do our post-breakup coping techniques actually help?
Throwing ourselves into exercise, sex, astrology and our jobs may seem like the best course of action, but some say they can do more harm than good.
Whenever I experience a breakup, I indulge in a fortnight’s worth of maudlin, hard-drinking self-pity… and then snap out of it. I lay off the benders, stop listening to Amy Winehouse or Lana del Rey and start listening to Ariana or Cardi B instead. I go to the gym every day, and put an uncharacteristic level of effort into my career. Depending on the severity of the heartbreak, I might even tidy my room.
In other words, I insist on ‘thriving’ -- and you better believe that I go around telling everyone that’s exactly what I’m doing. Doing 20 minutes of cardio before work? Thriving. Drinking a ‘health juice’ that costs £6.50? Ladies… she’s bounced back! Sending an email I’ve been putting off for a while? A glow-up the likes of which the world has never seen before.
This approach is not uncommon, particularly among millennials and Gen Z -- for whom the ‘glow-up’ is a cultural touchstone. After we get over the initial shock, many of us use the end of a relationship as an opportunity for self-improvement. Often, this works. If there’s a better motivation to achieve your goals than unadulterated spite, I’ve yet to experience it.
But is it possible to take the post-breakup glow-up too far? Is it healthy if everything you do is an obscure act of revenge? Is wild-water swimming or listening to an educational podcast really an adequate substitute for processing the lacerating pain that’s cleaving your heart in two? To find out, I spoke with a relationship expert, along with a bunch of people who threw themselves too heavily into the post-breakup thrive.
Getting really into the gym is a post-breakup classic. But unlike alcohol, drugs, or compulsively checking to see if your ex has viewed your Instagram story, it’s actually good for you.
That said, as satisfying as the idea of getting a ‘revenge body’ might be, it’s not a great idea to place too much importance on your physical appearance. Your relationship probably didn’t end because you weren’t hot enough (if it makes you feel any better, it’s far likelier it was due to your terrible personality!), so getting a six-pack isn’t really teaching your ex a lesson. You might like to imagine them clenching their fists in bitter regret when they see that you’ve got pecs now but, tragically, they probably don’t care.
Peter, 24, got seriously into the gym after his last relationship ended. “I started hitting the gym hard -- maybe 4-5 times a week -- and I’d normally go to posh, boutique gym classes so I was spending a lot of money. It felt great to start with but after a month or two, I started to feel really exhausted. My friends were concerned about me. Only recently did I realise that I can still feel good if I restrict myself to three times a week at the gym.”
Laura, 28, had a similar experience. “After my first Big Breakup,” she says, “I became deeply obsessed with ‘self-improvement’. I lost 15 kilos by endlessly exercising and adhering to a sociopathically restrictive diet. The whole time I was fantasising about my ex seeing ‘the new me’.”
As well as being potentially addictive, exercise is not going to function as a magical cure for your heartbreak. But to be honest, there are worse compulsive behaviours to engage in. In fact, many recovering addicts find exercise a good way of staying sober. You can definitely take working out too far but, even then, it’s still better than just getting pissed all the time.
The best way to get over someone is to get under someone else, or so the saying goes. But this is only really true if the sex is good, and if you’re ready. If you’re still sad about your ex, you may end up spending the entire time staring wistfully into the middle distance, pining for their genitals. “After my last breakup, I threw myself into casual sex,” Moya, 24, says. “To begin with, it was a bad idea because every time I fucked someone, it just reminded me how they didn't fit me right, how they weren't him. So then I took a break until I felt like it could be fun again.”
And did that work? “Not really. It became a bad idea because men insisted on disrespecting me, even when all I wanted was a fun, non-committal time. This reinforced the impression I had that there was something elemental about me that just repels men or prompts them to be dickheads.”
If you’re recovering from a breakup, you might be more vulnerable to rejection or disappointment. As with exercise, sex is liable to be addictive, and ever-less satisfying. Embark on a shagathon by all means, but it’s probably not going to make you feel better in a meaningful way.
Astrology is a certified millennial and Gen Z phenomenon, with tarot quickly gaining pace. So it makes sense that more and more people are turning to these practices as a way of getting over a breakup. Maija, who lives in Ireland, had always been interested in astrology and tarot but it wasn’t until she broke up with her ex that she really began to rely on it. “The relationship was quite abusive and after it ended, I was basically in a state of shock. Astrology and tarot became like a crutch.”
Does she think these things were a healthy influence? “I definitely took it too far. I once spent €60 on seeing a tarot reader, even though I could barely afford to pay my rent. it was definitely a kind of post-breakup madness.” But there were some positives. “I felt so powerless and broken down that the idea of having some kind of alternative channels of knowledge was definitely helpful. Things like tarot and 'spells' allowed me to regain a sense of my own agency and better understand what had happened to me.”
Moya also became increasingly interested in astrology following her recent breakup. “It wasn’t so much about getting over my ex as choosing to get to know myself and the way I worked. I was using astrology as a way to analyse the toxic traits within our relationship. I guess it was effective... but it also made me break down myself into chunks.”
One of the most difficult aspects of a breakup is the loss of identity that comes with it. You’ve defined yourself in relationship to one person for so long that it’s difficult to know who you are without them. Astrology and tarot offer a framework for thinking about yourself that can help with this but, as with literally everything on this list, it’s not a good idea to become overly dependent on them.
I owe my entire career as a writer to a bad heartbreak. Everything I pitched for a whole six months was motivated by revenge. Oh, so you’ve met someone else, eh? Well, let’s see how you feel when you see that I’ve been published… on a website! This approach made me feel like I was constantly living in a bitter Drake song, which isn’t ideal. But, after the dust settled, I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a net benefit.
Chris, 27 years old, found that focusing on his career was almost entirely positive. “If you compare it to other ways of dealing with a breakup,” he says, “like shovelling copious lines of cocaine up your nose or spending six hours in a sex sauna being passed around like prison contraband, then putting your energy into work is a good thing! It’s obviously a distraction technique, but it’s not that showy or self-destructive.” That's not to say this doesn't have downsides. “If you hate your job, maybe, or if you’re using it to avoid having an honest dialogue with yourself about how you’re feeling. But for the most part, it’s one of the healthier ways to cope.”
Particularly in fiercely competitive cities like London, self-esteem and careers are intrinsically tied together. Gurpreet Singh, a counsellor at relationship charity Relate, discourages any extreme behaviour changes from before, regardless of whether it’s ostensibly positive. “A breakup can have a big effect on your self-esteem. You may want to go to the gym, become absorbed in work or socialise a lot. Activities like these can act as good distractions and help you move forward with your life. But putting too much pressure on yourself or taking any of them too extreme may not be healthy.” Instead, focusing on what hurt you most and processing it should be your main objective. “Grieving what you’ve lost, trying to understand the reasons behind it and working through your feelings. This also helps to avoid a rebound relationship.”
We all want to be happier, sure, but becoming richer or slimmer, or gaining more clout, are superficial ways of achieving this. The problem is heart-ache makes you particularly vulnerable to these individualistic, even capitalistic ideas of self-improvement. “Glow-up culture isn’t necessarily bad,” Laura says, “but it co-opts the idea of ‘wellness’ when we all know that getting quantifiably more attractive is the goal. The answer is a long journey of personal progress, but there’s just so much room for pain and unhealthy behaviour. That’s the reality of heart-ache.”