Trying to move on from that breakup but you can’t stop thinking about him? Want to get past that divorce, but she’s on your mind day and night? You’re trying to distract yourself, but all you can think about is them! Trying to move on after a divorce or break up can leave you feeling anxious, frustrated, and even ashamed of yourself. Today I’m going to tell you the surprising real reason it’s so tough to move on (so you can stop being so hard on yourself) and then (as always) the 7 things you can do to find peace and joy as quickly as possible.
Why You’re Obsessed with Your Ex: It’s an Addiction
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! Just like you can’t reason initially with a drug addict, all the reason and rational thinking in the world won’t have you moving on the way you think you “should” (hence feelings of self-loathing and declarations of “What’s wrong with me?!”)
So, let me throw a little brain stuff at you so you really understand what I’m talking about. (No, I’m not just trying to be nice and make you feel better, this is science!) This is based on the work of biological anthropologist, Helen Fisher and the research she and her colleagues have done over the last 15 years.
Let’s first start with what happens when we fall in love with someone because a lot of the brain chemistry is similar when you’re breaking up! (crazy, I know). When they studied brains of people “in love” they found activity in the ventral tegmental area (or VTA), which is part of your brain’s reward system. Now, this part of your brain is way below your conscious, thinking brain and it’s even below your emotions. It’s part of what’s called your Lizard or Reptilian brain. This is the part of your brain associated with motivation, wanting, desiring something, and that intense focus that happens when you’re craving something. This is the exact same part of the brain that’s stimulated when someone uses cocaine. They get the same rush and all those same feelings!
Addicts continue to use despite negative consequences and every part of their rational brain telling them to stop. Despite all the good reasons that any rational person would say, “Oh yes, you’ve got to stop,” the brain still obsesses about using or over an ex.
You know that feeling when you’re just obsessed with the other person when you fall in love? How it’s hard to think of anything else? You feel possessed and can even lose your sense of self in the process?
If you pay attention, you’ll see that this is how you might be feeling and thinking about your ex! You know why? Because the obsession can get worse when you’ve been rejected!
When 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.” “If her mother hadn’t come to visit.” This is also the part of the brain that becomes active when you’re willing to take enormous risks for huge gains and huge losses. We start creating conspiracy theories and mysteries and digging, digging, digging trying to figure out “why.” I’ve had clients get told, “I’m just not in love with you; I just don’t feel it,” and they STILL search for deeper meaning and what they could have done! You’re not really trying to solve some big mystery; you’re actually trying to get your fix!
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.
As Fisher says, “I’ve also come to believe that romantic love is an addiction: a perfectly wonderful addiction when it’s going well, and a perfectly horrible addiction when it’s going poorly.”
OY! So, what do I do Abby?
You treat it like the addiction it is and follow these 7 steps:
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!
This happens with drugs too. When people romanticize their use or talk about it over and over again, it just reinforces the cravings.
2. Cut off Contact or Limit Seeing Them
Once again, you don’t want to shoot up or take a drink multiple times a day or week if you’re trying to step away from your addiction and change your life. If you’ve got kids together then you can still limit contact as much as possible.
But whether you’ve got kids together or not, there are lots of things people do to keep taking that hit that need to stop. Don’t send texts when you don’t need to and get off their social media accounts (if you can’t stop stalking them there, then take down your own accounts for awhile). Every connection you have can deepen your emotional pain and keep you addicted and obsessed.
If you have to speak to your ex, it’s a good idea to limit it by having a weekly business meeting where all issues are discussed.
I hate when exercise is the answer to anything because I want every answer to any problem I’m having to be sitting on the couch eating Oreos. I’ve tried that solution multiple times, but sadly have never found it effective.
However, exercise can be a huge help. Remember, so much of this is neurochemical. The endorphins and enkephalins you get from exercise, as well as the balancing of your other neurotransmitters and hormones is much needed when you’re not getting past the hurt of a break up or divorce. It’s also a great way to start to create a new sense of self and fill the void left by your ex (which brings us to #4).
4. Fill the Void
Depending on how long you were with your ex, there were a lot of places where your lives intersected. Even if you weren’t getting along well for a while, there’s still a void left when they’re not there anymore. Social gatherings, friends, activities, their family, your family, vacations, paying bills, eating meals, cooking for two instead of one – there are so very many things that are affected when you break up.
This is especially true if you were living together and you stayed in the place where you both lived. Every room holds memories and you can feel the other person not there. So, you’ve got to identify where these voids are and fill them up. Do your best not to fill them up with unhealthy things (did I mention how much I like Oreos?) but also don’t beat yourself up if initially you do a little retail therapy. However, those are stop-gap measures not permanent solutions. A partner isn’t what you need for a happy life. Create a happy life again and a partner will come if that’s what you want. If you think back you’ll realize that you were single when they initially came into your life, after all!
If you always watched Game of Thrones together, don’t do that alone now! If you always went out every Saturday for date night, don’t sit home alone now. Create other things in these spaces – fill those voids!
5. Make a List of Why Not
What I see a lot after a divorce or break up is idealizing your ex. All of the sudden they were awesome! I don’t want you to vilify and hate them but, if you’re one of those who wants to get back together or is just missing them often, create a list of “Why Not.” This is a written list of all the ways you weren’t a good match. This is not a list of all the things you hated about them – hate is just love disguised. Instead, it’s a list of the ways that you’re just not a good fit. It’s more about how you like X and they didn’t.
Then, I want you to save this list somewhere it’s easy to access because that impulse to contact them could happen anywhere, anytime and that’s exactly when you need to pull out your list!
6. There’s No Closure
I’m not sure that anyone ever really gets closure because of the way our brains are always looking for the “why” and then we’re not satisfied when we get it anyway. “She says it’s because I don’t talk to her enough but we spoke all the time! It must be something else. I think she’s got someone else!” “He says he’s not ready for a commitment, but I think he doesn’t know what he wants!”
You need to accept that it’s over and stop hoping. Stop keeping it alive. If you can’t do that on your own, get thee to a therapist!
7. Ask for Help
Last but not least, let your friends know you need them. You can spend a few days or a week alone wallowing, but then it’s time to reach out to your peeps and start connecting with others. Otherwise, it’s too hard to do what’s on this list.
Any alcoholic will tell you that staying at home alone is the worst thing to do when you first get sober. Treat your mind like a dangerous neighborhood – never go in there alone!
Plan things with friends, schedule phone calls, get out for a physically-distanced walk – whatever you can think of! Take a class online, learn a new language – anything that helps you connect more deeply with yourself and others.
Above all else, remember it’s going to take a minute to move on. Don’t put a time limit on this (why do I still feel crappy six months later?!). What you’re looking for is progress. Do you think about them less and less? Are you finding more good feelings? Are you broadening your life again? We say in 12-step meetings, “progress not perfection.” Since you’re one of us now, that should fit.
All of this boils down, on some level, to finding a way to focus on what you do want and not what you don’t want; to focus more positively and stop thinking negatively about your ex, your past or any regrets you have.