The most important rule by far is to have absolutely no contact with your ex- until you are healed.
Any contact at all, any reminders, simply prolongs your suffering, increases your pain, and delays your eventual recovery.
Contact with your ex- is literally like cutting your scar open over and over: MRI scans show that just looking at pictures of your ex- activates those same pain areas of the brain. And that's just the effect of looking at a picture. Direct contact with your ex- is massively worse and rips you apart.
To really have no contact with your ex- is hard for so many reasons. Psychologically, it's obvious why it's so difficult. This is the person you shared your life with, the person who was so important to you. You can't imagine not talking to this person, not sharing the little details of your day, not sharing all the inside jokes and glances and memories that you've built together as a couple.
And physically, the breakup has two separate physical effects which both make it hard to cut contact. First, the blow of rejection - the breakup itself - is perceived by the brain in the same way as a severe physical blow such as being burned or a bone being crushed.
Secondly, the relationship itself has literally developed into a physical dependency, similar to a drug addiction. Abruptly removing the relationship because of the breakup causes bio-behavioral responses which range from small physical disturbances to massive and long-term physical distress reactions. (All these physical effects are discussed in more detail in the article Pain of Rejection is Real here on this site, so please take a look if you haven't seen it.)
These effects combine to create a storm of pain. The psychological and physical impact is so severe that we all believe that the only cure to this pain is to return to the relationship and the ex-. It's why you feel the overwhelming need to beg, plead, scream, cry, promise anything and do anything to get the relationship back.
Any contact delays recovery
But every contact with your ex- only prolongs your suffering and delays your recovery. Just in the same way that you care for a physical injury by nursing it tenderly and not re-aggravating it, you have to care for yourself tenderly after a breakup and not re-injure yourself through the pain of additional contact with your ex-.
Contact before you've completely healed leads you to feel rejected over and over again. It's severely painful and keeps you in a state of painful emotional torture for a very long time. Unfortunately, I know this from personal experience because I stupidly let myself go through it for much too long. And in the years of this site, hundreds of readers have shared similar stories with me where they started to feel better after a period of no-contact... only to decide too soon to “just say hi" to the ex- and then find themselves plummeting back down again into incredible emotional pain.
When you have any contact with your ex-, you can’t control what s/he will say to you… or even if s/he will say anything back to you at all. The reaction you expect from the ex- is almost never what happens. And whatever does happen only leads to further heartache for you and sets you back in your healing.
No contact is for you;
not a strategy to get ex- back
It’s vital to understand that no contact is for YOU. It’s not to make your ex- miss you, it’s not a strategy to get the ex- back. It’s for YOU and YOUR healing. Your ex- broke the partnership that you had, so there is no more team. It’s all about YOU. And no contact is to help YOU heal.
No contact rules are easy to say, but hard to do. No contact means – literally – no contact. No calls, no smses. Delete the ex’s number in your phone (yes, do it). Block the ex- in every place you have him/her: Facebook, Skype, Twitter, Whatsapp, etc., etc., etc. Block all possibilities of getting updates on your ex- from any social media.
[For what it’s worth, there’s even academic research showing that Facebook stalking of your ex-, even just remaining friends with him/her, is negative for moving on and for your own personal development. Look for research by Tara Marshall at Brunel University ("Facebook surveillance of former romantic partners: Associations with post-breakup recovery and personal growth") if you’re interested in the details.]
No stalking: no virtual stalking, and (please!) no real-life stalking. (The last thing you want, when you finally wake up from your breakup fog, is to realize that you have a restraining order against you. It really does happen: I know a story in 2013 of someone who ended up that way!).
Avoid even indirect contact
No contact is not just about direct contact. It also means indirect attempts to communicate with your ex- or bump into him/her.
Avoid any places where you think your ex- might be (and if it means giving up some of your favorite places for a while, then do it… if there’s a big risk of bumping into the ex-, it’s never worth it). And no hidden messages. Your profile pictures or status updates on FB or other social media shouldn’t be about your ex- or be covert ways to send messages to the ex-. The ex- wanted out of your life, so neither your real life nor your social-media life should any longer be about the ex-.
"Helping each other heal"
Readers have described to me situations where the dumper and the dumpee agree to “help each other heal." Usually, they were best friends as well as a couple – at least the dumpee thinks so – and they agree they’re such good friends that they need to help each other get through the pain.
This is so wrong on so many levels. Remember, your roles are totally different. Your ex- dumped you. Of course the ex- feels sad, unhappy, guilty for the pain it’s causing you, and many other emotions, but the ex- is the one who wanted the breakup, not you. You were rejected, and that pain is incomparable; what the ex- feels is just a fraction of how much you hurt. There is no chance that the dumper can “heal together" with you because the dumper doesn’t feel nearly as bad.
And although it's obvious to say, it’s your ex- who caused you this pain, so your ex- is precisely the worst person in the world to help you heal from it. We all lose perspective in the aftermath of a breakup, we all have trouble seeing clearly; that's why this site exists, after all. So I understand that even though you might agree in theory that an ex- shouldn't help you heal, you can very easily convince yourself that your situation is different.
Unfortunately, the reality is that you're human and your brain reacts to a breakup in the same way as all of us. Your ex- might truly have great intentions to help you, but the only truth that matters is that s/he dumped you. The nicest thing your ex- can do for you is to stay away. If s/he doesn’t want to be with you in a relationship, any additional contact until you’re healed will only make you hurt more and prolong your recovery.
No contact also has the huge advantage of stopping you from losing (more of) your self-respect. Everyone, literally everyone, goes through the begging/ pleading/ bargaining stage immediately after a breakup.
No one wants to be dumped, it hurts so much, and the instant reaction is to say and do anything and everything to stop it.
I've seen so many cringe-worthy examples of what people say:
“You wanna break up because we’re not compatible? Tell me what it is. I’ll change anything about myself!"
“You wanna break up with me cuz you wanna see someone else? No problem, date both of us!"
Your ability to justify crazy actions after you've been dumped is limitless. I’ve seen people who've been dumped do things which they truly believe are eminently rational, but are so sad - very obviously sad - when seen from the outside. Call the parents of the ex- and offer to paint their house. Start driving the ex's younger brother every day back and forth to school one hour each way. Make dozens of unanswered phone calls in a row from blocked numbers and newly-purchased numbers all just to hear the ex's voice say "Hello". Buy plane tickets and fly to the ex's country unannounced to surprise the ex- on his birthday (he refused to open the door). Buy ridiculously over-the-top presents. Give to the ex- an heirloom which had been in the family for generations and is irreplaceable (oh my, I really cried about that one because of the ricochet disaster it caused when the family of the person who'd been dumped discovered the loss).
Starting no-contact immediately will stop you from this begging phase: if you have no contact with the ex-, you won’t be able to try to sell your self-respect for another chance.
How long to maintain no contact?
How long you stay no-contact depends entirely on you and your healing.
The internet is full of “30 day policies", “60 day policies", etc. But years of stories which readers of this site have shared with me point to the reality that the strictest policy is the best policy: no contact whatsoever until you are completely, totally healed.
Until that point, any contact will just set you back and delay you from moving on smoothly. And to be clear: this policy almost always means no-contact for much, much longer than just a few months.
The urge to contact your ex- can be overwhelming at times, especially in the first weeks and months after the breakup. Your craving for the ex- following rejection is similar in terms of brain activity to cocaine addiction and you’ll literally suffer withdrawal symptoms (see research by Helen Fisher of Rutgers, if you’re interested: Reward, Addiction, and Emotion Regulation Systems Associated With Rejection in Love).
Some ideas for what to do instead of contacting your ex-: write letters to your ex- but never send them; post to internet forums, either your own thread or very cleverly-created threads titled “Post here instead of contacting your ex-“; talk to friends and family for support; stay busy, get out and do things (see the Activities section of this guide if you want ideas of things to do). Or write to me here and share your story.
The only reasons to ever have contact with your ex- until you’re in a better, healed state are 1) the very basic breakup logistics, especially if you live together, such as moving out, papers, financial arrangements, etc.; 2) if you work with the ex-, and 3) if you have kids.
The work situation is tricky, but it can be handled. Depending on how close your relationship was and how much the breakup hurts, it can really be a good step to see if you can transfer or change jobs so you no longer have to see the person every day. It could be 3 months, 6 months, even a year or more until you really feel ok again, and working together during that time will make it worse and your work will suffer.
Any boss or HR person will understand – they’re people too, and they also want the best for, and from, their workers. A recently broken-up couple obviously won’t work well together, plus it’ll really, really bother other workers as well, so it’s in the interests of the company and the bosses to help you out.
If there is absolutely no way possible to avoid working with the person, then your recovery is going to take longer and be harder than otherwise, but the only way to do it is to keep all contact extremely cold, extremely brief, and only about professional topics. Never allow any conversation about anything other than the work.
How to handle communication with the ex- if you have children together is an enormous and potentially very complicated topic and I won’t try to address it here. But the main idea is the same as if you work with your ex-: keep communication limited only to topics about the children, visiting times, etc. There are lots of resources on the internet with lots of information and personal experiences about how to navigate this situation.