I had the same boyfriend from ages 16-20, and when that ended, I dated like I was making up for lost time. In the ensuing years, I moved to hipster Brooklyn and met cute, cool-seeming guys everywhere I went: coffee shops, parties, concerts. Again and again, I started to fall for someone new — and then, like clockwork, I had my heart broken when the dude du jour revealed he wasn’t feeling it, or was getting back with his ex, or (most commonly of all) when he ghosted. Eventually, I developed a winning strategy for moving on after breakups — but it took a little trial and error to get there.
I’m a writer, so I developed an odd habit in the aftermath of each ending: I’d sit at my computer and, tears dripping, write an account of the relationship and its crash-and-burn conclusion, filing it away with the other super sad, true love stories. There’s literally a folder in my Google Drive called Sad Essays. To a certain degree, it was satisfying to give each relationship shape, to memorialize it as the Big Important Thing it’d felt like to me. But when I had a half-dozen essays, each about a different man, and my scarred-over heart hadn’t turned a corner, I realized I needed to try something new.
So I flipped the exercise: I wrote fictional essays from the perspective of the men who’d wronged me. I did my best to nail the voice of each narrator (guys I’d hide from if I saw them on the streets of Brooklyn), to really get into their heads, to see them as the protagonists of their stories — since, after all, we all see ourselves as heroes in our own lives, right?
I started with Ben, the guy who’d strung me along for months and then casually let me know he was back with an ex. He’d answered my “WTF?” with, “Guess I never realized you were that into me.” That essay became the star-crossed tale of him and his on-again, off-again girlfriend, a multi-year narrative in which he never stopped thinking about her, even as he briefly dated this cheerful, younger writer from Wisconsin who’d just moved to New York [points to self].
Next was Tom, the guy who’d left my texts unanswered for weeks and then replied to my calling him out with, “Whoa babe, chill, I hurt my back!” That essay was all about the turmoil of being a painter who can’t paint, socialize, or date (or text, apparently) due to chronic pain, told with his distinctive, pothead-esque drawl.
I didn’t show the essays to anyone, of course. (I certainly didn’t send them to the men in starring roles.) But still, something miraculous happened: I felt better. “It works because you’re making sense of their behavior in a way that feels like closure — without actually having to interact with them,” explains Joanne Davila, PhD, a professor of clinical psychology at Stony Brook University and co-author of The Thinking Girl's Guide to the Right Guy: How Knowing Yourself Can Help You Navigate Dating, Hookups, and Love.
People are always telling you to recover from a breakup by writing a letter to the heartbreaker (and maybe trashing it instead of sending it), but for me, this exercise in empathy worked so much better. It reminded me that these men weren’t sadistic — just human. “When people ghost or break things off without being straightforward, it’s usually not coming from them being evil or intentionally mean,” Davila says. “It’s probably because they’re afraid or ashamed or can’t deal with their emotions. And we don’t have to like it or forgive them, but realizing this can take away some of the sting of, ‘You’re a horrible person, how could you do this to me?’”
Putting in the time to sit at my keyboard and plant myself in these dudes’ shoes was part of the closure-giving magic. Research on expressive writing suggests that just thinking about something, rather than actually writing it out, is less effective at reducing negative emotions long-term, Davila says. “The act of writing makes you see it through from start to finish, and you have this product you can look at at the end,” she explains. “If it’s just in your head, it’s easy to avoid it or get distracted. The writing makes it real and concrete.”
In my case, the act had a major fringe benefit. When I decided to start writing a thriller based in hipster Brooklyn, I realized I already had a few thousands words of fiction sitting in that Google Drive folder. I incorporated those faux essays into the first draft. Some were cut or took on different forms, but they’re part of the patchwork of my debut novel, The Lost Night, which came out in paperback this month.
It’s been a wild ride for the thriller, which is about a woman trying to figure out what really happened the night her best friend was found dead during a night of raucous partying. It got stellar reviews and Mila Kunis is developing it for TV. When I was first drafting those moody paragraphs, I had no idea they’d someday help me get the very best kind of revenge — living well, i.e., kicking off a long road that led to writing and selling a novel I'm super proud of.
Of course, most people don’t turn to fiction when it comes to processing their breakups, but everyone can adapt this technique. “Think about your partner’s qualities that would lead them to behave in the way they did,” Davila says. Maybe they always shied away from talking about heavy things, for example, or they clammed up when they were in a bad mood or grew super defensive when you asked them to be a little more considerate. “Now see if you can come up with ways those things might have resulted in your partner’s behavior when they ended things,” she adds. Grab a pen, your laptop, or even the Notes app on your phone, and put your ideas in writing.
Davila says that people can get stuck asking themselves, "What's wrong with me that led them to treat me that way?" But this technique forces you to reflect on what’s clearly on them. And remember: The point is to heal, not to convince yourself that what they did was OK. “You’re not doing this for them,” Davila says. “You’re doing it for you.”