We know that breaking up is hard to do. We also know that letting go of someone you love, even someone who you recognize is part of an unhealthy relationship, can still be challenging.

Philip’s story

Philip came to coaching saying “I can’t stop thinking about my ex.” Phil and I talked about how he would fall in love with a woman and despite noticing the red flags, he still found it impossible to feel happy again for a long time afterward. 

“It breaks my heart that Carla and I aren’t together” he told me. I gave my heart and soul to that relationship. I think a lot about what it would have been like to have been with her long term and I am still interested in spending time with her.

“I still think about my ex:” What relationship experts say

Phil’s emotional attachment and ruminations extended for over 18 months after they broke up. He continued to think about the good times, and have emotional insecurities about himself and what he might have done differently to keep his relationship with Carla going. 

He couldn’t feel happy or even allow the healing process to start because he was consumed by memories of his brief love affair with Carla. He spent significant amounts of time reading her social media accounts. He also compared every feature of a new potential relationship against his (idealized) version of his relationship with Carla.

Steps to recover and regain your mental health

NORMALIZE

Phil’s ability to have a strong attachment to Carla was a good and healthy thing. He is a man who can love deeply and with all of his heart. When this important relationship ends, he isn’t able to quickly trivialize its significance. That says positive things about him and his emotional health.

The biology of attachment

There have been books written on how couples bond. It is a brain-body experience, and sex also strongly contributes to this bond with hormones released during arousal and orgasm. When this lover is gone, the very person you’ve learned to connect with is now the person who can no long sooth the pain you are feeling.

Without this biological bases of attachment, couples would have little reason to stay together to embark on this challenging task of raising offspring. This chemical soup in our brains keeps us closely connected to friends and family.  It keeps us feeling good around them from time to time and our connection is more powerful than any stress they bring to us. 

And even when we are far apart for a long time, there is an invisible rubber band that stretches and contracts when they return. We keep them in our thoughts and reach out when we can to strengthen this bond.

Phil's attachment to Carla

Phil was very close to his family and had close friends. When he met Carla, he made the assumption that, like him, she was open and honest about her feelings. Carla, however, had very damaged bonds over her lifetime, and had trouble establishing and keeping close friendships. Her behavior was erratic and while the sexual connection was strong, she was unreliable over the entire relationship. 

When she told Phil that she found someone else, it was abrupt. She broke off contact completely, and despite Phil calling her to talk about it, she refused to return his calls or texts. 

Phil was stunned. 

While they were only dating for 8 months, he believed they were becoming closer. Carla had confided in him about the troubles in her life. He felt protective and wanted the chance to get to know her even more. 

After several weeks of being ignored, he stopped reaching out and began to ruminate. He spent hours talking about Carla to anyone who would listen. He rehearsed their last conversations for clues about whether the had said something insensitive. He longed for Carla to return his calls or texts, so he could develop a better understanding of what happened and why.

His sadness and regret turned to anger when he found out through a mutual friend that Carla had been seeing this new boyfriend throughout her dating relationship with Phil. But his anger didn’t reduce his rumination.

Now he imagined what he would say to her and how she might respond to him if confronted. He would drive by places they used to go, hoping to see her car in the parking lot. He never did.

Split Brain

In our conversations, Phil began to clearly articulate his “double brain” he called it. I encouraged him to use each hand, and lift one and then the other as he gave voice to the two sides of himself.

Side One: I want her.

On his left hand, Phil was able to give voice to the side of him that loved to talk about Carla. He found comfort in describing her appearance, smile, and even the way she moved. While painful, he even thought about the conversation where she broke it off, as a way to stay connected to her.


SIDE TWO: THIS IS A TOXIC RELATIONSHIP.

Lifting  his right hand, he was able to give voice to the rational side of himself. He talked about how brief the relationship was. How Carla had lied to him when she never told him she was also involved in another significant relationship.

He knew, rationally, that there was little he could say to her, now. It had been six months after the breakup, and equally significant, he doubted that even he wanted her back after her actions.

Over and over he lifted one hand and then the other, making clear to speak with one part of his feelings and emotions or the other. 

Consciously and willingly Phil decided for himself that little good would come from continuing to focus on the messages his left hand was telling him. He recognized that this breakup was so painful because it was both unexpected and out of his control. Carla’s decision happened even as they had summer travel plans that he now had to either cancel or live through alone. 

The zombie relationship that won’t die... Rebecca and John's relationship.

Phil’s relationship with Carla was finite, though traumatic. But Rebecca’s 6 year marriage was not. John initiated the divorce and moved 500 miles away. Still, he often called Rebecca when major life events happened to him. 

And when he was in town, there would be the occasional hookup, even if Rebecca was dating someone else. They remained close friends, or so she thought.

Rebecca listed all of her “faults” that she worked on diligently since the divorce. These were complaints that John had about her, and she believed these were things within her power to change. But despite making these changes, three years later, John never indicated any interest in getting closer.

How can Rebecca give up this endless hoping and longing for a closer relationship with her ex?

It didn’t end when Rebecca got John’s wedding invitation. While she felt that she was ready to move on, opening the invitation sent her into a deeply profound grief that she had yet to experience before.

P.S. Your ex’s wife is pregnant. Unfinished emotional business.

With my help, Rebecca got clear that it was not good for her to attend John’s wedding, and she recognized that it was sent as a courtesy anyway. But then she saw on his social media that his wife was pregnant months later, Rebecca returned to her coaching sessions totally shattered.

Only then did she talk about their pregnancy 2 years into their marriage, and John’s insistence that his demanding career could not be “sidetracked” by having children then. Rebecca was numb but complied, and as the years wore on, John’s career remained high-powered and left no room for the conversation of children.

Rebecca was now reliving the grief of an abortion she never wanted, combined with feeling deeply rejected to learn that another woman had the power to include children in John’s life, where she could not.

We also talked about how she limited her attachment with the occasional men she dates, despite their suitability. She now realized that none of them compared to John in her estimation. She continued to wait for him to return to her.

Five Steps to grieving for your past relationship

While being stuck in thinking about your ex doesn’t necessarily mean you have work to do in your own self-growth, it’s a good idea to examine it. 

  • Have you put in place a no-contact rule for your past destructive relationship? 
  • Have you found yourself reluctant to commit to an appropriate other? 
  • Can you accept your strengths and weaknesses? 

Healing yourself will take time. But if it has been some time, and your friends are giving you “that look” when you bring up your ex-, it’s time to try a self- intervention. 

  1. Limit the time you spend ruminating to select periods, and decrease the amount of time you spend week by week.
  2. Meet new people or socialize more often with friends and family.
  3. Establish new healthier habits and stop stalking them on social media.
  4. Recognize what in your environment are triggers for you to ruminate and hide or remove them. It might be photos or jewelry.
  5. You can use your hand or two sides of a page, but talk or write the two or more sides of  yourself and how they conflict.

Dr. K


Dr. K is the President and CEO of Couples Therapy Inc. She maintains her online couples therapy and sex therapy practice for couples in Massachusetts, Florida, Arizona and California. She is a Gottman Certified Couples Therapist, has advanced training in Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy and sex therapist. She conducts in-person and online couples therapy intensives.

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