According to all the books and the films, heartbreak follows a set pattern: angry arguments, then the split itself, followed by tearful chocolate-eating, and then the recovery — power-dancing to rock songs and going out tentatively into the world as a new, different, and probably better person, ready to love again and find a happy ending.
Life’s not like that, of course. Hearts aren’t like that, and no two breakups are alike. Heartbreak can be a vicious, angry monster, sucking the joy from every hour of every day for months. Or it can hide and then be sneaky, creeping into our dreams or subconscious thoughts even when we believe we’re truly “over” a relationship. Our reaction to the end of a relationship is tied up with so much of who we are as individuals.
When I left my first husband, I felt deeply sad, but the relief of getting away from a toxic and abusive marriage buoyed me through the worst of the grief process. By the time I bobbed to the surface of my life again, I found that I had forgiven him almost without noticing. I can honestly say that I barely think of him now, that man who consumed so much of my life and self for so long. And when I do think of him, it’s with a total absence of feeling. I don’t hate him. I don’t pity him. I just feel…nothing.
My extramarital affair 15 years later, though? That was completely different. In the months that followed its ending, even though I had brought that ending to pass and controlled the narrative and even though I knew I did not love the man I had cheated with, that he was cruel and bad for me, I was plagued with intense shame and feelings of self-loathing that centered on the small details of our relationship. I felt obsessed. I would tease, endlessly, the strands of our short story in my mind.
Fragments of our last conversations would pop into my head whenever I least expected it, reminding me of lies he had told me and ways that I had let myself down. It was agony. Part of me felt that I deserved this torture and pain and that it was nothing compared to what I’d put my family through. I endured it, for that, but it went on far longer than I would ever have expected.
Months went by and I found that I was still in the same spiral of shame and obsession over petty details that no longer mattered in the slightest. I kept telling myself that because I had ended things so fiercely and finally, without a calm conversation, I didn’t have “closure”. But I did not want to contact my ex-lover to obtain that closure, either. I felt doomed.
As part of the internet trawls that I made regularly during those months, I learned about a woman called Amy Chan, who runs “breakup boot camps” specifically for women. These are touted as “a scientific and spiritual approach to healing the heart.” At one point I even felt so low that I considered attending one of these retreats, despite the fact it would have meant a trip overseas. (Told you I was desperate).
But then I read an article in which Chan gave an interview about her techniques. She explained that as part of the healing process, women are encouraged to write a letter to their ex-partner. That letter should have specific sections and consider specific things; it needs to flow from the heart and go into the deepest corners of the relationship. Everything should go onto the page. And then it needs to be burned, thrown away, or deleted.
I was skeptical, but I was desperate. I gave it a go.
I sat down one day and I wrote a long email to my ex, but with nothing but blank space in the “to” box. The words poured out of me, faster and faster as I set out the facts and my feelings. Just writing everything down in chronological order was incredibly therapeutic.
I wrote the email in a furious rush, and then I saved it to “drafts”. I revisited it several times over the next couple of days, tweaking and adding things as they came to me.
Then, I deleted it. Its job was done. And ridiculous as it sounds, the process genuinely had healed something in me. I’d recommend it to anyone.
How to write that healing letter to your ex
Choose a quiet time, with music playing softly, and when you are able to be calm and give the task the attention it deserves. Select your favorite pen and notebook (unless, like me, you’re using email or a Word document). Make a comfortable space for yourself and give yourself space and time.
Your letter should, of course, be addressed to your ex-partner. And it should include these 7 key points:
1.This is what happened. Be factual; no embellishment or hyperbole. Include the good and the bad.
2. This is how I felt then; this is how I feel now. Again, the facts, with no blame or accusation. Your feelings are your experience, no one else’s.
3. This is what I take accountability for. There are two people in a relationship. You may have been treated badly, but allow yourself to consider your own behavior too. What do you need to own?
4. This is what I forgive. Forgiveness is a gift to yourself, not to the person who wronged you. It might hurt, but finding that compassion will help you.
5. This is what I let go. Holding onto the past changes nothing and helps no one. Write it out and feel it leave you.
6. This is what I learned. Even the worst experiences have a takeaway and can contribute to your power. Find the strength in what happened to you.
7. This is what I’m grateful for. Maybe you’re grateful because you know no one will ever treat you that way again? Maybe you’re grateful because your ex taught you a recipe you use every day? It might be big or small but if you find some gratitude, it will help your experience feel less pointless.
Write it all down. Cry, if you feel like crying. Swear and shout and ruminate. Put everything on the page. Say everything you would say if you could have ten minutes, face-to-face and unafraid, with your ex-partner.
And then rip it up, set it on fire, or delete it. Do not send it. That’s not what this is about.
Honestly, it’s hard to put into words how healing the above process can be. It sounds so simple, and none of it is advice that we haven’t heard before. But having a structure for that final letter makes it so much easier to write; something about the sequence of those bullet points makes a cathartic flow.
If you’re hurting right now, I urge you to give it a try. And remember that you’re bruised, not broken. Your life will go on after this heartbreak and today’s feelings will not define you.