Ovid’s 38 recommendations for getting over a breakup

We have Instagram, they had frescoes. Photo illustration Princeton University Press. Image: Portrait of Terentius Neo and his wife, from Pompeii. c. 50AD. Fresco. Wikimedia Commons.

Ovid’s 38 recommendations for getting over a breakup

By Michael Fontaine

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Trigger warning: suicide

Ever gone through a breakup? You’re not alone. The statistics are messy but in the U.S., it seems 40-50% of first marriages end in divorce. That rate is going down, but only because the marriage rate is going down even faster. Alas, it goes way up for subsequent marriages. For second marriages, the divorce rate is allegedly 67% and for third marriages, a whopping 75%. And for dating relationships, of course—where breakups are the rule rather than the exception—it approaches 100%. We’ve all been there.

Breakups are common, then, but that doesn’t make them any less painful—especially when they’re not our choice. Breaking up means all kinds of relationships come to an end or change. Babies will not be born and futures we had dreamed of will never happen. Practical problems ensue, too, since we sometimes need all new friends or a new place to live.

Breakups can play games with our mind, too, and make us weird. Studies suggest virtually everyone stalks their ex on social media. 

Feelings of grief are common. They can be as profound and overwhelming as when a loved one dies, but unlike after a funeral, we’re expected to carry on at work as if nothing happened. 

Feelings of despair are common, too, and can be dangerous. As Paul Skallas has pointed out, post-breakup suicide is a real risk. He cites the case of Anthony Bourdain, the wildly popular celebrity chef who took his life a day after photos surfaced of his girlfriend with another man. 

In the year 1 CE, the Roman poet Ovid published a poem titled Remedies for Love, and it suggests that relationships haven’t changed much in two thousand years. Of all the books in the Ancient Wisdom for Modern Readers series, Ovid’s text comes closest to living up to the contemporary title I’ve given it, How to Get Over a Breakup. His poem is the only explicit self-help manual to reach us from antiquity. In it, Ovid offers 38 practical strategies for coping with unrequited love or a painful breakup, and—what’s most unusual—he writes for women and men alike. Just reverse gender as needed, he advises us. And one of the very first points Ovid makes is the risk of suicide:

Why have some men in love turned a lasso into a necktie? And, sad sacks that they are, hung themselves from a high beam? Why have some men in love stabbed themselves in the chest with a knife thrust?

The answer, Ovid tells Love (Cupid) to his face, is Love itself: “Well, Mr. ‘I-Promote-Peace,’ You’re getting blamed for their deaths!”

Ovid distributes his 38 recommendations throughout his poem. For How to Get Over a Breakup, I’ve gathered and numbered them as an appendix. I’ve also added a few words to bridge the gap between Ovid’s time and our own and to give the recommendations an immediacy that may help you. Because technology sure has moved on from ancient Rome, but the human heart and human relations remain as tricky as ever.

It’s noteworthy that Ovid does not recommend pills or drugs to “treat” getting dumped. On the contrary, if you’ve ever tried Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), some of his coping strategies will look startlingly familiar. If so, that’s probably because Ovid took them from Stoicism, the pagan philosophy widely cultivated in ancient Rome that was eventually revived and reborn as CBT in the last century. 

And with that, here they are: Ovid’s 38 recommendations for coping with unrequited love and moving on. Remember, they’re good for men and women alike—just make the necessary changes.

  1. Never have “nothing to do.” In other words, keep yourself occupied at all times.
  2. Go out and fight on campaign—wearing a toga, downtown. In plain English, become a lawyer.
  3. Heed the call of duty. That is, join the army.
  4. Farm life can easily fix any fixation you have. Get out of the city and back to nature, because “farmacology” beats pharmacology.
  5. Venus has often turned tail and shamefully fled after Diana prevails! In other words, cultivate an outdoor hobby: take up hunting or fishing or bird catching.
  6. Get out and go far away. Take a long trip out of town. Out of sight, out of mind…
  7. Place not your faith in spells, abracadabras, and charms. Spells, magic, tarot, crystals—avoid it all. It’s bunkum.
  8. Fixate on all that you lost, fixate on all that she cost.Count up all the money and emotion you invested in the relationship, and you’ll feel resentment grow. Imprudent, but effective.
  9. Minimize and belittle your ex’s best features. Tell yourself your ex is nowhere near as attractive or talented as you thought, especially if it’s not true. 
  10. Go in the morning and drop in on her, all unannounced. Catching your ladylove without makeup gives you an unfiltered view of reality.
  11. Go hump a random girl first. A prophylactic release will reduce desire for your real love. Crass, evil, but presumably effective in the short term.
  12. Adopt an outrageous sex position—an abnormal, unflattering one. A second reality check, also evil.
  13. Juggle a couple of partners; go get a new flame. You could almost say “go get on Tinder,” because a second girlfriend or boyfriend will divert your attention and your affection simultaneously.
  14. Come across colder than ice. By acting indifferent, you’ll become indifferent (“Fake it till you make it.”).
  15. Go have a drink—in midstream. Specifically, keep having sex until you’re sick of it.
  16. Get over your fear. Suppress jealousy.
  17. Everyone ought to focus on problems they have. Anxiety kills all the joy in life. 
  18. Avoid solitude. Strength in numbers!
  19. Unfriend all romantics. Because being around happy people in love is bad for us.
  20. Live, if you can, in a new—separate and opposite—world. It’s best in a breakup to avoid all the places your ex is likely to be.
  21. Part ways with her mother, her sister, her chaperone/confidante, and with any and all others who are part of her life. A breakup means breaking up with your ex’s family, too. One of Ovid’s saddest recommendations.
  22. Don’t air your grievances. Feelings will just come flooding back. 
  23. Absent a lawsuit, Love wanders off somewhere else, free from His need to appear. Litigation risks reconciliation.
  24. Stick to your guns. Get tough and don’t cave.
  25. Don’t bother combing your hair just because you are going to see her. More generally, don’t dress to please your ex.
  26. Refuse to believe her sweet nothings. Be deaf to entreaty.
  27. Be on guard against letting the tears of an ex unnerve you.­ I’m crying, you’re not crying.
  28. Silence is strength. Forgo recrimination.
  29. Compare your girlfriend with ravishing women. Evil, but probably effective (at least until guilt sets in).
  30. Don’t reread old texts that you got, and you saved, from your girlfriend. We have phones, the Romans had wax tablets, but the principle is the same.
  31. Get rid of her pictures. We have Instagram, they had frescoes. 
  32. Avoid places that witnessed encounters the two of you had. Shun the haunts of your happier times.
  33. Poverty lacks the resources to feed and sustain a relationship. You shouldn’t choose poverty, but if you are poor, it helps.
  34. Abstain from theatrical stage shows. No tearjerker movies for you.
  35. Hands off the erotica poets. Erotic fiction makes it hard to concentrate.
  36. Imagine she’s sleeping alone; acknowledge your rival’s presence. Stop brooding on your ex’s new flame. And when you can finally greet the new partner with a kiss on the cheek, it’s a dispositive sign that you’re cured.
  37. Don’t eat onions or arugula; do eat rue. They’re aphrodisiacs or anaphrodisiacs, respectively (says Ovid). 
  38. Don’t get drunk at all, or get yourself so drunk that you forget all your woes. Tipsiness brings back all kinds of emotions. (In the 16th century, the poet Vincent Obsopoeus made this recommendation the basis for his sequel to Ovid’s poem, How to Drink.)
Fragments of handwritten letter.
We have phones, the Romans had wax tablets, but the principle is the same. Birthday invitation of Claudia Severa, c. 100AD. Wikimedia Commons.

Michael Fontaine is professor of classics at Cornell University. His books include three other volumes in the Ancient Wisdom for Modern Readers series, How to Grieve, How to Tell a Joke, and How to Drink (all Princeton).

If you or someone you know is struggling or in crisis, please reach out to the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline. To reach the lifeline, call or text the numbers 988, or use the online chat.