Breakups suck. There’s just no getting around it.
That said, I’ve formed a hypothesis that I believe can help people avoid making bad decisions, post-breakup. My theory is based on personal experiences and dozens of discussions with my friends, family, and even perfect strangers — in other words, this is my personal opinion and not a research paper (at least, not yet). What I do know is that it’s proven true for me and many people I know — and hopefully it’ll work for you, too.
It’s called the three-week rule.
The rule was prompted by the end of my four-year relationship. Despite the fact that I had initiated the separation and knew it was for the best, it was hard. Actually, hard is an understatement. I constantly felt like my stomach was in one big knot. Half of the time, I wanted to throw up. It was difficult to breathe, I didn’t have much of an appetite, and my emotions were all over the place. Routines like going to the gym and even getting out of bed took 50 times the effort they normally did. My mind was constantly racing, I had a hard time focusing on school and at work, and I felt anxious all the time.
I lived with these symptoms for exactly three gut-wrenching weeks. Some days were better than others, but overall there were 21 days of “blegh.” Here’s where it gets interesting: when I woke up on Day 22, the symptoms were simply… gone. Gone! I felt like my normal self again. I had a spring in my step, my mind was clear, and I had a productive day at work. I didn’t have to reread each page of my textbook in order to understand it, I didn’t overthink, I wasn’t jittery or anxious — I even wanted to go to the gym. What strange spell had come over me!?
It’s worth mentioning that apart from the passing of Day 21 into Day 22, nothing significant had occurred or changed. My circumstances were exactly the same as the day before, and frankly, some were less than ideal:
- I was still technically “homeless,” living in an Airbnb I had rented after leaving the apartment my ex and I shared
- I was undecided about where I wanted to live, and whether I would move to a different country (third-culture kid problems)
- I hadn’t adopted any new friends, activities, pets, or hobbies
- I didn’t experience an upgrade in my professional or financial situation that would have been cause for a morale boost
- I wasn’t dating someone new
- And no, I hadn’t just gotten laid
Feeling such a dramatic difference in my overall self, but with no concrete event to credit for the transformation, I looked to my calendar and journals for clues. Finding that exactly three weeks and one day had passed since my crossing back into singlehood put a “huh” smirk on my face. It was then that I started thinking back to my previous relationships and breakups. I dug pretty deep; I even looked back to old chats with friends from years prior to remember what happened on which day, and to recall what I was feeling and doing on those dates. Lo and behold, I found that history was repeating itself: three weeks of misery, followed by a similar transformation.
I immediately told my best friend that I basically invented the lightbulb of breakup advice. “I swear, this is a thing! If people knew that the worst breakup symptoms only last three weeks, it would make them much easier to deal with!” I exclaimed.
My friends mostly laughed off my grand discovery, although they couldn’t help but admit that I did seem to be much happier; they were relieved to have “their chipper Hest” back. Still, I couldn’t stop thinking about this three-week coincidence. I continued telling anyone I could about my theory. I was convinced it could be helpful — and for a few individuals, it was.
A year and a half of thought, discussion, and deliberation later, I believe my three-week rule rings true more often than not.
Now, I know what you’re thinking:
Everyone is different.
Depends on what kind of relationship you had.
Depends on whether you still love the person.
Depends on whether you were the one who was dumped.
Nope, nope, nope, and nope. Because here’s the thing: this isn’t psychological. It’s chemical.
Here’s a vital disclaimer. I am not nearly suggesting that you will forget about, fall out of love with, stop caring about, stop thinking about, or completely get over the person you broke up with. These are much more complicated feelings and emotions and are highly dependent on each individual situation.
What I’m talking about are the intense withdrawal symptoms that we experience after we are “cut off” from our drug of choice — love. Study upon study indicates that romantic love causes a similar reaction in the brain as addictive drugs do. It stands to reason that we should expect to experience withdrawal symptoms after being deprived of our love dosage, but it also means there is a real, biological switch that flips when the drug finally leaves our system.
Here’s the catch: the withdrawal effect is real, and your whole body, mind, and soul will be begging you to relapse. You can read all the self-help books in the world, you can have plenty of support from loved ones, and you can meditate five hours a day — but during those first three weeks, you’re still “detoxing.” You have to steel your mind against going back for any kind of “hit” from your former relationship, as innocent as it might seem, or as mentally strong and capable as you think you are.
When addicts experience withdrawal, the only thing they want is another hit, despite knowing it’s the last thing they need. It’s likely that they need friends, family, or even professionals around to keep them from getting another dose. They can’t trust themselves and their thoughts; they can only focus on what will make them feel better in the moment, not in the long-term. Sound familiar? It doesn’t take a substance abuse problem to relate; you just need to have been through a breakup.
And like any addict in those early days of detox, you need to realize that any romantic decision you make within three weeks of your breakup is not to be trusted. You’ve still got it in your system. If you want to reach out to your former lover, to figure out whether you did the right thing or whether you should be fighting for them, wait until the 22-day mark to act. Each time you disrupt the detox process, you are relapsing. The clock starts over, and a three-week recovery period can easily turn into three months (or even years).
Given the old adage “time heals all wounds,” I know this might not sound totally ground-breaking. However, being aware of and expecting the chemical changes in our bodies, and having a solid “feel better” date to count down to, could help us avoid some of the anxiety, insecurity, and even panic we may feel when love ends. At the very least, this rule can stop us from thinking we need to quit our jobs and move to an ashram to feel better. Instead, we just need to hold tight — and be kind to ourselves in the meantime. You’re not wrong or weak for feeling the way that you feel, and you don’t need to turn your life upside-down to fix it. It’s just biology, and it will pass.