In 2006, Croatia opened the first ever Museum of Broken Relationships. The owners, artists Drazen Grubisic and Olinka Vistica, decided that this was how they were going to honour their four-year courtship. They showcased items that represented special moments between them and the corresponding stories—some exuding hope, others highlighting the lower points of their relationship.
Fast forward to 2019 and the museum has travelled to more than 50 cities, displaying more than 3,000 objects from dissolved relationships. In fact, it even came to Toronto this past summer, where items like stuffed animals, wedding veils, and more adorned the shelves.
Evidently, many of us seek some comfort and validation during our darkest, post-breakup moments to remind us that we aren’t the only ones who have experiences this type of pain. And interestingly, I’ve noticed that the conversations people have with me in therapy after a breakup sound shockingly similar. As such, today’s post brings you the thoughts basically everyone has when a relationship ends—and some ideas of how to cope with them.
1. Am I unloveable?
People who jump to this conclusion are engaging in a cognitive distortion called catastrophizing. Recap: cognitive distortions are inaccurate things our brain tells us when anxiety comes knocking on our door. Catastrophizing involves greatly exaggerating an event in an unhealthy way, like turning one breakup into evidence that you’re completely and utterly underserving of love.
If you're having this thought, look at the evidence: Is it 100% true that you are unlovable? What about your friends and family members? Would you honestly say that none of them have any love for you? And if they do have love for you, what does that say about your lovability?
Additionally, it’s important to remember that two people can be completely wonderful individuals and still be incompatible. It’s like finding a new therapist: you could attend a session with someone who has three degrees, a professional demeanour, and a ton of knowledge, but if you don’t jive well with them, your hunt for a new therapist will continue. It doesn’t mean the therapist lacked anything; it just means you two weren't a good fit. So, too, it is with romantic relationships.
Finally, you may want to reflect on how you felt before entering the relationship. People who lack self-esteem tend to rely on others to remind them that they are worthy, lovable, and good enough. However, this setup is inherently fragile as your happiness therefore depends on another person. If someone doesn’t give you enough of these reminders, your self-esteem deteriorates. If you are someone who is feeling unlovable after a relationship, it might be important to ask yourself about if this belief is situational or if it has been following you around for quite some time. If the latter applies to you, it could be a sign that the most important relationship to tend to is actually the one you have with yourself.
HEALTHY REFRAME: “My ex and I are simply weren’t compatible and I deserve to be with someone who is more aligned with my values and wants.”
2. My ex probably isn’t thinking about me at all.
Many people jump to the conclusion that their ex never thinks about them post-breakup while they, themselves, are spending hours of therapy dissecting the relationship. The first thing that comes to mind for me here is that the math just doesn’t add up. What I mean is: if every single person tells me about how much they think about their ex after a breakup (which they do, by the way), it doesn’t make statistical sense that your ex isn’t thinking about you, too.
Additionally, human beings are wired to make meaning out of our experiences, which means it would go against human nature for your ex-partner to not be asking themselves some reflective questions about the relationship as well.
Beyond that, however, it’s important to remember that what your ex is or isn’t thinking about is none of your business. And even if you did know all of the thoughts they had about you, would it really make a difference? Would it really change the fact that you two weren’t right for each other? Would it really change the fact that one or both of you weren’t happy in the relationship? Probably not.
HEALTHY REFRAME: “Knowing if my ex is thinking about me or not won’t change the outcome and I know there were reasons why we broke up in the first place.”
3. They’ll change for their next partner.
Many people tell themselves that their partner will become infinitely better versions of themselves in their next relationship. The ex-boyfriend who was a horrible communicator will suddenly turn into Shakespeare for their next partner. The ex-girlfriend who was unmotivated will be the next Iron Man winner and Employee of the Year by their next relationship.
As a therapist who has worked with hundreds of people, please hear this: change happens slowly. It does not happen overnight. It is completely unrealistic to imagine someone changing habits they’ve had for 20+ years overnight. Change doesn’t only happen slowly, but it also takes intention, energy, and self-reflection. If your ex didn’t possess those skills, change isn’t very likely.
The other angle to this is: maybe they will change for their next partner due to the experiences they had with you—and maybe you will, too. As the expression goes, people come into our lives for a reason, a season, or a lifetime. Perhaps you mutually came into each other’s lives for the reason of better preparing both of you for your next romantic relationships—and for that you should be thankful.
HEALTHY REFRAME: “I learned a lot about myself from this relationship and will carry that into the next one so it can be as healthy as possible.”
4. I’m going to die alone.
This is one of the most common concerns I hear not just from people in the depths of the post-breakup blues, but from practically all single people alike.
There are a few things that need to be teased apart here. Firstly, what does dying “alone” really mean here? Are you afraid of dying alone in the literal sense—that is, with no friends or family members in your life? Or is it that you’re afraid you’ll die without a spouse sitting next to you?
If it is the latter, it might be important to recognize that one can still be in a relationship or marriage and die alone. As morbid as it sounds, we can’t plan where or how we die, meaning that it’s quite unlikely that we’ll all die in the arms of our spouse.
Additionally, as author Alexander Theroux so depressingly writes, “There is no loneliness than that of a failed marriage.” Think what you want about the quote, but what he’s getting at is that being in an unhappy relationship can feel much more lonely than happily enjoying your own company. And if we take this a step further, we might realize that allowing the final, unknown moments of our lives to dictate our present-day decisions is a fool’s game. Is it really worth being with someone “just okay” for years of your life if it means maybe dying with a partner sitting next to you? I think not.
Finally, I often wonder about if a significant amount of this will-I-die-alone anxiety revolves around having a different timeline than our friends’. I mean, if you’re in your mid-twenties or thirties, it's likely that photos of people getting married or having kids present themselves every time you log into Instagram. After awhile, Anxiety makes the outlandish assumption that if you weren’t going to die alone, it would mean you would’ve had a partner right now. Poppycock. Everyone falls in love on different timelines. George Clooney met his badass lawyer wife at 53 years old. Ellen Degeneres was 50 when she married her wife, Portia. Elton John was 67 when he and his husband tied the knot. And if you need some additional comfort, know that a whopping 50% of people 65 and older will remarry, according to the Pew Research Centre—and as age increases, so does the number of people who will remarry.
HEALTHY REFRAME: “I hope I find a lifelong partner—even if it means waiting longer than I expected—and I’m thankful for the people who are in my life now.”
5. They're going to miss the best thing that ever happened to them.
Contrary to the other thoughts on this list, this one has more of a spiteful, bitter tone to it. Interestingly, I find it mostly surfaces when people feel like their ego is still a little bruised. Our more grounded, mature self tells us that breakups happen because sometimes people just aren’t compatible. But when our ego takes over, it tells us our ex will be miserable for the rest of their lives because they’ll be crying themselves to sleep over not having someone as awesome as us in their lives.
In these moments, I’m reminded that there are two types of unhealthy self esteem: the kind where we think we’re worse than everyone and the kind where we think we’re better. While I’m sure you’re a great partner who brings a lot to your romantic relationships, it’s cocky as all hell to think that you have ruined someone’s chance at happiness due to how amazing you are.
REFRAME: “My ex and I may not have been compatible, but I hope we take what we learned from each other into our future relationships so we can be good partners for the right people.” Key word here: for the right people.
The Bottom Line
Know this: just because you’re going through a breakup doesn’t mean you’re unlovable. Being incompatible with one person doesn’t mean you’ll die alone. Just because it's taking longer than you thought to find a partner doesn’t mean it won’t happen. One day, you’ll know why your ex entered your life. You might not see it now, but one day you’ll look back on this as a learning experience that shaped you in the wonderful ways that all of your past tribulations have, too.
As author Steve Maraboli writes, “As I look back on my life, I realize that every time I thought I was being rejected from something good, I was actually be re-directed to something better.” This is just a re-direction.
If you're having a hard time with your breakup and need some extra support, please reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org.