It’s Totally Normal That You Can’t Move on From an Ex—Even If You Don’t Want to Be Together
According one kind, anxiety-assuaging expert, I'm totally normal (phew). But since I deserve happiness (and some rest), it's important that I learn tools for moving on completely. “When it comes to dealing with past relationships, there is no right and wrong," says Erika Ettin, relationship expert and founder of A Little Nudge, a coaching service for online dating. "I do, however, contend that if you are still feeling so connected to your ex, it is worth a clean break—no talking, texting, social media-stalking. Out of sight, somewhat out of mind. That is necessary in order for the mourning and healing process to begin.”
“I recommend figuring out the things that make you happy on your own. Then do those things. Don’t search for other people to date as a Band-Aid. Take the time needed, perhaps with a good therapist, to sort out your feelings. Gradually you’ll be able to look at things more objectively.” —Erica Ettin, relationship expert
And to be clear, it will be a process—not something that you'll just be over after sleeping on it. To this point, Ettin recommends being fair to yourself but also holding yourself accountable for making good choices. “I recommend figuring out the things that make you happy on your own. Then do those things. Don’t search for other people to date as a Band-Aid. Take the time needed, perhaps with a good therapist, to sort out your feelings. Gradually you’ll be able to look at things more objectively,” she says.
It’s hard. We know it’s hard. But trust me when I say that the vast majority of the time, you really just have to move on. And if you need some help along the way, here are four other tips to help you fall out of love.
1. Focus on the your ex’s negative traits
In one small study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, 24 heartbroken people aged 20 to 37 were given three cognitive strategies to help them move on from their last relationship. The first was to negatively reappraise their ex, focusing on their bad habits and qualities. The second was to repeat statements of acceptance, like, “It’s okay to love someone I am no longer with.” And the third involved distracting oneself with positive thoughts when the ex came to mind.
Ultimately, the first strategy worked most effectively for diminishing the feels, likely because falling out of love requires you to change your mentality. “Love regulation doesn’t work like an on/off switch. To make a lasting change, you’ll probably have to regulate your love feelings regularly,” says study co-author Sandra Langeslag, PhD. So, maybe add a P.S. habit to your journaling routine in the form of a list of negative things about your ex. Keep it top of mind for whenever you look back at your memories with rose-colored glasses.
2. Complete totally unromantic tasks that require lots of concentration
If you prefer the route of distraction rather than conditioning yourself to straight-up hate your ex, science is still on your side. One study by biological anthropologist Helen Fisher, PhD, showed that distracting yourself can help you fall out of love. It just has to be with something that requires a lot of focus—all thanks to the no-good effects of feel-good neurotransmitter dopamine.
Your brain pumps love hormone dopamine when you fall into romantic love, and once you break up, happy memories of your relationship pump up that same stuff. This is why, on a physiological level, letting go can be super difficult. So when the dopamine starts flowing, it can help to re-direct your attention to a different part of the brain. “Go pay your bills, balance your checkbook, play Scrabble, memorize a poem, play with Legos—do something that stimulates your cortex instead,” Dr. Fisher says.
Hey, you don’t have to tell me to play with Legos twice.
3. Redo your dates alone to overwrite old memories
Leaving a partnership can often feel like losing a part of ourselves. Driving past the coffee shop that used to be your coffee shop can feel like a stab in the gut (surely not just me, right?), but listen: You can’t just give up top-tier lattes so easily. So, it's good news that exposure therapy can also help you get over an ex: Though it may be painful at first, redoing certain memorable dates on your own can provide you a different association with your romantic memories.
“Intentionally re-creating your previous experiences likely gives you a new association.” —Sameena Groves, PhD
“You may not have been afraid, per se, of your memories with your ex, but you may have been trying to avoid thinking about them nonetheless,” says licensed clinical psychologist Sameena Groves, PhD. “Intentionally re-creating your previous experiences likely gives you a new association.”
4. And one more time, for the people in the back: UNFOLLOW, UNFOLLOW, UNFOLLOW
To rehash Ettin’s advice, Facebook stalking your ex really does you no favors. That instant access to your former flame’s life may be a prime reason why you're having such a hard time moving on.
A 2012 study of 464 participants who were still Facebook friends with their ex and continued to keep tabs found that no one benefitted from the habit. “Facebook surveillance was positively related to current distress, negative feelings, desire, and longing for the ex-partner, and negatively related to personal growth,” says study author Tara C. Marshall, PhD. Yikes.
It’s hard to fight against your emotions, but you have to think about what’s best for you.
As Selena Gomez (and Emily Dickinson, and, ew, Woody Allen?) would say, “the heart wants what it wants.” I can give you 10 trillion techniques to fall out of love, and it still won’t necessarily change how you feel about your ex. But though the heart may be unchangeable, the brain can be rewired. That’s an important thing to remember when you see your ex happily involved with someone new—it was never meant to be you, and you don't want that life. Write that down, distract yourself with your own worthy to-do list, repeat, repeat, repeat.
Sure, break-up pain can actually be physical, but ending a relationship does sometimes offer silver linings. Like an improved relationship with someone else in your life.
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