A while ago, someone I know wondered how to help a friend through a breakup. This friend was in a really bad place and the person who tried to console him didn't really know what to do anymore.
The whole situation reminded me of a scene I had once seen in a soap opera that went like this:
He opens the bottle and says: “I know you probably don’t feel like celebrating because the man you thought you would spend your life with is getting married to someone else today.”
He pours two glasses of champagne and continues, “My grandmother always used to say that if a particularly beautiful chapter of your life comes to an end, you can either be sad, or you can celebrate that it happened.”
Handing her a glass, he says, “To the next chapter of your life!”
What we can learn from this about how to help a friend through a breakup
This scene from the German soap opera, Alles was zählt (“All that matters”) stuck with me.
Even though it might not seem like it, it's actually a great example of what we can do to help someone who’s experiencing disappointment or heartbreak. (And no, I’m not talking about bringing them alcohol!)
I don’t generally (read: never) turn to soap operas for insights into the workings of the universe, philosophical lessons about the human experience, or… well… ideas on how to best coach my clients. Of course I know that soap operas paint an unrealistic picture of what relationships are like.
That said, I won’t disregard a good lesson merely based on where I find it. And this scene provides 4 key ingredients that are crucial for helping a friend through a heartbreak.
Before I reveal those ingredients, let me reveal what is behind those 4 key ingredients: the master lesson, so to speak.
Ultimately, temporal multitasking is the secret of how to help a friend through a breakup
Moving through heartbreak requires temporal multitasking: an acknowledgement of what used to be (the past) but isn't anymore (the present), coupled with renewed hope for what could be (the future).
Ideally, we want to show a lot of compassion for our friend's current sadness about what they have lost, and, eventually, help them find hope for the future. In other words, once their pain has been sufficiently acknowledged, we help them move their focus further up the timeline and into the future.
So, let's consider how the soap opera scene does that, using 4 key ingredients.
The step-by-step breakdown of how to help a friend through a breakup, using 4 ingredients
1. The power of a pattern interrupt (“I want to celebrate with you.”)
The scene started out with a powerful pattern interrupt. A pattern interrupt is a coaching tool that gets someone out of the state they are currently in, often using the element of surprise or humor.
In the soap opera example, the woman felt sad and was crying because her love interest was getting married to someone else.
A typical reaction you might have to her heartbreak would be to declare how sorry you feel for her. Of course, this wouldn’t fundamentally change her emotional state.
In contrast, the man’s unusual response — bringing in champagne and announcing his desire to celebrate with her — startled her out of her current state and brought her into the present moment.
(It probably doesn’t hurt that he’s attractive, either.)
2. The power of honoring feelings (“I know you probably don’t feel like celebrating…”)
The man didn’t just startle the woman out of her emotional state.
After getting her full attention, he made it clear to her that he understood how she felt and how disappointed she was. If he had skipped this step, the woman would have likely felt resentful and angry at him for being oblivious to her reality and her sadness.
3. The power of honoring the reality of what they leave behind (“celebrate that it happened”)
Often, when it comes to letting go of something or someone, people get stuck between two bad choices: they either feel a need to be negative about what they leave behind (negative detachment) or use their positive memories to cling on to it (positive attachment).
For instance, a woman who wants to get over a past boyfriend may find it necessary to talk about everything that was bad about her time with him, as this helps her to distance herself from him. Or conversely, she may go through her good memories with him to negate the reality of their separation.
At the root of both these bad options is a certain denial of reality.
In the first case, it’s a denial of the good sides of what one is leaving behind, in the second case it’s a denial of the reality that this has come to an end.
While these partial denials of reality can be part of the letting go process, you have to do something else to really come to terms with the past.
What does this look like?
I would describe true letting go as positive detachment.
Instead of convincing yourself that the chapter of your life is not really ending or that it wasn’t a beautiful chapter, you open to the truth of the situation.
Positive detachment happens when we acknowledge the beauty of what we leave behind, and the reality of its ending.
The man in the soap opera described this as follows: “… if a particularly beautiful chapter of your life comes to an end, you can either be sad, or you can celebrate that it happened.”
As modeled in this scene, a surefire way to know that someone has truly let go of something is that disappointment has been replaced with gratitude.
4. The power of reframing (“To the next chapter of your life!”)
With only a few sentences, the man in the soap opera reframed the entire situation.
Instead of making the day about the woman’s disappointment, he turned it into a celebration of what she had had and of what was yet to come. He helped her welcome in the future instead of clinging to the past.
Letting go of heartbreak and disappointment is a process that takes time.
Even if you don't know how to help a friend through a breakup, in most cases they will eventually recover from it, just like the person that I mentioned in the opening of this article who is now doing fine.
That said, by keeping in mind the importance of temporal multitasking, and using the 4 "soap opera" ingredients I described above, you can support your friend in the midst of it all.
A version of this article was first published on Elephant Journal here.
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