The grief after a breakup can be devastating, especially when it feels like months or even years have gone by without any substantive change in your emotional state.
I once casually dated a guy for just five weeks before our communications tapered off, and now nearly four years later, I still have dreams about him and often catch myself wondering where he is and how he's doing. When he comes up in conversations with others, I can hear the anger and hurt in my own voice, and if I saw him again, I'm sure I'd still get a rush of nerves and butterflies.
Many people out there surely have similar stories about frustratingly persistent lingering feelings for a past flame. So how long should it take to get over someone? It's actually a pretty tough question to answer—perhaps even impossible.
The truth about how long it takes to get over someone
Pop culture (see Sex and the City and How I Met Your Mother) popularized that oft-repeated wisdom that getting over a breakup takes about half as long as the time you were together. So if you were together for two years, it'll take you about one year to get over them.
Meanwhile, scientists have conducted actual research trying to nail down the timeline for moving on: A 2007 study1 found 71% of people who'd gone through a recent breakup felt better after about three months, while a survey of some 2,000 people in 2017 put the number at six months. For divorces, a 2009 study found people take roughly 18 months on average to move on.
Clearly there's not much consistency here.
The truth is, as nice as it feels to have a formula telling you the end is in sight, many people (myself included) just take a much longer time to get over past love, while many others take far less.
"This is a bit like the 'how long is a piece of string' question," says Hilda Burke, a psychotherapist, couples counselor, and author of The Phone Addiction Workbook, in an interview with mbg. "There is no standard, no template for how long it takes to get over a breakup."
Heidi McBain, a licensed family and marriage therapist, tells mbg the timeline totally depends on the individual person and the work they're doing to come to terms with the breakup. "Some people get over breakups much faster than others," she says. "It's so dependent on the person themselves."
Why it takes some people longer to get over a breakup
A few reasons Burke and McBain posit:
- It wasn't your idea. If it wasn't a mutual split, the dumper will obviously move on faster than the dumpee. McBain also adds that "if they saw that this was where the relationship was headed versus feeling blindsided by the breakup," it will also make a big difference. Someone who had no idea a breakup was coming, no matter who initiated it, will likely take longer to get over it.
- You were really invested. "One significant factor, I guess, is how much the person has invested in the relationship, whether they hoped it would be enduring or not," Burke says. If you really thought the relationship was going to be a long-term thing before it ended, it'll likely be harder for you to get over your feelings and attachment for that person. Your heart was already locked in.
- Cheating. If you've been cheated on, that betrayal can make healing feel all the more impossible, McBain says. Not only are you getting over someone you love, but you're also having to simultaneously process the fact that someone you love consciously chose to hurt you.
- You don't actually want to get over the person. "Some people don't," Burke explains. "They create a mental and emotional 'altar' of worship to their ex and go there in their heads regularly to worship. Often people who struggle to let go may feel that theirs was the perfect relationship, that there's no one out there that can compare, so they'd rather sustain the relationship in their heads than to confront the painful reality that it no longer exists."
How do you know when you're over someone?
When it's taking an extremely extended amount of time to get over someone, it can sometimes feel like the end will never come. You get so used to missing them that it feels like no progress is ever being made. But if you're deep in the trenches of longing right now, know this: You need to feel this way to eventually get the closure you need.
"As the poet Robert Frost wrote, 'the best way out is always through,'" Burke says. "The only way to 'get over' a breakup like any other suffering we experience in life is to fully go through it, and that means letting ourselves feel and express the pain, to allow ourselves to grieve for what we've lost. … It may be a cliché, but time does help heal most wounds.
You're heading in the right direction, McBain says, once you've "gained more insight into what happened, when you're not so emotional about the breakup, when you can acknowledge your part in what happened, when you can start to consider dating again, [and] when you've grieved the loss of this relationship."
"For each person, it'll be different," Burke adds. "I had one client who told me the turning point was his ex not being the first thing that popped into his head when he woke up. Another client was able to play a certain album again (one that she had listened to a lot with her ex) and be able to enjoy it. It's a felt sense rather than any external marker."
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When it comes to getting over someone, don't hold yourself to any timeline. Acknowledge your feelings, internalize and sit with them, and avoid judging yourself for "taking too long."
Instead, try to notice the small steps you're taking each day, and practice a ton of post-breakup self-care. You'll get through this—at your own pace, whatever it may be.
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Kelly Gonsalves is a multi-certified sex educator and relationship coach helping people figure out how to create dating and sex lives that actually feel good — more open, more optimistic, and more pleasurable. In addition to working with individuals in her private practice, Kelly serves as the Sex & Relationships Editor at mindbodygreen. She has a degree in journalism from Northwestern University, and she’s been trained and certified by leading sex and relationship institutions such as The Gottman Institute and Everyone Deserves Sex Ed, among others. Her work has been featured at The Cut, Vice, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and elsewhere.
With her warm, playful approach to coaching and facilitation, Kelly creates refreshingly candid spaces for processing and healing challenges around dating, sexuality, identity, body image, and relationships. She’s particularly enthusiastic about helping softhearted women get re-energized around the dating experience and find joy in the process of connecting with others. She believes relationships should be easy—and that, with room for self-reflection and the right toolkit, they can be.
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