Around this time last year, Jeff, a 29-year-old in Milwaukee, couldn’t help but notice one of his closest friends had been quieter than usual. “It’s not like we were in constant contact or anything, but he’d always been active in our [Milwaukee] Bucks group chat,” Jeff says. “But then I noticed he wasn’t setting his lineup in our fantasy basketball league so I figured I’d best check in.”
Upon reaching out, Jeff learned his friend, Dan, had broken up with his girlfriend of three years. Jeff felt awful but didn’t know what to do. “I’ve never been in a serious relationship and didn’t know what to say that didn’t sound cheesy,” he tells me. “Plus, we live in different cities and scheduling a Zoom or something just felt dumb.”
Watching someone close to you unravel after a painful split is both heartbreaking and overwhelming — whether it’s your friend Dan in Chicago or your BFF Kanye West. So I reached out to a psychiatrist and a crisis negotiator — both of whom are trained to deal with people going through emotional distress — for some pointers.
Sometimes It’s Best Not to Say Anything
“No one expects all romantic partners to be around forever and yet when that connection suddenly ruptures after being dumped, we’re all struck and hurt and to a certain extent have a feeling of loss similar to the death of a loved one,” explains Mark Rego, an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Yale University School of Medicine. “Individual men will vary in how they experience this according to levels of maturity, personality and temperament, but the most important part of supporting him as a friend is to simply be there for him.”
“For a lot of people, going through a breakup is a critical moment in their life,” adds James Tacchini, instructor of Modern Crisis Negotiations for police personnel at Savage Training Group. “What I’d encourage that friend to do is to be there for the person and support them by listening and being empathetic.”
This is easier said than done, Tacchini adds, because most people’s instinct is to give advice rather than listen. “While the intent is good, try not to interject a solution because while the solution may be best for you, it may not be a solution for your friend.”
Even if Jeff gave Dan the greatest piece of advice in the history of dudes getting dumped, Rego argues it would likely fall on deaf ears. “People remember who was there, much more than what was said,” he says. “The best you can do is show up and validate that the breakup was hard and overall is a bad situation, without demonizing the person they were dating (assuming the man is the dumpee, not the dumper).”
This is how Tacchini, who is also a sergeant with the San Francisco Police Department, would begin negotiations with someone in crisis as well. “We encourage active listening,” he tells me, “which means really hear what the person is going through by letting them vent without offering a solution.”
Okay, But If You Have to Say Something?
As you’re listening to your friend, Rego advises to avoid feeding into his negative emotions. “There will often be some anger at the ex, which is understandable,” Rego says. “But we can sympathize with our friend and validate his feelings without saying bad things about the ex.” In certain circumstances, like if she “treated him poorly or cheated, then it’s okay to go with some moderate bashing,” he continues, but taking things too far down a negative path can do more harm than good. For instance: Leaning into negativity can lead to self-destructive expressions of anger and depression.
The tricky thing is, it can be hard to come up with positive advice that doesn’t sound cheesy or patronizing. This is where both Rego and Tacchini again assert that pulling back on the advice in lieu of listening is often the best option. “To be sure, they’ll probably ask for advice and that’s fine,” Tachhini says. “But make sure to convey to the person the advice you’re giving them is unique to their situation, and may not work for everyone.”
Better than canned advice, though, is “guiding the person in crisis to discover resources and a solution tailored to their individual unique circumstance,” Tacchini explains. “It’s never a bad idea either to ask, ‘What do you need from me?’ or ‘how can I help?’ They may not know the answer, which is fine and expected, but more importantly you’re showing you’re there for them when they do.”
So, instead of playing therapist, try just being a friend. “Ask him how he feels, and what he thinks. And since people do need to replay bad things, asking what happened is usually welcome too,” Tacchini says. “If it goes somewhere helpful, good. If not, and bad feelings seem to be escalating, change gears and discuss something else.”
At the end of the conversation, if you can “say with sincerity something hopeful such as ‘things will get better, I promise,’ or ‘I know you, and you will get through this,’ it will make an impression,” Rego says. “But do so sparingly, because again, it starts to sound hollow after repeated use. This isn’t therapy — it’s one friend building up another in a rough time.”
Great, You’ve Talked Them Off the Ledge. Now What?
After a two-hour phone call with Dan, Jeff invited his friend to his house in Milwaukee for the weekend. “I figured it would be good to get him somewhere he wasn’t always being reminded of his ex,” Jeff says. “We went out to a couple pubs that night then left at 6 a.m. the next morning to go ice fishing all day on Saturday, so we definitely had a lot of time together, which I think was good — for both of us, really.”
Even though Dan was “in way better shape when I dropped him off on Sunday,” Jeff felt he should continue to be more of a presence in his world. And that’s exactly what Rego and Tacchini would have advised him to do. “Follow up is just as important as being there during the initial crisis,” Tacchini says. “If you made a statement or a promise to do something, make sure you follow through, because nothing is worse than thinking you can rely on someone for something, and then having your friend bail, especially after a breakup.”
Otherwise, continue to “check in on them and be an ear for them to tell you how they’re feeling,” he adds, “because some days will be better than others.” If you find that your friend doesn’t appear to be improving over time, Rego says some “friendship-based intervention” might be necessary.
“There are occasions where the breakup was so unexpected and the connection so important that it causes a more depressive reaction,” he tells me. While the reaction may depend on the overall mental health of the individual, the signs of a depressive episode tend to be readily apparent. “Increased drinking or drug use, a change in personality, often toward the angry side, withdrawal and isolating,” Rego explains. “Any of these demand you intervene and say, ‘Hey buddy, you’re not yourself since so-and-so left you, what’s up?’”
In a situation like this, it may feel like you’re starting back at square one, but it’s worth finding out if there’s “perhaps more to his life difficulties than you know.” Once you have a better understanding of what’s really going on, Rego advises responding with something like, “Let’s back off on the drinking and maybe talk to this therapist I know.”
Ultimately, we all stumble through these kinds of scenarios in life. And if you call yourself a friend, it’s important to be there when times are rough. “Friends are the people who show up,” Rego says. “That’s your main job as a buddy to someone who has been dumped by a person he cared for.”
A year later, Jeff says Dan is “back on his feet” and the entire episode brought them closer. “Outside of talking about the Bucks and NBA, we’d mostly drifted apart,” he says. “But ever since, our whole group has made a point to get together online to play games or just catch up all the time, so we’re back to knowing all about each other’s life and relationship problems.”