When You Can’t Get Over Your Breakup…
Have you been struggling with intense pain over the end of your relationship? Maybe you’ve experienced a broken heart for longer than your friends and family think you ought to? In my experience as a breakup coach and divorce therapist, many people struggling with heartbreak worry that something is wrong with them for taking it so hard and “not being able to get over it.” Some breakups are easier to cope with than others. Sometimes, it’s just a breakup. Sometimes, you become an “Exaholic.” Learn the difference and how to help yourself move on from an unwanted attachment to another person…
Why Relationships End
Regrettably, relationships end. Neglected marriages can be overgrown with the relational equivalent of cancer; festering malignant hurts so deeply that not even the best marriage counselor in the world can restore trust and goodwill. (Though, like cancer treatment, early detection plus prompt treatment with evidence-based marriage counseling can often blast it into remission). Even couples with great chemistry, over time, discover insurmountable fractures and persistently grinding fault lines between their personalities and core values. Sometimes, for mysterious reasons, one person is just less “into” the other. They apologetically leave, guilty and relieved, while their blindsided partner is left to cope with the devastation of the rejection and their suddenly empty life.
The stories and circumstances of everyone’s relationship are unique, but the core cause of breakups is always the same: One person stopped believing that the other can ever be who they need them to be. The rest are details. When hope of improvement is lost, the relationship is over. Even if the couple is still going through the motions of cohabitation and daily life, for the time being, the relationship has essentially ended.
How do I know so much about the anatomy of breakups? As a marriage counselor and relationship coach, I’ve helped literally hundreds of people repair and rebuild their relationships. But some couples show up at the door with situations that can’t be repaired. They’ve waited too long, or they are fundamentally incompatible. In these instances, one partner often stays in counseling with me to work through the loss. We walk through their divorce recovery or breakup recovery process together.
Love: The Mother of All Addictions
Through this work, I discovered an important concept that has revolutionized the way we think about breakups and their recovery. I’ve written about the science behind relationships and breakups extensively in my award-winning book, “Exaholics: Breaking Your Addiction to An Ex Love,” but here’s the punchline: Love is addictive.
It makes sense when you think about it. Nature has built us to bond, fiercely, to one “irreplaceable other,” just as we must attach deeply to our children. The literal survival of our species depends on the strength of these attachments. This is powerful, primal stuff. We have survival drives that compel us towards love and bonding. When those bonds are broken against our will, the pain is unlike any other. It’s like every cell in your body is protesting the disconnection, screaming for reunion.
What Are Exaholics?
I think of “Exaholics” as people who have bonded, at a deep chemical and emotional level, with someone in the context of an unsustainable relationship. There is nothing necessarily wrong here, except the circumstance. When two compatible people become fiercely bonded to each other in the context of a healthy, sustainable relationship, it is an epic love story that lasts a lifetime.
But sometimes, people become intensely bonded to people who can’t be good long-term partners. When the relationship inevitably ends, they have the harrowing experience of being thrust into a biological/emotional/psychological state that has a lot in common with the withdrawal from other addictive substances: Obsession, craving, and compulsions for a “fix.”
Signs You are an Exaholic:
- You cannot stop thinking about your Ex, even though you want to.
- You fantasize about getting back together, even if you know the relationship was bad for you.
- You crave their love and approval, even though you know you don’t want to care.
- You do things you know you shouldn’t to maintain your connection to them. (Examples include stalking them online, pumping friends for information, or accepting “friends with benefits” arrangements).
- You have intense and persistent feelings of anger, hurt, regret, and guilt that don’t get better with time.
- Other relationships, even good ones, don’t fill the Ex-shaped void in your life.
- You feel like your friends and family don’t understand why you feel the way you do.
- Your self-esteem has been damaged, and you feel ashamed that “you can’t just get over it.”
But What About “Normal” Breakups?
Here’s the confusing part: Not everyone goes bananas during every breakup. Why? What’s the difference between an “Exaholic” and someone going through a “normal” breakup?
We all know lots of people who rationally decided a relationship was wrong for them, returned the key, and went on their way. You’ve probably done that yourself at least once in your life. Yes, you may have spent some time feeling sad, eating too much ice cream, daydreaming about the past, and feeling the absence of your once-present companion. But you also thought about how “it’s better this way,” and knew, in your heart, that this relationship really needed to end. You didn’t feel like you were slowly dying in the flaming pit of unrequited love.
There are lots of reasons why not everyone descends into Exaholic madness with every single breakup, but I’ll distill it into the two big ones for you:
- You didn’t feel that intense of a connection with that particular person.
- You came to terms with the need for the split (and grieved the loss) before the relationship ended.
Again, neither one of these circumstances is better or worse, or more emotionally unhealthy or more virtuous than bonding deeply. It just is what it is. It’s not your fault that you felt that way when you did the breaking up. More so, it doesn’t mean anything terrible about you if your Ex is inhabiting this space either. (Even though I understand that it might feel like it). Similarly, being an “Exaholic” doesn’t mean anything about you except that you cared deeply about this person.
You CAN Get Over Your Breakup
The good news is that healing and recovery are possible. You can stop hurting, get your life back, and rebuild your self-esteem. While this doesn’t necessarily get better with time (as your well-meaning friends and family tell you earnestly, I’m sure), there is a path through heartbreak and into peace. The first step is establishing a connection with a safe person or group to help you process your pain, and support you in the deeper work of healing.
So here’s my question for you. Who are your “safe” people that you can turn to for non-judgmental support? Make your shortlist, and plan to be in contact with them regularly for the time being. If no one readily comes to mind, I sincerely hope that you take positive action on your own behalf and get some. You can try the free online support group available at www.exaholics.com, google “divorce support groups” in your area, or consider getting involved in supportive therapy. Breakups are isolating, and it will be worse for you if you try to go it alone. Be brave, reach out, and let caring people help support you on your journey.
All my best,
Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby is the founder and clinical director of Growing Self. She is a licensed psychologist, a licensed marriage and family therapist, and a board-certified coach, as well as the author of “Exaholics: Breaking Your Addiction to Your Ex Love,” and the host of The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast.
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