5 Ways to Survive a Summer Breakup (Scientifically)

May 31, 2012 by

Is this your life right now?

It’s summertime, officially, because it’s 90 degrees outside.

Summertime means all kinds of seasonal awesomeness: beaches, BBQs, street festivals, vacations.  But it can also spell bad news for those keep-each-other-warm-through-the-winter relationships.  Even triedand true long-term coupleships can find themselves on shaky ground this time of year; the changing of the seasons often causes people to reevaluate their lives and their priorities, and it may become clear that you are no longer the person you were when you met your significant other.  Based on personal experience and observation, and semi-backed up by this old 2010 survey in the Atlantic, I have deduced that early summer is one of the year’s breakup seasons.

Fear not, if this is your current reality.  I have been there dozens of times: long-term relationships, short-term flings, cheating liars, lying cheaters, breakups I never saw coming, breakups I initiated that didn’t make me feel any better, and even breakups that never formally happened, I just suddenly wasn’t seeing that guy anymore.  Even more importantly, I did a whole lot of research two summers ago on just this very subject, science and relationships (for my three plays, the (a)Symmetry Cycle).  Since that time, I’ve become kind of a go-to breakup guru for friends and family, and now I’m going to share what I know with the internet at large.  Because I know, Lord, do I know,  that being suddenly single can make you feel weak and crazy and depressed and out of control.  But knowledge is power!  I firmly believe that once you know more about why, chemically, you are feeling the way you do, your mind will be calmed and you can ride the wave of the breakup with optimism and clarity.

So, without further ado:

5 Ways to Survive a Breakup (Scientifically)

Understand that You are in Withdrawal.

When you are going through a breakup, whether or not it was your idea, your whole body starts to feel like it’s shutting down.  You sleep too much or not at all, you gorge on ice cream or lose your appetite completely, you start skipping your morning run or your evening Pilates session because you feel low and don’t want to move.  This is normal.  Your body is in withdrawal, as though you were kicking a drug habit.  Chemically, your brain right now has the serotonin and dopamine levels of a crack addict.  I would not lie to you about this — you are mentally and physically detoxing.  I know it feels like this pain is entirely psychological, but your body is in this, too.  You might experience stomachaches, migraines, sapped energy, or any number of physical side effects related to this emotional time.

Understanding that, here is my advice: Treat your body better than usual right now, not worse.  Eat really healthy, good-for-you foods like lots of raw fruits and veggies.  Maybe lay off the caffeine, if you can, since it tends to intensify that panicked-racing-mind-effect you’re already experiencing.  Make sure you are getting enough sleep; make sleep a major priority.  And exercise as much as you possibly can, while also drinking a ton of water.  This will flush out your body and speed up the detox, will make you confident and hot and awesome, and also help you sleep better.  Not to mention all those endorphins kicking around in your brain, making you feel happy and warm.

You are not weak, you are not crazy, you are kicking an addiction.  Think of this time as an opportunity to emerge physically and mentally stronger than you were before.

Adopt a Zero-Contact Policy.

This is where you’re going to be tempted to stop reading — DON’T.  I know you’re thinking “Chelsea doesn’t know me, she doesn’t know my situation, I can’t just stop seeing my ex cold-turkey, it’s not like that.”  Well, maybe I don’t know you.  But I do know, scientifically, the best way to help you get over this person you’re attempting to get over.  As I said, you are addicted.  You can’t have just “a little bit of heroin” if you’re trying to kick heroin.  Your body is attempting to flush out the feelings that this person makes you feel.  If you keep running back to him/her or even engage in some light online stalking, you undo all your progress so far.  The less you think about/talk about/see your ex, the faster you will heal.  That is just a fact.  Do you really want to drag this process out?  Move forward, alone, and don’t regress.

I know it can be hard to avoid contact.  Did you break up with a co-worker you have to see every day?  Been there.  Are you working on some kind of artistic project with your ex AND/OR their new flame?  Done that.  If at all possible, avoid your ex entirely — no meetings, no calls, no chatting online, don’t look at their Facebook profile or Twitter stream AT ALL.  Give back all of their belongings and take down the pictures around your place.  I know it sounds extreme, but you have to adapt a scorched earth policy for at least the first few months before you can attempt being friends with this person.  If you CANNOT avoid contact due to an involvement like the ones listed above, then spend the bare minimum of time that you can in your ex’s presence.  That means if everyone is going for drinks after work and s/he’s going, you don’t go.  You might miss out on some stuff.  It’s worth it in the end.  Some of your friends will probably tell you “it’s okay, just be cool” when they invite both of you places; making it seem like you have a problem is easier for them than choosing sides.  Just say “I need to spend some time having fun without him(her) right now,” and politely decline.  You are in charge of yourself.  Your friends will understand if you’re firm in your stance, and will eventually stop putting you in insensitive situations.

And hey, remember your friends?  Now’s the time to lean on them.  Reconnect.  Do all the stuff you love to do, with your pals.  They are going to be there for you.  Rallying around a heartbreak is one of the things that friends do exceptionally well.  Just don’t spend all your hangout time talking about your ex.  Focus on the relationship between you and your bestie, not the past you are actively leaving behind.

Socialize and Learn

This might sound like the last thing you’re interested in doing at the moment, and that’s understandable.  It may take a few weeks of healing before you’re ready for this step.  But eventually, you have to force yourself to get back out into the world.  I don’t mean the dating world; I don’t mean go try to meet someone new to date.  Only you will know when you’re ready for that.  But you can’t and shouldn’t shut yourself off from the world during a breakup.  The brain revels in novelty — new friendships, new skills, learning about anything increases dopamine in the brain and give us a natural high.  (Incidentally, if you are not going through a breakup, learning new things together is one of the scientific secrets to a long, happy, exciting relationship.)  If you can afford to go on a short trip to somewhere new, you should go.  Read a book about a subject you know nothing about.  Hang out with a friend you don’t know so well and that person’s friends you’ve never met.  Even if you don’t feel like going, go.  Even if you don’t feel like smiling, smile.  Your brain is making new neural connections that have nothing to do with your ex, you are actively creating a new life for yourself full of exciting places, subjects, and people.  Time will pass more quickly and healing will be more enjoyable if it is active.

Now, you might be wondering how to go about attempting to learn new things and meet new people.  A valid question.  There are the normal channels:  volunteer to help with the community theatre play, join that church group your ex thought was stupid, get involved with a cycling club (bonus exercise!) or local charity.  You can also just start doing the things you want to do on your own: go see foreign films, join a new gym, get a plot in a community garden, etc.  The people at these places that share your interests, even if they are new interests, are likely to become good friends if you let them.

If you live in a city, you have even more opportunities to learn and grow and meet.  One of my favorites is taking a Dabble Class, where you can learn to do almost anything from making strawberry jam to Photoshopping like a boss, for only $20.  The class sizes are small, the instructors are cool, the conversation is always good, and the vibe is really social and informal.  You have $20 and curiosity, right?  Take a Dabble class (currently in Chicago, and coming soon to a city near you).

Another of my favorite ways to meet (and eat!) in style is with GrubWithUs.  It’s free to join, and once you do, you can purchase a seat at the table of an upcoming meal in your city.  The menus are pre-planned and the cost of the ticket is reasonable and food-inclusive (you buy your own drinks).  You can see who’s going to be at the meal ahead of time, because the GrubWithUs site is a social media platform whose users can create their own profiles.  Then, on the assigned day, you show up at an awesome restaurant and enjoy a fantastic meal (usually planned by the chef and featuring his/her specialties) with a table full of exciting new faces.  I did this a couple of times in Chicago, and I have to tell you, every time the mix of folks was so dynamic and the conversation so good that I didn’t even want to leave the table to use the bathroom.  (Incidentally, even if you are not in the middle of a breakup, GrubWithUs can be a fantastic way to avoid eating alone in a strange city when you’re traveling.)  Currently GrubWithUs has meals in Chicago, New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle, and Washington DC.

Create a Mantra for Yourself

In yoga and meditation, the repetition of an empowering phrase helps to focus the practitioner to push through difficult parts of the practice.  Some would say that prayer serves the same function in a different way; prayer connects us with a higher power so we know we are not alone in hard times.  However you spin it, an affirmation is essential.  Because this is going to be hard, hard work.  You already know that.  But you might assume that the hard work means that you’ve made the wrong choice, or that the fact that this breakup sucks so much means you’re supposed to be back with your ex.  Don’t give into that kind of thinking.  That is relapse talk.  It might very well be that you and your ex get back together one day, but it should not be due to the fact that being alone was too hard on you.  I know it’s a stretch, but imagine if a soon-to-be-mother in the delivery room threw up her hands and said, “Nope, this is too hard, must be the universe telling me this baby isn’t meant to be.”  Stupid, right?  Pain makes gain.  Not to be all Gatorade about it, but pain is weakness leaving the body.

In yoga, I have heard and really liked the mantra “This is what it feels like to get stronger.”  Meaning that when you’re in pain and all your muscles ache, you think of that pain not as a momentary discomfort, but as the feeling of strength growing inside you.  I think you can parlay this mantra to your breakup life.  When you’re lying on the floor crying, or walking around in the world with your arms wrapped so tightly around your chest because you feel like someone has scooped out your insides and you’re just a hollow person and hugging yourself like this is the only way to keep all the pieces from blowing away, you can think or even repeat aloud, “This is what healing feels like.  This is what it feels like to get stronger.”

Never, Never, Never, Never Give Up

This isn’t the time to get bitter.  This isn’t the time to start saying trite, untrue cynicisms like “all the good ones are taken.”  That’s not true and you know it, because there isn’t some objective kind of “good one” that’s perfect for all people and came out in a limited edition.  There are as many ways to be a couple as there are people in the world, and relationships are about the sum of the parts, not finding a mythical person who has every good quality and no bad ones.  Know that your body is going through a withdrawal and treat it well.  Do not expend energy on your ex, in physical or virtual forms.  Meet new people and learn new things.  Repeat a mantra of strength to yourself.  And engage in active optimism — your life is fantastic, your self is fantastic, and there are plenty of new people and experiences waiting for you right now.

Breakups are very much always the beginning of something.

I hope that was helpful to some of you!  What did I leave out?  Anyone have any great breakup healing tips for the comments section?



  1. Ashley

    As nostalgic as I can be for “the good old days”, THIS I don’t miss. Especially from you. We made it out alive, though! And we really are a little bit wiser and a whole lot happier.

  2. Jean

    This was really insightful. practical advice which would be helpful for healing from any kind of a loss. But you left out “Talk to your Momma so she can tell you that you are wonderful and it’s gonna be all right”!

  3. Katy

    What great advice Chelsea! I love your site by the way; I read it a lot!

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