I get it; I’ve been on both sides of this equation. After my ex-boyfriend ended our relationship abruptly, much of my inner circle offered kind and supportive words that helped me heal. But in certain cases, friends also made comments that came across more caustic than comforting (regardless of how well-intentioned they may have been). This made me realize that I probably said things to friends in the past going through similarly painful experiences that, in hindsight, were not as helpful as I thought.
As it turns out, it’s all too common to stumble over words in a difficult and emotionally charged conversation such as one in the wake of a friend’s breakup, says psychiatrist Jessica Gold, MD, assistant professor of psychiatry at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. Often, “we’re not ever really taught how to have these kinds of conversations, and as a result, we have a lot of fear and discomfort in them,” she says.
That can lead us to reach for something that feels concrete, even if it’s an unhelpful platitude, like, “Everything happens for a reason,” or “When one door closes, another one opens.” “When we don’t know what to say or worry about saying the wrong thing, we tend to venture toward neutral statements or statements we think are safe,” says Dr. Gold. But even if they are safe, these phrases don’t tend to go far when it comes to actually comforting someone post-breakup.
“From a desire to help, we can end up harming them instead when we don’t really provide what they need.” —Anusha Atmakuri, LPC, therapist
In other cases, you might feel so upset for a recently dumped friend that you try to rectify the situation (“They didn’t deserve you, anyway!”)—without realizing that doing so might just make your friend feel even worse. “There’s a little bit of firefighter in all of us that wants to fix things,” says therapist Anusha Atmakuri, LPC. “But, from that desire to help, we can end up harming them instead when we don’t really provide what they need.”
Perhaps the person who was dumped actually needs space to process the highlights of the relationship or the ways in which they grew within it, and in your eagerness to help, you’re inadvertently pushing them to forget it. “Usually, people go through at least some of the stages of grief [during a breakup] because it is a loss—and not just a loss of the person [in their life] and what they had, but also the future they might have imagined with that person,” says Atmakuri. And that kind of grief “isn’t something you can circumvent or fast-forward,” she says.
Hence, the need to tread lightly. Below, experts share the best—and worst—things you can say to a recently dumped friend or loved one to ensure you’re helping (and not harming) their healing journey.
3 helpful things to say to someone who recently got dumped
1. “What do you need right now?”
As simple as it may sound, posing this question lets the person express what they’re looking for from you (if anything) and direct the conversation based on their lived experience, says Dr. Gold. Everyone responds to a breakup differently, and no two breakups unfold in exactly the same fashion, so the only way to really know how this person is feeling and what they need is to ask.
Naturally, this does put the onus on the person who was dumped to express those feelings and needs. And sometimes, they may be so upset or overwhelmed by the situation that they simply don’t know how to do that. In this case, “you can provide a few choices [of how you might help], or you can ask if it would be okay if you just came and sat with them, just to be there,” says Dr. Gold.
You can also encourage them to share as much (or as little) as they would like, suggests psychiatrist Michael Radkowsky, PsyD. He recommends being patient with them as they may need to process what happened several times before they can figure out how they need or want to move forward.
2. “This is really hard.”
Simply empathizing with the difficulty of the situation can be impactful. “You don’t want to gloss over the very real pain that they’re feeling,” says Atmakuri. “Acknowledging it and helping them to feel seen and heard—even if it’s really just that—is powerful and validating.”
When a rabbi described my own breakup experience as a “tragedy,” the intensity of the word and the acknowledgement of my pain rang as deeply validating. And you certainly don’t have to be ordained to give the same kind of validation to a friend in need.
3. “Do you want company?”/ “Do you want me to call you?”
The day my ex broke up with me, a dear friend asked if I wanted company, and I immediately said yes. At first, I didn’t want to talk about the situation and just felt grateful that she was next to me on my couch, distracting me with unrelated conversation. Then, when I was ready to unpack what had happened, she was there to hear it and help me begin to process my new reality.
And that was all because she’d simply offered to show up for me, which is something every expert I spoke with also recommends. Whether in person or virtually, showing a recently dumped friend that they don’t have to be alone (if they don’t want to be) can be highly comforting—no elaborate plans needed.
“It’s worth it to show up rather than not show up, even if you’re in doubt about how to do so,” says Atmakuri. This can take the form of checking in by phone, suggesting social plans like a meal to look forward to, or simply joining your friend on the couch for a movie night.
3 worst things to say to someone who just got dumped
1. “You’re better off.”
Bold declarations or assumptions often just fuel confusion and pain, says Atmakuri, and are certainly not helpful when the pain of being dumped is fresh.
“A person can be angry at someone and still love them, and statements like, ‘You’re better off now’ just bring in extra negativity and judgment that doesn’t need to be there,” says Dr. Gold. Similarly, although comments like, “I never liked them anyway,” or “They must have cheated on you” may seem supportive by way of being definitive, experts advise against this approach, as it is more likely to aggravate rather than ease existing feelings of frustration and hurt.
2. “There are other fish in the sea.”
Offering up comments tied to future relationships (or the potential thereof) is jumping the gun. “This doesn’t allow the person time and space to grieve,” says Dr. Gold. Nobody should feel pushed to move right into meeting new people when what they really need is to cope with the sudden loss of an important relationship.
“When they’re ready for hope [down the line] is when they’ll be open to hearing messages of positivity,” says Atmakuri, and potentially dating someone new.
3. “That’s why I never date anyone younger/older/divorced/from LA, etc.”
The person who got dumped can’t go back in time and change the way they approached a now-broken relationship or choose not to date the person in the first place—so, there’s no reason to make comments like this one that suggest they made a mistake.
“Snap judgments usually just reflect where we are in our own head,” says Atmakuri, and do nothing to help the person in need. In fact, these kinds of statements often just come across as shaming, criticizing, or trying to use the person’s breakup as a teachable moment, none of which is productive, says Dr. Radkowsky.
Ultimately, the experts agree that showing up and genuinely listening—rather than harping on the past or pushing for positivity—are at the heart of helping a loved one navigate raw heartbreak. As Dr. Gold says: “We take for granted just how much listening to someone can help them when they really need a safe person to talk to without feeling judged.”