Breakups are hard, and if you have a close friend that is experiencing one, chances are you want to help them through. This is a guide to supporting your friend without tanking your own mental health. Let’s face it, those of us that get called on to help when difficult things happen in people’s lives often struggle to prioritise our own needs, so it is important to reflect carefully on your own position, needs, and what you are really able to offer.
1) Consider your own capacity
When a crisis hits, most people feel compassion and concern for the people at the centre of it. We want to help. We feel like we should support our friends, especially if they reach out to us or we’re particularly close. Unfortunately, despite our inclination to assist, sometimes we have so much going on in our own lives that we simply can’t. Sometimes our own mental health is such that we don’t have the capacity. Sometimes we are in the midst of our own relationship, work or health crisis. Sometimes life is just too much to be able to help someone else, and that is OK. To be a good breakup buddy you have to be in a position to be able to offer the support willingly and without resentment. If you are feeling overwhelmed, pushed upon or resentful about someone taking up your time or energy, then it is important to set clear limits around what you are realistically able to offer. This isn’t always going to feel great, but it will feel a whole lot better to the person coping with a break up than you agreeing to do something and not showing up, or bailing at the last minute.
2) Work with your friend to help them figure out what they need
Everyone deals with a breakup differently. If someone has done the breaking up, then they may be flooded with relief or guilt or shame. If someone has been broken up with then they may be feeling abandoned, distressed or rejected. Either way, there is likely to be sadness and a lot of change happening. Everyone has different needs, so there isn’t a one size fits all solution to post-breakup support. As such, its a really good idea to work through areas that your friend needs support with. If you have the capacity, its a good idea to work out with your friend what they need. Some support they might want could include:
- Go between with the ex
- Practical support around returning stuff / moving out / packing
- Being the +1 at formal events that have already been RSVP’d to
- Being a buffer at social events where the ex also planning to attend
- Being the 2am person to call when they want to drunk dial the ex
- Being the ‘first text’ person when something happens that they want to tell the ex about
- Being the social media snoop so they know whether the (now blocked) ex has RSVP’d to something on facebook or fetlife
- Support with applying for housing / benefits / other bureaucratic crap
- Staying over for the ‘first night’ in a new place, or back home after a split
- The weekly catch-up person, who checks in on them at scheduled intervals
- The person that spends regular social time at home with them
- The new emergency contact
- The new lunch buddy at work
3) Give yourself some time to work out what you want to offer, and what you don’t
When you’re making the list above you may find that some things are a ‘hell yes’ and others fill you with dread. That is totally normal. I’m 100% up for weekly check-ins, social visits and facebook / fetlife snooping, but the idea of being woken up at 2AM is a HELL NO! I’d not do that for anyone. You’re likely to have a really good idea about things you have strong feelings about. It is the ‘in the middle’ things that are often more challenging to find limits and desires around. When you agree to something that makes you feel resentful, it (eventually) shows. As a result, it’s important to be really honest with yourself about whether or not you can happily and willingly offer anything you don’t feel a certain ‘yes’ to. Your friend may want weekly social time, and it may be that you work out that you can only commit to that fortnightly or monthly. They may need someone to talk to daily about the intrusive thoughts about their ex’s cheating/selfishness/wonderfulness, but it may be that you are up for a daily messenger chat rather than talking on the phone. Or maybe you don’t want to be that person at all. It is important to work out your limits and boundaries and to offer the other person only those things that you feel genuinely willing to do. It is usually helpful to agree to the ‘hell yes’ items, and to ask for time to work out whether the ‘maybe’ things are sustainable commitments. Remember: you can always change your mind, but it’s usually easier to manage expectations if you’re clear up front about what you are able to willingly give your friend.
4) Work with your friend to identify other resources
No person is an island – and when difficult stuff happens it is really important to work out what support is available to cope with the trauma. Rather than doing a superhero impression, it’s often best to help your friend find multiple sources of support (based in professionals, community, and friends). The wider the net of support, the better. This could mean dividing up the list you’ve created among a lot of different people. It might mean identifying crisis numbers for hotlines and the local mental health team. Alternatively, it could be setting up a group chat with their closest people to replace the constant communication they had with their former partner. In truth, the areas of support that people need are bound to be individual, but it’s a rare person that has TOO MUCH support.
5) Create the boundaries that you need with their former partner
When a long term couple is splitting up, lots of friends are shared. It is sometimes easy to pick a side. Other times you want to remain friends with both. If you’re involved in intensively supporting one of the partners, it is often best to let the other partner know that and to create a little distance in the relationship for a period. You may decide to try to support both, but that is really hard to sustain simply because of the energy required to support one person going through a difficult time. If you are upfront about this, it will usually allow you to pick the friendship back up in 6-12 months when the breakup is more settled and easy to navigate. Be clear that you’re not choosing a side in the breakup, rather that you are choosing to offer the other person quite a lot of support which may limit your availability to do the same for them..