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How To Actually Help A Friend Through A Breakup, From Relationship Experts

Stephanie Catahan
February 20, 2022
Stephanie Catahan
By Stephanie Catahan
mbg Contributor
Stephanie Catahan is a health coach and writer with a psychology degree from the University of California, Berkeley and a health coaching certification from Duke Integrative Medicine.

The only thing that might be as painful as getting thrashed around by the reality-warping roller coaster of a breakup is watching someone else go through it. From the dark holes of sleepless nights to crying fits on the bathroom floor to feeling numb in a giant void, a breakup can be a vulnerable and confusing time for everyone involved.

Many of the best breakup guides tell the brokenhearted to lean on their friends. But what if you're the friend they tap on, and you have no clue where to start? As a friend, you may feel a heart tug to help but you don't know how. You may feel compelled to share comforting words but hesitate because you don't want to say the wrong thing. You may want to check in on your friend but don't want to overstep.

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These are all valid thoughts because there are definitely helpful and not-so-helpful ways to support a friend through a breakup. So, here is a guide to help you stay mindful while caring for a heartbroken friend.

Helping a friend through a breakup.

Breakups are where friends are needed. Friendships are often based on being together through the highs and lows of life, and romantic breakups can be some of the lowest kinds of lows. One study published in the 1Journal of Family Psychology1 found experiencing a breakup is associated with a decline in life satisfaction and an increase in psychological distress, while other research2 has found it can even increase the risk of developing a depressive episode. (Here's how to help a friend dealing with depression, by the way.)

As such, the role of friends during a breakup can't be understated. "Being a source of support and creating a support system for a friend who has been through a breakup is vital," licensed psychotherapist Sola Togun-Butler, Ph.D., LCSW, tells mbg. "People are better able to cope with transitions both planned and unplanned when they have a strong support system."

Togun-Butler describes a support system as a group of people (like family, friends, and colleagues) who provide emotional support in a time of crisis. This support can even protect against both physical and mental illness3, she adds, as well as help the heartbroken person develop more effective coping mechanisms. 

Depending on where you decide on your friend's breakup journey to get involved, your role as a friend can vary. Leaning into the concept of impact versus intent is key. You need to think through how your actions will actually impact your friend—because this breakup is not about you.

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What not to do.

If you are choosing to help a friend, here are a few things to avoid:


Do not assume. Ask.

Even if you've been through a breakup before, everyone likes to be cared for in different ways. You may think you know what your friend wants during this vulnerable time, but you might be wrong. The only way to be sure is to ask your friend directly what they want or need.

"We love our friends and think we know them best, but I would refrain from offering advice if your friend isn't looking for it," sex and love educator Jayda Shuavarnnasri tells mbg. "And if you're not sure, just ask them! Some things you can ask: 'Do you want me to be petty? Do you want me to hype you up? Do you need to vent to me right now?'" 

Let your friend take the lead for how they want to process their breakup.

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Do not overrely on drugs or alcohol.

It might feel comforting in the moment to share a bottle of wine and cry it out. But be careful about encouraging overreliance on substances like drugs or alcohol to soothe the pain, as these are Band-Aid solutions that don't allow for the deep emotional processing that is necessary to get through a breakup. Keeping long-term solutions in mind, you eventually want to encourage your friend to take care of themselves holistically. This can include simple daily practices like drinking more water, getting sleep, moving their body, and getting fresh air and sunshine. As a friend, you're there to provide little nudges throughout the breakup.


Do not bash the ex.

If your friend was in a bad relationship or had a bad breakup, you might feel compelled to immediately trash talk the ex once it's all over. But talking down or badly about the ex isn't helpful in the long term. As the saying goes, "Where your mind goes, your energy flows." Keeping thoughts and words in a low energetic state of bashing your friend's ex will keep everyone's thoughts in a circular pattern of negativity.

"No matter how it ended, I try to remind myself that we are all human, including my exes," Shuavarnnasri says. "Rather than forcing myself to feel a particular way, I allow conflicting feelings to exist at the same time and say, 'This person really hurt me, what they did was not OK, and I still care about them.' This doesn't mean that I justify their feelings or even have to forgive them. It also doesn't mean something is wrong with me for continuing to love them. It just means we're all human."

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Do not push them to do things your way.

Again, we all heal differently.

"Try not to pass judgment on how a person chooses to heal," Shuavarnnasri says. They add, "If your friend engages in behaviors that are destructive, be the compassionate friend who can lovingly support them to behave in ways that are more aligned to their values."

Shuavarnnasri says practicing nonviolent communication skills can help in these situations. Nonviolent communication is "when we use empathy and compassion within our language," they explain. This can sound like, "I know all of this is really hard, and I know you're trying your best. I'm also noticing some behaviors that might be hindering your healing process. Are you open to hearing my suggestions?"

This example demonstrates how centering your friend, their values, and their feelings is key to moving them through the process of a breakup. 


Do not rush the process.

"It is important not to rush the grieving process by telling a friend to quickly 'get over it' because we want to fix the situation and get them back to their old selves," Togun-Butler advises. "Everyone grieves differently, and there is no timetable for grief. Grieving the breakup of a relationship can take anywhere from six months to two years."

Breakups are different for everyone. Setting a time limit on expected healing milestones isn't helpful, nor is it realistic. As Shuavarnnasri points out, healing is not a linear process. There may be days when it feels like your friend is doing well, then all of a sudden they seem "back to where they started." In actuality, all emotions are welcome as part of the process, no matter what order they show up in. (Here's more on how long it takes to get over a breakup.)

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Ways you can help. 

Here are a few tips to help you jump in as a supportive friend during a breakup:


Check in with yourself first.

Make sure you have the time, emotional resources, and possibly extra funds for outings and gifts to follow through with what you're committing to when choosing to help your friend. It is more helpful to communicate your capacity to help instead of overpromising and overcommitting. If you set up dinner plans but then have to cancel last minute, this may be more detrimental for your friend who's already in a fragile state. Be considerate about how you're showing up for them.


Create safe space.

"It is important to create a safe space for a friend to express their feelings after a breakup. A safe space is a communication environment that is kind, empathetic, and nonjudgmental, where the friend feels safe to talk about how they are feeling without the fear of judgment or invalidation," says Togun-Butler.

Showing kindness, empathy, and nonjudgment can take some time to develop, but you'll never learn if you don't try. Even if it's your first time creating a safe space for your friend, you can communicate what you're trying to do—and, as mentioned earlier, follow their lead.


Validate your friend's feelings, even digitally.

If you're talking about the breakup over text, prioritize letting your friend know they are being seen and heard.

"When it comes to supporting someone through text, I would lean toward words of affirmation and continuing to remind the person that the pain they're feeling is totally normal," Shuavarnnasri shares. "Text is limiting for true reflection conversations, so when I know a friend is having a rough moment, I'm usually a sounding board, validating their feelings and making sure they don't feel alone."  

Validating feelings can sound like:

  • "That must be really hard."
  • "I hear you."
  • "That sounds encouraging."
  • "I'm here for you."

Respect your friend's boundaries.

Related to following their lead, Togun-Butler says to make sure you respect your friend's boundaries. They may not be ready to talk or see anyone. If they clearly communicate that they don't want to be bothered just yet, respect their requests. "Do not violate the boundaries set up by your friend as they grieve the loss. Emotional boundaries are necessary to ensure emotional health," she says.

Shuavarnnasri also adds, "As friends we often want to share advice or share our personal experience with breakups, but that might not always be helpful. Before sharing advice, ask the person if that's what they need or if they just need to be heard."


Make space for grief.

"When I work with folks who are going through a breakup, I remind them that the endings of a relationship (even if you decide to remain connected in some capacity) are a grieving process. We are losing a relationship and connection to a person who played a significant role in our lives," Shuavarnnasri offers. 

They recommend thinking about the five stages of grief as a guide to help think about the post-breakup grieving process

  1. Denial
  2. Anger 
  3. Bargaining
  4. Depression/Sadness
  5. Acceptance 

That said, the grieving process is not linear, Shuavarnnasri reminds, and people may move back and forth between these stages throughout their healing. 

"There is no time limit or rush when it comes to healing. It can be hard to witness people we love in pain, and sometimes we want to rush them through the process, but as I mentioned before, healing isn't linear, and it can take two days or two years for someone to finally feel free from their breakup."


Keep your friend at the center of conversation.

"A big part of getting through a breakup involves doing things that remind you of who you are as an individual, without that person in your life," Shuavarnnasri says.

So as a friend, it can be helpful to guide the brokenhearted through questions like: 

  • What are the things you enjoy?
  • What are the things you like to watch?
  • What are the places you like to visit?  
  • What aspirations do you have that are just yours?  

"Going through a breakup can feel like recalibrating back into autonomy, and it can even feel like meeting a new version of yourself for the first time, which I think is exciting," adds Shuavarnnasri.


Help them self-care.

It might sound counterintuitive, but as a friend, you can help the brokenhearted with some self-care. Shuavarnnasri suggests, "Every person is going to handle the initial days and weeks after a break up differently. Some of the most helpful things we can do are connect with friends who feel safe and find ways to self-soothe. Self-soothing can range from bingeing a Korean drama on Netflix, staying cozy in our favorite sweater, cooking or going to eat our favorite meal, or maybe going for a walk."

As a friend, you're a special person in their life who knows the little things about them that make them smile. The small act of help can be something like curating the list of K-dramas, making sure they have other cozy accessories to match their cozy sweater, helping them get ingredients to cook their favorite meal, or going on a walk with them.


Encourage joy.

Emotional processing, especially after a breakup, is a lot of work. You can be the friend who brings some lightheartedness to the season of healing. "Encourage them to engage in activities with you that they enjoy such as exercising, going for a walk, going out for lunch, or a long drive," Togun-Butler says.

It could be a great time to rediscover layers of your friendship. Perhaps you met at a dance class, and you can learn a new routine together. Or you might enjoy beauty, so you try out a new skin routine together. Anything that can bring out joy in your friend is a good starting point.


Give it time, and tap on the professionals when needed.

Togun-Butler notes that getting over a breakup can take anywhere from a few months to a few years. That said, if you're concerned about your friend's emotional state, consider recommending that they get some professional support. 

"If we are concerned about the length of time a friend is grieving the loss of a relationship because it is impacting their daily functioning, we can encourage them to speak to a professional such as a therapist. A therapist can help them work through their emotions and cope effectively with the loss of the relationship," Togun-Butler says.

The bottom line.

Breakups are a process of loss—a loss of love, relationship, a sense of self, and a sense of place in the world. For some, romantic breakups conjure some of the most emotionally complex moments in their lives. One moment they're sad, then angry, momentarily happy, then sad all over again. Witnessing the waves of emotions rise and fall through someone is hard to watch but usually necessary for friendship growth. Stick by your friend, and more often than not, on the other side of the tumultuous breakup lies a more enriched friendship.

Stephanie Catahan author page.
Stephanie Catahan

Stephanie Catahan is a health coach and writer. With a psychology degree from University of California, Berkeley and trained at Duke Integrative Medicine and iPEC, she applies a holistic lens to her wellness writing. She also has experience building corporate wellness initiatives for employee resources groups at companies like Google, encouraging members to build sustainable health strategies to prevent burnout.

Catahan currently runs, writes, and lives in San Francisco.