The question of what to say to a friend experiencing heartbreak is one that’s never been definitively answered—at least, not really. Be too supportive, and you risk giving your friend a shred (or more) of false hope. Be too negative, and you push your friend to defend the very person who just hurt them. There’s no roadmap for how to have a post-breakup conversation, likely because there’s no real roadmap for how to get over a breakup, either. Sometimes, you need a shoulder to cry on. Other times, you need a companion who’s well-versed in the art of shit-talk. And other times, you simply need affirmation that your desire to get back together doesn’t make you dumb, or pathetic, or anything other than totally human.
My first breakup left me absolutely devastated. I thought I’d met The One. (I hadn’t.) I thought we’d be together forever—or at least, through the rest of college. (We wouldn’t.) I thought he was the foundation upon which I could build the life I’d always wanted. (He wasn’t.) As I navigated the stages of grief, I hovered at phase three. I moved swiftly through denial and anger, and sat at bargaining for a long, long time. Friends offered me hugs, milkshakes, books about moving on from loss. People lent me their ears, their hearts, their time. Though few of my friends had ever personally navigated a breakup, they were the textbook embodiment of a heartbreak-inspired support system. Still, little helped. The hugs inspired catharsis, the milkshakes provided momentary bliss, the books gave me new perspectives to consider—not to mention, something to do with my time. But I continued to bargain. To wonder how I could get him back. To imagine how I could reassemble the future that had just shattered before my eyes.
Strangely, the verbal blow that thrust me forward came from my now-ex’s best friend: “He doesn’t want to get back together with you, and I don’t think he ever will.” Coming from someone else, this frank perspective might’ve inspired me to retreat, to ignore, to plot further. But coming from someone intimately familiar with the situation—and with the person who’d initiated it—the words shook me awake. I cried harder, but I also began to piece together a future that looked different from the one I’d had in mind. Day after day, week after week, I rebuilt myself with the understanding that maybe, things weren’t going to pan out the way I’d originally thought they would—and that maybe, that was OK.
I got lucky. I found someone who was able to identify the sentence I needed to hear, and to deliver that sentence with frank compassion. Sometimes, we are not so fortunate. Our friends can offer a near-endless array of perspectives and never unearth the silver bullet that will finally inspire recovery. I say this as someone who has spent a lot of time on both ends of this interaction. The words of wisdom that helped me get over my first breakup would not have helped me get over my second—and they would not have helped my friends get over the myriad breakups they’ve experienced, either.
So what, exactly, do we do? Resign ourselves to silence? Accept that we’ll never know for sure how to get over a breakup, and never really understand what to say to a friend who’s currently going through one? Unsatisfied with this decidedly complacent course of action, I issued an open call to the internet at large. I asked people to tell me the things they wish someone had said to them in the wake of a breakup—to identify the verbal formula that would’ve helped them move forward, and to explain why it would’ve. Though these sentiments won’t be the guaranteed answer to every breakup you encounter from here forward, they might offer clarity for one case of heartbreak—maybe even a few.
“You may want to believe you’ll get back together one day. And that’s OK, even if it’s not true.”
“You may have to tell yourself that there’s still a chance you’re right for each other and that you’ll get back together one day. If that’s going to help you get through this, then by all means, tell yourself that. But once you’re ready, you’ll probably come to realize that’s not what you really want anyway, and it’s not what’s right for either of you. Try to unselfishly step outside of yourself, and think about what’s right for the other person. Are they ready for you/this relationship? Are you right for them? Can both of you give each other what you need in the long run?” —Becca H.
“Sometimes you don’t get the ‘closure’ you’re seeking.”
“Sometimes you just don’t get the ‘closure’ you’re seeking. And sometimes, chasing ‘closure’ is really just another excuse to not let go and to keep that person in your life. You can’t always end a relationship with a neatly tied bow, as much as you might like to.” —Mia M.
“I’m sorry. I’m here for you.”
“I wish my friends would’ve let me ‘wallow’ more, and that they’d been empathetic for longer. Don’t get me wrong—my friends are super supportive. But during my last breakup, it felt like they went from, ‘I’m sorry. I’m here for you,’ to ‘You’ll find someone way better,’ faster than I was ready for. I think it’s important to just be there for your hurting friend and to realize that they’re experiencing pain in a unique way. Don’t push the ‘moving forward’ thoughts too soon.” —Sarah P.
“You’re looking back on everything through rose-colored glasses.”
“After my last breakup, I wish someone had told me that I was looking back on everything with rosy retrospection. Sometimes, right after the end of a serious relationship, we only think about all of the good moments we’ve shared with someone, and we fail to see all the reasons it never would’ve worked out. Bad news can be difficult to hear, but I wish someone had been around to offer a (gentle, yet pragmatic) reality check. Focusing on all the good stuff we’ve lost can make a breakup harder to bear.” —Beverly F.
“You don’t have to figure out exactly what you two are right now.”
“This was difficult for me for so long, and I still go back and forth between calling him my ‘boyfriend’ and my ‘ex-boyfriend.’ We still loved each other a lot when we broke up, and that didn’t go away automatically. Were we friends? Yes, but I think we were a little more. Were we in a relationship? No, we’d both discussed we didn’t want to do that. I felt like I had to put a really clear title on what we were, but in hindsight, that wasn’t the case. It would’ve been nice to hear that.” —Jessi B.
“Say ‘yes!’ to everything.”
“After a breakup, say ‘yes’ to everything. Go to your neighbor’s housewarming, invite an old friend to lunch, get outside and go on an adventure. You could have the best time, and you won’t know if you don’t try! Channel your sad/angry/breakup feelings into action, and just go for it. The most important thing I did during my last breakup was get out and experience new things. The best way to do that is to take the risk, and say, ‘yes!'” —Haley L.
“You are so much better than him.”
“One time, a very good friend of mine surprised me when she said, ‘You are so much better than him.’ I didn’t see it that way at all (and still don’t, because what makes one human better than another?), but it helped shift my perspective from the pain to myself. I focused on loving myself and putting myself first, and when you do that, you become impressed with your own strength. It gets you out of the doldrums and into your life.” —Alana P.
“Even amicable breakups hurt—and that’s OK.”
“My ex-boyfriend and I didn’t break up because someone hurt the other person, or because there was this big falling out. I graduated college and was moving back across the country. I was leaving, and he didn’t want to come with. Even so, it was a really painful breakup. I didn’t think that mutual, relatively amicable breakups would or could hurt so much, but it did.” —Jessica B.
“Let go of the fantasy.”
“Your relationship ended for a reason. Most of the time, it’s not that we want the relationship that we had back. What we’re mourning is the relationship we thought we could have had if things had just been different. When you find yourself slipping into dreamland, bring yourself back to Earth. It may be with a thud, but it’s better to be honest with yourself about what you actually lost.” —Penny G.
“Your future self will thank you.”
“I wish someone had told me: ‘Your future self will thank you. I know you’re hurting right now, and it’s painful to push through. But it will all be worth it.’ Where I am now in life—and in love—is so much better than I ever imagined. I’m so grateful for the breakups—every damn one of them.” —Lori K.
“It’s OK to feel everything.”
“I just went through a breakup this week. It was pretty amicable, but neither of us were getting what we needed and it caused a lot of pain. Something a friend told me: ‘A healthy and fulfilling friendship is far more valuable than a subpar relationship.’ Something I’ve been telling myself: ‘I’m strong, but not numb.” It’s OK to feel everything.” —Renée D.
“Love yourself more.”
“I was absolutely devastated after a breakup with the love of my life. This is the advice I wish I could’ve given my younger self: ‘Try to view the breakup as a chance for a new beginning. Clean, clear, and organize your personal space. As you let go of the old, you’re creating space for new things to come.’ Life challenges offer a gateway through which we can learn and grow and ultimately (hopefully!) transition into a new and better era of our lives.” —Penelope G.
“Your resilience is powerful.”
“Stand in your pain. And in time, you’ll sit with poise knowing your resilience is more powerful than you ever realized.” —Candis M.
Quotes have been edited and condensed for clarity. Some pseudonyms have been used.