What did you need to hear—and NOT hear—after a devastating breakup?
June 25, 2015 11:00 AM   Subscribe

One of my dearest friends got dumped this week, the end of a nearly 7-year relationship that both had hoped would head toward marriage. My friend (whom I'll anonymize as "Fred") is devastated, angry, and hurt, and doesn't have any local friends who knew him before the relationship. Fred lives quite a ways away, so all my support right now must be from afar. He's asked if we can talk by phone this Saturday, and while I anticipate I'll mostly be doing a lot of listening, I want to say the right things to help, too. If you've been through something similar, can you guide me?

I have never experienced the kind of break-up he's going through. I'm distinctly aware of the possibility that I could say all the wrong things and leave him feeling worse, rather than feeling supported, and I really don't want that. When you went through something like this, what helped to hear? What made you feel worse?

Obviously, it is not my responsibility to make him feel better; I just want him to feel like he has friends and support, even when terrible sucky things happen. And I'd like to avoid sticking my foot in my mouth while doing so.

If it's relevant: this was one of those situations where both people in the relationship were great people, but not great for each other. There would be nothing gained by disparaging anything about Fred's former partner.
posted by ocherdraco to Human Relations (32 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
It will depend some on whether Fred is a "I am upset and want you to help me fix this" kind of person, or a "I am upset and just need you to listen and tell me it will be okay" kind of person.

Since the breakup is so fresh, though, you should probably be prepared to do more of the "Oh, man, this just sucks" and "I know, I'm so sorry" than the "You can get free boxes from the grocery store for packing your stuff" even if he is more of a "help me fix this" kind of guy.
posted by rtha at 11:04 AM on June 25, 2015 [1 favorite]

Well, besides saying directly that you are always going to be there for him, and he can call anytime, plan to tell him how great you believe he is, and also to support the value of having been in this relationship, despite its end. (If appropriate, you may want to gently applaud his departure from it. It may be that leaving it was an act that opens up opportunity for much greater happiness in the future.)

The two hardest things about breakups, I think, in order, are the blow that people take to their sense of being worthwhile and valuable, and the sense of having wasted their time, too. And sometimes people feel pretty hopeless about the future because of the sadness that comes with the relationship end.

If he's very angry, I'd just affirm his feelings without endorsing the anger yourself. Anger tends to pass.
posted by bearwife at 11:11 AM on June 25, 2015 [8 favorites]

- I'm so sorry
- This sucks
- It's really hard
- I'm here for you
- Do you want me to help you [obtain X resource, be it apartment listings or mental health support or a new couch or whatever]?
- Get as much sleep as you can and regular light exercise (unless he does that sort of thing already, in which case remind him that now is a terrible time to give up on it, even if he doesn't feel like it). Eat real food, but also small doses of comfort junk. Don't drink much.

If it's appropriate, talk to him about how time will help even though that does him no good right now.
posted by Lyn Never at 11:20 AM on June 25, 2015 [2 favorites]

what helped to hear?

Anything normal and mundane not-relationship-related going on in anyone else's lives to provide a distraction.

What made you feel worse?

People talking shit about the ex.
posted by phunniemee at 11:28 AM on June 25, 2015 [16 favorites]

Things that I don't think help:
- badmouthing/villianizing the ex. Don't talk about the ex or try to dissect why they broke off the relationship.
- saying stuff like "plenty of fish in the sea" or "you'll find someone new in no time"
- any suggestions of going out and starting a new relationship with someone else immediately
- any suggestions of going out and having sex with someone else
- telling them to "buck up"

Things that do help:
- just listening to them
- if they seem talked out, try talking about normal, other life stuff (ie. maintaining some "normal" in their life)
- acknowledgment of their pain (that must be so hard, this sucks, etc)
- acknowledgment that the end of relationships like this can feel very much like a death, and it is absolutely okay to grieve
- suggesting they do some hedonistic things for themself that is purely about feeling good, having fun, and doing something they like. Things like taking a mental health day from work and just staying home to play video games and eat pizza, or buying some new clothes, or getting a haircut, etc
- encouraging them NOT to get back into the dating scene any time soon
- at the end of the conversation tell them you'll touch base the next day to see how they're doing, and then do it.
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 11:29 AM on June 25, 2015 [3 favorites]

What helped was anything that got me outside my own head. One thing that really bugged the hell out of me was the phrase "it wasn't meant to be."
posted by adamrice at 11:30 AM on June 25, 2015 [4 favorites]

In general, you need to do the "ELIZA" thing: just listen, and occasionally, ask him to elaborate on certain aspect of what he had brought up. Make NO judgment. Say generic things that fits the mood, repeat certain things back to him (Like ELIZA) and ask for more details. Make occasionally agreement sounds, like "uhmmmm" "okay" "continue" and so on.

Basically, you're just a sounding board for him. Affirm his feelings (unless they're hurtful) and his right to feel that way, but emphasize that he'll get over it, and learn from it.
posted by kschang at 11:31 AM on June 25, 2015 [1 favorite]

I also once arranged for a pizza (that I paid for) to be delivered to my friend's apartment who was having an extremely difficult time. She lives in a different city and if I had been there in person I would have brought a pizza. My friend said it was absolutely awesome.

I also once sent the same friend a big bouquet to her office when she was really overworked and stressed out, the card reading something along the lines of "Your farts stink really really bad. Hopefully these flowers will mask your stink! Love you! From [PuppetMcSockerson]). She said that they made her laugh outloud and really cheered her up. YMMV
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 11:37 AM on June 25, 2015 [10 favorites]

Oh, and urge them NOT to drown their sorrows in liquor (or any other drugs/intoxicants). My first level advice is always to insist they AVOID ALCOHOL at all costs during difficult times, that alcohol will only make them feel worse, not better, and the hangover is an extra kick to the junk they really don't need right now. So no booze.
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 11:45 AM on June 25, 2015 [1 favorite]

Going through a sort of similar thing right now, although my situation sounds more contentious, but things friends have done that have helped me:

-Offering distractions like talking about movies or TV shows, but also allowing me to vent/complain when I feel the need. Occasionally I've found that distractions actually make me feel worse but this is slowly getting better with time, and it helps that all my friends aren't bothered or upset about me venting.

-Listening and validating my feelings (saying things like "That sounds awful" or "I can't imagine how upset that must make you"). This doesn't mean they have to agree with my feelings or my actions, but just acknowledging that I am going through a very difficult time and being accepting of my intense emotions is helpful.

-Reminding me all the ways I'm awesome--telling me that I'm hot, smart, funny, whatever other things they like about me. My self esteem has taken a big hit but my friends are really helping. Also, they've been very supportive when I've done things like posting selfies on Facebook with captions like "I'm hot and amazing!" They don't see it as bragging, they see it as self-care.

-Encourage me to take care of myself however I need to and focus on my needs. This might mean calling out from work "sick" and sleeping all day, or it might mean going for a really long bike ride, doing yoga, or just watching hours of TV. Just whatever I need to do to get through the day.

-Letting me know that even though I feel really alone right now, I'm NOT alone and I do have people who care about me and want me to be happy.

-Also, not letting me become too self-absorbed or irrational. By this I mean, gently pointing out if they think I'm being excessively harsh on my soon-to-be ex. You can do this while still validating the person's feelings, although it can be tricky and you'll have to use your judgment on if you think it would upset him more. Personally, I like that my friends keep me grounded this way--for example saying things like "You must be extremely angry/hurt/sad, but try to be the better person and be civil and that will make it easier overall."
posted by a strong female character at 11:46 AM on June 25, 2015 [5 favorites]

You are probably already a good listener since he has specifically asked for a call to discuss things. I have a friend like that who I know I can call and vent to when I've been in a bad situation or just a bad place emotionally. The best thing my friend does is just listen, always encourages me, and yes never ever bad mouths during the conversation. And yes to what puppet said - the random thing to be sent to them, pizza or flowers -- A+ friendship.
posted by kmr at 11:48 AM on June 25, 2015 [1 favorite]

Firstly, this is an awful situation. Don't think there is anything you can magically say to make it all OK, because there isn't (judging by your question, I think you already know this).

Secondly, I think what you said about the other half not being a bad person is real, genuine and congruent (http://www.alleydog.com/glossary/definition.php?term=Congruence). Stick with that line.

Thirdly, it is 100% OK that Fred doesn't feel 100% whole after the end of this relationship, because that's how relationships are supposed to be. You're supposed to give a part of yourself away, and the sense of loss and grief - while painful - is healthy.

Fourthly, Fred doesn't need his other half to be whole. He was a valuable, important person before his relationship, and he is just as valuable and healthy now.

Fifthly (IS THAT EVEN A WORD????!!!!), don't just listen, but show him that you're listening. Tell him when two different parts match up. Tell him when he's being kind or empathic, and tell him things will get better, because that's how grief works, and right now, he's grieving.

I'm sorry if this wasn't useful, I'm quite drunk right now.

Good luck.
posted by matthew.alexander at 11:50 AM on June 25, 2015 [4 favorites]

Nthing not to trash talk the ex. Offer to do things with your friend. Keep in mind he may not feel up to it, but keep offering.
posted by jgirl at 11:58 AM on June 25, 2015

Offer to do things with your friend.

OP said that they live far away from Fred and that the only comfort they can offer is from a distance.

THAT SAID - I used to go on "phone dates" with my friend (yes, the same friend again from the pizza and fart flowers... we're best friends that live in different cities, this is how we cope...), where we would watch a movie together, each in our respective homes, but talk on the phone during it. The biggest challenge was getting our respective movies to be aligned in terms of timing. (Obviously this is easier if you watch things that are being broadcast on tv.) Horror movies can be hilarious to watch on a phone date if they movies aren't QUUUIIIIIITE lined up, because one person will scream and the other person will be, "What! What ha --- AHHHHHHHHH!". Totally fun times. (Also, arranging the surprise pizza delivery for a phone date would be a particularly awesome gesture.)
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 12:04 PM on June 25, 2015 [2 favorites]

worst thing a friend said to me after a breakup was "that guy was a dick, why are u still upset?"

i would've preferred "i'm sorry you're hurting" or "time will help." i wouldn't talk about "plenty of fish in the sea" etc. that's obvious and unhelpful at this point.
posted by monologish at 12:07 PM on June 25, 2015

Along with phone/text/chat dates for watching trashy TV/etc at home, you can also send him a gift card for a movie theater and go see something at roughly the same time and then gab about it afterwards. Obviously, stick to dinosaurs and things blowing up; this weekend is maybe NOT the time to go see Inside Out or that movie about the dog Marine.
posted by Lyn Never at 12:13 PM on June 25, 2015

The "everything will be okay - just give it time" advice is both entirely true and tremendously unhelpful in a breakup situation. When I've been in situations like this one, I didn't want to hear that it was "for the best" or that I'd "be fine" or how "everything works out for the best."

I just wanted someone to acknowledge that I was going through a horrible loss and that I was sad and angry and frustrated and didn't quite know what to do with myself. I would have appreciated just talking about other stuff, but letting the situation bubble into the conversation when/if I felt like talking about it.

You're a good friend. The first conversation is important, but continuing to talk is more important. Don't be the friend who screens his call in a few weeks because you're tired of talking about it.
posted by guster4lovers at 12:17 PM on June 25, 2015 [7 favorites]

"You are loved. You are not alone."
posted by wheek wheek wheek at 12:22 PM on June 25, 2015 [1 favorite]

This is a very, very personal thing.

Here's what helped (and didn't help) me:
-I did NOT want to re-hash the breakup. So when I said "I don't want to talk about it", it really helped to have people take that at face value. People that pushed just made me angry.
-I didn't need distractions, or people treating me differently. There were people who treated me like I had two months to live and needed to Get Out and Do All The Happy Things And Stay Busy!. Ew. I just wanted my life to go on like normal. Without my ex, sure, but otherwise normal.

I could go on, but the more I think about it, it all comes down to this: ask Fred what he wants/needs. Believe him when he says it. Respect his boundaries and desires (I mean, this is good advice all the time, but now more than ever.) Let him know that you're there for him, whatever he needs, even if - especially if! - what he needs is nothing from you at all.
posted by okayokayigive at 12:35 PM on June 25, 2015 [3 favorites]

I agree with guster, your friend will probably have multiple variations of the same conversation multiple times. It's not his fault, I think that's just the way grief is processed sometimes. If you're willing, what really helped me is having someone I can call whenever I had really intense moments of "this is a mistake just one quick phone call just to say this and that I just realized MUST BE KNOWN!"

Of course, staying away and having no contact is imperative, but easier said than done, so being available at especially vulnerable moments will probably be helpful. basically letting him know you can lend an ear even at odd hours. you're doing a great thing and showing that you care.
posted by lunastellasol at 12:37 PM on June 25, 2015 [2 favorites]

Nthing not to trash the ex. One of the things that annoyed me most—when I broke up with someone I'd been living with for years, and who was a great person—was when my brother said "I knew he was never right for you from the first time I met him." Let him talk, and if he doesn't want to talk about it, do your best to distract him.
posted by three_red_balloons at 12:49 PM on June 25, 2015 [1 favorite]

I think distracting activities are the best thing you can do for someone who is dealing with this sort of grief (and yes, it is a form of grief). Something fun I've done with long-distance friends is I've gotten on instant messaging with them and streamed something simultaneously - a movie, a long video, an album or mixtape - while we discussed it in real time. It's the sort of activity that is engaging enough that it will let your friend stop thinking about anything other than the thing you're streaming and chatting about for a time.
posted by capricorn at 12:50 PM on June 25, 2015

When I went through a devastating break up a couple of years ago (see my question last week!) the things that DIDN'T help were:

- People saying that time heals all wounds and I would feel better in time (because I didn't want to feel better without him, I just wanted him to come back)
- People saying he would come back and don't I dare take him back etc etc (because it gave me false hope)
- People telling me to go no contact (because they were right and I didn't want to hear it)

Things that DID help were:

- People coaxing me out of my cocoon of misery and persuading me to do fun things, making plans for the future so I had something to look forward to.
- People talking about their own problems and asking my advice (there is nothing like shared misery)
- People talking about similar break up experiences that they had and how they reacted similarly to me and that I really wasn't mad
- Little gestures, like my best friend at work buying me a pair of socks with Jack Russells on, a close friend who lives in Australia sending me a lovely card and my ex boyfriend (not the one I had just split with obv) sitting up until stupid o'clock listening to me ranting about it on Facebook and not once saying "see, you should have stuck with me, I wasn't so bad after all" even though I know he was dying to.
- Generally just knowing people loved me and cared for me and that he wasn't the centre of my universe after all.
posted by intensitymultiply at 1:18 PM on June 25, 2015 [3 favorites]

Saying things is less important than listening. Listening and not acting like it's a huge burden to listen. Avoid clichés like "it's for the best" or "you'll find the right person" which function to minimize the emotional impact. Letting him express emotions is important. Open expressions of emotion are generally frowned upon in our society, especially from men. Depending on how things ended, there may be a fair amount of anger. Generally people I have talked to about a bad breakup tell me that my anger is wrong – either because it "doesn't help anything" or it's "misplaced" or whatever. It's taken me a lot of work to recognize that the "don't be angry" position is wrong. There is a logic and inevitability to emotions. Being angry at an ex is completely unavoidable. Adding shame on top of the anger only makes it worse. Enabling your friend a safe space to express those feelings of anger, betrayal, and loss, is a great gift you can give him.
posted by deathpanels at 1:22 PM on June 25, 2015 [3 favorites]

Nthing not to trash the ex. One of the things that annoyed me most—when I broke up with someone I'd been living with for years, and who was a great person—was when my brother said "I knew he was never right for you from the first time I met him." Let him talk, and if he doesn't want to talk about it, do your best to distract him.

Similarly, after a longterm relationship (cohabitating ex threw tantrums, acted psycho in ways I can't, fortunately, begin to comprehend, and performed a lot of hot and cold/Jekyll & Hyde-esque drama fits when I was in a very busy and important transitional time in my life, and didn't have the energy or affection to deal with him anymore), my friends of 2 years at that point (that my ex and I had spent some time with as a couple) said something that kind of really hurt my feelings for some reason, namely that their initial impression of him was that he wasn't attractive enough for me. Because my ex and I had built a life together, and I guess it was painful to me to think that other people's first impression might have been that he wasn't goodlooking/attractive. Or maybe it was that he often mentioned it himself, and I thought it was stupid. And it was a reminder of how narcissistic and superficial my ex could be. It felt like the only thing people took away from a decade plus relationship was that they thought I was too goodlooking for him, when I thought maybe, hoped maybe the takeaway would have been how loving and kind we were to each other.

The husband also tried to set me up with someone. I guess what was helpful was when he said, "Whenever you're ready, I can set you up with this great guy." People also invited me out to cool events and I started meeting new people. I probably started dating again too soon, but I survived.

It hurt. Don't say anything about whatever instinct or judgment you had about the viability of the relationship, because the person in it invests---even if 1 year from now he can't think of why, regardless of the length of a relationship. And it's okay to cry and it's, in my opinion, really good to feel everything, every feeling, good or bad, and give them names.

I also recommend watching a whole series through. Scrubs helped me, as did grief yoga. Remind him he won't always feel this bad. Depending on the depth of the connection, it might take awhile. But get him to track his no contact days. And remind him that this kind of thing is a universal experience that everybody has been through and that it gives him superpowers to make his life better.

I appreciated the people who encouraged me to start dating again. I waited a little bit, but that helped.
posted by discopolo at 2:36 PM on June 25, 2015 [1 favorite]

- People saying that time heals all wounds and I would feel better in time (because I didn't want to feel better without him, I just wanted him to come back)

+1 to this. I wish the myth of "time heals all wounds" would just die already. Time doesn't make it better, it just means it goes on longer. Telling someone time will make it better eventually means they feel like you lied to them when it doesn't, and makes it feel like you are dismissing their pain.

also to support the value of having been in this relationship, despite its end.

Um, no, don't do this either, unless you know they feel that way. They may wish it had never happened at all.

When you went through something like this, what helped to hear?

Honestly, nothing. Even "mirroring language," mentioned above ("That must be so hard for you," etc) isn't helpful, because it doesn't fix anything.
posted by Violet Hour at 4:12 PM on June 25, 2015

It's helpful to let them know you're there for them, and to try to do nice things for them. I like the pizza idea above. Listen. Acknowledge that it fucking sucks if they talk about it.

Above all, do not badmouth the ex or talk about why you thought it would fail.
posted by J. Wilson at 4:45 PM on June 25, 2015 [1 favorite]

Worst thing a close relative of mine actually said to me after I broke up with a lying, cheating, stalker ex: "Men need to sew their wild oats." Ugh, so wrong.

Best thing a friend said: "I'm so sorry. I'm here for you. I honestly had no idea he was capable of something as terrible as this. No one could have seen this coming. This all truly is very shocking." And then she listened to me tell the same stories over and over again for weeks without seeming bored or sick of hearing about it. She's an awesome friend.
posted by hush at 4:47 PM on June 25, 2015 [2 favorites]

My best friend from miles away offered to be my 'Rationality Guide" for such obvious moments as when I needed to ask whether setting fire to my ex's house was a reasonable course of action. ["No, you'll just end up in jail"] Basically he offered to listen to the hairiest of crazy angry thoughts I could muster, indulge me and then help me get out everything without letting me do anything stupid.
posted by honey-barbara at 6:06 PM on June 25, 2015 [1 favorite]

"What do you need right now?"
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 10:51 PM on June 25, 2015 [1 favorite]

Just be honest and listen to what they say they want.

I have a friend who is going through some truly horrible experiences (fuck cancer) and I'm their "inappropriate person". They've said it's helpful to not have someone treat them with kid gloves and allow them to stop being "so fucking nice" all the time.

I have had people tell me bad things about my ex (no shit Sherlock, I didn't notice that in the fifteen fucking years we were together) and good things about me (yeah, we both know I fucked that up; quit lying) and it just made me tune out any other advice they had.

A "rationality guide" is a good idea for those times when you know it's a dumb idea but want to do it so badly.
posted by fullerine at 4:56 AM on June 27, 2015

Response by poster: Thanks, everyone. This was all very helpful advice.
posted by ocherdraco at 9:06 AM on June 27, 2015

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