“Get some perspective,” a friend once yelled at me. We were at dinner and a bottle of wine in when I admitted I still missed my ex months after things ended with them. “At least you weren’t cheated on. Just think about that.” Instead of snapping out of my misery in some “aha!” moment she probably thought I needed, I finished my food quietly and went home to cry.
Watching a friend question their self-worth when someone breaks their heart is no easy task — we want them to realize they deserve better and quit suffering. But a lot of the time, our advice, however well-intended, isn’t helpful. And in some cases — like mine — it makes things a lot worse.
Clinical psychologist Elizabeth Cohen, Ph.D., says the most important thing to remember when helping a friend through a breakup is that our comments on people’s experiences are filtered through what we’ve personally gone through. “To be a good friend you want to figure out what the breakup is bringing up for you,” says Cohen. “Then, given that, you’re going to know how you’re going into it.” If you got over an ex by downloading Tinder and going on five dates a week, that’s great…for you. Understanding that your friend is a different person in a different situation will save you from saying something that could seem insensitive or trigger more hurt.
“Mostly what we want is for people to listen and ask questions,” says Cohen. “We want someone to understand our perspective.” Learn to hold off any judgments. Wipe your mind of clichés. If you really want to help your friend move on from their ex, say any of these eight things instead.
Bad statement: “You guys seemed so happy. What happened?”
Better statement: “How are you feeling?”
The fact that your friend’s breakup comes as a complete shock to you is irrelevant; this is about them and not you. Plus, sharing that POV can make them feel more confused about why the relationship ended. Instead, Cohen encourages you to focus on understanding your friend’s emotions rather than the details of the story. “You don’t know how the two of them were as a couple, and you don’t need to figure it out,” she says. Stick to how your friend is feeling and what you can do to lift their spirits.
Bad statement: “Have some perspective. There are people who are going through worse breakups.”
Better statement: “What you’re feeling now is totally OK. You’re allowed to be sad.”
Someone’s pain is not measurable and it definitely should not be compared to what arises out of other breakups. Bringing up situations you deem to be worse than your friend’s is dismissive of their feelings. “It’s like when people say, ‘There are starving children in the world,’” says Cohen. “You can feel sad about starving children and your breakup — both things can be true.” A good friend validates those sad feelings and truly believes that someone’s pain is real.
Bad statement: “I got over my ex pretty quickly. You should definitely be over it by now.”
Better statement: “I know this hurts, because I’ve been through it before. But I know you’re going to make it through, and I’m going to be here to help you through it in whatever way you need.”
Repeat after us: Everyone processes feelings differently. Just because you moved on from your breakup in two weeks doesn’t mean you should expect your friend to do the same. It’s important to be compassionate. They’re already dealing with one person they care about hurting them — they don’t need a good friend adding insult to injury.
Bad statement: “You can’t find love until you love yourself.”
Better statement: “Hey, why don’t you come to this comedy show with me?”
Has anyone ever truly felt better after hearing a love cliché? Besides being annoying and useless, what does “love yourself first” even mean? Instead of uttering a platitude, Cohen suggests giving actionable ideas for activities, like seeing a show or signing up for a spin class together, that might just make your friend happy.
Bad statement: “You never know…I have a friend whose boyfriend broke up with them once, but now they’re married.”
Better statement: “It’s OK to miss them.”
As “He’s Just Not That Into You” taught us, a person falls into one of two categories: the rule and the exception. Whatever story you have about two friends who have broken up and gotten back together is the exception. Instead of hedging bets on what their ex may or may not do, help your friend accept their current reality by reminding them it’s OK to miss their partner while also trying to move on.
Bad statement: “I’ve been hearing this for months now. You should move on.”
Better statement: “I really believe you’re going to get through this, but I don’t think talking about it with me is really helping. I’m happy to plan things that will help take your mind off of it, though.”
When it comes to the tough-love approach, you might think you’re being the honest and realistic friend someone needs to move forward, but you actually end up being an insensitive asshole. Since people get defensive when they feel attacked, going this route will most likely damage your friendship, says Cohen. If you’re tired of hearing about the situation over and over again, work to set the tone. Try changing the subject or answering with a “oh” and “uh-huh” to hint you don’t want to elaborate. Hopefully, they pick up on your cues. If not, gently tell them that they have your support, but you don’t think continuing to talk about the breakup is helpful.
Bad statement: “They sucked anyway.”
Better statement: “I’m so sorry they did this to you.”
Bashing the ex makes the situation about them rather than about your friend who is hurting. “When you’re heartbroken, you just want to be supported and consoled,” says Elle Huerta, CEO and founder of self-care app Mend. “You don’t need someone else’s opinion of your ex, especially if you’re still in love with them.” You also risk alienating yourself from your friend with your unfiltered opinion about their ex — not to mention that it will make things super awkward if they end up getting back together. So as tempting as it is to call the ex a jerk who deserves to die, bite your tongue.
Bad statement: “You shouldn’t sit and wallow. That’s weak.”
Better statement: “I understand why you feel sad.”
Sometimes we forget that feelings exist on a spectrum. You can feel sad, hurt, and/or mad about a situation without it consuming your life. “There’s a misconception that feeling sad means you’re devastated,” says Cohen. “You can be bummed but still go to work the next day.” Also, not allowing someone to feel sad does more harm than good. One way or another, those feelings are going to come out, whether it be snapping at a tourist on the subway or at a barista getting their caramel macchiato order wrong. Help your friend save themselves — and innocent bystanders — from these unwarranted outbursts and encourage them to just feel all the feels.
In the end, the best advice to give is no advice. All anyone is really looking for after a breakup is a sounding board for their anger, confusion, and sadness. If that means just sitting there and listening, do it. Who knows when you’ll need the same from your friends?