A few years ago, 10 words irrevocably changed the course of my life: “I do not love you anymore. I want a divorce.”
After 10 years, my ex-husband simply changed his mind about our marriage. He walked out the door, and I never saw him again. No explanation. No fighting. No drama.
Words will never do justice to the trauma and confusion that ensued. They also fail to explain the enormous complexity of people and relationships. I spent the next several years grieving, understanding my role in this narrative and repairing a broken heart.
Today, eight years later, I can attest that devastating heartbreak was the BEST thing that ever happened to me. I am deeply in love with a wonderful man, have found my life’s purpose and have healed wounds the size of canyons. Heartbreak was the catalyst that forced me to grow in ways that I would not have otherwise.
My breakup became my breakthrough. It's possible to do way more than simply survive a breakup. Can a broken heart be the impetus to find healthier self-esteem and more rewarding love? Yes, I believe so.
My good friends Carolyn Byrne (a matrimonial attorney) and Aimee Hartstein (a marriage therapist) have witnessed hundreds of people who have prospered in the face of love lost. Together, we outlined the five key habits or "tools" necessary to transform a breakup into a real breakthrough:
1. Get honest about your side of the story.
Therapy, if you can afford it, is a very helpful modality for digging deep. “It’s upsetting when I spend three years working to dissolve a bad marriage, only to learn that my client marries someone exactly like their ex all over again,” said Carolyn the matrimonial attorney.
Getting intimate with yourself — your patterns and proclivities -- is crucial in understanding long-standing habits of thinking or behavior that are detrimental to your happiness. While it is easy to point an accusatory finger at an ex, self-analysis forces you to own your role in your relationship’s demise, so you do not repeat the same mistakes again.
Worried about the expense of therapy? Training clinics or community mental health centers work on a sliding scale, making therapy accessible to all.
2. Exercise. Period.
A comedian once joked that if you’re looking for the newly single, head to the area of the gym with elliptical machines. Having spent countless hours climbing to nowhere post-divorce (with Mary J. Blige in-tow for company), I can attest to the power of a good sweat session.
“Exercise increases the ‘feel-good’ chemicals of serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine. It is enormously effective in warding off anxiety, anger, and depression,” said Aimee the marital therapist. “Plus, it keeps you in shape, which does wonders for self-esteem.”
All forms of exercise, not just the elliptical machine, work. Walk in the park. Practice your downward dog. Ride your bike to the coffee shop. Just get moving and get out of your head for a bit each day.
3. Cultivate those friendships you may have let slide a bit during your relationship.
Relationships are vital to our well-being and sense of interconnectedness. Sharing problems, having a laugh, and commiserating about life’s challenges lightens the load immensely. Plus, friendships teach key skills of communication, conflict-resolution and intimacy — all necessary ingredients to a successful romantic relationship.
What to do if you’ve lost touch with friends during the months (or years) you hunkered down with your significant other? “Pick up the phone and mend fences,” says Aimee the marital therapist. “You would be surprised at how forgiving friends are, especially when approached with humility and contrition.”
In addition, expand your social circle by being a “joiner.” Say “yes” to invitations. Try new activities. Take classes where you can meet new people who share your interests.
4. Sit with uncomfortable emotions.
Breakups force us to wade through a sea of negative emotions. While it is natural to want immediate relief, resist the urge to circumvent grieving with distraction.
“Many people attempt to ease the pain of loss by immediately entering new romantic relationships or using other negative forms of escape—including alcohol or substance abuse. Not only are these methods ineffective, but the underlying anxiety, fear or anger will resurface eventually,” said Aimee, the marital therapist.
Allow yourself the time to grieve. Explore your uncomfortable emotions and their origins in a journal. Know that the storm will pass. As J.R.R. Tolkien said, “I will not say, do not weep, for not all tears are an evil.”
5. Learn to self-soothe.
Being able to comfort yourself is an important component of mental health. What brings a smile to your face? What makes you feel most at-ease?
Post-divorce, I had to learn to live alone again. The emptiness of my home felt debilitating. Watching Redd Foxx’s antics in old episodes of “Sanford & Son” always provided a laugh and reminded me of childhood rituals with my family.
“I often counsel people to revert to their 3rd grade selves,” said Carolyn the matrimonial attorney. “As children, we have an innate understanding of what brings us joy and pleasure. Tapping back into childhood pastimes is a great way to bring levity to your heart during times of loss.”
Heartbreak provides enormous potential to create a new and exciting narrative grounded in mental health and happiness.
For further insight and to receive “The 7-Day Meditation to Heal Heartbreak,” click here.
Monica Parikh co-wrote this post with Carolyn Byrne and Aimee Hartstein. Byrne is an attorney with 16 years of experience, dedicated exclusively to matrimonial law. Hartstein is a licensed psychotherapist with 20 years of experience, specializing in relationship and couples counseling.