DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: This might sound odd, but my son is 17 and is apparently going through his first big breakup of his first serious relationship. He’s been dating her since his freshman year, and she is 2 years older. It is likely due to the age difference/life experience difference, since he’s still in school and she’s graduated and working and lives on her own.
He’s my oldest and his dad and I both had kind of terrible dating/relationship histories before we managed to find each other. That means I don’t really know how to coach my kid through this without giving him unhealthy advice. My experience isn’t really a great place to start, unless I want to say “oh, DO NOT do this.”
What I’m managing to do right now is get him to focus on self care, acknowledge his emotions and not suppress them, and find things to do to fill the time he would have been spending with his ex. I’m not speculating on her motives, or trying to give him advice about anything beyond, communication and listening. He wants to stay friends with her, if that’s possible.
Is there anything else? I want him to not hate her. Angry, ok, that’s fine, but I want him to understand that often relationships just change too much for people to stay together. I want them to be able to be friends if it’s possible.
It doesn’t help that we live in an area that it’s hard for nerdy folks to find each other, and both of them are pretty nerdy.
DEAR NERD MOM: I’m sorry that your son’s going through this, NM. The first breakup is always the hardest, in no small part because you have no idea what to expect. It can feel like the end of your entire world, especially when you’re 17 and everything feels like it’s of Earth-shattering importance.
When it comes to trying to support him and help him through this… well, this is good news/bad news sort of situation. The bad news is that he’s probably not going to listen to you or believe you. After all, part of the prerogative of the young is to believe that they invented love, dating, relationships and the like; there’s no way an Old like us could possibly understand how they feel.
The good news is: he’ll still hear what you’re saying. And even if he doesn’t accept it now, it’ll still sink in.
So, off the bat, I want to let you know: you’ve been giving him all the right advice. The best thing he can do right now is give himself space and time to feel the f--k out of his feels and let himself be sad and upset about this. A relationship ended; that’s something that should be mourned. Similarly, prioritizing things that make him feel better — not “less sad” but make him feel like he’s doing positive things for himself and his life is an important part of recovering from a breakup. This is why one of the things I tell people who’re having a hard time after a breakup is to work on themselves. Sometimes that means hitting the gym and getting in shape. Other times, that means using that pain as fuel for other activities; maybe this is a time for him to throw himself into a new hobby or attack some dream or goal he’s had. Reconnecting with friends and making sure he has a solid team supporting him is also important. It’s a reminder that even though this all sucks, he’s still got people in his life who love and care for him and have his back. All that is going to be key to beating back that feeling of “why am I such a loser” or “she broke up with me and that means nobody could love me or care for me.”
But the next thing I tell people is possibly the most important: he needs distance and space from her. I understand that he wants to stay friends; that’s a noble goal and it speaks well of him… assuming that he means it. But he can’t be friends with her right now. The pain is going to be too present, the wounds too fresh, and he’s still going to be in the same mindset of when he was dating her. He still has the patterns he developed while he was in a relationship with her, and he’s going to fall back into those without thinking. But those patterns were for a person and a time that no longer exists; falling back into them will be akin to someone forgetting that they lost a limb and reaching out with the phantom arm they no longer have. He’s going to need that time apart — without contact — so that he can reset things and come to friendship with her as a new relationship, rather than carrying the expectations of the old.
This is one of the reasons why I advocate taking the Nuclear Option — where you unfollow, mute or block your ex on social media, delete their number and texts and otherwise excise them from your life. You need that time away from them, and it can be entirely too easy to fail your Wisdom save and try to get back in contact before you’re ready. Just as importantly though, is that blocking or unfollowing her on social media means that he isn’t getting served up reminders that he’s been dumped every time he looks at his phone. Breakups are hard enough; when you’re constantly having your ex thrown into your face, it’s even harder. It’s bad enough when you’re tempted to look up her Instagram or TikTok to see what she’s up to or if she’s dating someone else yet. It’s even worse when it just comes to you through your notifications. By muting and unfollowing her, even if he doesn’t actually unfollow or block her, then he’s protecting himself from the pain. He’s also putting an extra barrier between him and checking her relationship status; it won’t prevent him from looking if he’s determined, but each extra step makes it easier to resist the impulse.
But the one thing I think he needs to hear most is, likely, the thing that he’ll believe least: “this too, shall pass”. It’s easy to look back on our breakups with the benefit of hindsight and know that yeah, we got over it. But when you’re in the middle of it — especially when its your first and you’re soaking in a stew of hormonal chaos, as all teenagers are — it feels like this is what the rest of your life will be like. Letting him know that this pain is temporary, that it will fade and he will feel better is important. He won’t listen. He’ll be convinced you have no idea what he’s going through. He’ll swear up and down that this loss is too great and this pain is eternal. But it will fade. He will feel better. And that’ll be ok.
As a wise man once said: “You grieve. Then you continue with your life. And at times the fact of her absence will hit you like a blow to the chest, and you will weep. But this will happen less and less as time goes on.” It sounds a little cold, but it’s true; the pain will ease. It always does. You just have to keep moving forward and keep finding reasons to move on with your life while you wait. Time is the great healer, whether we realize it or not.
You’re doing a good job NM. Your son’s gonna be fine, especially with you in his corner.
Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, email@example.com