What Are the Stages of a Breakup?
You've probably heard of the five stages of grief, which were first developed by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her book "On Death and Dying." But if you're unfamiliar, the five stages of grief are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance — sometimes referred to collectively as "DABDA." In Kübler-Ross's research working with terminally ill patients, she found that both the patients and caretakers moved through these five sequential stages of grief to process death.
Since the discovery, though, the five stages have been widely applied and used to process not just death but all different types of grief — including breakups. It's been shown that some people experience stages of grief during a breakup, and for others, they experience these five stages of grief after a breakup. However, experts say Kübler-Ross's model is increasingly seen as outdated, especially in how it pertains to breakups.
Below, experts dive into what some people consider to be the stages of a breakup and why the stages of grief don't always apply.
What Are the Stages of a Breakup?
Historically, the stages of a breakup have been synonymous with the five stages of grief. This looks like going through denial, then anger, then bargaining, then depression, and eventually, acceptance. But licensed marriage and family therapist Cadmona A. Hall, PhD, owner of Hall Consultation & Therapy Services and associate professor at Adler University, says these stages of grief don't always pertain to a breakup.
As we know by now, people process breakups differently, and recovery from a breakup doesn't always follow five neat, linear steps. Some people may experience anger and depression, for example, but they may not experience the other steps — and that doesn't mean they're grieving in the "wrong" way or refusing to process the breakup.
Sure, you may experience complex feelings following a breakup — all of which may be the emotions described in the five stages of grief — but there's no definitive plan or process in which you'll experience these emotions. "There's no set time for how long grief lasts, and it can't be rushed," Hall says.
As for where this concept of the "stages of a breakup" came from, Hall believes they were applied to make coping seem easier. "When we're hurting, we seek out ways to move past the pain as quickly as possible, so people wish there were stages and an organized linear process for grief," Hall says. But that's just not how processing a breakup works.
Instead of looking to the five stages of grief to move past your breakup, it may be beneficial to focus on your grieving process more holistically. If you try to release yourself from the five-step model, you may actually be able to work through your feelings outside of a structured timeline. In fact, Hall recommends thinking about grief as a "spiral staircase," rather than stages.
On the spiral staircase, "We move up and down as we try to get to our destination. Imagine the breakup as a picture on the wall," Hall says. "Depending on where you are on the staircase, you see it from a different perspective. It will always be there, but we move forward and experience life differently with each step. It's OK to move up and down through the grief journey."
How to Process a Breakup
Healing after a breakup can be intense and require a lot of emotional work. But remember, there's no rush, and everyone works through their own feelings at their own pace. Hall recommends giving yourself time and care, but she also suggests maintaining your perspective on the relationship.
"Remember feelings aren't facts," she says. "Our emotions can create fiction and then justify it with 'evidence' that's not true . . . Time gives us the chance to process and make sense of our experiences. It's not time itself that heals, it's what we do with it that matters."
It's this relationship between facts, feelings, and perspective over time that helps people recover and make decisions that are healthy and helpful for their lives.
But until you get there, Hall recommends reinvesting in relationships with friends and family, rather than jumping right into a new romantic relationship — or your old one. There are other strategies you can consider when getting over a breakup, like following a no-contact rule with your ex, starting a new journaling practice, diving into a new hobby to distract yourself, limiting your social media use, or even finding a new look.
"This can be a vulnerable time no matter who initiated the split," Hall says. "Many people are tempted to reach out to previous partners and fantasize about the one who got away. While this is normal, you don't want to make reactive decisions based on emotional overload. Give yourself time to grieve and heal before initiating a new relationship."
If you or someone you know is struggling through grief or a breakup, it may be beneficial for you to seek advice from a trained mental health professional who can help. You can start with POPSUGAR's guide to finding a therapist here. For additional mental health resources, you can call the National Alliance on Mental Illness (1-800-950-6264) or text "NAMI" to 741741 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.