“In relationships, there are a host of bonding experiences that can emotionally cement partners and make breakups difficult to bear in the short-term and long-term,” says clinical psychologist Carla Marie Manly, PhD, author of Date Smart. “Even when a romance has run its course and partners feel a sense of closure with the relationship, thoughts of a former partner can bubble up because the memories still exist.”
“Memories of our former relationships are less within our control than we might want to believe.” —Carla Marie Manly, PhD, clinical psychologist
Naturally, those memories are likely to be all the more poignant in someone who had particularly strong feelings for an ex, “whether it was a long-term romance or more of a fling,” says Dr. Manly. In either case, those intense feelings can be resurrected years down the line by even the simplest trigger, she adds, such as a fragrance or a song. And even in someone who steers clear of triggers or consciously pushes thoughts of an ex out of their mind, there’s the potential for the ex to come rushing back in a dream. If you find yourself wondering, 'Why do I keep dreaming about my ex?' know it's not really so unusual. “As we sleep, our minds return to the storybooks of our past,” says Dr. Manly. “Memories of our former relationships are less within our control than we might want to believe.”
Outside of experiencing this type of big love and then losing it, however, there are several factors related to your personality and temperament, and to the nature of a given relationship that can make it stick to your memory, no matter how much time has passed. Read on for the most common reasons why you might feel like you can’t forget your ex, and how to move forward.
3 personal reasons why you might feel like you just can’t forget a particular ex
1. You’re an overthinker
It may sound obvious, but if you tend to hold onto things, an ex is likely to be no exception. In this case, the reason you can’t forget an ex may be tied to your typical “over-analysis” style of coping, says sex and relationship therapist Juliana Hauser, PhD, LMFT. “Ruminating on a breakup can be a subconscious way to protect yourself from future hurt by attempting to figure out why and how it happened in the first place.”
This can quickly lead you down the road of self-doubt—as analysis of a relationship can only go so far before it turns into self-analysis. In this scenario, you could find yourself wondering if you said something wrong, if you were actually the problem, or if you might just be “not good enough” to warrant your ex’s attention or love, says Dr. Hauser. Any of the above unanswerable questions can effectively allow an ex to live in your head rent-free.
2. You’ve experienced past trauma that was activated by the breakup
A breakup is bound to linger in your mind and even resurface years later if it hits on preexisting trauma, says Dr. Hauser.
One common way this happens is in folks with abandonment trauma, according to Jess Carbino, PhD, former sociologist for Tinder and Bumble. “If abandonment was present for you psychologically when you were young because of issues with your parents, feeling as if you’re being abandoned again by a partner can really disrupt things for you on a personal and relationship level,” she says. Instead of being able to move on from the traumatic breakup, you could find yourself “rethinking or reliving the relationship and breakup” in an effort to understand it, says Dr. Hauser.
3. You have an anxious attachment style (and your ex has an avoidant attachment style)
People with an anxious attachment style (those who require regular reassurance from a partner) often seek out those with an avoidant attachment style (who tend to push away closeness and vulnerability), likely by virtue of validating a familiar (if uncomfortable) pattern. But if and when a relationship between people of these two attachment styles dissolves, the anxiously attached person can be left struggling to get the avoidantly attached ex out of their head.
“If you’re anxiously attached, losing a partner is likely an enormous fear and trigger,” says Dr. Hauser. “At the same time, if your ex-partner has an avoidant attachment style, they may appear to be totally over the breakup or have little difficulty cutting off contact, which can just make the breakup even harder for you to process.”
5 factors that could cause the memory of a relationship to stick with you, even years after it ended
1. You were caught off guard by the breakup or it just *really* wasn’t mutual
“The overwhelming majority of people who are hung up on a breakup did not initiate the breakup,” says Dr. Carbino. Being on the receiving end of the breakup tends to mean they've had less time to “move through the uncoupling process,” she says.
While the other party “planned the breakup and had more time to prepare for the goodbye and ending,” says Dr. Hauser, “you’re not only grieving the loss of the relationship, but you’re also dealing with the shock of the news or the disappointment.”
Not being able to understand the reason behind your ex’s choice to end things can also make it tougher to distance yourself, psychologically, from them, adds Dr. Carbino. And getting this intel might not be as simple as just asking them because sometimes “the initiator doesn’t necessarily understand why they wanted to leave the relationship themselves, or they don’t want to reveal this information in order to spare their former partner from hurt,” she says.
The result is a sort of gray area that can allow thoughts and dreams of an ex to surface (and resurface), says Dr. Manly. Lacking any real sense of closure, “the psyche can take years to process, understand, and heal from a breakup,” she says.
2. The relationship ended abruptly amid unresolved issues
Closely linked to a lack of closure around a relationship’s dissolution is the feeling that a relationship was simply cut off too soon, without time to run its course or to resolve underlying issues. “It can be really difficult to stop recurring thoughts about a relationship when you feel that certain aspects of the relationship were not dealt with at all or thoroughly enough,” says Dr. Hauser. “Things might have been left unsaid, or you may regret saying or doing things in the relationship.” And perhaps it ended too quickly for you to seek forgiveness for those things, too.
“It can be really difficult to stop recurring thoughts about a relationship when you feel that certain aspects of the relationship were not dealt with.” —Juliana Hauser, PhD, LMFT, sex and relationship therapist
“When the psyche feels that something has been left undone, it often works overtime—whether through dreams or ruminating about ‘what if’s’—to understand what occurred,” says Dr. Manly. “The mind wants to figure out how things could have turned out differently, so it often recycles old material as it tries to reach a conclusion.” But in reality, there’s often no conclusion to reach after a breakup that you feel ended things too abruptly, says Dr. Manly. Essentially, there are too many loose ends in this kind of scenario to ever really tie things up neatly in a bow.
As a result, you could be left lamenting “what might have been” for years after the fact, says Dr. Manly, particularly if you had forecasted your future hopes and dreams with a partner or even just fantasized about these potential scenarios in your head.
The latter is common with brief relationships that are cut off during the imagination stage, when both people may have had big dreams of what they wanted or hoped for the relationship to become, says Dr. Carbino. When that kind of relationship ends, you could be left grieving not only the loss of the person in your life, but also of the illusion of how things might have worked out or the connection that could have been. Managing that unique kind of loss could be why you can’t forget your ex, even if your romance was brief or inconsequential in the scheme of things.
3. Your ex seriously hurt you and showed no remorse
Feeling especially hurt by the actions of an ex in any way, shape, or form is certainly one reason why their memory could stick in your mind. For example, situations where betrayal, perhaps in the form of infidelity, or abuse was at the root of the relationship’s dissolution could lead you to struggle with forgetting an ex, says Dr. Carbino.
And that’s particularly true if your ex didn’t seek to make amends, says Dr. Hauser. “In this case, you could feel deeply confused or disappointed by their seeming lack of remorse,” she says, “and may even imagine conversations with them or reimagine conversations you did have with them where things end differently.” At the same time, you may also “grieve that they didn’t value you enough to make things right with you or to apologize after the relationship ended in the interest of civility,” she adds.
4. The breakup is the latest iteration of a repeating pattern
If a particular breakup takes the same shape as one that happened before it, it can draw attention to an internal conflict that you haven’t been able to resolve, says Dr. Carbino.
“People typically choose the people that they date in order to complete the psychological arc that they started with their parents, in terms of attachment,” she says. “So if you continually choose the same kind of person and it doesn’t work out, you may be left frustrated about why this is happening and how these relationships are driving your psychological arc forward.” And ruminating on all of the above could keep your ex in your thoughts longer than you might think they should be there.
5. There was major social fallout from the breakup
In some cases, a breakup isn’t just two people splitting; it’s really a whole group of friends, colleagues, and/or acquaintances being inadvertently pushed to two sides of a chasm. “This can create real social consequences, if not implications, for both people in a breakup,” says Dr. Carbino.
Perhaps you lose friends, or there’s a noticeable change in your social reality or status among your friend group. And maybe even your own perception of yourself changes as you can no longer identify with being part of a unit or being someone’s partner, says Dr. Carbino. These ripple effects could make it tough to compartmentalize the breakup and leave you feeling like your ex is still influencing your life long after they’re gone.
What to do if you really want to forget that seemingly unforgettable ex
Despite the fact that certain realities can keep an ex floating around in your mind even years after your relationship fizzled, learning to stop thinking about them comes down to the same principles of moving on from any relationship: understanding and accepting your feelings, and creating as much distance as possible through healthy distractions.
“To truly move on, you need to first fully feel your feelings, such as sadness, irritation, and disappointment,” says Dr. Manly. “The more you allow yourself to process your thoughts and feelings—whether through journaling, talking with friends, or using creative energy to heal—the more likely it is that you’ll move forward quickly.”
Part of that processing might also look like doing some introspection about how the relationship panned out and the tangible lessons you can take from it. “Consider what you learned about yourself, what you learned about relationships in general, and what you learned that you do or don’t want in a relationship because of how this particular relationship went,” says Dr. Hauser.
This kind of review can also spare you from the trap of blaming the entire breakup on situational realities like time, the pandemic, or the economy, says Dr. Carbino. “These are certainly huge elements that have real effects on dating, but focusing too much on these external factors will keep you from taking a look at yourself and how you might have contributed to the relationship’s pathway,” she says. By contrast, acknowledging your part (and your ex-partner’s part) in things can keep you from the rabbit hole of unanswerable “What if’s” (e.g., “What if we met outside of the pandemic?” Or, “What if the timing was better?”), which can in turn help you move forward with more agency.
While you’re processing the relationship, it’s also important to acknowledge the not-so-great qualities of your ex, says Dr. Manly. “It’s natural, if unhelpful, to forget the negative aspects of an ex and get stuck in idealizing and romanticizing,” she says, “but allowing yourself to see the whole picture can make it easier to let go.”
At the same time, it’s important to engage in self-supportive activities that naturally occupy your mind. On Dr. Hauser’s list of suggestions? Move your body, dive into work, take a trip, head into nature, and spend time with people who make you laugh and bring you joy. And while you’re doing any or all of the above, she also suggests making it easier for yourself to stay on track by stopping communication with your ex and unfollowing them on social media.
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