How To Cope If You're Dealing With A Breakup And Social Distancing

Social distancing makes splitting up extra hard. We asked therapists (and the newly single) how to cope with the coronavirus pandemic and a breakup.

That’s how it happened for Scott, a writer in Austin, Texas: He and his on-and-off girlfriend of almost five years officially split up on Friday, March 13. A day later, he self-isolated.

The timing was purely coincidental, but the abruptness of it all made the experience so much worse.

“I can honestly say this is the most isolated I’ve ever felt,” said Scott, who, like others in this article, asked to use his first name only for privacy. “The weight of loneliness feels exponential: I am also carrying the sadness of the end of our relationship. This is the most difficult emotional and psychological challenge I’ve ever faced.”

He and his ex are texting, but rarely. He can tell it’s over for good.

Under normal circumstances ― say, ones that didn’t involve a global pandemic ― Scott said it would have been incredibly painful to envision a future without his ex. With the coronavirus, it’s hard to envision what the future looks like at all.

“That’s an anxiety we all share, but the breakup forces me to prepare and plan and think about a future I wasn’t expecting and didn’t want,” he said. “To come to terms with that and the future the pandemic has foisted on us, it feels impossible. It feels emotionally paralyzing.”

Scott isn’t alone in going it alone after a breakup right now. Therapists we spoke to say they have many clients struggling to navigate the strange new world of social distancing while also disentangling from a relationship.

“In addition to weathering the pain of a breakup, you truly feel alone because of quarantine,” said Virginia Gilbert, a marriage and family therapist in Los Angeles. “Ordinarily you’d commiserate with friends, but everyone’s at home.”

For Leah, an IT project manager in Southern California, it was a triple whammy of big life changes: Her fiance left her a week before Los Angeles established stay-at-home orders across the city. She had just started a new job, too. (She was onsite for four days before having to work from home.)

“It’s been a major mind shift, having to be alone in a half-empty house with holes from where his stuff used to be and memories associated with the relationship,” she said. “Plus, to be honest, he also took all the video games, so I have nothing to do!”

“I joked to a friend that there are two things I need to help me recover from this breakup: a hug and a bartender. Unfortunately I don’t have access to either.”

- Scott, a newly single writer in Austin, Texas

It’s not much better when you’re newly single and living with family, though. That’s what Jen Lee, a managing partner at a private equity firm in Washington, D.C., is currently doing.

“I have family in from out of town that hasn’t been able to go home due to travel restrictions. So I can’t even get a good cry in,” she said. “Can I cry myself to sleep in peace?! No, no I can’t.”

Lee’s current situation ― being surrounded by family ― could be a benefit for some, especially men, said Caroline Madden, a marriage and family therapist in Burbank, California. Of her clients who are struggling with a breakup amid the pandemic, her male clients are taking it particularly hard.

“In my opinion, breakups are more difficult for men during this time because they don’t have access to an emotional support system,” she told HuffPost. “Men usually rely on their female partners for their emotional support, so when their partner or spouse breaks up with them, it is an incredible loss that isn’t easily replaced.”

Madden said she’d normally tell her clients, both men and women, to take respite in their friendships: Go hit a bucket of balls on the golf course or take a spa day. She can’t advise that now.

“Because of social distancing, all you have to do is group video chat or games,” she said.

For his part, Scott, the aforementioned writer from Texas, said there’s nothing he’d love more right now than to hang out and commiserate with friends at a bar.

“I joked to a friend that there are two things I need to help me recover from this break-up: a hug and a bartender,” he said. “Unfortunately I don’t have access to either.”

Clearly, there’s a shortage of socializing options for the brokenhearted. But there are things you can do to stay healthy and put the focus on your well-being while quarantined. Below, therapists ― and our newly single sources ― offer breakup advice they’re learning on the fly.

First, acknowledge the pain.

As with any breakup, Gilbert said she recommends her clients practice mindful awareness under these admittedly rougher-than-usual circumstances.

“Observe what it’s like in the moment to feel un-partnered during a pandemic. Resisting those observations will actually make the breakup harder,” she said. “Observing the experience and practicing non-judgment will help you detach from emotional chaos so you can make thoughtful choices.”

How do you act “mindful” about your breakup, exactly?

“Take the example of stalking your ex on Instagram or Twitter. That’s compulsive and will just make you feel lonelier,” Gilbert said. “Instead, look for an alternative: Mindful choices for managing heartbreak include exercise, journaling, yoga, or therapy with a telehealth provider.”

“It’s been a major mind shift, having to be alone in a half empty house with holes from where his stuff was,” Leah, a newly single IT manager, told us.
Malte Mueller via Getty Images
“It’s been a major mind shift, having to be alone in a half empty house with holes from where his stuff was,” Leah, a newly single IT manager, told us.

Use your time wisely. (No Instagram stalking!)

You have an excess of free time right now. As Gilbert mentioned, don’t use it to stay current on what your ex is up to on social media. (For starters, you already know they’re doing the exact same thing as everyone else: Staying at home, going on the occasional walk and maybe taking selfies in their new Etsy face mask. No need to see that.)

“My number one piece of advice is definitely to stop virtually stalking your ex, Madden said.

Instead of torturing yourself with your ex’s Instagram stories, Madden suggests some reading.

“Download and read some books on relationship dynamics,” Madden said. “Not ‘how to get the girl/guy’ type books but books that explore why relationships are good in the beginning but then you end up breaking up. I highly recommend ‘Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find—and Keep—Love’ by Amir Levine. It’s a book about how our attachment styles influence how we form relationships, for better or worse.”

Lean into your work and healthy activities as a distraction.

Instead of dwelling too much on the breakup, Lee said she’s leaning into her work life. Emails and jumping on Zoom calls are a welcome distraction right now, she said.

“That’s what’s allowing me to keep it all together right now — maintaining normalcy through running my business’ day-to-day operations,” she said.

If your work life is tenuous right now ― maybe you’ve been laid off or furloughed ― focus on the good in your life (your family and friends, for instance), and activities that put the focus on your well-being.

“I’ve also started back my rigorous race training schedule with running,” Lee said. “It’s been helpful for me ― maintaining my fitness as a means of self-care and mental wellness.” (For tips and routines that can help you stay physically and mentally healthy during the coronavirus outbreak, head here.)

Journaling is a great way to gauge how you're doing since the start of self-quarantine and your breakup, Gilbert said.
CSA Images via Getty Images
Journaling is a great way to gauge how you're doing since the start of self-quarantine and your breakup, Gilbert said.

Journal to measure your growth.

Scott, the writer from Austin, said one of the things he’s struggling with most is not having any way to gauge the progress he’s made in moving on from his ex. Usually, going out and being around old friends helps him measure his recovery, he said.

“At least then, you can ask yourself: Are you feeling depressed around other people, or are you noticing yourself starting to smile again? Am I wholly uninterested in the women in the room, or does the one over there look interesting? Do I feel good about myself?” he said. “Without being around other people, I can’t tell. There are no measuring sticks for my recovery.”

Gilbert understands that angst. But there’s not a total absence of ways to measure your growth post-split, the therapist said.

“One way to do that during this pandemic is to keep a gratitude journal: Each day, write down 5-10 things you’re grateful for (a hot shower, food in the refrigerator) and reflect on those things,” she said. “After a while, if you do this practice consistently, you’ll notice that you’re able to more easily shift your focus from what you don’t have to the positive things you do have.”

Gilbert also stressed that healing from a breakup doesn’t necessarily mean that you don’t feel pain. Healing, she said, “means that you learn to stop reacting unskillfully to your problem narrative ― ‘I’ll be alone forever!’ ― and start focusing on positive thoughts.”

Consider the alternates: Social distancing with your ex could have been pretty terrible.

Let go of the pipe dream that self-quarantining with your ex would have brought you closer together or fixed any longstanding issues you had. Stressful times don’t usually lend themselves to positives like that.

Madden said she has a few clients who are still living together post breakup because they hadn’t moved out before stay-at-home orders were established. It’s generally not pleasant.

“Some are even co-parenting and homeschooling together,” she said. “It’s not easy: My advice to them is to create your own space if possible ― and move out as soon as you can.”

If you are still living together, it’s especially hard if one ex suspects their former partner is talking to someone new: “You can’t ask any questions about new partners without looking jealous, even if you’re legitimately asking because of COVID-19 concerns,” Madden said. “It’s not a good situation.”

Recognize that this gives you an opportunity to make a clean break.

Take the time to process the myriad emotions and feelings you have now. Fall out of love, if you haven’t already. Mourn the relationship, good and truly. But eventually, make a concerted effort to see the few upsides there are to a breakup during a time like this.

“Sometimes I do wish my ex was here, usually for reasons other than the breakup and pandemic,” Lee admitted. “But I’m starting to see the distance and space as a means for a clean break.”

Slowly, Lee said, she’s embracing the quarantine time frame as a “blessing in disguise” for her healing process.

“My ex and I been through so many cycles and whenever we hit a rough patch, he’d still always answer the phone and come over ― we’d always met up when we needed each other,” she explained. “But now, we can’t do that. If social distancing makes for a cleaner break for us, all the better.”

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