Writing (and Actually Sending!) Your Ex a Letter Is the Only Way to Get Over a Breakup

a letter sealed with a waxy red heart
The Self-Indulgent Art of the Post-Breakup LetterKhadija Horton/Getty Images

I woke up too early on June 17th, 2014, the way you do the morning after a grief-striking breakup does its thing and leaves you too sad to sleep in. Not that you really wanted to fall asleep in the first place because, tempting as the reprieve of unconsciousness may seem, you know that drifting off to dreamland means you’ll just have to wake up and remember—remember the bad news and the cold voice on the phone, the aching hole the person who casually left your life last night forgot to close on their way out and the nauseating infection you can already feel festering in there. So it’s probably for the best that you’re up early anyway. Because if you’re going to have to wake up and remember all that, you might as well get it over with as soon as possible.

Anyway, that’s how I woke up that day ten years ago, sad and sweaty in my un-air-conditioned childhood bedroom. Outside, the sun had yet to burn off a wet, grey morning sky and inside a sick, summery dampness was seeping in through the walls and the floorboards and swelling my bedroom door to the point that it couldn’t fit inside its frame. As for me, I quite simply didn’t know what to do with myself. I was 17 and had just suffered my first real, life-changing, blindsiding heartbreak and had found the experience, in a word, eviscerating.

So I did the only thing I’ve ever actually known how to do: write. (The rumors are true, I have exactly one skill and, fortunately, it has somehow worked out for me so far.) But I didn’t write a diary entry or a bad poem or even a navel-gazey personal essay. Instead, I found myself writing a letter. Specifically, a letter to the boy who had very coolly informed me that my services as his girlfriend were no longer required on the phone the night before.

The letter starts: “[Name redacted—because, to be honest, his name is still one I don’t even like to think], Suffice to say I was surprised. Never once did I think things between us would end the way they did last night.” It ends: “If at any point in your life you find yourself wanting to know that someone once loved you, you are welcome to think of my name. Formerly yours, Kayla A. Kibbe,” because I was only slightly more dramatic at 17 than I am today at 27.

Then I tore out the sheets of notebook paper on which I’d scrawled this teenage missive, took photos of each page for posterity, and slipped it into an envelope addressed to his much-nicer-than-my-house home—where he was probably sleeping soundly in an air-conditioned bedroom. For a bit of added flair, I tossed in the broken necklace he’d given me for my birthday—which I’d ripped off my neck in histrionic fashion and flung across the room the night before—and sealed it all up.

And then…No, I didn’t rip it to shreds or burn it or cast it into the ocean in some kind of cathartic cleansing ritual. I sent it. Well, okay, honestly, first the letter sat on my bookshelf for, like, three weeks while I waited to make sure he was never coming back. But then! I drove to the post office, took a breath, dropped it in the mailbox, and felt something resembling relief for the first time in nearly a month.

Truthfully, it took years before I actually “got over” that breakup (and if you ask my therapist, there are parts of me that never did—oh well!). But writing and sending the letter did help me create some kind of closure for myself that this world and that boy weren’t going to give me. Not only did it allow me to have some semblance of a last word, to take some kind of action in a situation that had otherwise rendered me powerless, but the act of physically dropping that letter into the mailbox had a satisfying kind of finality to it. It’s done now. You can—if not heal—at least move on.

In the decade since, I’ve sent what I’ve taken to calling “post-breakup letters” after each of my significant heartbreaks, and it’s become a crucial part of my healing process. There’s a lot you can do with a letter that you can’t do with other kinds of post-split messages, like that 3 a.m. “I miss you” text. (Don’t send that.) First of all, it gives you the time and space to process and express the many complicated feelings that tend to devolve into anger or tears or silence in the heat of the moment when most relationships meet their demise. Moreover, the finality of mailing a physical letter also has the potential to provide the kind of closure we often seek and usually fail to find when we inevitably reach back out to an ex via text or drunk dial them from the bathroom floor of the bar (just me?).

It’s also a bit of an emotionally safer option in that, unlike a call or a text message, a physical, mailed letter doesn’t really demand a response, so it enables you to reach out and say the things you need to say without the heartbreak-compounding risk of getting left on read or sent to voicemail, all while remaining (at least somewhat) respectful of your ex’s time and space. A hand-written letter isn’t going to pop up on someone’s phone while they’re just trying to answer a work email or watch Netflix on the treadmill.

Not to mention, both the physical nature of a letter and the unusual (read: unhinged) act of actually sending one in this, the age of technology, have a way of leaving a lasting mark on the former relationship—which, if you are someone like me who simply refuses to be forgotten by an ex-lover, is sort of selfishly comforting in a Taylor Swift-coded, “Say you’ll remember me” kinda way. We may not all have the levels of talent and fame required to immortalize a fallen love affair on the public stage, but we do have the ability to turn pain into something beautiful, or at least tangible—something an ex can hold in their hands even after the memories have faded and they’ve forgotten the sound of your voice and the smell of your skin.

Anyway, I have no way of knowing what these exes have actually done with my letters—or, in most cases, if they ever even received them. Still, I hope they’ve kept them (as I have theirs, on the few occasions I’ve received one in return). Even if they haven’t, I can’t help but find some self-indulgent peace in the idea that my long-lost lovers have held, if not me, at least my words in their hands one last time—that they’ve seen my literal signature signing off at the end of our love story just to say, Please know that, in spite of everything, you have touched my life in many gorgeous ways.

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