It can be very painful to watch a good friend go through a difficult break-up. You want to help. There are some things you can do to help, but you can’t “fix” everything. You can’t make their ex return, or create a time machine where your friend can go back to when everything was perfect. Chances are everything wasn’t perfect anyway!
Step One-Helping a Friend Survive a Breakup:
Recognize What They Are Going Through
First, realize that they are in survival mode. This means, their world has just come to a crashing end. They feel like they are dying, or maybe they are even having thoughts about wanting to die. From your perspective, you can see that “this too shall pass.” You can see that while they may be either turning their ex into the most evil prince or princess, that this ex was just doing what they thought was best for themselves. Or they may be putting their ex on a pedestal (now that they are gone!) and not believe that anyone else will ever be able to replace them. Either way, your friend is not thinking clearly. Instead he or she is seeing a small version of reality. Realize that your friend may not be ready to hear your truth right now. Your job is to recognize that their emotions are running the show and they can’t hear much else.
Step Two-Helping a Friend Survive a Breakup:
Determine If Your Friend Is In True Danger
If your friend is either seriously thinking about hurting themselves or someone else, they need professional help. If you don’t know, ask directly: “Are you thinking about hurting yourself?” and “Are you thinking about hurting someone else?” It is best to ask these questions in person if possible, so you can observe their body language to read if they are telling the truth. But if all you have is phone contact, don’t delay, ask them right now. Ask them if they have a plan. Ask what it is. If they have a plan, you need to call 911 and get them help immediately.
When someone is going through an event that they feel they can’t survive, or don’t want to survive, they are at risk for suicidal thoughts. That doesn’t mean they are going to kill themselves, but if they start doing things that raise red flags, such as totally isolating, giving away prized possessions, failing to function at work or school, disappearing or not responding to your calls or e-mails, these are warning signs you need to take immediate action to intervene.
Step Three-Helping a Friend Survive a Breakup:
Once you have determined that your friend is not a danger to themselves or others, you can begin to offer your support. What is important is that you offer, not force your support. This means rather than assume you know what the other person needs, you need to ask them what they need. For example, you may think that all they need is to come to your big birthday bash, with tons of friends. You might believe this would really cheer them up. But they may be feeling too low, too blue or bruised for company.
The point is what you think is “good medicine” for their pain may be the opposite – more stress and discomfort. So what you need to do is ask your friend “How can I support you right now?” They may not have an answer right away, but thinking about this question will get their mind pointed in the right direction.
Step Four-Helping a Friend Survive a Breakup:
Assuming your friend is not in danger, and is willing to be supported by you, then you can move to the next stage, which is INVITING them to do simple positive activities. Keep it simple. Offer two choices that don’t involve a lot of decisions, and are things you know they love. An example might be “I’m going for a hike tomorrow with my neighbor’s dog. Want to come along?” Or “I’m having (mutual friend) over for dinner on Wednesday. Want to come along?” or “I’m going to watch (favorite DVD) tonight, want to come over?” You get the idea. Start with things you know the person likes. They may not be ready for too much new stimulation -- people, places or things. Or they might want to escape – to take that weekend trip to Vegas. You don’t know until you ask.
Step Five-Helping a Friend Survive a Breakup:
Don’t Give Advice Unless It Is Asked For
It is tempting when you see your friend suffering to start offering a heap of good advice. After all, you are seeing their situation more clearly than they are! But your friend may not be looking for advice. They may be feeling overwhelmed with their current emotions, and are not yet in the stage of being ready to move forward in any area. If the break-up involves major decisions such as moving, leaving stuff behind, or making other big life changes, be sensitive to the fact that they may have their own timing in terms of being ready to make these moves.
Before you offer advice, make sure they are ready to hear it. How do you know if they are ready? Ask them. Say, “Would you like my advice/feedback/opinion on this?” This question gives them a chance to prepare their mind to receive new and perhaps hard to hear input. If they have not deliberately turned on the “receiving” part of the brain, no amount of good advice is going to be heard. If you try to give someone advice who is not ready to receive it, they may turn their anger on you, or start avoiding you, because you represent those hard choices.
Step Six-Helping a Friend Survive a Breakup:
Be Their Fairy Godmother
In helping a friend survive a break-up you need to understand they need a lot of nurturing. They are probably not going to be able to give much in return. Hopefully some gratitude at some point, but for now they are in serious “need mode,” and you have to decide if you are up for a major energy pull. You have to balance your own needs for time, privacy, peace of mind. For example, you can’t stay up till three in the morning on the phone with them, listening to them rant about their ex. Maybe you do this once or twice, but not every day. You need to check in with yourself and make sure, in any given moment that you have the space, energy, time and willingness to listen, or hold their hand and make them feel better. If you are ready, willing and able to do this, then it is the time to heap on the chicken soup, in emotional terms. This is a right time to be a good friend. If this person is important in your life, go the extra distance. Pick them up and take them someplace and do activities that feel good to both of you.
Step Seven: Helping a Friend Survive a Breakup:
Be The Lighthouse
Your job right now is to shine the light on a possible future. You want to offer the possibility of hope and new directions. This could be as simple as just being in a good mood yourself. You want to just be yourself, giving them your presence. Sometimes they need to talk. Sometimes they just need your presence. Sometimes they need to be active and engaged. Sometimes they need reflection. If your friend is stuck obsessing, refer them to our article on “Breaking the Cycle of Obsession.” Help them to not submit to terrible self condemnation. Challenge statements they make about what a loser or rotten person they are. Remind them they are worthy of happiness and love.
In summary, your friend needs you right now. It is a wonderful thing to help someone who needs you. You can be their perfect fairy godmother, delivering support, inspiration and distraction from their pain. Just make sure you don’t lose your own balance. Remember, this too shall pass, so never buy into their version of reality as being permanent.
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