How to reclaim your favourite songs after a breakup

There’s no roadmap to overcoming the end of a relationship, but there’s power in redefining art that once connected you to that person.

by Grant Rindner
12 October 2021, 6:13pm

Still from Legally Blonde

“All is Full of Love” is Björk at her best. Tender, open-hearted, but more than a little eerie, the 1997 song features plainspoken, piercing lyrics about the pain of unrequited love. “You'll be given love / You have to trust it / Maybe not from the sources / You have poured yours,” she sings, turning heartache into a message of quiet hopefulness. When Britt experienced the post-breakup sting of rejection at 21, he turned to it. “It was the only song I listened to for approximately two months,” he says. “Now, when I hear it, I think of that time and I'm like, ‘Wow, it’s so true. Love is all around me.’ It’s nice to hear it and think of where I was and where I am now.”

Much has been written about how art can be linked to our recollection of events. Hearing music, in particular, is known to trigger the brain’s limbic system, the same area associated with long term memories and emotions. So, we asked people to share stories about songs and records that they associated with an ex — tracks that reminded them of young love, heartbreak or even overcoming abuse — and how they learned to enjoy them again, in hopes that we might be able to do the same.

Reclaiming your favorite songs after a breakup is difficult because the connections we form between music and our own experiences are so strong. This is why exploring and breaking down these connections is a hallmark of many different kinds of art therapy. Dr. Mimi Savage, Education Chair for the North American Drama Therapy Association and a faculty member at California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS) says that the power of art is in its ability to help people grapple with their issues in a way that’s less re-traumatizing than direct confrontation through talk therapy. (This is one of the main reasons art therapy is so popular with young children.)

Often, she encourages people to work through traumatic situations by creating art — a painting, a poem, a short instrumental music piece. But Dr. Savage also uses pre-existing works that she believes will resonate with patients. “My foundation is narrative. It’s about story, and re-authoring and re-storying,” she says. “I’m gonna want you to re-author this story you have about the breakup and where you are in it. Not to make it go away, but for you to own it in a different way.”

Redefining your connection to a specific song or artist can be a healing tool for overcoming trauma. In the case of Amanda*, she was introduced to Radiohead by her abuser, and their music resonated with her deeply. When that relationship ended, she said that holding onto their discography was a way of building back her own independent identity.

“I was too reluctant to lose more to him than I already had, so I started working to overwrite particularly strong associations and developed a deeper interest in the artists that spoke to me,” she says. “In a lot of ways the music that he showed me helped me overcome my trauma related to him, occasionally through subject matter, but mostly by showing me that I had more power over myself than he did.”

Now, Amanda says she’s able to listen to much of the music that she was shown by her ex-boyfriend, and uses it to connect to the younger version of herself that first became enamoured with those songs. “There's so much from that time that is completely blocked from my memory, and listening to this music allows me access to the teenage [Amanda] that still needs care and sympathy while simultaneously reminding me of how far I've come from that place and time,” she says.

For So, Hozier’s “Like Real People Do” was the song that soundtracked the growth of their relationship with a close friend. The two dated for several years, and So says that they felt the meaning of the lyrics morph to suit the evolving situation. They even saw Hozier perform the song together in concert. After the pair broke up, in attempt to disassociate it with the relationship, So decided to listen to the song in mundane situations “so much so that it could not possibly have the same grip it always did. Literally robbed of its power by listening to it while I did boring shit like buy groceries.” Eventually, that dulled its edge, and now the song reminds them more of something personal than of the relationship itself.

The way one’s relationship to a piece of art changes is undeniably unique, and there’s no foolproof way to say: “This is how you get over a song that still reminds you of your shitty ex.” But the two common factors in each of these stories were time and people’s willingness to do the work in whatever form that looked like for them, whether it was through therapy, deliberate exposure to the music or keeping a distance from the stimuli in question.

“​​We’re not saying you use these art forms and then don’t process [trauma]. You’ve gotta process, you’ve gotta talk it through and really look at it, like you do when you’re looking at a piece in a gallery or a museum,” says Dr. Savage. “That’s the beauty of working in this way, at least that’s what I think.”

And if you pull the thread enough, chances are you’ll find the song that carried you through a challenging time would not have existed without some preceding piece of art that lingered in the mind of the creator. Even Björk, one of the most singular and idiosyncratic musicians we have, drew on the idea of destruction and rebirth from Icelandic mythology to give us “All is Full of Love.”

*Names changed or abbreviated where sources requested.

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