At some point or another, we’ve all wondered how to help a friend through a breakup. Because honestly, watching your BFF deal with the ending of a relationship can be — in a word — torture. You feel unparalleled empathy for your bestie, so in a way, you actually feel their pain. And watching them go through the cycle of denial, confusion, sadness, and anger is even more draining when you’ve been through a difficult breakup yourself. Not to mention, it can take a toll when every single one of your conversations now revolves around the ex. You can only hyper-analyze their former flame’s final texts or evaluate their flaws so many times, after all.
It’s tough to know which tactics are going to be most helpful when a friend is nursing their wounds. Should you indulge in their ex-bashing? Should you change the subject? Should you try to get their mind off it? Fret not. I spoke to clinical psychologist and host of “The Kurre and Klapow Show,” Joshua Klapow, Ph.D., to find out the best ways to help your friend heal.
Limit the breakup banter
Real talk: When your friend is going through a breakup, they may have a hard time talking about anything else. For them, it can feel therapeutic — their mind is fixated on this traumatic event, and they’re running every detail over in their minds in hopes that eventually it will make sense. For you, it can be downright exhausting. How can you let your friend vent without feeling totally drained yourself?
Dr. Klapow recommends initiating the topic on your terms rather than letting your friend dictate when the breakup is discussed. That way, you can demonstrate that you’re actually engaged in their problem instead of just passively listening while also making sure you actually have the energy and emotional strength necessary to chat about it.
“Use your bandwidth as a boundary,” he says. “Let them know that you have heard what they said, you are thinking about the impact, and trying to sort it out so you can help them and be supportive. Let them know that you need a little break so you can soak in all they said.”
Do something — anything — to distract them
Getting your friend to talk about anything other than the breakup may be easier said than done. That’s where distraction strategies come in. While they may need a night in to hash it out over some pizza and some generous pours of pinot grigio when the wounds are fresh, don’t let them wallow for too long.
In fact, research has revealed that distraction is the best approach for getting over an ex. For a study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, a group of men and women who recently experienced a split from long-term relationships (and still had feelings for their exes) were asked to perform a number of tasks, including thinking about positive things that had nothing to do with their former partners, like their hobbies. Each participant was shown a photo of their ex afterward, and researchers analyzed their emotional responses. Of all the strategies used, distraction was found to make people feel the most pleasant overall.
So try taking your friend out — and not just for drinks, which encourages more ex talk. Instead, opt for an activity that requires them to think about something other than the breakup, whether that means seeing a play, hitting up an art museum, or heading to a hockey game. You may need to drag them out. But odds are, they’ll be thankful you got them out of their funk and took their mind off it, even if it was only temporarily.
Suggest therapy when necessary
Sometimes, the fallout from a friend’s breakup is so intense that they may require more support beyond friends. Pay attention to whether they’re asking questions that you aren’t capable of answering (“Do you think I seek out toxic relationships because of how my dad treated me?”) or making concerning statements (“I don’t know if I can trust anyone again.”) You should also take note if the breakup seems to have severely impacted their ability to function in their day-to-day life (such as in their friendships and at work). In these cases, it’s worth suggesting that your friend seek some therapy. A professional will not only be able to offer another objective opinion but also help your friend to dig into some of the bigger issues at play.
“Let them know that your perspective is as their friend and that comes with a bias,” advises Dr. Klapow. “Let them know that the pain of the relationship is something that means they need to look inward. And that is something that you can support but not lead.”
If your friend is reluctant to see a therapist, point out that seeking therapy is a phenomenal way to ensure they’re prepared to learn from this breakup and pursue even healthier, happier relationships down the line.
Discourage self-destructive behavior
Your friend may be tempted to engage in some pretty harmful habits after a breakup. Maybe they have a couple too many drinks and feel like Snapchatting the ex. Or maybe, in a fit of masochistic impulsivity, they fall down a rabbit hole of stalking their ex’s new partner on Instagram.
Don’t be afraid to discourage this self-destructive behavior however you can. This doesn’t mean scolding your bestie for their actions, (because let’s be honest, in all likelihood you’ve engaged in some of these yourself at some point) — instead, dig into their motivation. Dr. Klapow advises asking them point blank: “Why do you want to do this? What benefit will you get out of it? How will this help the situation?”
“These are questions that force your friend to go beyond reaction, impulse, and raw emotions,” he explains. “It’s not therapy, but it forces them to have a justification, which will force them to think before they act.”
If you want to go a step further, you can propose some self-protection measures, such as deleting the ex from his or her contacts or unfriending or unfollowing them on social media. Unsurprisingly, one study published in Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking found that staying connected to an ex on Facebook can actually stunt a person’s recovery from the split — participants who kept tabs on their ex’s page were more likely to feel lonely, distressed, and fixated on the breakup.
If your best friend isn’t going to do their damndest to pick you up when you’re down, who else will? Follow these four steps to help them deal with the whirlwind of post-breakup emotions and eventually, move on.
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