Once there was a boy. Let’s call him “Jake,” because all these years later, he and I are still sometimes in touch—and I’m about to tell you something that I would never tell him. After we broke up, I sat on my front steps listening to Johnny Cash’s cover of “Hurt” on repeat for about three days. Ugly crying. And it was nearly a decade before I could listen to that song again without feeling…well, hurt.
The good news is that it wasn’t a decade before I got over Jake. Not even close. As deeply as I felt the loss of that relationship, healing took a lot closer to 10 weeks than 10 years. It’s not surprising, though, that when the pain was fresh, it felt like it might never go away. According to a 2007 study, the end of a romantic relationship is one of life’s more difficult experiences. There’s no way to sugarcoat it: losing a relationship feels just terrible. But you might find yourself feeling better more quickly than you first imagine.
So how long does it take to get over someone?
It’d be nice to have an exact answer, like “You will feel 100% better in 9.5 weeks.” Unfortunately, we all know that love and grief are more complicated than that. But science can offer some estimates, and more importantly, strategies for feeling better sooner.
Investment affects how long it takes to get over someone.
You might predict that it takes longer to get over a relationship that made you really happy, or a relationship that ended suddenly and without warning. Surprisingly, though, research shows that while the quality of the relationship and the characteristics of the breakup might matter, they matter less than we commonly assume. What makes the biggest difference, then? Investment. What seems to matter is how much of yourself the breakup means leaving behind.
Long-term, committed relationships (like marriage) are harder to leave behind than shorter-term dating relationships. A study published in the Journal of Positive Psychology found that most people get over the loss of a dating relationship in about 11 weeks. However, according to poll data, it can take about a year and a half to get over the breakup of a marriage.
In between these two extremes—short-term dating relationships and marriage—there is a lot of middle ground, of course. And it isn’t a simple sliding scale, i.e., where the longer you’re together the harder it is after you break up.
The longer a relationship lasts, the more integrated partners become with one another’s friends and families. Partners are also more likely to share things like a household, pets, and finances.This kind of investment in a longer-term relationship means that you might be leaving behind more than a romantic partner—but also a home, a pet, and/or other relationships you’ve come to cherish.
Personality differences and life circumstances can also impact how quickly people get invested in their relationships. Some people can be with a partner for years and never really feel invested, while others tend to invest very quickly, making even a fairly brief relationship difficult to get over. When you’re heavily invested in a relationship and it ends, you’re also closing the door on an imagined future—marriage, children, vacations, and so on—that might have been an important source of happiness.
With all of this in mind, how long does it take to get over someone? Science can’t pinpoint the precise length of time—only that it’s likely to take somewhere between three and 18 months. However, research suggests that you can make a good guess about whether it will be closer to three months or 18 months based on how much you had invested in the relationship.
What science says about how to move on more quickly
Notice that investment affects how long it takes to get over someone, but it doesn’t necessarily determine how long it takes. Regardless of how committed to someone you once were or how intertwined your lives were, you do have some influence over how quickly you get over that person.
Understanding that you have an active role to play in this process is important. A 2017 University of Colorado Boulder study points out that the pain of a lost relationship is very real. Not only does this type of loss have physical effects on the brain, but it can also be a risk factor for serious depression. But amazingly, when researchers gave study participants a placebo drug, it reduced the level of pain their brains registered.
The researchers don’t suggest that you run out and find a doctor to prescribe you a fake medication, though. “Just the fact that you are doing something for yourself and engaging in something that gives you hope may have an impact,” Tor Wager, the study’s lead author, said in this interview.
One thing that you can do to mimic the effect that these researchers saw in the lab is to boost your brain’s supply of real “painkillers.” Your brain can make and release its own natural painkillers in response to physical pain, and it releases the same painkillers in response to emotional pain. You can boost your brain’s supply of these chemicals by exercising, meditating, and remembering to eat regular, healthy meals.
Another thing you can do to speed up your recovery time is to process and reflect—but not dwell—on the relationship. In the first days after a breakup, it’s good to process your feelings with close friends. Social support really helps when you’re feeling down. Processing in this way can also remind you that your feelings are natural and help you see that you’re not just losing the good things about your ex—you’re also losing the bad things. Research shows that these are important cognitive strategies for moving on.
As time goes on and you become more objective, it’s good to think analytically about what went wrong, because it leads to personal growth and helps you see the situation more clearly.
But dwelling is another matter. Spending hours a day for months thinking about your ex, the lost relationship , and your own pain and anger is counterproductive. On a biochemical level, love is an addiction. Looking at your ex’s Instagram feed, replaying old voicemails, and venting nonstop about your ex to your friends just reactivate the addiction pathways in your brain. This helps explain why people get over relationships faster when they minimize contact with their ex.
“Jake” and I had no contact at all for several years after our breakup. I did a lot of hard work to get over him, and I just couldn’t trust myself not to undo it all with one phone call. By the time we finally re-established contact, he’d already married and divorced the woman he’d left me for, and he was on his way to another marriage. I still hear from him every once in a while, and I’m always rooting for that second marriage to work out. But we’re not the kind of friends who confide in each other, or who share stories like, “Let me tell you why I couldn’t listen to ‘Hurt’ for 10 years.”
As embarrassing as it is now to picture myself sobbing on my front steps while Johnny Cash told me to “focus on the pain” because it’s the “only thing that’s real,” those actions probably helped me to fully acknowledge how awful I was feeling. And after a few days, I was able to get myself up, turn the song off, and start taking steps toward recovering. I can smile about it now—and no matter how awful your breakup is, or whether it takes you a few months or a few years to move on, you’ll get there, too.