Not unlike mourning a loved one who passed, the process of getting over an ex-partner who left your life suddenly is a version of grieving. “When we lose someone or something important to us, it’s a naturally chaotic time,” says Earnshaw. “Searching for answers is an attempt to get grounded and to feel a sense of control.”
But, however natural that inclination is to ask “why," the cold, hard truth about any kind of loss is that you (usually) can’t know the answers to everything, says Earnshaw. In the case of a sudden breakup, you’ll be left only with whatever information your ex offered during your final conversation to take at face value. Perhaps they're just looking to spend some time single, or they lost the romantic spark, or they’re dealing with a few personal matters that they’d like to process alone. Beyond that? You'll likely have several loose ends—the questions that can’t be answered and that leave you all the more bewildered the more you think about them.
“[Searching for answers after a sudden breakup] can create a feedback loop that can become almost compulsive.” —Elizabeth Earnshaw, LMFT, relationship therapist
Going down that rabbit hole can lead you to fill in the blanks with unhelpful theories, says Earnshaw. “Perhaps you start to think, ‘Are they a narcissist?’ or ‘Do they have an avoidant attachment style?’ or ‘Is it because they were having an affair?’” she says. “This can create a feedback loop that can become almost compulsive,” she adds, because you’ll never feel certain enough of whatever theory you choose for it to really provide the closure you’re seeking.
Signs that you’re stuck in the cycle of "playing detective" after getting dumped suddenly
Searching for answers after a sudden breakup can quickly devolve into an endless trap—making it tough to identify once you're in it. Of course, simply being aware that losing a partner out of the blue can trigger a grieving process can help you get ahead of the “why is this happening” cycle. But according to Earnshaw, there are also a few warning signs to note that you’ve already started down this path:
- You find yourself spending more time thinking about why a person did what they did, as opposed to what you can do to take care of yourself and move forward. This type of behavior is more regressive than progressive—and can lead to the fruitless search for an explanation that'll never feel sufficient.
- You are frequently information-seeking about your ex, whether by checking their social-media accounts, researching whatever diagnosis you may assign to them, or fishing for details from their friends or family. Any of the above will keep you locked into the relationship emotionally, despite the fact that it’s over.
- Your loved ones mention to you that you are spending too much time analyzing your ex. As members of a third party who have your back, these people should be trusted in a post-breakup scenario where your own judgment of your behaviors could be off.
What you can do instead of searching for answers in the wake of a sudden breakup
The impulse to play detective after getting dumped suddenly springs from a desire to have things just make sense, says Earnshaw. What you can do instead is figure out another sensible way to get on top of your thoughts and feelings post-breakup.
One suggestion? Write out a list of answerable and unanswerable questions about your relationship. For instance, Earnshaw says, if your ex told you simply that they don’t want to date you anymore, then the question of, “Do they still want to be with me?” can be answered with a “no.” By contrast, any question that requires you to assume or speculate would be categorized as unanswerable. Simply putting these questions into words on paper can help you feel less chaotic and more grounded, she says.
The fact that this exercise has a clear starting and ending point is also helpful, given it can be easy to let worries about an ex consume an outsize amount of your time. In fact, Earnshaw suggests allotting a specific amount of time each day to grieve. That could mean writing in your journal, listening to somber music, looking at pictures from your time together, and the like. “At the end of that time, plan to do an activity that is nurturing and soothing,” she adds, “like taking a walk, cooking dinner, or watching your favorite TV show.”
Should you find that your mind continues to wander into “why” territory, Earnshaw suggests utilizing a focus-shifting technique called the 4 R’s developed by psychiatrist Jeffrey Schwartz, MD: Relabel, reattribute, refocus, and revalue.
In practice, you could start by relabeling any desire to seek information on your ex as an urge. For instance, you might acknowledge that you have an urge to Google your ex or dig into one of their personality traits, says Earnshaw. Then, reattribute that urge to the grief you’re feeling over the sudden loss of a partner: “It makes sense that I’d have this urge because I’m grieving right now.”
From there, find a distraction that pushes you to refocus your attention on something else, whether that’s a physical activity or a creative task that requires full use of your mind. Then, as a final step, you could come back to the “why” question about your ex if needed, and notice how it may have lost some of its urgency—how you were able to turn your attention toward other tasks without feeling like you had to figure out an answer to it right then.
Over time, working through these steps can help remove some of the value and weight that “why” questions about your ex or your prior relationship hold, allowing you to create the psychological distance that’s necessary to move forward.
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