Reader question: I’m divorced. My ex has moved on, but I am still in love with her. I have placed her on a pedestal; no one else compares to her, even though I’ve tried dating again. How do I finally start moving on without her?
I think I speak for everyone when I say that breakups are one of life’s more brutal experiences. There’s the emotional carnage, especially if you’ve been blindsided by your partner. You have to dissolve the ties that bind you together. Friends often choose sides. Photos linger in your iPhone. You constantly see them on social media.
You have to rid yourself of triggers that remind you of your ex, which are everywhere, from physical objects to routines. You can’t stop thinking about the way she used to load the coffee maker in the morning and no longer does. His presence lingers in random places; you find his old band T-shirt tucked in with your laundry.
I know it hurts. But humans have been healing from breakups and creating new relationships for eons. Before we talk the step-by-step process to get over an ex, it’s important to remember that it can be done (and has been done). It just takes time to cycle through the healing process in a steady-but-not-rushed kind of way. Here’s how to do it.
Step #1: Realize that rumination is only helpful to a point.
Especially if you were the one who was dumped, it’s common to fixate over aspects of your relationship to determine what went wrong and when. You’re going to find yourself replaying everything that happened looking for clues. You’ll analyze and overanalyze the reasons your partner broke it off; you’ll hunt for those moments you could have been more supportive or attentive or caring. You’ll search for any clue to understanding what exactly was the relationship’s fatal turning point.
This likely sounds exhausting, and that’s because it is. But postbreakup rumination is also adaptive. If relationships that end don’t become learning experiences upon which we can build, then what are they? Wasted time? Absolutely not. You can always do better, improve your relationship skills, choose a more compatible partner, make wiser decisions in the future. Ignoring or repressing your feelings won’t make them disappear. They’ll exist until you deal with them.
There are tons of ways to “deal with them.” Personal analysis is great, and meditative activities like journaling can be helpful to process what you’re feeling. But if the breakup was devastating, you may want to enlist others. A good friend, for instance, can listen closely and give you honest feedback. Sometimes, you might be too hard on yourself or fail to see the situation as clearly as your friend can from an outsider’s perspective.
That said, rumination and analysis are only helpful to a point. Biological anthropologist Dr. Helen Fisher once told me that after you’ve discussed the relationship, learned important lessons, and resolved what went wrong, you’ve got to cut it off. Dwelling is only helpful in the short-term. Continuing to dwell on your ex and your former relationship for months will only prevent you from moving forward.
Step #2: Re-establish yourself again, as a single person.
When you build a relationship, you start integrating your significant other into your personal identity. “Me” becomes “we.” You might attribute characteristics of your partner to yourself without even realizing it. You operate as a team. You consult that person for decisions, you check in during the day, you hold each other accountable. Your partner is woven into your routine, your thoughts, and you can’t undo all of that instantly, just because you break up.
Psychologically speaking, the longer you were together, the longer it will likely take to feel settled and whole again — but you will. People split all the time; they build new relationships all the time. And most breakup researchers will tell you that time really does heal the heart; each day you’ll be waking up, retraining your mind, remembering how to be single again. While this is a great and natural process, you can speed the healing along by getting back in touch with yourself.
Be active. Spend time with your friends, especially single ones. Create new routines; if you used to start your day with your ex, maybe start your day by taking a walk with a cup of coffee. Remember what you love again. Maybe you listened to a lot of jazz, because your ex liked it and you thought it was OK. (This is the time to break out your shameless Top 40 playlist.) Meditate. Do whatever helps you feel at peace.
At the same time, you should get rid of everything that reminds you of your ex. Don’t spend six weeks with your ex’s stuff lying around your apartment; get it back to him or her immediately. Delete your ex from social media channels. You may want to get rid of pictures, songs that remind you of time you spent together, or whatever is a psychological setback.
Step #3: Date others, but keep your comparisons in check.
Depending on your personality, dating after a breakup can be filled with a lot of emotions — especially if you’ve been in a relationship for years. Some people find this process of discovering new potential partners exhilarating, while others might find it produces feelings of dread or anxiety. Whatever the case, you do need to start moving on when you feel like you know who you are again as single.
There are some caveats to dating again. First, some comparisons are natural and normal. Comparisons are how we humans form opinions and make decisions. That said, remember that you are not trying to re-create your previous relationship. You are trying to create an entirely new relationship with an entirely new person. If you compare everyone to your ex, where he or she is a 10 and everyone else is reaching toward that standard, no one will ever live up to that person. Thinking of your ex as perfect is not real and it’s only going to hold you back. Try to cut that type of thinking out ASAP. Date people who intrigue you in new ways; apps and online dating can help expose you to new “types.”
That said, sometimes people delude themselves into less-than relationships after breakups, just because they really want to get over a former flame or don’t want to be alone. Don’t fall into that trap. You want to build a relationship based on chemistry, connection, and compatibility. So, go slow. Ask yourself if you feel real potential with a new person. After a month or two, it’s OK to remember how you felt with an ex (or exes) you loved as a gut check. If connection just isn’t there, it’s OK to move along.
Step #4: Be open with potential partners if you’re struggling.
If you break up with a person who was extremely significant in your life — someone you thought you might marry, someone you did marry — then it may take longer to bounce back. You might consider therapy to resolve your feelings and come up with personalized strategies to move on, date again, and build a stronger relationship with someone new.
If you realize you’re still struggling while dating someone new, though, the one thing you must do is be honest and open about where you’re at in the post-relationship journey. Don’t discuss your ex with a new partner again and again, because this might cause your current flame to feel inadequate. Say you’re dealing with your emotions about the breakup and trying to find your footing again, therefore you might move a little more slowly than normal. The right person will understand, appreciate your honesty, and go at your pace.
Jenna Birch is a journalist, a dating coach, and the author of The Love Gap (Grand Central Life & Style, January 2018). Her relationship column appears on Yahoo every Monday. To ask her a question, which may appear in an upcoming post, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with “YAHOO QUESTION” in the subject line.
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