The stages of grief after a breakup

Amy Chan
Photo of author Amy ChanBy Alyce Chan Photography

As the Founder of the world's first and only Breakup Bootcamp, I work with the heartbroken every day. From the person who got ghosted from her boyfriend of three years to the mother of three grieving from a divorce to the woman who was the ‘other woman’. To the avoidantly attached bachelor who pushes people away because subconsciously he’s associated intimacy with pain. Each person’s story is different, their situation unique, but they all want the same thing: connection, healthy love, and to be seen and loved for who they are.

Research suggests that grieving the end of a relationship is much like grieving a death. A popular framework is the Six Stages of Separation (shock, denial, depression, anger, bargaining, and acceptance) which mirror the stages of grief. But after having worked with thousands of people through their breakups, I’ve observed another stage that fits somewhere between bargaining and acceptance: accountability.

Stages of Separation – Updated

Shock—Shock occurs both on a physical and psychological level. Physically, a surge of adrenalin rushes through the body, which may result in you feeling jittery, dizzy, and out of body. Psychologically, you may feel lost, panicky, overwhelmed, and inundated with intense emotions. This is your body’s natural protection against pain. Your body has not yet adjusted to a new reality without your partner.  Once you start to process what has happened, you reach the next stage: denial.

Denial—At its core, this is a rejection of reality. The sooner you accept reality—that it’s over—the sooner you start the process of healing.

Depression—The first step of healing is depression. You feel sad, apathetic, and numb. Everything reminds you of your ex and the memories shared. In this stage, your natural inclination may be to isolate yourself, but it’s important that you embrace support from loved ones at this time.

Anger—Life seems unfair and unjust. You question why this is happening to you and may resent that your ex doesn’t appear to be in as much pain. Anger indicates energy is moving, which can motivate you to make proactive changes.

Bargaining—Your brain doesn’t want to accept it’s over and starts to strategize ways to get back together or ideas on how to fix it.  During this stage, you might ruminate on what you should have done differently or ‘better’. You might even make up excuses to see your ex. You may relapse during this stage, reconnecting with your ex only to separate again. It may take a few cycles of being on-again, off-again before you reach a tipping point and accept that the same behavior is going to keep yielding the same results. It’s important during this stage to not lose sight of the reality that your relationship ended for a reason, and that both people were co-creators of its ending.

Accountability— Accountability is the stage where you step into reality. No longer are you hoping for your ex to change or give you that long-awaited closure. No longer are you stuck in a thinking trap blaming your ex and focusing their energy on what they did or did not do.

This is when the pain transforms into clarity. You realize you are not broken but bruised. You understand your part in the relationship’s ups and downs and ending. You realize that they have the power to make a change, choose differently, build your identity into a wiser, stronger version of yourself. You’re done living in the past, and you’re committed to moving forward now.

Acceptance—This stage is when you embrace the reality of the situation and start to make choices to help you move on. Now you can minimize catastrophic statements such as “I’ll never love again. I will always be alone.” You see hope for your future and decide you are ready to close the chapter to start the next one.

It’s important to recognize that to get to the acceptance stage, you need to go through the other stages. Healing isn’t linear. You might bounce back and forth between stages, and that’s totally normal. You might feel stuck in one stage longer than another, and sometimes this is our way of holding on to the relationship. But once you start to reframe, and recognize the choices you made in the last relationship, you realize the choices you can make starting now, to create the future you want.

When you reach the accountability stage, the wind starts to blow another way. There’s expansion. The mind goes into expansion and starts to play with what’s possible. Sometimes the accountability stage comes after an AHA! moment. Sometimes it comes from hitting a tipping point of suffering where you finally say, “Enough is enough, I’m done with suffering.”

How you get there doesn’t really matter, what’s important is that you’ve come to the realization that the power to move forward is within you. It always has been.

Some journal prompts for you…

There is no quick way out of the healing process, but it might be helpful to ask yourself some questions so that you can take steps toward the direction of accountability and acceptance.

Is the current story I’m holding on to, 100% true? Or are there some assumptions, generalizations, and interpretations that are causing the story to feel more intense and overwhelming? What are the facts of the story, what is fiction?

How might I have contributed to the relationship’s challenges and issues?

What have I learned about myself during this process of healing?

Compassion is the antidote to resentment. How can I have more compassion for myself? What do I need to see in order to practice having compassion for my ex?

What do I need to do to honor the relationship that has ended, so that I can make space for my new future?

It’s not good or bad, it just is…

Whatever stage of healing you’re in, remember, your feelings and your timing is not good or bad. Judging your emotions and where you’re at only adds shame, this causes you to resist the stage you’re in, which only prolongs the suffering. You’re a human being who is healing after having opened your heart. It’s normal to hurt. It’s normal to feel all the feels. It’s normal to feel contradicting emotions all at once. This is all okay.

Something I tell myself whenever I’m feeling overwhelmed by my emotions, instead of judging them, I say,

I’m just expanding my emotional range.

My feelings – all of them – are part of what makes me sensitive, intuitive, empathetic, and uniquely me. Sure it’s uncomfortable AF at times, but I wouldn’t trade it in for anything. I no longer feel shame around my heartbreaks, my scars, my hurts, I feel proud. These stories are all a part of me, they’ve added to my depth, they’ve helped develop my character, and have enriched my life with vibrant colors.

Those parts of you that hurt, deserve to be cherished and loved. Be gentle with yourself.

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Amy Chan is the Founder of Renew Breakup Bootcamp, a retreat that takes a scientific and spiritual approach to heal the heart. She is also the Editor-in-Chief of Heart Hackers Club - an online magazine that focuses on the psychology behind love, lust, and desire. The Observer calls her "A relationship expert whose work is like that of a scientific Carrie Bradshaw" and her company has been featured across national media including Good Morning America, Vogue, Glamour, Nightline, and the front page of The New York Times. Her book, Breakup Bootcamp - The Science of Rewiring Your Heart, was recently published by Harper Collins.

New York, NY

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