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2023

Don’t text your ex: inside the booming industry of ‘breakup experts’

In 2015, months after a breakup with his long-term partner, Adam (not his real name) found himself stuck. He couldn’t eat or sleep or even maintain focus, and he was worried that his lethargy was having an impact on his professional life. He didn’t feel comfortable discussing his emotional state with his friends, many of whom were shared with his ex.

Adam had been in both personal and couples therapy for years, as his emotional and sexual connection with his partner sputtered, and he was already suitably in touch with both self-conscious motivation and the particular issues that dogged his last relationship. But what he really wanted was an expert in heartbreak, someone who could guide him through the process and help him regain his confidence. And so he called on Natalia Juarez, a “breakup expert and dating strategist” based in Toronto.

Over six months, Adam paid C$2,500 to Juarez, as she encouraged him to start working out, build a new social circle and study mindfulness. “[Natalia] encouraged me to grieve my relationship and to allow myself to feel my feelings,” says Adam. “Eventually, she encouraged me to appreciate how I had grown from the relationship and the breakup. That’s when I knew I had healed.”

Juarez, who does much of her therapy over email and Skype, has become a bit of a one-stop shop for the broken-hearted. In addition to breakup coaching, which includes 24-hour social media support, Juarez will guide clients through a post-breakup home cleanse, work as an intermediary when it comes to the painful exchange of once-shared goods, and will even help clients secure transitional housing.

Juarez also offers a 10-page guide to calling off a wedding – something she is intimately familiar with having experienced her own painful broken engagement. (The guide includes tips on how to deal with guilt and shame, the etiquette of notifying guests, and how to get a refund on deposits.) Juarez even crafts playlists for her clients based on what she identifies as the three key emotional phases of a breakup: “weepy/teary”, “the fire” and “empowerment and peace”.

This kind of therapy is part of a new niche being carved out by ambitious entrepreneurs offering to help with healing a broken heart. A Canadian “relationship expert” recently launched Renew Breakup Bootcamp, a three-day program that promises to gently move participants through the stages of mourning and detachment. Mend is a new app and online community that encourages journaling and “detoxing from your ex”. There’s even an indulgent little Breakup Box that can be sent to the lovelorn in your life; it’s full of treats like a scented candle, vegan bath salts, Lindt chocolates and, somewhat inexplicably, hot pink hand towels.

In other words, the unpleasant work of dumping or being dumped has turned into a booming cottage industry that stands as a very clear response to our modern world. As we race between meetings, attached to our devices and digital world in our increasingly alienated and decreasingly monogamous lives, severing a relationship in a healing way has become the next frontier in the self-care movement. Call it the “holistic breakup”, with a growing list of practitioners who are part therapist, part yoga teacher, part nutritionist and part Ted talk.

For Amy Chan, the idea for Renew Breakup Bootcamp was born of a broken heart.

Five years ago, she was living in Vancouver and preparing for a lifelong future with her first love – until he suddenly broke things off. Chan struggled to reconceive her individual identity and was thrown into a lengthy bout of depression. She couldn’t eat and subsisted on delivery-service green juices as she watched her weight drop by 20lb. In her bid to heal both heart and mind, she tried reiki, therapy and a yoga retreat in Mexico. “I looked for something specifically targeted to breakups, but there was nothing,” she says. “I wasn’t able to find anything that helped me process this anger or deep sadness. I couldn’t understand what was happening to me.”

Chan eventually became conscious of the post-breakup period as a pivotal moment for change. And thus, Renew was conceived as an immersive weekend retreat on a “luxury farm” in upstate New York. The program includes two nights’ accommodation, organic food prepared by an onsite chef, meditation and yoga classes, and various workshops dedicated to detaching and healing.

“I really want to help women at this time in their lives when they can be in a downward spiral and become very jaded or they can use it to build the next chapter of their life and start a positive momentum,” says Chan. “When I went through my breakup, I got a lot of bad advice. There was a rallying of hate and talk about how [my ex] was ‘such an asshole’. It’s such a negative charge, and it makes you head into a negative spiral.”

On the Renew website, the pictures reveal women sitting cross-legged in cozy living spaces with slate floors and wood-burning fireplaces. Writing in New York Magazine, Lisa Ryan – who attended the first Renew session last winter – noted that some women chopped wood to get out their anger, while others tried acupuncture to help them relax. There’s also a yurt and some friendly free-range alpacas.

The costs of such pastoral therapy aren’t cheap: Renew costs US$1,500 for a private room and US$1,000 for a shared room. But for Rachel (not her real name), the investment in what she calls “heartbreak rehab” was worth it. “Doing yoga in a yurt and meditating isn’t everyone’s cup of tea,” she says, “but the personal stories really resonated with me. The deep despair I felt was echoed back to me, and I left feeling more hopeful that I was going to get through this.”

If you’d rather use an app to get over your ex, Mend is “your personal trainer for heartbreak” – it sends you upbeat and supportive daily prompts. In the form of an attractive female avatar (the app’s founder, Elle Huerte), Mend will ask how you’re doing and then provide some helpful tips on why you might have trouble sleeping or eating and what you can do better. Mend sends users relevant articles, explains the science behind how you’re feeling and encourages you to journal your thoughts.

After a 28-day “Heartbreak Cleanse”, Mend users graduate to a personalized Moving On program that focuses on “redefining your sense of self and rebuilding a life you love”.

Melody Stone, a 31-year-old user in Reno, Nevada who recently ended an 11-year marriage, says that Mend has been a comfort. “It reminds me that I’m not alone and that my feelings aren’t abnormal,” she says. “I look at it every morning while I drink my coffee, and it gives me some really concrete tips for dealing with things.”

Huerte, who formerly worked at Google, wanted her breakup aid to reflect our increasing tendency to engage online and through devices. “Technology is changing the way we do everything in our lives: the way we eat, the way we get from point A to point B, the way we fall in love,” says Huerte. “So when I went through a bad breakup and saw how awful the support was, my first instinct was to think about how it could be reinvented.”

Mend can also be a distraction from doing what you shouldn’t do: look up your former partner’s social media updates. At Renew, Juarez says that she makes herself available to her clients at all hours precisely because they’re often vulnerable to a social media-induced downward spiral. “Social media really keeps the past present,” she says. “I know what it’s like when it’s 10pm and you find out something you can’t let go of.”

Letting go and accepting change is often difficult, so what does it mean to strive for something better when a relationship comes apart at the seams? A successful breakup, after all, can’t reasonably be defined as the absence of pain.

“A healthy breakup is when one or both people can end the relationship with the respect that it deserves and they can view it as an opportunity for growth,” says Elisabeth LaMotte, a psychotherapist in Washington DC. “If you can honestly reflect on what you learned in this relationship, how you grew, what part you had in why it didn’t work and what you would do differently. That is a way to go through and come out stronger on the other side.”

LaMotte notes that, for many people who are newly single, the hardest part to process is the loss of identity as a person in a relationship. “The stronger you are and the healthier you are and the higher your self-esteem [is], the better positioned you are to choose relationships from a place of strength,” she says.

Juarez, Chan and Huerte all offer services that aim to do just this; they want to be a pal and to provide the tools for self-reflection and personal growth – often wrapped up in an soft blanket of meditation, daily step targets and organic vegetables.

But it can be hard to treat a breakup as a teachable moment. And so, if life gets too complicated and you’re not super keen on therapeutic yoga with alpacas, you can use The Breakup Shop, a service in Toronto that will sever ties with someone on your behalf.

Founded by two brothers, Mackenzie and Evan, who believe “everyone deserves to be single”, The Breakup Shop will send a text message for a small fee: “We regret to inform you that [name] is breaking up with you. Although you’ve had a good run and shared some great memories along the way, it’s time to move on.”