Helping a friend after her first-ever breakup
June 25, 2009 7:30 AM   Subscribe

How can I help a friend through her first-ever breakup?

A friend of mine is going through a breakup with her boyfriend of about two years, who is also her first boyfriend. She's broken up with him before... for 4 days. And she is very emotionally attached to him (she hasn't used the word "love," but I'd call it that). This time there's an ultimatum coming down from the boyfriend and from her parents, so it's (hopefully) final; but she's having a really hard time with it. He's been a huge part of her life for these two years; best friend by far, most of her social life, and a big part of how she defines herself.

Complicating the situation is that they aren't "officially" broken up yet---even though apparently he's said that it must happen soon. So they're e.g. still sleeping together, going out on dates, etc. Unhealthy, obviously, but she is happy to gather up any tidbits of affection he throws her way.

He has a bunch of complaints about her behavior, mostly having to do with being flirty toward other men, and apparently likes lecturing her on them repeatedly (perhaps a kinder way of putting it would be "explaining why they need to break up"). This is devastating to her self-esteem, but she's so attached that her only response is "yeah, I fucked up, now give me another chance."

So I'd like to help her as much as I can, and am looking for advice from you guys on how to do so. I think the first-boyfriend/first-breakup paradigm is the most salient detail, perhaps along with the dragged-out breakup and how he's such a big part of her life. Also note that I'm male, so any suggestions of the "girls night out" type don't exactly work.

Obviously I'm not expecting a miracle cure for the breakup blues from AskMeFi, but it seemed like a good use of this week's question to help a friend out. I couldn't find anything too helpful on AskMeFi previously, but if you can, or even some particularly nice Google results (I do prefer "real people's" advice though via AskMeFi), that'd be cool too.
posted by Jacen Solo to Human Relations (28 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
How old are they?
posted by jerseygirl at 7:35 AM on June 25, 2009

Response by poster: She's 19, he's 20. +/- 1 in both cases.
posted by Jacen Solo at 7:40 AM on June 25, 2009

How do you help her through it? There's no magic here, just be there for her, listen to her and be present.

Curious, though...are you at all into her?
posted by inturnaround at 7:48 AM on June 25, 2009

When I'm helping friends with a break up, my general approach is to be painfully honest. I tell them, "Look, this is going to suck. You're going to be unhappy and feeling like shit for a while. But you will get through it, even though it feels like you won't, and you will feel better, and life will go on." There's no avoiding the pain of a break-up where there is real emotional attachment. She'll be suffering a loss from her life and that will involve grief. There's no way around it, there's no way to avoid it.

Here's another way to put it. I'm sure she's not very happy right now going through this extended we're-not-broken-up-yet-but-we-will-you-can-bet-on-that mess. And who knows how long this guy could drag it out. So, she could keep holding on to every tidbit she gets, but generally feeling like shit for an indefinite amount of time, or she can take the plunge, go for the break up, feel like shit for a while, but come out alive and whole at the end ready to move on with her life.

(FWIW, I am a woman who has gone through her fair share of emotional break ups.)
posted by paralith at 7:52 AM on June 25, 2009

Listen to her, support her, and let her take as long as she needs. Realize, though, that she may very well look at you, and the support you're offering, and start to have a rebound crush on you. If you care, at all, about her long-term self-esteem, don't take advantage of that (if you have feelings for her, wait to act on them).
posted by amelioration at 7:52 AM on June 25, 2009

Remember that when they do break up for "real", you should be careful what you say about their ex.
I've had friends break up with shitty boyfriends/girlfriends in the past and have said things like "you know, I always thought he/she was kind of a jerk to you" only to have them get back together the next week- whereupon I turned into the bad guy.
posted by dunkadunc at 7:58 AM on June 25, 2009

She needs to figure out how to be her own person. It's unhealthy for anyone at any age to form that much of their own identity in the shadow of another.

Also unhealthy: Letting this drag on and on. If he's threatening to break up with her, continuously, it's a power play on his part because he knows she's going to fold. Not only is she going to fold, she's going to keep putting out. Part of her finding her own identity is she needs to stand up for herself. She needs to stop giving it up and letting him use her as a convenient date.

If you are into her at all, that needs to go on the back burner. If you are going to give advice, do so from afar. There are two people in the relationship.
posted by jerseygirl at 8:01 AM on June 25, 2009

So they're e.g. still sleeping together, going out on dates, etc. Unhealthy, obviously, but she is happy to gather up any tidbits of affection he throws her way.

Nothing that you say or do will make any difference if this doesn't stop.

Everyone involved here is very young, and this being a first breakup, people are going to make a far-reaching and mind-boggling array of mistakes in dealing with this. It will likely collapse in a glorious display of flames and emotional destruction and your efforts to prevent this will probably not make any difference, as your friend is clearly in an emotionally-reactive mode, and will continue to make destructive choices based on that. The soon-to-be ex is not helping by dragging things out.

That being said: the best advice you could give her is for her to initiate the break-up now, on her terms, and get the shitty part over with. CEASE all contact, cease ALL contact, and cease all CONTACT. This won't happen, though.
posted by coryinabox at 8:02 AM on June 25, 2009 [3 favorites]

After a breakup, I need to do the following. Get rid of things that remind me of him: so, throw away/delete photos, delete emails, throw out presents. I need to delete his phone number and defriend him on facebook. I know that sounds really middle school of me, but it's eliminating opportunities to fixate on him. NO CONTACT. Repeat: no contact. That's it.

I need to spend a couple of days doing a lot of active crying. Then, I need to exercise a lot, eat well, and spend time doing things that I enjoy. This may include, in particular, things that I could not do with the given boyfriend. For example, I would go and read in coffee shops early on Sunday morning, because an old boyfriend hated waking up early but I liked it.

I needed my friends to ask me how I was, and to spend time doing some mopey stuff with me, and then doing some fun stuff with me. Girls and guys.

YMMV, but this is what I need.
posted by teragram at 8:10 AM on June 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

This time there's an ultimatum coming down from the boyfriend and from her parents

I feel like there's a whole (very salient) story missing about these ultimatums.

To back up what dunkadunc said, realize that they've not broken up yet, and may go on-and-off-again a few times. So, don't tear down the (ex-)boyfriend. Instead, build her up. Instead of saying, "He was a jerk," say, "You have so much to offer the right guy."

Mostly, just listen, offer very little advice, and offer lots of building-her-up statements.
posted by Houstonian at 8:13 AM on June 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Great advice so far, much appreciated.

As to the multiple people who have brought up my potential interest in her: I'm only as interested in her as I am in most other cute girls, and have no intentions in that direction (and haven't in the past). I'm pretty sure I have a handle on the appropriate etiquette there, but thanks anyways. amelioration's advice about a potential rebound crush was especially helpful.

I also might be able to talk to the guy. We're not "friends," but we live a few doors down from each other and bonded over a multi-hour car ride; we're "friendly." Right now I'm hesitant to do that since she would probably not appreciate it, and it just seems like too much of a "getting involved" sort of thing. But the (not unexpected) vehemence with which the "this must end" advice has been given is making me reconsider that; thoughts?
posted by Jacen Solo at 8:13 AM on June 25, 2009

But the (not unexpected) vehemence with which the "this must end" advice has been given is making me reconsider that; thoughts?

It needs to come from her. What would you do, talk to him and insist that it must end? Your role, as a friend, is not to facilitate the breakup; it is to support your friend. I realize that "support" is a very vague word, but a clean break needs to come from her, not you.
posted by teragram at 8:19 AM on June 25, 2009

I also might be able to talk to the guy.

Yeah, don't. That is you getting too involved. Let them deal with it.
posted by jerseygirl at 8:22 AM on June 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

Well she's a little young for booze, so that's off the table, unfortunately.

Do what you can to encourage her to hang out with her girlfriends. They ought to be positioned much better to help her through this than you are. Something to watch out for here: you throw yourself into this thing too thoroughly and you become the rebound guy. Which basically sucks for everyone involved most of the time.

Above all: tell her the truth. Keep doing it. She's going to want to lie to herself about a wide range of things. Or maybe not lie per se, but she's going to tell a story about her situation which she wants to be true but which isn't. She's going to want to tell herself how it can all work out. She's going to want to tell herself how her life is going to be over if it doesn't. She's going to want to tell herself how she's never going to find love like this again.

Don't let her do this. Or, at least don't let her do this in your hearing without commenting about it. This does not have to involve any kind of serious confrontation. She's going to be making off-hand comments about what's-'is-butt for some time, and you need to off-handedly assert the truth of the matter, i.e. this guy is bad for her. It can be as simple as "Hey, you know that isn't true." She's not going to want to listen for a while. These things take time. But letting her story about this relationship go unchallenged is going to hurt her in the long run.

I've seen "intervention" type things work out really well. I've also seen them go south really badly. There's a kind of "nothing ventured, nothing gained" thing going on there, but that isn't something I can recommend in good conscience without knowing either of you personally. But the sort of minor, low-intensity "correction", as it were, stands to do here a world of good. You don't need to bitch her out. You don't even need to give actual advice. Just be a kind, gentle, but firm connection to reality.
posted by valkyryn at 8:29 AM on June 25, 2009

I would tell her to take control of the situation and preemptively break up with him. If there's one thing I wished I'd learnt at an early age is being able to tell when the relationship is really over & the sense of control and the empowerment that comes from being the dumper rather than being the dumpee.
posted by torquemaniac at 8:30 AM on June 25, 2009

I'm still puzzled by the "ultimatum" from the boyfriend and... her parents??

It sounds like your friend needs to develop a sense of herself as an autonomous adult, not someone whose parents dictate anything about her relationships, or someone who stays for scraps from someone who has said he intends to break up with her. This isn't something you can do for her, but you can encourage her. If she says something about her parents, you might do well to have a stock response of "It's not their call, and not their business. Let's focus on you and what you want/need right now." And if she says something about the boyfriend "planning" to break up with her, you might say something like, "From where I'm sitting, it seems like he's already broken up the boyfriend/girlfriend relationship and is just using you because you're still around. If I were you, I'd cut off contact with him now rather than waiting for him to make it final."
posted by Meg_Murry at 8:35 AM on June 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

Seriously, why *are* you so involved in what is her break up and her relationship? I get wanting to be there for a friend and feeling bad if they're feeling bad, but honestly your investment in all of this is coming off as a bit presumptuous and arrogant even with the best of intentions. You really don't know what goes on in a relationship between two people as an outsider. Even if your friend has vented/bitched/boasted to you about what you think is every single detail of her relationship. Breakups suck. Varying degrees of suck. So all this handwringing over what isn't your relationship is kind of puzzling. Like I don't even get why you'd willingly take on all this drama and baggage that isn't yours like some kind of emotional bellhop. I'd honestly be moritified if a friend of mine wanted to go have a talking to about my break up to a boyfriend. And there's also infinite possibilities to do more harm than good by unnecessarily sticking your nose in this business. Like someone mentioned above, they've sorta broken up before and they *really* haven't broken up yet, so you giving a stern talking to to this boyfriend about his "vehemence" could just come to bite you in the ass. Or how awkward would it be that you put in all this energy to help your friend only to have them get back together. That's exasperating and deflating all on its own even if you were totally in the right about everything. Or what if you're just being used as a pawn by this girl in her own created drama? Or what if the girl doesn't even want to break up to begin with? Facilitating her break up certainly wouldn't help in the longrun if she decides to blame you for her relationship going south. First break ups are going to happen eventually, it's part of growing up and honestly, on scant details alone it sounds like there's immaturity and communication issues on both sides. AND her parents are mad at her? About what? The relationship? That's like going beyond relationship issues and sounds like a life issue your friend needs to figure out for herself. Your hand holding could just be holding her back from developing as a person and is a little paternalistic on your part.

I'm also really puzzled by your answer "I'm only as interested in her as I am in most other cute girls, and have no intentinos in that direction..." I don't get that. So you find her cute/attractive, but you're not interested? So you just want to be there for her because she's a cute chick? Are you guys really good friends? Just friends? I mean, I don't know what your relationship is to this girl, but hasn't the thought crossed your mind that maybe she has friends she's closer than with you or friends she'd rather go to to talk about this with or maybe she does want to go on a girls night out to figure this out?

I really think you need to re-examine the need you have to be her knight in shining armor and think about maybe removing yourself a bit from the situation would be helpful quite honestly. You're getting all up in someone else's business. If she comes to you to vent to you or talk or need you as a soundnig board, be an ear she can talk to.
posted by kkokkodalk at 8:55 AM on June 25, 2009 [2 favorites]

I've gone through a few breakups and the key here is to break off all contact with the ex and to give it time. It'll hurt a lot for a while but the feelings will pass.

My friends made the extra effort to hang out with me, take me out to a bar, or just get me out of the house and this was very helpful. They also didn't make it feel like they were putting in any extra effort so I didn't feel like it was a burden to them to do this. They also didn't bring up my ex or the relationship unless I did first and when I did they mainly offered words of support without really bad mouthing my ex.

So be there for your friend without making it feel like a therapy session unless that's what they want. I'd shy away from bashing the ex even if they start down that path. Try to actually take them out to do things instead of hanging at home but if that's what they want you can do that too.

This isn't an easy solution and there are no easy answers. Give it time and the wounds WILL heal.
posted by Diskeater at 9:00 AM on June 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

Oh boy .. the first one is bound to be a doozy. In a perfect world, she would grok that dragging this out will make it much, much worse for everyone involved, her especially. So, if you must give her advice, give her the advice that's been posted upthread - take control of this situation by initiating a clean break on her own terms.

However, I think the most effective way to help her move past this is to help her reestablish some normalcy. I'm assuming that you're not her only friend? She needs friends right now, not endless navel-gazing analysis. I'd say the way to go is to get a small squad of her most trusted companions together (including you, obviously) and show her several good times - I leave the exact details to you, as you're gonna know what kind of films she might want to see, concerts she might want to attend, meals she might like to eat, whether she prefers bowling to billiards and so on - don't shut her down if she wants to speak of her hurt, but do try and keep the break-up talk to a minimum. Once upon a time, she surely drew joy from the world from sources other than this fella, right? Your job is to gently demonstrate to her that she can continue to do so.
posted by EatTheWeek at 9:04 AM on June 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

Far as I know, the only cure for breakup blues is crying, writing bad poetry, and listening to sad music. The only thing you can do is listen to her.

Remember that when they do break up for "real", you should be careful what you say about their ex.

This, but for a different reason than dunkadunc cited. I think hearing that your ex is a jerk sounds a lot like "you date jerky guys."
posted by i_am_a_fiesta at 9:07 AM on June 25, 2009

But the (not unexpected) vehemence with which the "this must end" advice has been given is making me reconsider that; thoughts?

Yes, it has to end, because it's clearly not a healthy relationship. I've known too many people who simply refuse to see that truth about themselves. However, she is the one who must end it, not you. The whole point is that she is too dependent on something that isn't good for her and she needs to wake up, see the cold facts, end it and become independent. She can't do that if you do all the work for her. And that brings me to this:

Seriously, why *are* you so involved in what is her break up and her relationship? I get wanting to be there for a friend and feeling bad if they're feeling bad, but honestly your investment in all of this is coming off as a bit presumptuous and arrogant even with the best of intentions.

That's a good point, and I didn't think of it before because I assumed she was coming to you for support. I've had lots of friends come to me for support in times like this, and that's when I offer my advice and help - when they ask for it. When I know that they actually want my involvement. Please be sure that this is the case in your situation, otherwise kkokkodalk is absolutely right that you're sticking your nose in a situation where you may not be wanted.
posted by paralith at 9:12 AM on June 25, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks again, everyone, especially for confirming my suspicions that talking to the boyfriend would be a bad idea. All the more general advice is great too.

In response to kkokkodalk and paralith, I'm not very involved at all. She came to talk to me recently about it, and I talked her through it as best as I could; I just thought it'd be helpful to get some feedback from people with more experience in these situations. As has been wisely said upthread, everyone involved here is very young. I'm certainly not checking in on her constantly or anything intrusive like that; I'm not involved, really, but just feel bad for her as a friend and as a good person. Part of that is empathy, I suppose, having been here myself once.

(And with regards to kkokkodalk's puzzlement, I know approximately a billion cute/attractive girls, some of which I am friends with, and the vast majority of which I am not interested in beyond vague acknowledgment that they fall into the "datable" half of the female gender. Isn't that the same for pretty much everyone?)
posted by Jacen Solo at 9:26 AM on June 25, 2009

Don't talk to the boyfriend and do whatever you can to encourage her to stay away from him. I always tell my friends that you know this breakup is going to suck, and then it will get better. Do you want it to start getting better today so you're that much closer to a new love/happiness or do you want to prolong the whole mess?

Also, give her the book Good In Bed by Jennifer Weiner. It is the most perfect mindless post-breakup chick lit and will keep her mind occupied for at least a few hours. Also, spend time with her doing nothing - watching tv, going grocery shopping. It sucks being alone after a tough breakup.
posted by jrichards at 10:32 AM on June 25, 2009

Hang out with her more so she has less time to think about the boyfriend/ex and less time to be sad about not being with him. Maybe not always alone because if you guys weren't super close before and you start hanging around more she might take it the wrong way - which could be good for forgetting the ex, or even more confusing and hurtful - so if you know any of her other friends plan day-long activities that would not involve the boyfriend/ex.

If someone's been hanging out with mostly one person for 2 years, I think the hardest thing is to not have them around, so if a lot of that empty time is occupied by constantly doing things with other people, it might be easier to forget the person. At least for me.
posted by KateHasQuestions at 11:29 AM on June 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

KateHasQuestions nailed it. The more time spent being productive and sociable is less time spent thinking about him, or god forbid, still hanging out with him.

I have a friend who just had her heart crushed. We're not best friends by any stretch, but we're buddies and I hate to see her hurting so much. Our hangout time consists of her talking about the relationship. Their breakup was prolonged as well (read: they were still screwing until he found someone else).

All I can do is listen, nod and smile, and tell her its not always going to feel so bad and that she deserves better. That's it. When she talks about "how sweet he could be" and "how great things were when we got together," I gently remind her that was NOT the norm.

Her ex is in control here and worse, he's using that to make her feel like this was all her fault. And still sleeping with her.

Yes, go talk to him. Tell him I said he's a twit.
posted by futureisunwritten at 12:50 PM on June 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

If I had known that cutting off all contact would be the best thing for me, AND if I had known that I was empowered to cut off contact (instead of moping around for months wishing, hoping, and dreaming about a word of a sight of my ex), my first break-up would have been much less damaging. So I echo all those above who say to encourage your friend to cut off contact. Present it in terms of freedom and power -- sometimes it helps to be reminded that we can be actors, instead of reactors.

That said, I don't know if I was ready to hear that during my post-break-up catatonia, and it's very possible your friend won't be either. So in that case I'd suggest buying her a copy of Kate Bornstein's Hello Cruel World: 101 Alternatives to Suicide for Teens, Freaks, and Other Outlaws. Yes, "alternatives to suicide" might sound pretty dramatic, but so are first break-ups, and even if your friend isn't dangerous to herself (knock on wood), she probably feels like hell, and Ms. Bornstein's suggestions will make her smile, and above all, give her something to do. Like moisturize. Or create her own pantheon of personal deities.

Above all, know that just being present is really helpful. It sucks to be alone sometimes.
posted by delayed-reaction android at 1:07 PM on June 25, 2009

Buy her a copy of It's Called a Breakup Because It's Broken - my friends have a communal copy that gets leant out to whoever has their first really bad breakup, it's actually a very handy book to start getting your head sorted about reality.
posted by Chrysalis at 3:19 PM on June 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

You really don't know what goes on in a relationship between two people as an outsider. Even if your friend has vented/bitched/boasted to you about what you think is every single detail of her relationship.

Quoted for truth.

You've received plenty of good advice above, so I won't duplicate it. I just want to emphasize that intimate relationship dynamics are amazingly complex, especially during breakups and the downward spiral that usually precedes them. Sometimes it can take years after the fact even for the couple themselves to understand what happened to drive them apart. Hearing her interpretation of the story of her relationship might give you a certain amount of insight into how she feels, but don't kid yourself that you know what's really going on between them, even if you think it seems pretty cut-and-dried.

Related personal anecdote: My ex poured his heart out about the intimate details of our relationship struggles to a mutual friend of ours while we were going through the breakup process. The friend - who had only heard his side of the story, not mine - gave him extensive coaching and advice about how to handle the breakup with me, to the extent that my ex would sometimes parrot this friend's words back to me verbatim as if they were his own. When I figured out that this supposedly mutual "friend" had essentially egged on my ex and sided against me, I was extremely upset. For quite some time, I was angrier at him (the friend) for interfering - and for presuming he knew all he needed to know about what was really going on - than I was at my duplicitous ex for the way he handled the breakup.

So, yeah, you don't want to be that guy. Stay out of it as best you can, and let them handle it. As her friend, you can listen, offer hugs, and keep her company while she goes through the process, but as others have said above, don't talk to her boyfriend, and try not to get too involved in the drama.
posted by velvet winter at 5:02 PM on June 25, 2009

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