Breakups can be extremely difficult, but they are an inevitable part of life. As your friends journey on their quests to find true love–or, you know, just someone to laugh with and watch Netflix with and have sex with on the regular–there are going to be bumps in the road. At some point, someone you’re close to is going to realize that a significant other just isn’t a great fit and they’ll have to initiate a tough conversation. Or perhaps a friend will be completely blindsided by their partner and feel extremely hurt, wondering what went wrong and why both people weren’t on the same page.
There is simply no way that you can take all of the pain away from your friend. For the most part, you just have to watch the breakup run its course. However, there are ways that you can be there for your friend after a devastating split that goes beyond giving them ice cream to eat while they cry. (Though this is still a highly recommended path unless your friend is lactose intolerant.) Here are some ways that you can effectively support a friend following a breakup, according to expert psychologists.
In the beginning, let them vent.
Maybe the breakup was sudden or maybe you’ve heard it all before, but either way, it’s nice to provide your friend a shoulder to cry on in the immediate aftermath. Your friend is probably going to want to talk to someone following the breakup–whether that means immediately following the split or after processing it for a couple of days–and just having someone to talk to will make them feel better in the moment.
It doesn’t matter who was in the wrong or why the breakup happened. Sometimes we just need to rant about our exes, and clinical psychologist Dr. Suzanne Lachmann says that although we may want our friends to move on quickly and be their “old selves” again, we need to respect the healing process and stick around even if their ranting gets a bit redundant. She explains that “just listening, being there, and helping your friend feel understood is all you can ‘do.'”
However, Dr. Lachmann also mentions that you shouldn’t take on more than you can handle. After all, you’re a friend, not a therapist. If you find that your friend’s despair is getting in the way of your own well-being, it’s okay to cut back on contact. Just provide as much support as you can while understanding your limits.
Help them out a little with the day-to-day stuff.
Though a breakup certainly does not hold the same gravity as a death, your friend is still experiencing the (potentially) permanent loss of someone who was an important part of their life. Your friend is grieving regardless of whether they were on the initiatory or receiving end of the breakup and grief can really envelop a person to the point where day-to-day tasks become difficult or forgotten altogether. Dr. Lachmann explains that helping them out with some of those mundane chores might make their life a little easier; “you may want to do a grocery run,” she suggests, “or make sure they remember to get their car inspected this month.” She says that while your efforts may not be recognized right away since your friend is so focused on the breakup, providing this support will strengthen your friendship over time because your friend will remember that you were there during a difficult time.
Down the line, provide distractions.
Right after a breakup, your friend is going to be completely engrossed in the details and probably won’t stop thinking about it. However, Dr. Joshua Klapow, a clinical psychologist and host of The Kurre and Kapow Show, points out that encouraging your friend get wrapped up in the details of the split will not be helpful in the long run. After the ranting has gone on for a while, start to ease your friend away from ex-talk by providing other conversation starters.
Better yet, ask your friend to hang out and plan an actual activity that will force them to focus on something other than their misery. Go on a shopping spree, a sporting event, or a museum so that the activity will demand all of their attention.
Support should trump judgment.
No matter how terrible the ex is and how obvious it is to you that the relationship was terrible, your friend felt strongly about this person at one point–and maybe still does. You may shudder internally when you hear that your friend has reached out to their awful ex. You may want to shake them and yell, “No! Don’t do it!”
Aside from circumstances in which an ex-significant other was physically or emotionally abusive–in which case all contact should be cut–let your friend make their own mistakes, no matter how stupid they seem. Dr. Lachmann explains that rather than trying to give advice before the “relapse” occurs, it’s better just to be supportive in the aftermath. “Remember that your friend has to find their own way through, in their own time,” she suggests. “Even though it’s clear to you, the situation remains a great fog of disbelief to them.”
Encourage them to get the help they need.
If your friend seems to be asking difficult questions that you don’t feel qualified to answer or the breakup has significantly impacted their daily life, you may want to suggest that they see a professional. Therapy can be an effective way for your friend to sort through the emotions that come along with a really bad breakup and address any other underlying problems that they may have.
“Let them know that the pain of the relationship is something that means they need to look inward,” says Dr. Klapow. “And that is something that you can support but not lead.” If your friend seems skeptical at first, it’s worth pointing out that therapy may help them maintain healthier relationships in the future.