You Need Help: Starting Over at Thirtysomething

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Q. I have an all-consuming need for advice re: starting over again in your 30s. It’s been five years and a mortgage since my last break up, and I don’t know how to survive this one as a person who mostly feels vaguely adult-ish. I’m moving back into a share house and buying IKEA furniture so, while I kind of feel like I’m unwillingly living like a college kid again, drinking too much and sleeping around doesn’t seem like it’ll make me feel any better this time (totes did last break up when I was 23, no judgement!) So instead I’m just wandering around lost and weepy and hoping it really does get better. How do I get from this to happy, functioning human being when I just want to be back in my veggie garden with my partner drinking tea and talking about politics?

A: Hello.

It gets better. Really, it does.

If you feel like binge drinking and sleeping around won’t be the secret to bouncing back quickly, I think go ahead and trust your gut on that. You’re probably right.

If there was advice that I wish I’d received two years ago when my relationship with my long-term live-in partner began dissolving and I eventually became homeless, cat-less, best friend-less, broke, and the mortified new owner of a single bed crammed into my 76-year-old great aunt’s home study, it would be to give myself plenty of time and space to mourn before charging ahead into the future. Even though in my case, losing it all was voluntary; it was The Right Thing To Do and The Best For All Involved. You can still grieve something that you don’t want back.

So you might be lost and weepy for some time yet, and I think it’s fine. Be sad about losing the best parts of what you had because they meant something, they helped shape who you are right now. But also give yourself a deadline. Pick a date in the not-so-distant future where you’ll make every effort to stop grieving what you’ve lost and start focusing on everything you have to gain. Which is so much! There’s a whole new world waiting for you and it’s filled with rad people and adventures. It’s exciting, trust me.

In the meantime, see if you can find a balance between sadness and survival mode. Meeting your basic human needs should be a priority, obviously. Keep building those IKEA flat-packs until you’ve built a new home. But remember your emotional needs, too; pushing them aside isn’t the secret to finding your feet in an adult-like fashion. Starting over is one of the loneliest, scariest things. If you keep a brave face then people may not think to ask whether you’re okay, and getting through this alone is tough.

As for fulfilling alternatives to binge drinking and sleeping around, here are suggestions based on what worked for me. They may or may not work for you but hopefully they’ll at least inspire some new ideas.

  1. Try to let go of the idea that this is starting over. It’s not. I mean, sure, you’re back to Square One romantically and residentially and even agriculturally. But you’re still you! You had a good thing going before your partner came onto the scene. This is a swell time to reconnect with what/who that is, exactly. Right now you probably have a fuckton of ‘You Time’, or at least more than you did when you were part of a cohabiting couple. You’re free to make your own decisions and plan your own day without factoring in another human’s needs or preferences. If you can get past the fact that this isn’t what you wanted, you’ll see that you’ve got some perfect conditions for some soul-searching. Take advantage of the extra headspace and explore what independent thirtysomething you is all about.
  2. Don’t fight your reality. The sooner you embrace your current life situation, the quicker you’ll able to spot the silver lining. Your IKEA furniture? It comes with 99c cinnamon buns. Your share house? It (hopefully) comes with interesting stories and new friends. Feel free to keep yearning for tea and politics in the veggie garden but start working on accepting that soon, it’s gonna be with someone else.
  3. Start doing the things that you were unable and/or unmotivated to do when living with your ex. Binge the TV show they hated. Accept every social invitation. Learn to cook the foods they were allergic to. Do some part-time schooling. Save up to visit destinations they weren’t interested in. Reconnect with exes. Quit smoking, join a gym, block their ignorant co-workers on social media. Start projects, see what challenges and inspires you. Spend your Sundays discovering new hobbies instead of grocery shopping.

Also, remember that adulthood isn’t about having a relationship and a mortgage. It can mean lots of different things to different people but I think it’s mostly about taking control and responsibility for your life — no matter what that life looks like. Having a failed relationship and building furniture with Allen keys has no correlation to your maturity and ability to be good at life. You’re doing the best with what you have, and I hope it’s not long before you can start to feel proud of it.


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Crystal is a 33-year-old Australian living in Chicago. Founding member, does HR stuff, writes now and then.

Crystal has written 329 articles for us.

40 Comments

  1. “Try to let go of the idea that this is starting over.” This is such a gem. It really does feel like starting over (and yeah, sometimes that’s what you actually want to do?) but you now have knapsack full of all of the wisdom and strength and amazingness of everything you’ve learned. There are diamonds in there.

    When my life fell apart I (finally) learned to drive, did teacher training and leaped into a whole new hobby that is now how I earn my living. I did those things for all the wrong reasons (i.e. because I had something to prove) but hey, they gave me a sense of purpose and worth and got me through.

  2. Learn a language or an instrument.Maybe even Tai Chi or Yoga.Learn to sew and make a Cosplay costume, whatever strange little idea you ever had.
    That way you get to discover something new, something new about yourself,shape that new self and whenever you start having too much time on your hands, there’s always something to study/practice.
    And another plus: You won’t remember this time as “That time I was really miserable.” but instead as “Yeah, back when I was really miserable and started learning sign language.Check it out, this is “turtle”!”

  3. This is relevant to me now as my partner of 6 years (well, 5 years and 392 days) broke up with me yesterday out of the blue. She told me she loves me but cant promise that she will stay with me for ever (I never expected that, btw). Because she could not be 100% sure if I am THE one until she dies. But she still loves me. But doenst want to hurt me in a few years when she eventually will find out that her feelings wont be enough anymore. So she cuts it off right now. It’s strange. I feel lied to and like I ade the last six years up.
    How am I gonna get out of this mess?

    • I’m so so sorry. My breakup in April was eerily similar.

      It’s so hard to have your future wiped clean of a major factor you had always included when you thought of those potentials.

      You will be okay though. You’ve got this. Just keep drinking lots of water and eating food and seeing friends and crying alone and reading books and watching stupid Netflix shows and riding your bike and cleaning your house, and soon some time will pass and you will find that new things feel easier and new ideas of the future seem exciting.

      • Thank you, stranger with a similar experience.
        I do try to drink more (it’s very hot here in Germany right now) and even ate something an hour ago (yay to me). Cried a lot (ten min ago was the latest wave). can imagine reading books right now, too much attention for now.
        But Netflix works well.
        Thanks a lot – it helps very much to read about people who got out of the house of hurt alive. (yeah, that was theatrical)
        The brokenhearded will be whole one day soon.

    • I’m so sorry to hear that you are going through this. I hope you’re being kind to yourself, as kind as you can be when you feel this bad. I had a breakup completely shock me about a year ago, and I had never gone through anything like that before, not even the death of my dad hurt me so badly.

      For me, I thought everything was my fault and it took me until just recently to be able to forgive myself for my mistakes and hold my ex accountable for her mistakes. (Not at all close to forgiving her, TBH, and I don’t really care.)

      It really helped me to read internet strangers say that things get better, so I’m going to say it. Things get better. Two things that really helped me: an app for iPhone called Unbreak Your Heart. It’s the worst designed app on the planet but the meditation for falling asleep was perfect for some reason. It kept me from laying awake sobbing night after night (not that I didn’t do a lot of crying in bed at all other times).

      I also watched every episode of The Good Wife. I’m sure any engrossing TV show will do, but The Good Wife wasn’t too funny, wasn’t too sad, wasn’t too relatable but it had engrossing characters and got me hooked. From here on out it’s going to be the show I recommend to those going through a breakup.

      Hope things feel better tomorrow, and the day after that, until one day you’re able to stop asking “why did this happen?” I am so grateful to have made it this far, even though occasionally I still lose my way.

      • Thank you so much for your help, Lady H!
        Today would’ve been our 6th anniversary. Well, she comes over in 20 Minutes to give me all my stuff and I’ll give her hers. Because of a job situation we didn’t live together for a year.
        Holy MF, it’s hard. I feel a lot of different things everyday. But even also happiness and thankfulness.
        I want to cling onto that instead of disappointment, rage or deep sadness.
        I will try to be a good person when we meet in 20 minutes.
        Thanks for your advice, I’ll check the app 😉

    • Typo? There are only 365 days in the year…anyway….you take it one day at a time. I remember what it felt like to have the rug pulled out from under me. It drove me into a deep depression that landed me in therapy and on antidepressants & Xanax

      • Hi Aura, thanks. I meant 352 days, indeed. Which makes this day our 6th anniversary. Strange feeling. I think I managed to let go a bit the past few days and hope I won’t have to deal with depression afterwards. Good luck to you.

    • Hi Jess. This is a really shitty situation! I’m so sorry you’re going through it.

      I think everyone has had really good suggestions here.
      One thing I would add: I learned a year ago while going through one of the most painful experiences of my life that the best thing you can do while you’re going through the pain is actually go through it. Let yourself feel the feelings you’re feeling and don’t try to shield yourself from it, because sooner or later you’re going to have to deal with them, and better when it’s fresh and not buried under a years of other stuff.

      I’d compare this to if you get a back injury : you can go to the chiropractor and physio now and it’ll hurt and maybe be expensive but you’ll get that shit dealt with and move on with your life and walk OK. Or you can leave it and develop all kinds of weird compensation problems in other parts of your body, and deal with the problem in 10 years – when it’s a lot more complicated and painful to do so.

      This doesn’t mean totally drowning in the drama ofthe emotion and only listening to heartbreak songs and never getting out of your pyjamas for months – maybe you need to do those things for a while but what I mean is, just breathe through all those feelings and let them move through you. I’d recommend doing lot ls or breathing exercises, possibly writing and maybe meditation if that’s something you’re into.

      And, exercise! And fresh air. And old pals. And doing new things. Good luck!

      • Hi Alice, you’re one of the best advice givers. Really. And I do let it all out. I cry. A lot. I’m sad, angry, disappointed, pointless, harsh, pittyful, whiny, smashed, relieved, hopeful and hopeless all at the same time.

        Today would’ve been our 6th anniversary. Well, she comes over in 20 Minutes to give me all my stuff and I’ll give her hers. Because of a job situation we didn’t live together for a year.
        Holy MF, it’s hard. I feel a lot of different things everyday. But even also happiness and thankfulness.
        I want to cling onto that instead of disappointment, rage or deep sadness.
        I hope I can meet her with a strong soul and good intention. Not only for her but because I feel better with good intention and I don’t want to be a person who will blame the other or want to shock her with my mad condition.
        It’s not because I want to protect her. But I hope it makes me stronger to react respectable and not as if I#m the lost one here. I don’t want to make it a hierarchy thing here. I hope I’ll succeed…. I’m trembling by the thought of here ringing my doorbell any minute.

        Gosh, I hope it’s over soon and i can feel whole again.
        Thanks a lot, Alice.

  4. I hate how relevant this is to my life. It’s been almost two months, but I’m going to be living in a different country for 9 months starting in 4 weeks so whether I’m ready or not, I do have a deadline to let things go and then face the most radical change in my life alone.

    • I feel you, I am going to be moving to a new city in 44 days, so I too have a built in deadline. Enjoy your time in the new country! You are going to learn so many new things about yourself and others. You’ve got this.

      • Thanks 🙂 Having the craziest upheavals happen all at once will probably be a blessing in disguise because this is going to force me to move on both literally and emotionally.

        I hope things go well for you too. One of the biggest things helping me through all this is knowing that I’m not alone, and that there’s always someone better in the future.

  5. I feel you,and this super sucks. While I still have my house, kitties, and job, I was also recently diagnosed with an autoimmune disease that has totally destroyed my quality of life and broken up with my gf of 5 years (not totally unrelated situations).
    What absolutely did not help was people suggesting I should be grateful for what I have, sending me articles on mindfulness and how gluten free diets cure depression, and rattling off different versions of “cheer up!”
    What did help was remembering that I’m not obligated to put on a happy face for the sake of anyone else’s comfort. I established a pattern of mild wallowing, doing exactly what I wanted to do alone, and completing only the most basic obligatory functions otherwise (going to work or the doctor’s office). And while that doesn’t sound like the healthiest advice,doing whatever the fuck I wanted and allowing myself to grieve a little reminded me who I am and helped me re-learn to like being alone.
    Do whatever you need to do to be okay and get through tomorrow. Be a little selfish as long as it isn’t hurting you or someone else.

    • Autoimmune buddies!! Sad to hear that you’ve joined the club, but sometimes your immune system is an overexcited ninja force that accidentally cirrhosised your liver. But don’t worry, we have snacks!!

  6. When my wife cheated on me and left me (boo hiss) it was awful. And actually one of the worst parts (apart from the obvious) was feeling like I wasn’t in control of any of it. One minute I was happy and the next the life and home I had spent years building had fallen down around me. There was nothing I could do to get any of it back. So I set myself goals and fulfilled them to the best of my ability – wake up in the morning and decide to go to the gym and actually go to the gym even though I cried all the way there, all the way through the work out and all the way back.

    Also I recorded all the good moments/days that happened in a little chart. So when I couldn’t breathe and couldn’t stop crying and couldn’t stop feeling like everything was broken, I could look at my chart and remember that oh hey, three days ago I felt like I might be ok. Even though I had one of those days every fortnight or every week, the fact that I had noted it was super helpful.

    I know how much it sucks, how much it will suck for a long while to come. I’m in love with someone new and they’re great and it still freaking sucks at least a little bit every day. But my life is starting to look pretty great and I don’t want to sit in the garden and drink tea with my cuntbag of an ex anymore, so that’s something.

  7. This is so absurdly relevant right now. This house is being sold, the last fight about money is right around the corner, then followed by the waiting game for the divorce to be finalized.

    My new apartment is home though (annoying dogs in adjacent apartments and all), and just a couple of days ago I bought a new piece of art for my bedroom. It is titled: Self Love. It will be a reminder of what I try to do every day.

  8. Grief is a funny thing. It doesn’t necessarily follow a timetable. You can go days or weeks or months feeling just fine when suddenly it hits you out of the blue, and you find yourself crying into your dishwater.

    That’s okay. Let yourself grieve however you must.

    I recently read a quote that I think might resonate well with you: “I have always been becoming what I am right now.” (from an essay in Gender Outlaws) This relationship that just ended will always be a part of you now. It will be a part of you while you’re single, it will be a part of you when you’re with your next partner (if there is one), and the one after that (if there is one). Another good quote: “Don’t insist on permanence. Don’t discount a moment because of impermanence.” (from the unlikely source of a book about fear of flying called SOAR)

    The things you learned in this relationship, and through this breakup, will be part of what makes you who you are for the rest of your life. And I think that is beautiful.

    • While this is absolutely true, in the weeks after my wife left me, I wanted to punch in the face anyone who said any iteration of ‘she will always be a part of you’ or ‘you’ll grow from this experience’. I especially wanted to punch the person who said ‘it only hurts this much because the relationship was real, because the love was so important’.

      I was like nah man, this pain is senseless, useless. The only reason it’s here at all is because I married a fucking selfish, manipulative liar. And I’m not comforted by the idea that the relationship will stay with me – I really do wish it had never happened at all, that she had never happened to me. When I am the most upset, I am grieving for the joyful, trusting parts of me that she stamped out – not for her and not for the relationship itself.

      Obvs, I have anger issues but I guess while it is important to let yourself grieve, it’s also important to let yourself feel angry as all fuck and you don’t have to ‘treasure the memories’ or grow from the experience. You were already excellent and fuck them if they didn’t see it. You can declare this experience bankrupt and throw it away entirely.

      • You’re right, it’s completely valid to be angry! And I know when my brother’s fiancee passed away, similar statements (especially anything that smacked of “everything happens for a reason”) were not very helpful.

        Thanks for putting in your perspective 🙂

  9. I survived one of this horrendous,heart breaking, life isn’t worth living break ups. It’s different for everyone but here’s what helped me:
    Make a list of everything you don’t like about your ex, my friends happily helped with that. Later you can remember the good but now probably isn’t that time
    Make a list of everything you like about yourself
    Try to accept friends requests to go out
    Make a playlist of songs that are upbeat and don’t make you think of your ex, it’s a good mood boost when you feel like crying at work
    Therapy
    Do a challenge, achieve something to prove how cool you are. I did a charity walk and it made me feel much better about myself.

  10. This is a great topic and great response. Thank you, Crystal.

    One thing that I’ve realized after a very painful breakup was that it doesn’t mean something is inherently wrong with me (or the other person). I always took breakups so personally.

    My self talk was outrageous: What could I have done differently? Was I ever “the one,” or just a holding place? Why am I not allowed to have this “happily ever after” that Disney tells every young girl that she can have? I’m nothing with out my Princess Charming!!!

    While it is very painful to come to terms that a relationship is over, it doesn’t have to mean that something went wrong. People change. I’m certainly not who I was a few years ago. I’ve grown so much due to both f*cking fantastic and traumatic life changes that I didn’t have a choice in experiencing. With each experience, there a several ways to grow. This growth doesn’t have to be labeled as “good” or “bad.” It just is. More than likely, every partnership will experience SOMETHING in life that evokes change in both people. This could be getting the apartment ransacked, a miscarriage, a gambling addiction, a kicka$$ job promotion, a religious conversion, or a really horrible f*cking haircut. Whatever the stimulus, it will evoke change. Maybe the couple changes in the same direction, and maybe not. Maybe this event will cause the couple to grow in very different directions and want new things. Again, this isn’t “good” or “bad. It just is.

    So while I try to limit telling someone to “look on the bright side,” I do tell friends, family, and myself that when we have been presented with new (and sometimes painful) challenges, we are going to grow. It won’t be obvious at first. Usually you realize your growth after some time and you think, “whoa! I haven’t done that in a while!” Maybe someone else will notice. And maybe, just maybe, you will wear that “new you” like an accessory when you’re out one day … and totally attract a “new” someone else.

  11. I am also feeling this as helpful. Last night (while I am in Yucatan, Mexico) I got a message from the person who was supposed to be my family (non-romantically), with whom I’ve lived for two years, who “co-parents” my cat, with whom I’ve built an actual home in which I feel comfortable and safe for the first time since leaving the home I grew up with, telling me he wants to move out.

    thanks, it is almost always comforting to know you are not alone.

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