What Not to Say to a Friend Going Through a Breakup (and What to Say Instead)

What Not to Say to a Friend Going Through a Breakup (and What to Say Instead)
Photo: Prostock-studio, Shutterstock

You don’t need to have the preternatural gifts of an empath to support your friend going through a breakup. Whether you’re blindsided or doing a private victory dance at the end of your friend’s relationship, your friend is going through a loss. Sure, you can clearly see all the ways the breakup is for the best, but you still want to support your friend as best you can before they finally achieve your wisdom. Here’s how to be there for your heartbroken friend.

Let them vent

The best thing you can say might be nothing at all. In the early stages after a breakup, do what you can to make space for your friend to do all the talking.

We’ve covered how to be a good listener when someone needs to vent. One key to being an active listener is repeating and rephrasing things your friend says, demonstrating that you understand and hear them on a deeper level. When you do chime in, prioritise validating your friend’s current feelings, rather than trying to offer any sort of solutions or analysis right away.

Avoid clichés

No matter how your friend opens up to you, responding with a cliché is at best impersonal, and at worst inaccurate. If you say something like, “You’re going to get through this,” you better bring specifics to back up your claim. Remind your friend what really makes them special, and how that’s why you know they will get through this.

Some classic offenders that will only minimise your friend’s feelings:

  • “Everything happens for a reason.”
  • “There are plenty of fish in the sea.”
  • “You can do better.”
  • Anything pertaining to “The One.” This is not the time to talk about the mythic One.

Ask them what they need

Like mentioned above, not all of us are lucky enough to be highly skilled empaths. Don’t be afraid to ask your friend direct questions about how you can meet their needs right now. After all, you might not able to tell whether offering a distraction will be a welcome comfort versus downright insulting. If you get stuck in the moment, here are some thought-starters:

  • What can I do for you right now?

  • Would [favourite movie/snack/activity] help right now, or is it not a good time?

  • Is it ok if I bring up [something specific about their relationship]?

  • Would it help to hear about what I felt during my last breakup?

Save the silver lining

As Dr. Suzanne Lachman wrote in Psychology Today: “Remember, their grieving process is not on your timeline. Guiding, cajoling, and pushing will by no means speed up the process.” Depending on how fresh the breakup is, try to refrain from pointing out all the positives of being single (which, as a single person, are pretty tepid anyways). No one has ever been healed after hearing, “Hey, being single rocks!”

This doesn’t mean you have to match your friend’s sadness; instead, try to channel your positivity into validating what they’re saying in the moment. This is how you can sneak in the bigger perspective, with something like, “You’re allowed to be sad, but remember that you won’t always feel this way.”

If nothing else, never underestimate the power of a simple “that sucks.”

Don’t lead the ex-bashing

Look — I know that whatever you’re thinking about your friend’s ex is completely correct and justified. Your friend just doesn’t need to know that right away.

One of the worst things to hear is that your friends secretly hated your partner the whole time. This can diminish the fresh loss or, more importantly, undermine your own friendship. Your friend might be left asking why you didn’t say anything before, or whether you think they were dumb for dating that person, or wherever else the grief-stricken mind wanders. Bad-mouthing the ex too soon can damage the way your friend sees you in their support system going forward.

One caveat is if you have reason to believe the ex is genuinely dangerous in some way or that the relationship was causing harm. Then it might be time for tough love. Recognise when it’s time to prioritise your friend’s safety over their feelings.

Step up in other ways

Your friend is grieving, and grief is all-consuming. Show your support by taking care of the little things. If this is a close friend, you could step in by going on a grocery run, ordering food delivery, or making evening plans that would have otherwise been spent with the ex.

Understand your limits

Your role shouldn’t be to fix your friend. Take care of yourself and recognise that you’ll never say the singular perfect thing that gets your friend back on their feet. It’s hard to watch a friend struggle, but you have to respect that there’s only so much you can do. If you start noticing yourself being treated less like a friend and more like a therapist, consider setting boundaries.

At the end of the day, your most important role as a friend is simply being there. You don’t need to be perfect, as long as you’re present.

Log in to comment on this story!