Getting through a breakup and surviving it during the pandemic
A split from a partner during such stressful times can feel challenging.
When Carla Carreon and her boyfriend broke up in May 2020, a few months into the pandemic, “it was kind of like the worst storm”, she said. Carreon, 40, a marketing manager in San Francisco, had been with her boyfriend for three years.
“Everything just seemed so heightened and intense and harder than normal, because I had so much else on my mind,” she said.
While 2020 was “the year of breakups” – a Dating.com survey of 3,000 people from September 2020, for instance, reported nearly twice as many breakups between January and September of 2020 when compared with data from 2019 – statistics on how many people split up in 2021 is scarce so far.
Still, Melissa Hobley, chief marketing officer for OkCupid, said that at the beginning of 2021, the dating site had “definitely seen a bump in users who had a COVID-19 romance and are now single again”.
If you’ve broken up with someone this year, it may have been for COVID-19-related reasons – perhaps the stress of the pandemic exacerbated existing tensions, or isolating with someone revealed their true colours – or maybe it wasn’t related at all. Either way, a pandemic breakup, like a pandemic anything, hits a little differently.
Here’s what to expect and how to get through it.
UNDERSTAND WHY THIS BREAKUP MAY FEEL WORSE
After nearly two years of pandemic-induced turmoil, “grief is going to feel bigger right now”, said Michael Alcee, a clinical psychologist in Tarrytown, NY, who specialises in counselling college students. “All of our vulnerabilities and fragilities are closer to the surface than normal, so we may be much more sensitive to the ways in which things don’t work out,” he said.
This could be true even if the relationship wasn’t that long or serious, said Elizabeth Earnshaw, a couples therapist in Philadelphia and author of the upcoming book, I Want This To Work.
People tend to bond over shared trauma, Earnshaw said, so a breakup during a pandemic may make the time you spent together feel more meaningful. You might also be grieving the experiences the pandemic prevented you from sharing.
“Maybe you always wanted to travel together, but you couldn’t,” she said. “Maybe you never got to meet each other’s families.”
SCHEDULE DAILY TIME FOR SADNESS
While it’s crucial to process those losses, Earnshaw said, the current lack of normalcy and structure many of us still feel, even as we dip our toes back into the real world, “can make it easier to get stuck in that vortex of grief, looking at old pictures or emails all day”.
Instead, plan a daily time specifically to grieve and reminisce. “Set a timer, let yourself feel everything you’re feeling, then when the timer goes off, take a deep breath and do a transitional exercise, like taking a shower,” she said.
BE DIRECT ABOUT ASKING FOR SUPPORT
Carreon’s split from her boyfriend came at a time when her friends and family were knee-deep in their own pandemic stress. “The support network you’d usually have in a breakup was non-existent because everyone was already stretched emotionally,” she said.
It can be hard for friends and family to know what a person who’s struggling needs even in regular times, Earnshaw said, but right now, “our brains are so overloaded, we’re missing each other’s distress”.
That means you may need to be clearer about asking for help. “Text a neighbour and say, ‘I’m going through a breakup and I don’t know what to do in the evenings, would you be open to a walk?’” Earnshaw said.
For Lorena Velazquez, whose husband of 20 years unexpectedly filed for divorce in September 2020, even notifying people of the split felt too daunting.
“Normally, I would’ve been around my friends and co-workers, so the news would’ve travelled,” said Velazquez, 41, who lives in Chicago. “But everyone was so isolated because of COVID-19. Nobody knew I was going through this major thing.”
Instead, she confided in one friend and gave her a list of people to contact. “She didn’t go into specifics, she just told everyone, ‘This is what’s happening and Lorena could use your support’,” Velazquez said.
Carreon found it helpful to arrange a standing check-in with people a few times a week. “Just knowing I had that scheduled time coming up made it much less lonely,” she said. “Plus, I knew I wasn’t burdening someone when they were dealing with something else.”
SEEK SOLACE FROM STRANGERS
With our regular support systems compromised, it can be helpful to confide in strangers going through something similar, said Latisha Taylor Ellis, a therapist in Cumming, Ga, who has seen a steady uptick in people joining the online breakup support group she runs called Thank U-Next.
“It’s the ultimate safe space,” said Naz Perez, founder of the support group Heart Broken Anonymous, which has been running meetings virtually during the pandemic.
“Maybe you have nobody in your life, maybe your friends are sick of hearing about it. What’s safer than being at home in your pyjamas, with your camera off, talking to people who know exactly how you feel?”
CONNECT WITH PEOPLE IN PERSON (BUT SAFELY)
To heal from a breakup, most of us will need to be around other people, said Karen Osterle, a therapist in Washington, DC, who specialises in helping couples break up.
“It’s not about replacing our partner, it’s about bringing forth aspects of ourselves that may have lain dormant in the relationship,” she said. “We need to feel interesting and interested again.”
The problem is that many are still limiting how often they go out and with whom. When Matt Boling, 35, was getting over a breakup with his boyfriend, the pandemic made it hard to convince friends to meet up. More difficult than rallying other people, though, was rallying himself.
“The pandemic turned me into a homebody,” said Boling, an instructional designer in Phoenix. “The idea of going to a bar again and talking to someone feels exhausting.”
Think about something you’ve wanted to do for a while – gardening, playing the ukulele, learning to cook – and start doing it, Osterle said. “First, you’ll distract yourself in a positive way, by building something, but also it may open the door to new connections,” she said. You could test a new recipe by asking a vaccinated neighbor to dinner, for example.
If that feels daunting, start slow by just “planning times in your day that you’re going to be near other humans”, Earnshaw said. “Go to the grocery store, drink your coffee outside the coffee shop.” It doesn’t even need to be quality time, she said. “Just give yourself a reason to take a shower.”
USE THIS TIME OF UNUSUAL ISOLATION TO YOUR ADVANTAGE
In some ways, breaking up during the pandemic can be easier, said Tennesha Wood, a dating coach and founder of The Broom List, a matchmaking company exclusively for Black singles.
“You may get a little more privacy,” she said. “There are fewer social events to navigate, where people who’ve only known you as a couple are asking questions.”
When you’re going through a split, it can be hard to see your friends moving forward while you’re not. Right now, though, “we’re all on pause”, Wood said. “It can be easier to relate to people because everyone’s feeling a little lonelier and more confined.”
And while the breakup rite of hooking up with a stranger in a bar may not be available (or appealing) right now, that’s actually not a bad thing, Earnshaw said.
“In the past, we might go out every night or move straight on to someone new, but a lot of those behaviours can be about avoidance,” she said. “Right now, the things that are safe for us to do – exercise, get outside – are the things that are most helpful.”
It also means having more time to reflect on the breakup, which has been linked to a speedier recovery. But as you reflect, Osterle said, resist the urge to either idealise or disparage the relationship.
“It can feel like a real body blow to discover that someone is out of love with you,” she said. “But we need to both grieve and take inventory, not just pretend ‘Oh well, I never loved them anyway’.” That sort of all-or-nothing thinking, borne out of anxiety and panic, Osterle said, can sometimes hamper recovery.
You can acknowledge both that your ex was wonderful, and also that there are ways your life might be better without him or her, Osterle said. “Ask yourself:‘What’s possible now?’”
By Holly Burns © The New York Times
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.