The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

I thought I was going to marry her. After we broke up, here’s how I coped.

(Washington Post illustrator; iStock)

Bennifer. Charlize Theron and Sean Penn. Kermit and Miss Piggy. (I’m not quite over that last one.)

Couples break up all the time. And while each split is different, for me, the first three months were the hardest. My girlfriend of three years and I broke up around Christmas, and I’m starting to feel like a normal human being again.

I thought I was headed toward marriage and children with this person, so adjusting to being single has at times been excruciatingly lonely and disorienting. We know all about the destructive ways of “dealing” with a breakup — drunk-dialing; sleeping with your ex or shamelessly trying to; eating bad food and washing it down with a bottle of whiskey. But here are some more productive things I’ve done to cope over the past few months.

Regular exercise

After going through a breakup, it’s easy to get hyper-critical of your body – its size, shape, how it looks in what used to be your favorite outfit. A few years ago, a woman broke up with me and moved to Chicago with her new dude; the next few weeks I ran six miles, then nine, 12, 15 all the way until I ran a marathon on my own one afternoon before collapsing in my bed and sleeping for two days. It burnt all the anger and unsettled feelings out of me. Exercise releases endorphins in the brain, which can reduce the body’s perception of pain and trigger a positive feelings. So I always recommend getting outside, realizing you’re one of many, many oddly shaped people — and sweating out some of that pain.

Going to the movies

We know that time heals, so if only you could fast-forward a bit, right? In my experience, sitting in a dark theater and escaping to another time, place and story helps to endure or even forget about a broken heart. My ex and I would often spend Monday nights together, so now I go to the $6 movie Monday nights. I watched “Creed” the day after we split – not my favorite movie, but I didn’t care because it wasn’t my life happening for those three hours. As time passed, I saw more films: “Spotlight” because I’m a writer; “The Big Short” because I’m a financially uninformed citizen; and “The Night Before” because sometimes it’s okay just to get stoned and stare at bright lights.

Take a weekend trip

I’m not a rich person, but saving a bit of money and going away for a night or two is wonderful. After my breakup, I was lucky enough to take a trip to New York City to see friends, stay up late, try a new restaurant — do anything but think about the breakup. If you can save $100 to $200 and treat yourself to a hotel room or an AirBnB, getting out of town can do wonders to your psyche. A new city can be so exciting! And getting out of town will take you away from the place associated so closely with your failed relationship.

Don’t overuse social media

This is good advice all the time, but especially while going through a breakup. I’ve made the mistake several times, often drunk late at night, of trying to find a date through Facebook – only to wake up the next morning and regret what I’d said to a nice young woman who I’d met through a friend’s band years ago. Ugh.

‘Hey, where’d you go?’ 5 reasons people ghost.

Ask questions you normally wouldn’t

Lately, I’ve been having conversations with friends about their sexuality. As a result, I’ve learned more about what people get out of polyamory and open relationships. And I have expanded my ideas of what kinds of questions to ask on a first date. (“Where is the best place to listen to rain?”) By talking more with people who identify as queer, I feel more open to new possibilities of love and closeness. I know that sexuality and attraction are fluid — just look at this study finding that one-third of millennials say they’re less than 100 percent straight. Polyamory, for example, can be complex, but it’s heartening to learn about different kinds of relationships. These conversations have made me more open to exploring connections with new people without being pressured to put every relationship into a box.

Drink (if you want) but don’t get toooooooo drunk

First things first: You’ll need a friend you can designate to help you get responsibly drunk but not go overboard. My friend Caleb is my favorite drinking buddy. He’s the first to buy me a beer and the first, especially during a dark breakup, to make sure I don’t have one too many. Hand over your phone to your chosen friend who will make sure you don’t drunk-text between shots of Jameson; someone who will either stay sober to drive you around or make sure you don’t get behind the wheel. It’s inevitable you’ll want to get hammered to cope, but find a friend who can hold your hand while you slam that shot.

Reconnect with old friends

If part of the reason breakups can be so tough is that you lose a bit of yourself with every one, it would stand to reason that reconnecting with the people who know you best could help you feel more fulfilled. Part of the reason my New York trip was so great was because I was around that hopeful and carefree part of my life from before my breakup: I spent time with friends who remembered stories I’d long forgotten, memories of holidays as a child and of times buying cheap vodka with a fake ID. Suddenly a breakup doesn’t seem as life-altering when you remember that you had a great life before you and your ex ever met.

Flirt intelligently

There is nothing wrong with a little flirting – it’s how new relationships start off, right? Flirting can be a self-esteem boost, too. So be coy, be cute, smile that charming smile (in person if possible). Just keep it casual so that you don’t end up in bed with someone new before you’re ready.

It’s okay to hang out with your ex

I think it’s okay to see your ex again (assuming one of you didn’t do something terrible). You loved each other before, so it can be okay – even fun – to have a drink, get dinner, text here and there. Be careful if you’re not ready, of course. But seeing your ex can clarify your feelings. It can tell you whether you’re actually over the relationship and make it clear when it’s time to move on to something new. Jerry Seinfeld used to say breaking up is a lot like trying to tip over a Coke machine: You can’t just push it over in one go, you have to rock it back and forth, gain momentum and then it drops. When you love someone and the feelings are intense, it can be hard to sever ties in one big chop. I saw my ex a handful of times after the split; we shared thoughts on what worked in the relationship and what didn’t. We listened to each other as we openly processed the difficulty of the breakup. It may not be for everyone, but it’s not something to dismiss outright.


VIDEO | My breakup story: These 3 relationships ended, but the lessons remain

How to say ‘I’m getting divorced’ and avoid a pity party

After my divorce, tasks as simple as mowing the lawn felt huge