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Why it’s so hard to get over your ex, according to a relationship psychologist

Artur Debat / Getty Images

Few things knock your emotional world off its axis like a breakup. When my first long-term relationship ended, I woke up for several days in a row not quite remembering that my ex and I had split. This lapse would only last one or two seconds, but each time the reality hit, I switched from my usual cozy contentment to cold, sickening shock all over again.

And I was far from alone in how I reacted to my split. Breakups aren’t just unpleasant; for young adults, they are one of the most common risk factors for clinical depression. My understanding of this topic doesn’t come only from my own experience: I’m a relationship psychologist, now in my fifth year of doctoral study at Northwestern University. In addition to investigating how people bounce back from breakups, I study how people begin and maintain high-quality relationships.

At the time of that first split, I was supervising an ambitious project at the University of Arizona that followed young adults as they moved on from painful breakups. This study used a smorgasbord of tools to gauge recovery: surveys and interviews, heart rate monitors and sensors that could show us if participants’ hands got even the tiniest bit sweaty when they thought about their breakup. By the time the study had wrapped up, I’d heard more than 200 college students and community members tell the stories of their splits.

Since then, I’ve been involved in studies looking at whether our bodies provide hidden signals showing when we’ve moved on from a split, how social loss could affect something as basic as how our DNA expresses itself, and why writing about a divorce could actually keep us stuck.

Breakups fascinate me in part because they can affect each of us very differently, and leave their mark on so many aspects of our lives. Before we fully move on, we might find ourselves sobbing hysterically in bed some days and drained of emotion on others. We might long to be around friends 24/7 or retreat into isolation, struggle to sleep or never leave the bed, crave casual sex or watch as physical desire becomes a distant memory.

I now see these diverse consequences as a result of just how broadly breakups change our lives. Everyone knows that splitting with a lover means losing a huge source of physical affection, intimacy, and mutual care. But breakups also have a range of subtler effects: reshuffling our identity, throwing off our internal biological rhythms, and forcing us to revamp assumptions about our future.

The perspective offered here is based in research I’ve conducted and research conducted by colleagues whose work I deeply admire. In essence, I’ll be walking you through a greatest hits tour of what I think is the coolest, most enlightening, and most useful research on breakups and how to get over them

Why are breakups so painful?

They change the way we see ourselves

One of the most blissful parts of falling in love is getting so close to someone that you feel as though you are almost merging. And research confirms that as a relationship grows, the psychological boundaries between the two members of a couple blur in several different ways.

Every late night pouring one’s heart out and every adventure exploring new parts of town is an opportunity for partners to share and swap their traits, skills, and perspectives like two chromosomes during meiosis. Perhaps she grows to share his love for the quiet Ohio town where he grew up; perhaps he can now tell the difference between a malbec and a zinfandel after the countless bottles she’s brought home. And the more committed couples become, the more they do tend to think in terms of “we” — what’s best for us, what do we want, what does our future hold.

This process is thrilling and rewarding. Experiencing it in reverse, however, is disorienting and distressing. The end of a relationship calls into question many of our beliefs about our selves. (“Do I really love weightlifting? Or was I just trying to make him happy?”)

Research by Erica Slotter, a professor of psychology at Villanova University, and her colleagues confirms that this uncertainty is psychologically stressful. Slotter and her team tracked the relationships of 69 college freshmen for six months, asking every two weeks about the status of the relationship and about whether the students had a clear sense of who they were. When Slotter examined the scores of the 26 students who broke up within those six months, she saw that their level of clarity about who they were nosedived in the testing session immediately after their breakup. Moreover, their scores continued to decline over the remaining weeks in the study — and the more confused they were about their identity, the more they showed signs of depression.

They alter our biological rhythms

As we become attached to a partner, he or she starts to have a powerful influence on our thoughts, our feelings — and our physiology. David Sbarra, a professor of clinical psychology at the University of Arizona (and the head of my former lab) and his collaborator Cindy Hazan, a professor of human development at Cornell, argue that close partners help keep our physical systems in balance: They calm us down when we get agitated, energize us when we start to lag, and help set the pace of our daily lives (like signaling when it’s mealtime or bedtime). In essence, in addition to being lovable, a partner also acts like a combination alarm clock, pacemaker, and security blanket. And whether a relationship is wonderful or lousy, partners still become deeply accustomed to each other’s presence, physically and psychologically.

Consequently, a breakup throws both partners out of whack, like a caffeine addict suddenly deprived of her morning red-eye. Sbarra and Hazan note that adults going through a breakup show many of the same signs of physical dysregulation that infants do if separated from a caregiver: physical agitation, disrupted sleep, irregular appetite, and so on.

Strikingly, these are also quite similar to the symptoms you’d see if you deprived someone of natural light, thereby disrupting her circadian rhythms. So if you’re mourning a breakup and tossing and turning in bed at night, it’s likely not just due to sadness; instead, your partner may have been part of what kept your internal cycles on track.

This physical disorganization isn’t just unpleasant but can also contribute to health problems. When thinking about a painful breakup, people will show signs of stress like elevated heart rate and blood pressure. Over time, having your body in this amped-up state could cause gnarly wear and tear, with real effects on health. Indeed, people who divorce and don’t remarry are at a higher risk of early death.

Breakups are even harder when the relationship was highly committed

Commitment is an invaluable resource for a relationship. It motivates partners to take care of each other, it encourages forgiveness and sacrifice, and it provides a sense of security. Commitment involves not just intending to stick with a loved one but also feeling deeply attached to the person and automatically incorporating them into your thoughts about the future.

Yet commitment also poses risks. Very committed couples are much less likely to break up, but when they do, the emotional fallout is substantially worse. Indeed, while the length and happiness of a relationship doesn’t necessarily affect how devastating the breakup is, people show sharper declines in their life satisfaction after a breakup if they had made a concrete commitment to their partner, including moving in together or planning to marry.

Just as it hurts to give up aspects of your identity, it also hurts to abandon plans for the future. And if you had been assuming you would spend the rest of your life with another person ... well, a breakup could mean suddenly being forced to give up the idea of several exotic getaways, a few dozen future family holidays, and perhaps even some imaginary tots with names like Ava and Jayden. This kind of large-scale mental revision is confusing, draining, and difficult.

What can we do about it?

Give yourself permission to get angry

Breakups almost never trigger just one emotion. If you are facing an unwanted breakup, you’re likely grieving because you lost something precious to you — but because a split is rarely irreversible, you may also be hopeful, wondering if there’s some way the rift between you and your ex can be repaired. You may feel the dejection that goes along with having little control over a painful situation, but also the anger of having someone specific to blame for your suffering. And, of course, you may still have lingering love and desire for your ex.

Of course, most of us want to stop feeling any kind unpleasant emotions about our breakup as soon as possible. Counterintuitively, the best way to do this may be to embrace your anger, rather than indulging in bittersweet feelings of tenderness and affection.

In one study that closely tracked young adults’ feelings about a breakup over the course of a month, researchers found that on days when participants reported especially strong love for their ex, they tended to show a rise in sadness the next day.

In contrast, when the participants said they had felt unusually angry, this predicted drops in both sadness and love. This pattern was especially strong for the participants who ended up recovering the most, and the researchers speculate that these emotional ups and downs could actually prevent us from getting stuck in the rut of cycling between sadness and longing.

Think (and talk) it out

One perfectly reasonable reaction to a breakup is to try to think about it as little as possible (a goal often made easier by a few mezcal shots or a marathon screening of Friends). Most people wouldn’t want to repeatedly rehash the details of their split, and they certainly wouldn’t want to do so with strangers.

But recent research my colleagues and I conducted at the University of Arizona suggests that this uncomfortable-sounding scenario could actually be therapeutic. We recruited 210 young adults who had split from their partner in the past six months and were still struggling to recover. We asked half of this group to come to the lab for what you could call the “no sweat” version of the study: two sessions nine weeks apart, each a half-hour, in which the participants simply completed questionnaires about their recovery.

We asked the remaining participants to give us much more of their time, returning to the lab four times over the same nine weeks. These sessions were substantially more in depth, lasting an hour or more and including interviews and physiological assessments (like heart rate and blood pressure tracking) on top of the questionnaires.

When we compared the groups’ scores on their final questionnaires, we saw that the people whose recovery was intensively monitored in fact showed more of a specific type of recovery: Their sense of identity was significantly clearer. They were more likely to agree with statements like “I have rediscovered who I am,” and they even used more “I” language and less “we” language when discussing the breakup. And, replicating prior research, this stronger sense of post-breakup identity in turn predicted being less lonely and less distressed about the breakup.

Although most people don’t have the option of joining a research study when they split from a partner, we think some aspects of our study can be recreated at home.

Part of the benefit of coming in for repeated lab visits may have been rehearsing, over and over, the “breakup story” — but in a setting that encouraged thinking about the experience in an analytic way, rather than wallowing. So if you are mourning a breakup, whether you choose to mull it over on your own or talk about it with a friend or therapist, it’s probably best to try to keep your thoughts organized rather than cycling through the same painful ideas again and again.

And as odd as it sounds, you may even want to imagine how the entire story of your breakup would look from a third-person perspective. Researchers at Berkeley have found that this technique, called self-distancing, can help people bounce back from distressing events like rejection.

Similarly, repeatedly completing a set of questionnaires could have allowed our participants to track their own recovery. While it’s no fun to toss and turn for a few hours each night obsessing about an ex, it might be comforting to recall that only a few weeks ago you were barely getting any sleep at all. Keeping a diary where you track key aspects of your healing process — sleep, mood, longing for your ex, etc. — could help you spot improvement. You may even want to enlist a trusted person, like a friend, family member, or therapist, to check in with you and give you a heads up if they see signals of progress.

Avoid your ex — strategically

The urge to keep in touch with an ex can be powerful. About half of people try to stay friends with their ex-partner, and about 90 percent of young adults keep tabs on their partner in some way (including monitoring them online, like making furtive visits to an ex’s Instagram).

If you succumb to this impulse, however, know that it may come at a cost. When people see their ex-partner, they tend to feel more sad (not fun!) and also more in love with their ex (possibly fun, but not useful for moving on). Even cyberstalking can be toxic: Facebook surveillance of an ex is linked to distress, longing, and less personal growth.

There are important caveats to this pattern, though. Ashley Mason and her collaborators at the University of Arizona found that if you’ve really, truly accepted the breakup, you are actually likely to feel better if you’re in touch your ex. (The contact has to be nonsexual, though — sorry to disappoint!) They propose that because people who are truly over a breakup don’t rely on their ex’s comfort and support anymore, seeing the ex isn’t likely to trigger yearnings for closeness that then go unsatisfied. Instead, these folks can simply enjoy the pleasure of their ex’s friendship.

On the other hand, for people who still haven’t come to terms with the breakup, sex with an ex-partner (but not G-rated contact) is actually better for soothing distress. Because these folks still wish they had the intimacy and security of their old relationship, seeing an ex platonically can rouse a desire for closeness without fully satisfying it. The researchers speculate that actually having sexual or romantic contact allows someone to truly feel intimate with their ex, which (at least temporarily) quenches this desire and relieves their pain.

You will move on eventually

Even with all the tips, tricks, and Ben & Jerry’s in the world, breakups can be agonizing. But there are a couple of reasons to be optimistic.

First, the distress will usually fade long before you expect. Paul Eastwick, a former graduate student at Northwestern University and now an associate professor of psychology at UC Davis, and Eli Finkel, a professor of psychology and management at Northwestern, found that when they asked people to estimate how upset they would be if they split up with their partner, those asked predicted a level of devastation far beyond what actually occurred when they did later break up. In fact, the pain that people actually felt immediately after the break was equivalent to the pain they predicted they would feel an entire two and a half months after the split.

And breakups can be an opportunity for growth as well as a source of suffering. In reflecting on a breakup, we often begin to recognize how we can improve as people and as partners. We may fumble our way back to parts of our identity that had been neglected and set aside because they didn’t neatly mesh with our partner’s personality. We can even find that it’s suddenly easier to achieve our goals: If a partner used to be particularly unhelpful in facilitating your success, your progress may actually accelerate following a split.

Have compassion for yourself: Even if a breakup is the right decision, disentangling the complexly intertwined lives and minds of two people is rarely easy. But if we’re lucky, we can rediscover a clear sense of who we are, and want to be, now that we’re on our own.

Grace Larson is a PhD student at Northwestern University studying close relationships. You can find out more about her research here.

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