A breakup is hard enough, but the aftermath is when things can really get dicey. Some people ease into a separation with occasional phone calls and hookups until they feel ready to fully cut ties. Others go full-on scorched-earth and block numbers, purge socials, get bangs, and change their name. It’s never easy learning how to let go of someone you love—whether you shared years, weeks, or maybe even just the fantasy of time together. No matter how the relationship ended, this person may have had an irrevocable impact on your life, and the finality of truly letting them go can be absolutely terrifying.
“Even if we’re breaking up, there’s probably a piece of us that’s still in love with this person,” Houston-based sex and relationship therapist Ty David Lerman says. “When we love someone, we want the best for them. Even if that’s not us. And that’s a hard, hard thing to navigate through.”
Lerman says that oftentimes, it’s a fear of the unknown—of being alone, of loss, of threatening other relationships that are connected to your romantic relationship—that keep people together for far longer than is healthy. So the first step in letting someone go is to determine when it’s time to leave.
“Leaving a relationship is about knowing what is authentic for you,” Lerman says. More often than not, it will be obvious to you when something doesn’t feel like a good fit, even if you’re hesitant to believe it right away.
“You have to remind yourself of what you really want, what you think you deserve, and why you want to leave,” Dallas-based sex therapist Goody Howard says. “Because you can get comfortable. There are times when you can get lulled back into security because it’s what feels familiar. Sometimes we hold onto a mistake because we spend a long time making it.”
In situations where there are big feelings, or your lives are very enmeshed, it can be difficult to know when to leave a relationship—and harder yet to actually let it go once you’ve left. Severing significant attachments can be a brutal process, which is why we put together the following tips on how to let go of someone when your relationship is no longer serving you, and how to find your way back to yourself at the end of it all.
How do you know when it’s time to leave a relationship?
If you’re in the midst of a relationship audit and you’re unsure if you should stay or go, Lerman suggests using what he calls a “needs-based assessment.”
“When our needs are not being met, we have to self-advocate and practice assertiveness,” he says. “Needs are deal-breakers. We take a strong stance on those.”
Before jumping to a breakup, it’s important to communicate your boundaries to your partner first and outline the consequences they’ll face if they transgress. In this case, the consequence would be a breakup. Once you’ve clearly expressed your needs to your partner and defined the consequences, your partner has a chance to make changes.
“If they’re able to change, that’s fantastic. If they’re not able or willing to change, then you have to decide whether you can sacrifice this need,” Lerman says.
To make that calculation, Howard says to consider your future self. “Think about the long-term,” she suggests. “Can you stay in this relationship and be happy for the next five years, the way it is right now, today? The answer is usually no if you’re at a point where you want to break up.”
Another way to look at it? “Whether or not you’re getting enough of what you essentially need in order to give up what you’ll never have with this partner,” Lerman says. There might be a lot of great things about your partnership, but if your basic needs are consistently unmet, it may be time to think about letting go.
The first step to letting go? Make an exit plan.
Letting go of a relationship is easier with an exit plan, Howard says—especially when you’re leaving behind a serious relationship that spanned many years or realms of your life.
If you live together or share a major asset like a car or pets (not to mention kids!), ending the relationship is going to take a lot of initiative. Create an exit strategy that’s comfortable, achievable, and something you can stick to. “Write it down somewhere so you can look at it,” Howard says. “Because maybe they’ll buy you flowers today. They’ll meet your needs today. But they’re giving you just enough when you’re pulling away to reel you back in. And then they go back to doing the same thing they did before.”
If you know the relationship isn’t working, stick to your gut, Howard says. “Sometimes people will do what they need to do to keep you, but they won’t sustain you.”
Understand the grief cycle.
Breakups—or any loss of love, whether it’s unrequited love, the death of a loved one, the end of a friendship—often lead to grief, Lerman explains. Trust that your mourning is not an overreaction. In healing from a breakup, you may work your way through the five stages of grief: denial, bargaining, depression, anger, and acceptance. In addition to those five, Lerman says the grief psychology field has expanded its understanding of grief to include a sixth stage: finding meaning in the loss.
“I think that’s an important piece of the recovery and the healing,” he says. “It’s not necessarily saying, I understand why this happened, but more about what you can take away from this happening, and that’s really important in terms of us being able to accept and move forward.”
When you lose love, you also experience something called compounded grief, or the loss of what’s immediately in front of you in addition to the loss of the future you and your partner once saw together. In a situation involving unrequited love, you might also grieve the loss of the fantasy you built around that person.
“You’re grieving multiple things at the same time,” Lerman says. “Is it possible to miss something you’ve never had? Absolutely. Our fantasy fills in the blank. We’ll still walk through the grief cycle.”
That fantasy, Lerman says, can sometimes be enough to stay in a relationship. He calls this “investment dating,” or dating someone based on who you want them to become, not who they are now. “You know that this person could be the perfect person, but they’re not today,” he says. “That’s not the human you’re dating right now.” Still, when any fantasy is shattered, it can be painful.
The grief of a breakup is even more compounded as your lives get more enmeshed. If you’re not only losing your partner but also your in-laws or mutual friends, the process of letting go can be even more difficult.
Consider cutting off contact.
The easiest way to work through loss of love is distance, Lerman says. “We cannot heal from a wound if we continue to pick at the scab. We gotta leave it alone and take space.”
If you need to get your ex off your mind, Howard is a big proponent of the block button. Block them on social media, block their phone number, everything, she says. After you’ve had a few months to recalibrate, she recommends changing their contact name in your phone to “Do Not Answer” (“DNA for short”). This way if they try to contact you, you know what to do—or what not to do.
“If you’re tempted to check in, remind yourself that you don’t check on the trash when you put it on the curb,” Howard says. “That’s harsh, and I’m not saying that the person is trash, but once you get rid of something, you don’t go and check on it. If you bring your favorite sweater to Goodwill, you don’t go back to see who bought it. So block them.”
That being said, as long as your breakup was mostly amicable, Howard advises against deleting evidence of your relationship from your social media or your phone, because you’ll never be able to erase the fact that you were together, and that shouldn’t be the goal of moving on.
“The relationship did exist, it did happen, and it contributed to who you are today,” she says. “Just attribute it as part of your past and move forward.”
Make new traditions and memories.
If all your routines were built around your relationship—you always hung out with the same friend group, went to the same bars, stopped at the same coffee shop—it’s going to be harder to fully let go until you start plotting your own path.
“Make new memories, make new traditions for yourself,” Howard says. “Part of the uncoupling is the social uncoupling as well as the romantic uncoupling.”
If you can, move to a new apartment, she says. “That’s a very privileged thing, but if you can move, do it, especially if it was a traumatic breakup.” If that’s not an option, she suggests something more accessible, like a household makeover. Move the furniture around, get new curtains or bedding, change the color of the bedroom.
“Even if you didn’t live together, freshen up your space,” she says, “Now it’s just your space, that person is not a part of it anymore. It’s a new era.”
Recognize your attachment patterns.
Plenty of people get caught in a pattern of push and pull with their partners; they want the security of a relationship, but they fail to advocate for their needs. That pattern of struggling to fully let go of a past relationship is often a symptom of what old-school psychologists once called “codependency,” but is now widely known as disorganized attachment style.
“Sometimes you fall into the anxious or insecure attachment style when you’re a little clingy, but other times you become avoidant and you feel overwhelmed and you push away,” Lerman adds. “Your needs aren’t being met but you’re terrified of someone actually leaving you. So you go through this ebb and flow of, Dammit I deserve to have my needs met, but also, F*ck, now I’m alone.”
You may be holding onto your past relationship out of fear that you’ll never find anything else, but it’s important to remember that those worries are based in anxiety and not logic.
Be patient with yourself.
It’s a simple reminder, but a powerful one. Recovering from a breakup doesn’t always happen overnight. It might feel icky for awhile, but with time, and when you’re ready, you’ll let go. Give yourself that time—you deserve it!
Rethink the concept of closure.
Closure isn’t always what you think it is; sure, in some cases it might look like one last talk and a proper goodbye, but that’s not true all the time, nor is it true for everyone who goes through it.
“Most people think it’s a final conversation or confrontation where someone very clearly breaks things off,” Lerman says. “But how would you find closure if someone dies? You’re never gonna have that last conversation. My idea about closure is that it’s not something someone else can give you. It’s something you give yourself. It’s an internal process of meeting your needs and being able to close the chapter for yourself.”
To aid in that process, Lerman suggests ritualizing your goodbye to a loved one. Light a candle, say a prayer, do your own little “midnight mass”—something that will honor them and what they mean to you, or once meant to you. Try a burning ceremony, where you write a letter and burn it.
“Closure isn’t needed, but it’s the healthiest thing we can do for ourselves,” he says. “When things are left undone, we feel undone. We’re not able to energetically move on, we still have ties to the past. So closure is vital to a healthy progression and mourning process.”
When you choose to let go of someone you love, trust that you’re making the right decision, even if it’s a hard one. New adventures await on the other side, you just have to go find them. And with the right tools, you absolutely can.
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