Your relationship ended but now you’re hearing (or even seeing through your secret IG stalking account) that your ex has moved on and is happy in their new relationship! You’re outraged and doubting yourself! How can they be happy so soon (or why couldn’t they at least wait until after you’re happy in your new, better relationship)?! In this Ask Dr. Abby episode, I’m answering your question about why you’re anxious, obsessed and angry at your ex and, as always, giving you tips for how to move on.
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I get many questions and comments about what to do when an ex seems happy in a new relationship from readers, listeners and clients but this particular email summed up all the thinking perfectly.
We’re going to call her Madeline to, as always, protect her anonymity but here’s what she said:
I am going through a grueling breakup and I think it is most painful because this person checked off so many boxes and he looked so good on paper. However, the amount of stress, anxiety, insecurity, and weight loss I experienced during the relationship made me move out. After a period of trying to make things work while not living together, I ultimately decided to block him. I learned only a few days later that he is already online dating, which of course hurts. I am dreading the idea that another woman will get the best of him, and then what will that say about me? I do want him to be happy, but I can’t bear the idea that I was the entire problem. Many people in my corner have said that he was definitely the problem and my therapist said he has narcissistic tendencies with things like talking over people, dominating the conversation, deflecting when I point out something he does that I don’t like, and being non-responsive in conversations (basically talking at me instead of to me).
My question is, is it possible that this person will go on and ride into the sunset with another woman and that maybe his problems were not as big as I was making them? Did I mess up a good thing? Or is he bound to have the same issues in his next relationship? And what if I was completely the problem? Will I ride off into the sunset with another man? Or will I have the same problems? Is it possible to have a successful relationship after having a bad relationship without making any self-improvement or change in between?
Why You’re Obsessed with What Your Ex is Doing:
The real reason people don’t move on as quickly and painlessly as possible is because they’re not taking into account their brain chemistry. All the best-meaning tips, platitudes and conversations won’t move you past your last relationship the way you want if you don’t take into account that your brain has been hijacked!
I did a whole episode where I covered everything that’s happening in your hijacked brain in my moving on after a divorce or break up episode, so I don’t want to spend a lot of time here but let me just say that the research shows that the same part of your brain that’s activated when you fall in love is very similar to your brain chemistry when you’re breaking up! And get this… it’s also the same area of your brain that’s stimulated if you’re using cocaine! So, you can see why it’s so hard not to focus on your ex and their life and get fixated on whether or not your ex seems happy in a new relationship.
Biological anthropologist, Helen Fisher, and her neuroscientist colleagues did brain scans on people who’d just been dumped, they found activity in three regions of the brain:
1. The same regions that are lit up by intense romantic love are lit up by those who’ve been dumped (yes, it’s supremely unfair!). That reward system I just described for all your wanting, craving and focus becomes even more active when you can’t get what you want! When relationships end, the same mechanisms in our brain get activated as when addicts are withdrawing from substances like cocaine or opiates.
2. They also found activity in the region of the brain associated with calculating gains and losses, your nucleus accumbens. When you think of the other person, you’re literally calculating what you lost. What went wrong? This is when you start thinking “If I’d only tried this.” “If I hadn’t said that.”
3.Third, they found activity in a region associated with deep attachment to another individual. When you break up, even if you’re the one who left, you’re feeling deep attachment to your ex.
What to Do When Your Ex Seems Happy in a New Relationship (and You’re Not):
1. Stop Talking About It
After some initial venting or catharsis, you’ve got to stop talking about it or thinking about your ex so much because every time you reminisce, complain or romanticize, you’re creating strong emotions. Getting into these emotional or “feeling states” triggers all the same brain chemicals as when you first broke up so you end up retraumatized!
You also don’t know shit about their life really. You think you know, but you don’t; if your ex had issues, then he’s likely with someone with issues. Women who’ve got their shit together typically don’t date fixer uppers. Ever.
So, they might be happier now but they might not. It just doesn’t matter. The real question is, “Are you happy?” What are you doing to improve your happiness level?
2. Stop Doubting Yourself
Your regret and second guessing is hurting you! Stop trying to figure out if what you’re thinking is true and, instead ask yourself, “Is it helpful?” Is it helpful to think about whether or not your ex seems happy in a new relationship? Probably not.
3. Stop Romanticizing
I see a lot of romanticizing or idealizing your ex after a break up. All of the sudden they were awesome! I don’t want you to vilify and hate them, but it’s time to stop remembering the good times and thinking you made a big mistake.
A tip I always offer if this is a problem for you is to make a list of all the ways you weren’t a good match. Make a list of all the reasons why this was a good idea to break it off. Make a list of what you’ve learned about yourself. Save one or more of these lists somewhere easy to access and, if you notice yourself getting pulled into reminiscing, read one of them and shift your focus back where it needs to be!
4. Own Your Shit
Every single relationship is co-created. It’s never all about them (sorry, not sorry) so you’ve got to own your shit and take responsibility for your side of the street. Get a therapist or a support group. Listen to my podcast every week and do every damn tip I put out there. Take action to improve yourself. Learn from that last relationship. Let it make you better, not bitter.