Why Your First Heartbreak Hits The Hardest

Photographed by Megan Madden.
We’re deep into breakup season right now. And whether you’ve been hit by the dreaded Turkey Drop (a Thanksgiving-season breakup) or a relationship has simply come to its natural close, the end of a romance is rarely easy — especially so if it’s your first. Turns out that Sheryl Crow was right when she sang, “The first cut is the deepest.”
Sex & relationships therapist and TENGA brand ambassador Shan Boodram tells Refinery29 that many of us simply aren’t prepared for what either love or heartbreak actually feels like. “Humans are born to bond,” she explains. When you fall for someone, “you get this rush of chemicals and emotions you’ve never experienced before, and your body is telling you this is the person, this is it,” she says. “When that bond breaks, it leaves people completely shell-shocked.”
Although people are often quick to call first relationships puppy love, Boodram says, “our first breakup tends to be our most serious breakup.” She explains, “I don’t think we manage expectations well enough. We don’t say, Hey, love is an extremely powerful drug, and after your first hit of it, you’re going to find it excruciatingly hard to separate, so be prepared. If we started to manage expectations better and really educate people, the first breakup might not be as much of a gut punch.”
Although breakups feel terrible at the moment, there are several ways you can help fight the pain. Here are some suggestions from the experts.

Know that it’s going to suck

Boodram compares going through your first breakup to quitting smoking — you know it will be a struggle. “When you quit smoking, you’re well aware that it’s going to be awful for a period of time,” Boodram says. “You know you’re going to need help, you’re going to have relapses, and you’re going to want to go back. And because you know that, when you do quit and it’s hard, you don’t perceive that as, cigarettes and I are destined to be together.” Although this mindset doesn’t make the pain hurt less, it can help you understand why you feel this way.

Go ahead and look back

Although it might seem counterintuitive, reflecting on your relationship can actually help you move on. One 2015 study divided people who had recently gone through breakups into two groups. One completed a series of exercises asking them to talk about the breakup and to look back on the relationship. The other only took an initial and closing survey. After nine weeks, the first group reported less loneliness and emotional disturbance than the second group. They were also more likely to use “I,” rather than “we,” when discussing the past, showing they were now thinking of themselves as individuals, rather than as one-half of a couple. 
“I would encourage a person who recently experienced a breakup to consider who he or she is, apart from the relationship,” study co-author Grace Larson of Northwestern University said in a statement at the time. She also suggested writing down several descriptions of the breakup "as though he or she were talking to a stranger about it." It may sound like dwelling, but according to her study it could speed up the healing process.

Distract yourself

After a relationship ends, so does one of your major sources of endorphins (the feel-good chemicals our bodies release when we have sex, laugh, or bond with a partner). In the early days after a breakup, focus on finding a new source, Renew Breakup Bootcamp founder Amy Chan previously advised Refinery29. “You can keep yourself busy for the first two weeks," she said. "Get your feel-good chemicals from spending time with friends, community, and self-care. Get your endorphins going by exercising (hey, this is a great time to try out that new dance class you’ve been considering)."

Lean on your loved ones

Your friends and family want to help you — so reach out to them. “Every time you want to send a text to your partner or are reminded about your ex and want to reach for them, reach for one of your buddies instead,” Olubukonla Kolawole, PsyD, a clinical psychologist in New York City, previously told Refinery29. “It’s great to have multiple people so you don’t hold yourself back with worry about your friend being tired of having to hear the same things.” 

Change your space

Even something as simple as hiding away photos of your ex and getting new bedsheets can help you mentally frame this part of your life as a new beginning. But more dramatic changes may make your mindset switch even easier to make. "Change the paint, the walls, bedding," Susan Bartell, PsyD, a psychologist who works with couples, previously told Refinery29. "Hang up new pictures. Do something to change your living space up so that it’s not such a reminder of the other person."

Give it time

Ultimately, the best medicine for a breakup is time. Ugh, we know — so trite, but so true. “There’s nothing to do other than wait it out, though I wish I could tell you to do something like drink a gallon of water,” Boodram says. But there’s some comfort to take in the knowledge that even though you’re miserable now, in a few months, you’ll be feeling better. It’s a cliché, but sometimes, time really does heal all wounds.
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