HOW TO STOP THINKING ABOUT YOUR EX
By Evan Marc Katz
Despite your best efforts, it’s happened. You were deeply in love, but the relationship ended. You’re here in the “breakup recovery room,” feeling a bit shell-shocked. A breakup is a painful experience that everyone can identify with. It can be a potent cocktail of feelings: grief, anger, loss of self-worth, and difficulty in re-establishing your own identity.
Often your partner was also your best friend and family, the person to whom you’d go when upset. So it’s no wonder breakups can send you into a tailspin. Research has shown that the chemicals in your brain that are associated with pleasure and happiness plunge when you are in this difficult period.
How do you regain your equilibrium?
During this time, you can begin to obsess about your former partner. You may revisit all the happy memories, all the things they did that you loved, how he made you feel in the best of moments – the past can seem much more attractive than the present.
These are more than just a few lingering feelings. After all, still feeling love for a person you may have loved deeply for years is not only normal; it’s a good sign that you are a deep and authentic human with a real heart!
But what about when you just can’t rid yourself of those obsessive thoughts, much less stop caring about being in that relationship, move forward, perhaps start dating again, or at least make new friends and emotional connections?
You might even find yourself looking for ways to stay connected, sending phone and text messages, and even ending up borderline-stalking them through friends or social media. You may be convinced that you can’t feel good without them, but I’m here to tell you that despite those painful feelings, time heals, and you have a bright future.
Here are some tried and true techniques for breaking the obsessive thinking that can plague you.
Relationship experts, including those of us who’ve been through this multiple times, agree on a few tips to get you out of the mind-rut you’re stuck in.
1. Give up on closure
Sometimes a breakup will come on the heels of conversations about why it happened. Sometimes it won’t. You may be left feeling you have unresolved issues. You may feel you don’t know WHY your ex broke up with you. It might seem like if those questions were answered, or if you were able to just say one last thing, you’d be free from the never-ending tape playing in your head. Maybe, but more likely, it won’t. It’s one of those things we tell ourselves, often as the mind’s way of tricking us into having more contact with our ex. Sometimes it can even prolong your healing.
That’s why it’s wise to cut bait. If you know what he’s thinking, if you don’t know what he’s thinking, the result is the same. It’s possible in very rare instances that there might be something important you need to say to him, but if there is, make it one time, and one time only. Better yet, consult a professional counselor or relationship expert. A good trick is also to write a letter with all your thoughts, but never send it. Getting those thoughts out on paper or screen can often be as helpful as saying them to the person in question.
2. Cut all communication
All communication. Yes, all communication. I know you still want to be friends but now is not the time. Someday, once you’ve healed, it may be possible, but you shouldn’t hold out the possibility of things changing. Cutting this cord is important for your sanity, especially if you’re struggling with hurt emotions and obsessive thoughts. The biggest problem with communication of any kind is that it will trigger memories and continue hopes for the future.
This will be an exercise in self-discipline. You may have mutual friends, and it may be tempting to communicate through them. Social media has made it possible for us to keep track of what’s going on with someone even if we’re no longer in their world. Resist. (We’ll give you some tools to help with that) In order to fully heal, you must sever this connection entirely.
3. Think realistically
It is in the nature of our minds for memory to sugarcoat things. If it didn’t, most women would certainly only give birth to one child, for starters. When you think of your ex, you probably linger on their most delightful qualities in the best of moments – a photo montage of positive memories going back to when you started dating. Images of holding hands on the beach, laughing with food on your faces, kissing in the doorway… You don’t spend nearly as much time recalling the angry texts, the ugly argument on vacation, and the broken promises.
Here’s another place where it might help to write things down. Listing the painful moments, which are typically plentiful in any authentic relationship, can help you to let go of the fantasy you may be entertaining about the past. If you can’t think of difficult moments, you might want to consider that this relationship never was deep enough for them to show you anything but their best side. In fact, they may be a person who moves on before they are revealed, warts and all.
Either way, a realistic assessment can help avoid holding on to something that possibly never even existed.
4. Give yourself time and space to feel all your feelings
For starters, it’s only natural that you should still feel love for your ex. It proves you’re human and healthy enough to have made a serious emotional investment and commitment to another person. Beating yourself up for that isn’t okay.
Likewise, it may be natural to have feelings of anger or hatred toward them. For a while, you may toggle back and forth between them, with grief a constant. Try not to get pulled into the vicious cycle of anger, regret, and helpless feelings. Again, be kind to yourself. Practice self-compassion. These are all appropriate and part of the grieving process.
Don’t censor yourself. Feel sad. Feel mad. Feel all the feels. Imagine them like a child who may be crying, having a temper tantrum, or being affectionate. Hold them with care and let them be.
It’s great that you loved someone. Love just isn’t always enough to keep a couple together. But you can use that love to hope for the best for them in the future. Think of it a little like this: Mazatlan was fantastic, and I was really sad to leave, but I can’t live there, for a variety of reasons, and I’m off on new adventures.
5. Distract yourself
This may seem obvious, or it may seem like the hardest thing in the world, but this is a perfect time to keep yourself so busy that you don’t have time to think of your ex! Initiate some new healthy habits: maybe join a gym – increasing your physical well-being with a healthy diet and exercise will help stabilize your mood.
Instead of writing that text, scanning Instagram, or driving past his house, focus on filling your time in such entertaining and wholesome ways that you’re not even tempted.
Start that book, put together a new business plan, and learn new skills. Let the emotional energy that used to go into your ex fuel you and propel you into discovering new talents you may not even have known you had.
And don’t forget about other supportive relationships. This may be the time to apologize to friends for neglecting them while you and your ex were hashing it out. But it’s certainly a time to lean on them, especially for their tendency to see your relationship and your ex with more perspective than you might have. They can also be great allies, often lightening your load with funny and uncensored comments about the shortcomings of your ex. This is a great time to really rely on their allegiance to you.
6. Practice Self-Care
While some of the things listed previously, like exercise, diet, self-compassion, etc., fall into this category, self-care is most important when we are swimming in emotions with shaky self-esteem.
Some people find ritual helpful: burning that sage, or soaking in a hot tub as you imagine the water removing toxins and restoring calm. Or, like the old song says, “I’m gonna wash that man right out of my hair…”
At a deeper level, you may be extremely vulnerable, wondering whether you’re worthy of love or what it is about you that caused this rejection. Here’s where you need to use a new way to talk to yourself. Remind yourself that you have everything you need to be a wonderful partner and that, in turn, there are lots of wonderful people out there just waiting for an opportunity to shine in your life. The circumstances just weren’t right at this time.
If you feel like you need help with any old habits or unhealthy behaviors, self-care may look like professional counseling or dating and relationship coaching. Only you can make those changes, but you may need emotional support. This is part of self-care.
Getting back on the horse
When you are in the throes of all the emotions connected with a breakup, the last thing you want to do is to run out and find a new partner right away.
For starters, this kind of “rebound relationship” isn’t fair to another person. Studies show that these relationships last between a month and a year but rarely get out of the infatuation stage. The new person likely has every expectation that they’re entering into a good-faith relationship, not just shoring up or distracting someone from their ex.
Take time to go through the steps: feeling your feelings, practicing self-care, and re-establishing a relationship with yourself before embarking on something new.
Manifest your learned lessons
The great thing about the fact that most of us engage in multiple relationships is that they give us the opportunity to be better versions of ourselves. We can be very good at being on our own, but it is in relationships with others, especially in intimate relationships, that we are forced to grow in ways we otherwise might not.
In our periods of self-examination following a failed relationship, we can reassess what works and doesn’t work in our approach. And in our new partnership, we can test our gains and adjust them to the natural compromise that relationships demand.
It’s often said that a new relationship helps you move on from an old one. This can be true, but it shouldn’t be deployed as a technique.
While you shouldn’t rush into a new relationship, there will come a time when the anger, hurt, and other painful feelings are a shadow of what they were. Your healing process will lead you to know yourself better and make you a better partner than you’ve ever been.
See prospective partners for who they are
Now you can take what you’ve learned and apply it. Go slowly. When you meet someone, it can be easy to compare him to your ex in both favorable and unfavorable ways. Try to remember that this is a unique individual, not someone who exists in reflection of your former partner. Whatever shortcomings your ex may have had, or however much your feelings may have been injured, this new person had nothing to do with that, and you may need to remind yourself of this from time to time.
Making Peace and Moving On
Here’s what I know: It’s not over for you.
This was a chapter in your love life, good or bad, but it was just a chapter. You will find love, good love. Brilliant companionship, great times. Even good sex.
You will forgive your ex; you will forgive yourself. With luck, you may not have to go through this again, but if you do, you have new tools with which to do it.