Cognitive Strategies For Getting Through A Breakup

We’ve all been through it. The end of a romantic relationship comes with a special pain that can be difficult to manage. A unique quality of romantic breakups, and what makes them differ from other losses, is how deeply they can impact our thinking about ourselves and the future. Some examples of maladaptive thinking that can come up after a breakup include:

If only I were more chill about things, this wouldn’t have ended.

I can’t hang on to a relationship, I must be unlovable.

What a horrible waste of two years, now I’m even more desperate.

I’ll never have the kind of love that I see my friends have.

All of these examples are rooted in cognitive distortions, and for some women, getting caught in negative thinking traps after a breakup can lead to longer lasting symptoms of depression, anxiety, sleep disturbance, and general stress. At CTWPS we help women to identify these distortions, and to develop healthier, reality-based thinking about the breakup process, which can help speed up her healing and get her moving in a more constructive direction. If you find yourself struggling through a breakup, below are important common cognitive distortions to keep in mind.

1) Should Statements: “I should be handling this better”. A common distortion for some women is “shoulds thinking”, which means having strict expectations about how things should be, or how one should feel and behave. This distortion can be especially strong in the initial days of a breakup, with should statements popping up in many ways, i.e. “we should still be together”, “I should be feeling stronger about this”, “we should be communicating less”, “I shouldn’t feel so needy right now”. Inherent in all of these statements is self-criticism and judgment, as well as arbitrary rule-making. These thoughts can set a woman up for even further distress and disappointment if not kept in check. If you find yourself using the language of “shoulds” frequently in those early days, you’re not alone! The first strategy for addressing shoulds thinking is to catch it, recognize it as a distortion, and rework it more realistically in your mind. For example, for the thought “I shouldn’t feel so sad”, we would first identify it as a should statement, and then break it down and rework it, i.e. “Why shouldn’t I feel sad? It is a common, expected emotional reaction that has a natural course. It is quite important to be flexible with myself in the early days of a breakup, to allow myself permission to feel my feelings and to cut myself some slack, understanding that I may not be operating at my full capacity at first. I won’t feel sad forever, but for now I will be more patient with my sadness and give myself what I need.” By reworking the distortion in this way, a woman is able to comfort and nurture herself, rather than judge and criticize. Be mindful of moments in which you are slipping into “shoulds”, and remind yourself that there is no one correct way to manage the first few days after a breakup. Accept the breakup, expect some pain, and be patient with yourself.

2) Personalization/Control Fallacies: “I could have avoided this”. Often after a breakup women look for reasons to blame themselves, or go through the relationship with a fine-tooth comb looking for where she may have gone wrong; i.e., “If only my expectations weren’t so high, we’d still be together”, “I’m so damaged of course the relationship was bound to end”, “I messed up by not maintaining his/her happiness”. These thoughts and behaviors are examples of how the personalization and control fallacy distortions can slow down a woman’s healing after a breakup. As the name implies, the personalization distortion occurs when a woman takes personal responsibility and blame for all negative things that happen, even without evidence for doing so. The control fallacy distortion has a similar effect; it is predicated on the belief that one is in complete control of one’s life, experiences and environment, making one responsible for anything that might happen. The danger of these distortions is that they can prolong a woman’s pain, and reinforce negative beliefs about herself as unlovable or incapable of maintaining a relationship. The way we might address this kind of thinking in therapy is by recognizing it for what it is, and replacing the distorted thinking with more reality-based assessments. For example, if a woman comes in saying “We broke up because I’m such a mess”, we may break down the personalization and self-blame, replacing it with something more rooted in reality; “We broke up because we hit a wall in our compatibility, and could no longer fulfill each other’s needs. That goes both ways, and it is no one’s fault. Neither of us is perfect, but this relationship did not end because of a fundamental flaw in me. Rather breakups happen all the time - more often than not, in fact - to even the most ‘together’ individuals.” Look for where you might be personalizing your breakup, and practice critically analyzing your logic. Neutralize self-blame and practice balance in the story you tell about the breakup.  

3) Fortune telling: “I’ll never find love”. This is a big one! Many of us find that after a breakup we draw conclusions about ourselves and our futures based on the pain we are feeling in the moment, i.e. “I’ll never find love”, I’ll be alone forever”, “I’ll never stop feeling this miserable.” These are examples of the cognitive distortion of fortune telling, or the tendency to make predictions or jump to conclusions based on little or no evidence, and clinging to them as absolute truth. As with the other cognitive distortions in this list, fortune telling only serves to perpetuate one’s pain and hopelessness after a breakup. We all know that there is no way to know for certain what is going to happen in the future, so by committing to our fortune telling we are mourning an outcome that has not and may not ever happen! In therapy we would try to integrate a more balanced approach, by first acknowledging when fortune telling is occurring, then evaluating our real data, and then generating alternate possible outcomes. For example, with a woman who says “I’ve gone through several breakups at this point, I’ll never be able to maintain a relationship”, the work of therapy would be to evaluate what we can say is true and we cannot. We may restructure her statement as follows: “Looking back at my past breakups, I see behaviors that I would want to work on, like communicating my feelings more openly and feeling more confident in my needs, but I have no reason to believe I can’t develop those skills and meet a partner who will be a better fit for me.” By drawing conclusions based on evidence as opposed to conjecture, this woman is better able to do constructive work to get herself toward her goal, instead of staying mired in hopelessness. Challenge baseless predictions about the future!

Addressing cognitive distortions is a critical part of making it through the breakup process healthier and stronger. One reason why it can take a long time to recover from a breakup is because of our allegiance to thoughts and behaviors that end up making us feel worse. By staying self-aware and tracking any thinking traps, the healing process can happen much faster and with a much better outcome. Behavioral interventions are another important part of this process; stay tuned for Part II of this series in which we will address behavioral strategies for working through a breakup.