Lessons in heartbreak: I coach women to get over their ex




  • In World
  • 2022-08-14 00:50:49Z
  • By BBC
A collage of Sisi Lawyer smiling next to a large open book, with a colourful background
A collage of Sisi Lawyer smiling next to a large open book, with a colourful background  

The fact that "break-up" has been tagged on TikTok more than 21 billion times shows just how many people want to talk about or get advice on heartbreak. So maybe it's no surprise that there are break-up coaches, like Aronke Omame, who make a living by helping them through the experience.

It's 1993 and 35-year-old commercial lawyer Aronke Omame is about to learn a lesson in heartbreak that will change her life.

She is in a court in Lagos, but for once she is not representing a client. She's supporting her friend, Mary (not her real name), whose parents are going through a divorce.

Mary's mother, Aronke notes, keeps looking over at Mary's father across the aisle. It's not subtle. She is craning her neck to catch his eye.

Then, as the judge calls for a short break, Aronke watches, frozen, as Mary and her mother cross towards Mary's father. The courtroom is silent, all eyes on the family.

There's a gasp at what happens next.

Mary and her mother kneel before the father. With their heads bowed they implore him to not break up the family.

But Mary's father raises his chin and with a sneer begins swearing at the women loudly, in front of everyone.

It's 1967 and nine-year-old Aronke is at the playground with her friends when the headmistress walks towards her. It's rare to see the headmistress at play time. Something is wrong.

She informs Aronke that her father is waiting at the gates. He is here to collect her. Something has happened.

Aronke's father tells her that they will not be returning home, she is going to stay at her grandmother's home for a few weeks. And as her grandmother's home is miles outside the city, no-one will be able to take her to school. She'll get that time off, her father tells her.

He and her mother will visit, but for now they have private things to discuss. They need time alone. She's confused but she can sense that now is not the time for questions.

Aronke's heartbreak tips (scroll down for more)

  • Cry - crying does a lot, it helps wash out the pain

  • Don't call or text your ex for at least a couple of weeks

Over the next few weeks, Aronke and her siblings are ushered out of rooms in her grandmother's home, and away from earshot of grown ups, as her mother and father arrive to talk in hushed and urgent whispers with several members of the family.

They leave the children with the grandparents every evening, to return home. A home that is in the process of dissolving.

Collage of a retro black and white photo of a couple, a split between them.
Collage of a retro black and white photo of a couple, a split between them.  

Aronke plays with her cousins and cooks with her grandmother. It's fun having a couple of weeks off school. She's happy. Or at least, she's not unhappy.

And within the month her family finds its new rhythm.

"At that time the family was communal," Aronke tells the BBC. "I was raised by both sets of grandparents and aunts and uncles. My parents got a lot of help."

Her father moves out of the family home and Aronke and her siblings move back. Her parents maintain cordial relations with each other and neither parent criticises the other in front of the children. The family is not broken. It just has one less person sleeping over.

"I learned that relationships don't always last," Aronke says, "despite everyone's best intentions. It's tempting to be scathing with each other but ending things with dignity will serve you better in the future."

  • Ask a friend or relative to be a sounding board, someone you can contact often

  • Remember that you are in grief and so is your ex - grief is a period of adjustment

She doesn't ever learn exactly why her parents' marriage ended but it doesn't matter.

The rest of her childhood, she insists, is happy. But her next lesson in love is going to hurt.

A collage of a woman crying (the tears are stylised in printed blue), a bin with a book of wedding rings and and image of a couple kissing behind her.
A collage of a woman crying (the tears are stylised in printed blue), a bin with a book of wedding rings and and image of a couple kissing behind her.  

Aronke is 18 and she is at law school. She's into her best friend. They are in the same class. Their shared jokes have those charged moments that ripen into a flirtation, which soon turns, Aronke believes, into an exclusive relationship.

Aronke is in love for the first time.

But there's a problem. He wants to have sex and she is not ready.

"I didn't believe in sex before marriage," she says, "I was very homely."

She tries to compensate in other ways, to be available, loving and spontaneous. One day, she goes to his home to surprise him, only to find the young man kissing another young woman.

"I was heartbroken. I stomped out thinking to myself that he was going to come after me."

He didn't.

  • Give your ex a new name - if his name is Steven, call him Robert while talking about him, it may make you less angry

  • Unfollow them on all social media - this is not the time to try and figure out if they are happier without you!

Days of silence later she receives a letter.

"He says he has found his 'gem' and that I have no part of his life any longer."

The rejection devastates Aronke.

"I was ashamed. I felt that my world had fallen apart."

She doesn't go to class for two weeks. She cries in bed. She's afraid to run into him. She stays indoors.

Her friends drop by. They tell her that there are better options waiting for her in the outside world.

Then one day, as if by magic, her mood lifts. She feels like venturing out. She has a law degree to complete and friends to party with. She heads out the door and back to life.

Those two weeks of isolation have done her the world of good. She can even, in time, become friends with him again.

"I'm glad I let myself cry," she says, "It was a good lesson. I cried it out."

A collage of a couple walking near a beach, a playing card with ace of hearts is torn behind them.
A collage of a couple walking near a beach, a playing card with ace of hearts is torn behind them.  

Fast forward 17 years, and in the courtroom in Lagos Aronke watches in horror as Mary's father swears at his kneeling wife and daughter.

"He was throwing words that I can't even recall. I have deleted them from my mind," Aronke says, "but they were disgusting."

Not long before, she had gone through a divorce of her own, but hers had never turned as ugly as the public humiliation she'd just witnessed.

She wonders how a woman in her 60s could kneel before a man who clearly mistreats her, and beg him to not leave her.

Then it clicks.

"The culture supports a woman being subjugated to her husband," Aronke says, "if I hadn't noticed it before, I did now."

The digital rise in break-ups

  • Google says searches for "get over break-up" have doubled in the past five years, and more than tripled since 2012

  • KeywordTool.io, an AI-powered tool that measures search terms over several platforms, says Ireland has searched most for "how to get over a break-up/your ex" in the last 10 years, and that Nigeria, Singapore, India, Australia, Kenya, the US and the UK are among others in the top 10

  • On TikTok #breakup has over 21 billion tags and #gettingoverabreakup has 8.7 million

  • The International Coaching Federation, the industry body for the personal development coaching business says relationship coaching, which includes break-up coaching, is now worth more than $1bn per year

Aronke thought back to the people who told her, leaning in as if being helpful, that it had been her focus on her career that led to the break-up of her own marriage. At the time, Aronke told herself to ignore the gossip. But did it sting? Of course it did.

And when her parents' marriage ended all eyes had turned on her mother, asking what she could have done that would have prevented her husband losing interest. Society was prompting women to stay in unhappy, even abusive, marriages, not giving them a roadmap on how to leave and begin a prosperous and full life.

So that day, leaving the courtroom where Mary's mother's marriage would be legally dissolved, Aronke makes a decision. She is going to help people get through the end of their relationships with as much dignity as possible.

For the next few years she immerses herself in studying family law and relationship coaching. Her friends always nicknamed her "Sisi Lawyer" (lady lawyer), now they call her "Sisi Lawyer: break-up coach".

In 2022, there is no typical day for Sisi Lawyer. With over 40 years of a legal career, and more than 10 as an accredited coach, behind her, She wakes up to daily messages on Facebook or in her inbox - mostly from women - looking for help in getting over a relationship.

She is now part of an emerging subset of relationship coaches called "break-up coaches" - a trained mentor who says they can help you navigate the grief of the end of a relationship.

"A break-up coach can help you look back on an inevitable and painful period of life with pride," she says. "While a relationship coach may help you become desirable for someone else, a break-up coach helps you become desirable for yourself again."

It's a business that exists under a veil of secrecy.

"I get messages from people who don't openly follow me on social media," she says, "which tells me there is still a shame attached to the end of a relationship."

  • It is tempting to gorge on unhealthy food and mope around, but it won't make you happy - think about your diet and exercise

  • Relationships often lead to shared money and resources, so go through your outgoings and make changes if you need to

But there certainly seems to be a market for help getting over heartbreak.

Aronke charges 150,000 Nigerian naira (about £300) for three sessions. She says she starts by giving her clients a framework on how to get their life back on track. The first two weeks are crucial, she says. She encourages her clients to cry, unfollow or mute their ex on all social media, and task a trusted friend to help stop them reaching for the phone to call him.

"Your mind will trick you with excuses on why you feel you need to call them," she says, "Don't listen to it, it is lying to you. If you need to, hand over your phone to your friend."

'Take it minute by minute'

"The loss of a relationship is a heart-breaking and difficult thing to go through, particularly if you've never experienced it before. You don't even need to say anything - just being around friends and family might help. The key things to remember are that you don't need to go through this alone, and that in time your heart will heal. This difficult time will pass, take it minute by minute, hour by hour and gradually your wounds will start to repair."

Holly Roberts, counsellor with the relationship support charity, Relate

A more unusual tip is to change your ex's name when you speak about him.

"If his name is Steven, call him Robert while talking about him. You may be less angry and more objective about Robert."

Then Aronke instructs her clients on how to strategise for the long term.

"Often money and property are mixed up in relationships, and they need to be separated. It's messy and people need help with that."

She helps women go through their finances and budget for being alone.

Sisi Lawyer says she does get criticism online from people saying, "Of course this lady wants to break up families, she is a divorced woman." It doesn't bother her, she says. She has a partner but it wouldn't affect her even if she was single.

"Either way, I am happy," she says, "And isn't that the point? There is light at the end of the tunnel. Sometimes losing a relationship is a wake up call to learn how to build better relationships going forward."

You may also be interested in:

Mary smiling
Mary smiling  

The love-coaching industry is growing every year, thanks partly to rising number of thirtysomething women in search of a partner. Coaches often promise they'll ensure clients find a man, when there can never be any guarantee - but sometimes it seems they do succeed in making single people happier.

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