How to Help a Friend Through a Breakup (And What Not to Do)

Seeing a friend go through a difficult breakup is hard. They’re often heartbroken and struggling to come to terms with a major change in their life.

You probably already know that you can’t fix your friend’s breakup, but you might want to do something to help. The problem is that it’s hard to know how and where to start.

Thankfully, there are things you can do to make the end of a relationship easier for your friend and look after yourself in the process.

Sections

  1. How to help a friend through a breakup
  2. What not to do when a friend’s relationship breaks down
  3. How to take care of yourself during your friend’s breakup

How to help a friend through a breakup

Someone who has just been dumped is usually especially vulnerable. As their friend, you want to support them, but it’s not always easy to know what will actually help and what will leave them feeling worse.

Here are some of the most important things you can do to help support your friend as they try to process the end of their relationship.

1. Show your friend that you’re there for them

One of the biggest things you can do for your friend is to just be there for them. They need to know that the breakdown of their relationship doesn’t mean they have to face everything alone from now on.

Being there for someone can mean different things to different people. Although we often think about being with someone physically, it’s usually more important that you are emotionally available to them and ready to listen. If you live far apart, it might be more important to have regular calls or text conversations than movie nights or days out.

Your friend may be particularly insecure after their breakup and might worry about being a burden to others. They might even worry that they’ll lose you as well. Reassure them that you haven’t set a time limit for their recovery and that you’re taking care of yourself as well as them.

Do not complain to your friend that their breakup is making you feel stressed. When your friend is dealing with heartbreak, they need to use all their emotional resources to look after themselves, not to reassure you.

2. Respond to your friend’s needs

There’s no single map or guide to how you can help your friend through the emotional consequences of a broken relationship. Try to respond to their needs rather than giving them what you assume they need.

Ask your friend what they need, but don’t assume they know the answer. When you ask, “What can I do to help right now?” it’s not unusual for them to respond with, “I don’t know. I just wish it didn’t hurt so much.” Reassure them that it’s OK if they don’t have an answer and that you’re there for them in whatever way they need.

It’s often easier for them to tell you whether something will help them or not than it is to come up with ideas of their own. Try offering suggestions such as, “Would it help if I came over tonight?”

It may help to try thinking about how you can help them meet their current emotional needs. Some of the most common needs during a breakup include:

  • Needing to feel loved
  • Needing to feel hope
  • Needing to feel safe
  • Needing to feel important
  • Needing to feel attractive
  • Needing to have their feelings of anger and betrayal validated
  • Needing to learn how to trust again
  • Needing to believe that this isn’t because they’re a bad person or “broken”

For example, if your friend is struggling to feel attractive, you could go with them to the gym or suggest that you go clothes shopping together. If they were financially dependent on their ex, you could work with them on a financial budget to help them feel safer.

3. Offer support with practical tasks

Dealing with strong emotions around a breakup takes a lot of energy. It can make everyday tasks feel unmanageable. Offering to take care of some of these tasks can be more helpful than you might realize.

Taking care of practical things like doing the dishes or bringing them food is helpful to your friend in several different ways. Firstly, you’re showing that you understand how difficult these tasks are at the moment, which can reduce any shame or stigma they might feel for how much they’re struggling.

Secondly, it helps them feel like they’re not facing everything alone. Knowing that other people care about them and have their back can make the future a little less scary. Finally, doing these kinds of essential tasks allows them to conserve their energy and use it to help them recover.

Food and cleaning are especially important tasks in this regard, as they help keep your friend physically healthy while they’re coping with their grief. There’s also something personal and caring about someone cooking for us. You could ask, “Would you like me to do some batch cooking for you?” or “Would you like me to come over and make lunch for you, then help you do some housework?”

If your friend is really struggling, you might want to offer to let them stay with you for a while. This is especially helpful if they were living with their ex-boyfriend or girlfriend, but being in a different place can help remove regular reminders of their relationship and makes it easier for you to help with more practical tasks.

4. Respect your friend’s boundaries

It’s easy to get so focused on looking after our friend and caring for them during a difficult time that we forget that it’s not our job to fix them. We can overstep their boundaries, and they might not have the emotional resources available to deal with that.

Just because someone is going through a breakup and in pain doesn’t mean that they don’t still get to choose how they deal with it. For example, if they don’t want you to do their laundry for them or bring them food, that’s their decision. Help is only helpful if it actually helps.

Your friend may give you the following types of “no:”

Polite “no:” The other person wants to say yes but says no to avoid being a burden. They may have been socialized to refuse offers of help. They may not want to bother others or make a fuss, so they say no even when they really want help.[1]

Soft “no:” The other person refuses an offer of help that they genuinely don’t want. They try to avoid being rude by being gentle.

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When you’re trying to help someone who’s upset, it can be tricky to tell the difference between a polite and soft no. Fortunately, you can deal with both types of no in the same way.

Firstly, respect the refusal. Never override someone else’s no, even if you think they’re just being polite.

Secondly, show that you don’t consider them a burden and that your offer of help is genuine.

Try saying, “I’d like to help you in whatever way I can. I’m thinking of…, but please say if there’s something else that would be better.”

5. Steer your friend away from self-sabotage

Unfortunately, lots of us find it difficult to take care of ourselves when we’re already feeling low. We often tend towards self-sabotaging behavior when we’re already in pain.[2]

After a big breakup, your friend might be tempted to poke at their emotional wounds. This might mean re-reading texts from their ex, questioning all of their happy memories from the relationship, or creating fake social media profiles to let them see what their ex is doing and saying now.

Obviously, you can’t control what your friend does. But you can try to gently steer them away from activities that they know will just hurt them more. This isn’t about making them ashamed of wanting to see what their ex is up to. Instead, you’re trying to give them alternatives that are unlikely to cause them the same amount of pain.

Reassure them that it’s completely normal to want to go over this kind of thing and look for answers, even when they know it won’t help. Try to understand what prompts them to repeat painful experiences. Ask whether there’s anything you can do to help them find a healthier coping mechanism. For example, if they re-read texts late at night because they miss getting a goodnight text from their ex, try sending them a message every evening reminding them that you’re there for them.

In most cases, it’s better for them to avoid their ex’s social media, but blocking or muting someone’s accounts can feel surprisingly final.[3] You can offer to help your friend by going through their social media and muting their ex for them.

6. Support your friend in making healthy changes

Helping your friend through a breakup doesn’t just mean steering them away from self-sabotage. You can also help them take this opportunity to make healthy changes in their life.

Different people will try to make different types of changes, so tailor your help to their specific needs. You could help them pick out a few new things for their apartment, go with them to try out new hobbies, or let them brainstorm their future career development.

The post-breakup period can be hugely creative. A breakup can make people feel insecure about their identity, which can make things significantly worse.[4] Helping them find the things that make them unique can help them rediscover their own identity.[5]

Unfortunately, your friend is also hurting and might make knee-jerk reactions that aren’t good for them in the long term. What’s more, they’re unlikely to be able to tell the difference between knee-jerk reactions and healthy growth.

Be honest with your friend about whether you think a particular change is helpful or not. Encourage them to think carefully about making major, irreversible life decisions too quickly, but also recognize that they have the final decision.

7. Accept that your friend will repeat themselves

Processing a bad breakup takes time. Your friend will probably have questions that neither of you can answer and complaints that neither of you can fix. That doesn’t mean they don’t need to talk about them.

Helping a friend through the end of a relationship often means covering the same few topics over and over again. This can become frustrating, especially as the weeks pass. This kind of repetition is part of how your friend is trying to make sense of what has happened, so try to be patient.

Although it’s natural, this kind of repetition can become harmful if it goes on too long. Your friend might fall into rumination. Rumination is when we have the same thoughts over and over again without coming to useful conclusions or feeling better.

Rumination is associated with increased rates of anxiety and depression.[6] Encourage your friend to set limits around their rumination, whether in their own thoughts or out loud with you. Give them space to talk, but try to set limits before trying to distract them.

You could say, “I think you’ve reached the stage where your thoughts are going around in circles. I’m always here to listen, but I don’t think this is actually helping you feel better. How about we keep talking about this while we walk to the park and then talk about something more positive when we get there? Do you think that might be more helpful?”

8. Provide distractions when your friend is ready

Going through a breakup can be intense and all-consuming. When your friend is ready, it can be helpful to provide an “ex-free space” where they can be distracted from their pain.

Try to find an activity that your friend enjoys and can concentrate on. Physical activities, such as dance or cycling, can be especially effective, as well as anything creative, such as art or making music. Even something simple, like getting coffee and talking about other topics, can be enough to give them a little respite.

Make sure that anything you plan is easy to cancel. The aim here isn’t just to have a great day out. You’re trying to distract your friend and make them feel better. There will be times when it doesn’t work out that way. Show you’re putting your friend first by following their lead and going straight home if they’re feeling bad.

9. Signpost your friend to other sources of help

However much you care for your friend, you can’t fulfill all of their needs all of the time. Let them know that there are other people and services who may be able to help them at particular times or with specific problems. For example, you could encourage your friend to talk to a therapist or see their doctor.

We recommend BetterHelp for online therapy, since they offer unlimited messaging and a weekly session, and are cheaper than going to a therapist's office.

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Be alert to the signs of self-harm and suicidal thoughts. If they talk about those topics, don’t overreact but do take them seriously. Listen to what they have to say and direct them to services such as the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline (call 988 from any state in the US), The Samaritans (call 116 123 in the UK), or the suicide crisis line in your country.

10. Remember that your friend may go back to their ex

Just like relationships, breakups don’t always last forever. If their relationship was previously OK, this might not be a bad thing, but they will still need help rebuilding their trust and confidence. If they were in an abusive relationship, however, seeing them go back to their ex can be heartbreaking.

People in abusive relationships typically return to their abuser seven or eight times before finally leaving for good.[7] As their friend, you might want to do everything you can to prevent them from going back to someone who is harmful to them, but it might be more important to make sure that they feel safe enough to talk to you about what’s going on.

Putting pressure on your friend not to go back might leave them feeling too ashamed to come to you for help again. Rather than judging them, try saying, “I’m really worried about your decision to return. I hope it all works out the way you think it will, but I’m always here and ready to help if it doesn’t. Whatever happens, you don’t need to deal with it alone.”

What not to do when a friend’s relationship breaks down

It can be easy to make a mistake when your friend is feeling sad and vulnerable at the end of their relationship. Here are a few things you should avoid if you want to make them feel better.

1. Don’t assume that your suggestions will work

Sharing your coping strategies might be helpful, but there’s no guarantee that things you find helpful will work as well for your friend. Offer suggestions rather than solutions.

For example, don’t say, “You need to get a dog/cat. I did that, and I never thought about my ex again.”

Instead, say, “I don’t know whether this will work for you, but I found it really helped to have a pet to come home to after my breakup. I’m happy to come to the shelter with you if you think it might help.”

2. Don’t look for the upside of your friend’s breakup

Seeing your friend in pain hurts, and it’s natural to want to find ways to make it all better straight away. Lots of us are so uncomfortable with emotional pain that we try to trivialize other people’s feelings as we look for the “upside” of sad events.

When people say things like, “At least you won’t have to listen to your ex’s awful music anymore,” they think they’re being supportive. In reality, they’re rarely giving their friend what they need. Instead, statements like that are more about making themselves feel less uncomfortable.

A good rule of thumb for “at least” statements is that you shouldn’t say anything that you wouldn’t say at a funeral. Breakups of serious or long-term relationships aren’t just about losing a date. It can feel like they’re losing the entire future they saw ahead of them.

Respect their grief and save the “at least” comments for when they’re feeling much better.

3. Don’t villainize your friend’s ex

When someone has hurt your friend by breaking up with them, it’s easy to see them as the villain. The trouble is, your friend will probably still have at least some positive feelings about them that they will need to work through.

Being supportive of your friend doesn’t have to mean villainizing their ex. Instead, make room for all of your friend’s feelings. Listen to the good and the bad qualities while reassuring your friend that they’ll be OK.

Be especially wary of diagnosing their ex or calling them abusive unless you’re really sure. Conditions such as narcissistic personality disorder or borderline personality disorder are serious mental health issues, and it’s not helpful for you or your friend to try diagnosing their ex.

4. Don’t feel you need to give great advice

Helping your friend feel better doesn’t mean you have to have all the answers. Lots of the time, your friend will just want to talk their issues out. They’re not actually looking for you to give them advice or fix anything.

You don’t have to respond to everything they say. The most important thing is that your friend feels understood and cared about.

5. Don’t encourage heavy drinking

There’s absolutely a place for having a drunken night with close friends after a breakup, but keep an eye on your friend’s relationship with alcohol. Drinking to manage pain and loneliness is not healthy or effective, and it’s easier to avoid problems than fix them later. Alcohol can exacerbate both anxiety and depression.[8]

If you’re worried about your friend’s alcohol use, try suggesting activities that will distract them that don’t involve drinking. You could take a road trip, go to the gym, or watch a movie.

How to take care of yourself during your friend’s breakup

Helping a friend through a breakup isn’t just about their needs. You also need to look after yourself throughout the process. Providing comfort to a friend who is trying to process intense sadness can take a toll on you. Here are some ideas to protect yourself while supporting your friend.

1. Set some boundaries

To avoid burning out, put firm boundaries in place. Make it clear when and how you are available to help, and specify the times you won’t be able to support your friend. For example, you might need to say, “I’m happy to talk about your feelings over the phone, but I need to get up early for work, so I can’t talk past 9 p.m.”

This works even if you’re really worried about your friend. If your friend is finding things really difficult, you might want to be available for them to talk to 24/7. That’s not feasible if you have a job/school or simply need to sleep sometimes. Talk to your shared friends and set up a rota. This lets your heartbroken friend know who they talk to at any time and makes the burden on each of you manageable.

Setting boundaries can make it easier for your friend to actually ask for help. If you’re always there, they’ll probably worry about you and feel like they’re asking too much. When you set boundaries, they can relax, knowing that you’re not going to take on more than you’re willing to handle. It also reduces the chance of your friendship becoming damagingly codependent.[9]

Your boundaries don’t just have to be around time. There might be parts of their former relationship that you’re not OK talking about, or they might ask for help with something else that just doesn’t feel right to you. For example, you might say, “I’d be pleased to help you by dropping off some groceries, but I just don’t have the time or energy to help you cook.”

2. Understand your emotions

We’ve talked already about why you need to become comfortable with negative emotions to help your friend, but understanding your emotions is also an important part of your self-care.

Emotional contagion is when we pick up on other people’s emotions and start to feel them as our own. If your friend is experiencing very strong emotions, the chances are you will too.

Set aside time to reflect on your own emotions and make sure that you’re not carrying too much of your friend’s pain as well as your own.

3. Adjust how much help you offer

Every friendship is unique, and every breakup is different. Friends who were in longer-term relationships or were living with their ex may need much more support than those who were dating someone casually.

You don’t have to give all of your friends the same level of support when they go through a breakup. For example, it’s OK to offer less help to a friend who has a dramatic breakup every three months than you do to someone who sees their 12-year marriage go up in smoke.

4. Focus on your own self-care

When your friend is going through a difficult time, it’s not just their happiness that can suffer. Your heart can break for them as well. Take time out to look after yourself.

Think about what refreshes you and makes you feel energetic and supported. It might be going for a long walk, playing sports, spending time with family, or having a quiet night at home with a good book.

Protect your self-care time. Consider turning off your phone for a while and asking people not to contact you unless it’s an emergency. You could say, “I need to take some time for myself, so I won’t be available unless it’s something really urgent.”

5. Maintain your integrity

We’re rarely our best selves in the middle of intense grief. Your friend might want to lash out at the guy or girl who has hurt them. As their friend, you can empathize with the difficult situation they’re in without compromising your values.

Your friend may well want to talk about how “abusive” or “toxic” their ex is. That’s understandable. But if you don’t see their ex that way, it can put you in an awkward situation.

You don’t have to agree with everything your friend says. Try reassuring them that their feelings are natural whilst discouraging them from any action you might find inappropriate.

For example, you might say, “I know she/he cheated on you with her/his coworker, and you have every right to feel angry and betrayed. I don’t think telling her/his boss is going to help, though. Why don’t we try to find a different way for you to express your anger?”

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Natalie Watkins writes about socializing for SocialSelf. She holds a B.A. in Experimental Psychology from the University of Oxford, an M.S.c. in Cognitive and Clinical Neuroscience from the University of London, and is currently in her final year of an MSc in Integrative Counselling at the University of Northampton.

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