold on those six ketchupy plates by your door becoming sentient. Acceptance is finally washing those plates.
It's a rocky road to happiness, but get over yourself—it's a road that's been traversed before. Here is some tried and tested advice to help you along the way.
Have Somewhere to Be in the Morning
This sounds simple, but when you're truly hurting, it's very easy to wake up, think, Fuck all of today, go back to sleep, wake up again, call in sick, scroll through your ex's Instagram, willing ten new photos to suddenly appear, cry for a bit when they don't, go back to sleep, wake up again, have a deeply, deeply sad masturbation sesh to whatever PornHub URL your browser auto-fills, put a hoody on, go to the pub, and spend the rest of the day drinking vodka mixers out of a pint glass.
This, clearly, is no way to live. Carry on like this, and you'll get bed sores and cirrhosis. You need to get out. Rent a bike, swim in a pond, borrow a dog, talk to your mom—anything that will put some wind in your sails. If the only interactions you're having are with Domino's delivery guys, you're going to feel this way for a long, long time.
Get a Friend to Clear Out Your Phone
After one week—one Week, that is, not "when I'm ready"—ask a friend to wipe your phone clean of any emotionally loaded photos, messages, and videos. This must be a friend you trust, because they are going to see some blindingly close-up photos of your genitals and have to read the 100-text-long threads that descend into language so saccharine it could give you diabetes. It all has to go. All of it. And physical keepsakes, too; this isn't a Netflix documentary where forensically combing over old evidence might reverse the course of justice or bring to light something new. This is reality, where looking through an iCloud full of memories and clumsy iPhone sex videos just makes you feel empty inside.
Don't Fuck the Person Who Tries to Fuck You
It's the first weekend of "freedom," the reality of your breakup hasn't hit home yet, and an acquaintance catches wind of your singledom, sliding into your DMs the way Russia slid into Ukraine: aggressively. You're vaguely flattered. Best way to get over someone is to get under someone, right? It'll be like shaking an Etch-a-Sketch into a hard reset, only with slapping sounds. Go on then... just one drink…
This is a mistake. You do not know true sadness until you've gone home with a man because "it might be a good idea," realized they wear a kimono around the house, woken up to their snoring dad-bod, and cried silently while trying to slip out from under their arm. By the time he's offered to make you "shakshuka," you will be shaking uncontrollably.
Do, However, Make a 'Bang List'
Here's what you need to do: Split the paper into three columns—"past fucks I might be able to revisit," "new people I vaguely know and might plausibly end up sleeping with," and then what we call "prestige pulls," a.k.a. everyone you fancy who is famous but not famous enough to only sleep with other famous people: your Rita Oras, your Richard Bacons, that guy who was a love interest in a Rihanna video. The bang list is an abstract concept; you don't actually have to bang anyone on it, but it is a great way to remind yourself that other hot people are out there, whether or not they know you exist.
Ignore 90 Percent of Your Friends' Advice
It turns out that your pals—your hilarious, smart, dragged you three miles to your bed that time you passed out at that bar pals—are actually terrible at relationship advice. Mostly they just want to tell you what's wrong about their relationship—"If he's already going out with his friends it means, he's probably been gay all along"—or give you the platitudes normally reserved for fridge magnets and grandmothers: "The fact he cheated means he's not ready for a relationship;" "if it's meant to be you'll get back together in the future;" "it's important to learn how to be on your own," etc, etc.
It's good to talk to people about how you're feeling, but it's also good to ignore everything they say.
Do Not Speak to Your Ex
Would you eat a perfectly raw chicken breast? Would you have a bath with a hairdryer? Before going into major surgery, would you say, "Oh no, thanks, I think I'll waive the anesthetic today because I'm feeling quite brave!"? No? Then why would you call your ex at 10:38 PM and cross-question them about everyone they've slept with in the two weeks since you broke up, and was the sex better, and did they do the thing you know they like? When it comes to breakups, it's not true that knowledge is power. Knowledge is misery. Knowledge is the thought of your ex climaxing in the loving embrace of Steve from her work. You really don't want knowledge.
Be Prepared for Their Phone Call
Without fail, three weeks after the breakup, the former love of your life—who, at this point, is coming down and so is more pathetic than usual—will call you early on a Sunday morning and say they've made a terrible mistake. All you'll want to do, of course, is go around, wash their hair for them, make them pasta, and watch Netflix until that little note pops up asking you if you're still alive.
But remember this: You know when you're quitting smoking they say three weeks is the point at which it starts to get easier—the point at which you've coughed up all the tar and are once again able to jog short distances without very nearly dying? Same rule applies to breakups. Generally, it's around the three-week mark that life starts to get better, so don't get pulled back in. Stay at home and do whatever boring stay-at-home activities you do now you're single. Make your brown rice lunches and read the New Yorker. And if you ever feel tempted, just think about your friend who's stuck in Groundhog Day breakup limbo with their awful, awful ex, and thank the moon and the skies that you are not them.
Keep Crazy Behavior to a Minimum
After all the "acting like the bigger person" and "taking the high road," it can be incredibly cathartic to give in to how you're feeling, screengrab your ex's most recent Instagram of them with some random, and send it to them with caption: "WHO THE FUCK IS THIS?" Let me tell you from experience that they're only going to reply with something like: "It's my friend Ben… who you would have met if you came to his birthday instead of canceling last minute because you were 'bloated.'" Then they'll probably block you. So try to exercise some self restraint when you feel jealous. Hashtagging "micropenis" under all of your ex's photos or calling their mom for a "chat" is at best going to make you look childish, and at worst earn you a court order.
But if You Have to Engage in Psychological Warfare, Win
If you really do want to make your ex as miserable as you are, instead of out and out harassment like the above, it's more effective—and, importantly, less traceable—to stir up a constant sense of dread deep within them through calculated socializing and social media manipulation. Post an Instagram of you and another one of their exes going for a drink with the caption "catching up." Change your Facebook profile picture to something a bit booby that is going to get 4 million likes (which your ex will interpret as 4 million people wanting to sleep with you). Take a photo of a tree and location tag it in the hometown of the childhood sweetheart your ex was always jealous of. Be smart. Be a winner.
Don't Pretend You 'Need to Do a Stuff Swap'
There is absolutely no circumstance under which "a stuff swap" is anything other than an excuse to see each other. On neutral ground, where no one fancies welling up publicly, it's just a perverse reenactment of the breakup you literally just had. If you really, truly need that cheese plant back, consider sending an Uber and an invoice, or setting up a PO box.
If You Run into Your Ex, Try to Keep Calm
For incredibly obvious reasons. But in case it needs explaining: Screaming and crying and hiding is not a cool vibe.
Beware of Using This as an Opportunity to Date 'New Kinds of People'
Slowly and surely, you'll find yourself ready to move on, and it's only natural that you'll want to steer clear of people who look like your ex's doppelganger; no one wants to have relationship PTSD on a Monday night B@1 date. But be warned that drastically changing your "type" isn't necessarily a good idea, either. You might think you want a change, but when you starting meeting up with men who are pointing at the camera in their Tinder profile picture, or wild-eyed girls who describe themselves as a "free spirit," you will quickly discover that "not-awful" and "vaguely self-aware" were your dating criteria for a reason.
Follow Amelia Abraham on Twitter.