1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites
ScienceGlobal issues

When love ends: How to survive heartache

June 6, 2024

It's painful when love ends. Some experts say it helps to think of the pain as a process of four phases. And you'll see: the pain will pass.

A person walks along a water-logged path, carrying a red umbrella
Lonely and sad: Accepting your emotions is an important part of getting over a breakup Image: Thomas Warnack/dpa/picture alliance

The mood's gone cold, there's a growing indifference between you and you're always arguing — it can take months or even years for the hurt to build in a relationship, but it always comes out in the end. And when it does, it can spell the end of the relationship. You might have seen it coming, but it may just as well have taken you by complete surprise.

If you're the one who's left behind, you'll probably feel the separation differently from the person who's left you, or how people feel when couples make a mutual decision to go their separate ways.

The end of a relationship is — for many people — the beginning of a painful process. But it's about more than the loss of an important person: it can feel like "an entire design for life has failed," said psychologist and psychotherapist Doris Wolf.

Four phases of separation

The initial shock and disbelief are quickly followed by a fighting spirit and some embarrassing attempts to win the other person back.

Then there's the emotional cyclone of grief, despair, feelings of guilt, bitterness and a raging anger.

It's chaos. But it's a chaos that has a crazy kind of order about it, one with four distinct phases, according to Wolf.

"In my experience, it can be helpful for the person to know they're going through a process that will end," said Wolf, adding that some psychologists say the four phases model fails to take individual circumstances into account. But she said it worked for her in her practice.

The four phases:

  1. Denial
  2. Erupting emotions
  3. New orientation
  4. Future perspectives

Each phase has its own emotional palette. Wolf said understanding this can help people realize that what they are feeling is normal. "It can also help them realize when they get stuck in a particular phase and are struggling to move on," she added.

1. Denial: I can't go on without you

You keep calling them. You promise that it'll be different this time. You become affectionate and loving. Sex in separation? Sure, why not? Anything to save us!

Wolf said it's a feeling of helplessness and loss of control that drives people who have been left to pull all the stops in a bid to keep the old relationship alive.

"The risk of humiliation is real," said Wolf.

Denial in separation can go so far as a person pretending their partner is on an endless business trip or looking after an aging parent — rather that than be open about it.

Wolf advises people to throw out any objects that remind them of their ex.

For one, it's important to protect yourself if the simple sight of a half-empty can of shaving foam is enough to throw you into a state of despair. And on the other hand it's important to remove those reminders and talk to people about your separation because that will help you accept the reality for what it is: it's over.

2. Erupting emotions: I love you, I miss you, I hate you

When all your pleading and begging has failed, there's no avoiding what's next. "Now's time for the pain, the loneliness, the fear, the anger, the self-doubt and the feelings of guilt," said Wolf.

It sounds brutal, and it is. Breakups are common. Some people go through a load of them. But they are never trivial. Some people find it really hard to move on, said Wolf — and that can lead to depression and anxiety.

One way to avoid the worst of this phase is to accept those emotions as they come and go, said the psychotherapist.

Instead of expecting yourself to continue as if nothing had happened, you should channel your emotions into a diary, for instance, or talking to friends, people in a similar situation or seek professional help. 

It's tougher to live through these emotions than to suppress them with things like drugs, sex or too much work. But how much talk does it take? How much distraction is good? Wolf said it was important to consciously take time out every day to focus on your emotions, and to be just as conscious about carrying on with your life. Life has to go on, somehow. And anger can be quite helpful.

"Anger often comes later on and it's an important sign," said Wolf. "When you're angry, you [feel like you] want to do something, you don't feel so helpless."

3. New orientation: Perhaps I can go on without you

All of a sudden, you not only realize that life can go on, but that you can also imagine enjoying it again. You begin to realize how much you neglected your friends while you were in the relationship, although they're very dear to you.

While in the first two phases your thoughts kept revolving around the person you had lost, in the third phase, anger helps you refocus on yourself.

"There are moments this phase when you even forget that you're separated," said Wolf.

It's in this phase that many people begin to venture into new relationships. But it's still too early, said Wolf.

"It's only now that you start to work through the reasons why you broke up," she said. So, there's a danger that you might make the same mistakes with your new partner, if you fall in love again too soon.

4. Future perspectives: It was nice that you were there and good that you're gone

This is the phase when Wolf hears a lot of people say: "The breakup was the best thing that could've happened to me!"

To get to this point, you've had to go through grief, anger, acceptance and a painful review of the lost relationship. But all those emotions are history now. And even if some old relationships go on to feel like badly healed bone fractures, this is the time for something new.

This article was originally written in German.

DW journalist Julia Vergin
Julia Vergin Senior editor and team lead for Science online