Divorce with Kids

The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast with Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

Divorce With Kids

Divorce is devastating under any circumstances. But if you have kids, divorce is even more fraught. In my experience as a marriage and family therapist and breakup recovery coach, divorcing parents are often worrying about how the end of their marriage will affect their children. I know that this can really ratchet up your pain and distress, and make a difficult situation even more challenging.

If you’re like most divorcing parents your number one priority is the mental and emotional wellness of your kids. You’re probably looking for answers to questions like, “how to tell your kids about divorce,” or “the impact of divorce on children,” or “healthy co-parenting strategies.” I’m so glad that you found this resource today!

Here’s something you should know right off the bat: The fact that you’re working so hard to educate yourself about how to help your children means 1) that you love and care about them so much and 2) you’re already doing a great job. Your efforts to help them through this mean that you’re the type of parent who’s going to get them through this in the healthiest way possible. You’re already doing it!

To support you in the work you’re already doing, I have put together another educational resource for you. On this episode of the podcast, I’m speaking with Dr. Amy S., a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist on our team here at Growing Self who is an expert at helping families get through divorce. She has tons of experience coaching parents and many years of experience in helping divorcing parents learn how to help their children with the emotional and relational aspects of divorce too. 

If your marriage is ending and you’re worried about how your children will be affected, you’ll want to listen to this conversation. We’re talking about how to talk with your kids about the divorce, how to navigate co-parenting with your ex, and how to be the unwavering foundation your kids need — even when your own world feels like it’s falling apart. 

I hope you join us for all of this and more. You can listen here on this page, or find the Love, Happiness and Success Podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts (and subscribe to the show while you’re there!)

I sincerely hope that today’s show helps provide you with some insight and direction on how to help your children through divorce and that it helps ease your anxiety along the way.

You’ve got this!


Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

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Divorce with Kids

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Kids and Divorce Podcast : Episode Highlights

As a marriage and family therapist, I’ve seen couples counseling transition to breakup or divorce recovery work many times, and I know it’s never easy for either partner.  

But if you’re worried about your kids, I have some good news: Research shows that divorce does not cause irreparable harm to children in and of itself. In fact, children actually may do better with divorced parents, if the alternative is living in a high-conflict environment. 

The key factor that determines how well children will cope with divorce is whether or not they place blame on themselves. It’s normal for young children to not have a clear sense of self, and blurry ideas about what they do and don’t control. For this reason, it’s critical to help kids understand that the divorce is in no way their fault. 

Effects of Divorce on Children

As kids come to terms with their parents’ divorce, it’s normal for them to have a lot of questions. They may be uncertain about where they’ll live, when they’ll see each parent, and what the future will hold. 

It’s also normal for them to feel a sense of loss and grief. Their family is changing on the most fundamental level, and they’ll need some time to accept this new reality, and to adjust to it. They may experience sadness, anger, anxiety, and withdrawal as they grapple with this change. 

In the short term, you may notice some behavior changes, like more tantrums, or getting into trouble at school. It can be helpful for parents to recognize that there are big, difficult feelings behind these behaviors. Giving your child an outlet to talk about these feelings will be more effective than taking a punitive approach. 

Being There for Your Kids Through Divorce

If you’re going through the stages of a breakup or divorce, you’re sorting out some big, messy feelings. It’s important to remember that you are there to support your children emotionally, but that they can’t be there for you in the same way. Avoid putting that responsibility onto your kids. Take good care of yourself, and look for other adults who can talk with you about the details of your split or who can support you as you work through painful feelings about your ex.

Talk with your kids about how they’re feeling, and acknowledge that what they’re going through is really difficult. Keep the dialogue open and encourage your child to come to you with any questions they have. 

Avoid talking negatively about your ex. However they’ve treated you, your child deserves to have their own relationship with both of their parents (as long as those relationships are safe). As hard as it is, this is truly a situation where if you can’t say anything nice, it’s better to say nothing at all. 

Create Clear Co-Parenting Rules

As difficult as it can be when you’re in the midst of emotional turmoil, it’s important to work out a co-parenting plan with your ex that’s as positive and peaceful as possible. 

Getting really specific about what is ok and what isn’t can help you sidestep future conflict, and spare your children from the stress of their parents fighting. Will you pick up, or drop off your child when it’s your time with them? Will you come inside? Can the kids have video calls with their other parent while they’re in your custody? How will you communicate with your ex about your child? Think through questions like these and try to create an amicable divorce agreement that puts your kids first. 

Also, keep this in mind: You will make mistakes! This is very difficult, and sometimes your feelings will get the best of you. If you don’t navigate co-parenting as gracefully as you hoped, don’t be afraid to acknowledge that to your child, apologize, and try to do better next time. 

When You Don’t Like How Your Ex Parents

Co-parenting goes from tricky to exasperating when you don’t like the way your ex parents. Maybe they let your child eat too much sugar, or spend too much time on screens. Maybe they’re not being as ethical about how they talk to your child about the divorce as you’re striving to be. 

The first question to ask yourself is, is my child safe? If the answer is no, you should absolutely step in. But if the answer is yes, pick your battles carefully. You won’t parent exactly the same way your ex does, and you won’t be able to control everything that goes on when you’re not there. 

If your ex is badmouthing you to your child, it can be tempting to retaliate with the same behavior. Avoid this. Your children will make up their own minds over time about the divorce, and pulling them in opposite directions will only do harm. 

Parental Alienation

One of the most heartbreaking outcomes of a divorce can be a child becoming alienated from one of their parents. Parental alienation may happen because of an ex “turning the child” against the other parent, or because of how the child interprets the divorce. 

Losing your relationship with your child, or seeing that relationship grow distant, is truly painful. The best thing you can do is offer your continued, unconditional love and support. Avoid trying to retaliate against your ex by interfering in their relationship with your child. This will be damaging to your child, and is likely to backfire. 

The best thing you can do is to continue letting your child know you are there for them, no matter what. Never give up on your relationship with your child. As they mature, they’ll have a more nuanced understanding of the divorce, and they’ll have opportunities to reconnect with you. 

Kids and Divorce

If you’re going through a divorce and worrying about how it will affect your children, stay strong. This is such a turbulent time, and I know it can be overwhelming. 

I hope our conversation gives you hope that your divorce does not have to be profoundly damaging for your kids. With support and an open dialogue, you can help them adjust to this new reality, and grow into happy, healthy adults. 

With love, 

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

Growing Self Counseling and Coaching

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If you’re ready to grow, we’re here to help. Connect with us, and let us know your hopes and goals. We’ll follow up with recommendations, and will help you schedule a first, free consultation.

Lisa Marie Bobby: Hi, this is Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby, and you’re listening to the Love, Happiness, and Success podcast. That’s Torelli and the Fuse with the song Forgive and Remember. That is our intro for today’s show because today on the Love, Happiness, and Success podcast, we’re going to be talking about what to do when you can’t stop thinking about your ex, and you want to. You want to.

This is so common. A lot of people, even if, intellectually, they know that the relationship wasn’t good for them and needed to end, can still find themselves months, even years, still having thoughts about their ex or even worse feelings about their ex that might even be keeping them from moving on into new relationships.

If this is true for you, you’re gonna want to listen to this episode, because it’s all about, first of all, understanding why this happens. But most importantly, what you can do to really let go and move on for good.

I wanted to talk about this because I’ve had a number of people getting in touch with me lately describing the situation. So, I am going to be answering some listener questions on this show, too. If you’ve written in lately, thank you so much for getting in touch. I appreciate it. And if you, dear listener, have follow-up questions for me or would like to pose a suggestion for another podcast in the future, don’t hesitate to get in touch.

You can track me down through our website growing self.com or also on Instagram, @drlisamariebobby, or through Facebook at facebook.com/drlisa bobby, no Marie there. All right, let’s jump right in because I know that if you have been dealing with this issue, you are probably ready for some answers.

It is such a terrible, really exhausting feeling, when you are having intrusive thoughts about your ex. When you are thinking about things that happened in the past over and over again. Or, even worse sometimes, when you are thinking about your ex currently, like what they’re doing, if they’ve moved on, and they’re in a new relationship. You are having lingering feelings of doubt, sadness, anger, or regret about a relationship that is over.

Why Can’t You Get Over Your Ex?

First of all, let’s talk about why this happens. It’s very common. I just want to say that out loud because what I often see in my role as a therapist, as a life coach who really works a lot with people who are trying to get unstuck from old relationships and heal and grow and move on, is that one thing that happens is that people can almost be angry with themselves for not being able to let go of this past relationship.

They might think something is wrong with them or they’re having an unusual experience or that it means something about them that this is happening. First of all, that is actually not true. It’s more common for people to not be able to easily and effortlessly get over a relationship. And I’ll tell you why.

It’s because you are a healthy, normal loving person that is capable of developing deep and powerful bonds with other humans. That’s significant because we human beings are really built to bond to each other. And it would be more concerning to me if you were able to be like, “Next!” with your ex as opposed to having these lingering feelings and thoughts about them. Because it’s an indication that you are able to love, and that when you do bond to another person, you bond strongly.

Now, the flip side of that is that it’s also inconvenient and exhausting when the relationship is over. Either you know that you don’t want to be with this person anymore or you wish that you didn’t still care for them because they don’t want to be with you. And that’s why people come to us for counseling and coaching here at Growing Self. And they’re like, “Help me move past this.”

First of all, just know that it is normal. And, also, something that’s really important to keep in mind is that time alone is not going to make this go away. That is like this trait, you know, grandmother advice, that is actually not true. It is entirely possible to spend years. I have met people who are going on a decade who are still very much attached to their ex.

It changes over time, but it does not go away. And so, it’s very important to learn what to do to move yourself through this as opposed to just kind of stay in turn in this emotional washing machine that you might be in. If you’re still thinking about your ex all the time feeling about them, ruminating about what happened and what didn’t happen and what could have happened. It’s terrible. So, let’s find a path forward.

Why You Still Think About Your Ex: The Biology Of Attachment

One of the things that I have found to be really helpful in the people that I work with here at Growing Self and that I write about a lot in my book, Exaholics: Breaking Your Addiction to an Ex Love, relates to the biology of attachment. As I mentioned a minute ago, people are built to bond. And there are systems in your brain and in your body that exist for the purpose of maintaining bonds and attachments and connections to other human beings.

The way that love begins and the way that endures involves a biologically based system that has a lot in common with any other addictive process. And we think of addiction as being a patently always negative thing, and it certainly is when it is involving, you know, addiction to substances or illegal drugs or, you know, alcohol or maladaptive behaviors. Nothing good ever comes of that.

However, when we get addicted to a person, it can be extremely positive. You know, you’ve heard people maybe say in passing that mothers feel addicted to their babies, meaning that they always want to be with them or that you always want to be with people that you feel close to or are in love with. And this is part of the wonderful things about being a person is that we do establish these bonds, and we feel very connected to people we want to be with them, they’re important to us, we care about them.

Human beings will do hard things to stay connected with their family, with their children, with their partners, with our friends. And this is a good thing. This is part of the reason why human beings, weak little human beings who don’t have claws and fangs and scales and all kinds of systems in place to defend themselves like wolves or alligators or something. This is what humans have. It’s this collective tribe that we humans are a part of.

There’s that tribe affiliation that’s part of the human experience. But even more importantly, there are family relationships. You know, human children require much more time and energy than the offspring of any other species. And part of, I think, the biologically based reason why we pair bond as strongly as we do is that it is almost impossible to raise a human baby into something close to adulthood on your own.

That if it weren’t for those pair bonds and weren’t for mates or extended families and people sticking together and working together for years and years and years, humanity as we know it would not exist, okay?

I just wanted to provide that context for the other things that I’m about to say on this podcast, which is that the emotions and the thoughts and feelings that you have are very real. They are extremely powerful. And part of the reason why you’re going through this is because it is like human survival drives. When you bond with someone, those bonds do not break easily. 

There is a biologically based, evolutionarily meaningful reason why. And I think that it’s very difficult to understand this experience without putting it into that context. And even when I talk to people in therapy or in coaching about these ideas, sometimes, right then and there, it’s like a light bulb can go off for them. Because I think that in our modern culture, there’s a lot of self-judgment that I often see with with my clients. 

Certainly, I mean, who hasn’t experienced this, right? But I think that it can be easy to think that you’re having some kind of unique experience or an experience that you shouldn’t be having. And really, nothing, nothing could be further from the truth. This is an addictive process by design, but also like an addiction to a substance. Or there is a very predictable pattern that people go through when they stop having contact with their “substance of choice,” in this case, an ex.

Really, if we think about substance abuse as having an attachment to something that isn’t good for you, we can also conceptualize the ongoing attachment to an ex that is, maybe not good for you, in a similar kind of way. Because again, just like there are neurological systems in your brain that become activated when you use substances, there are pleasure receptors and dopamine, all kinds of things, the exact same regions of the brain are involved when it is relating to a romantic love or somebody that you’re attached to.

Some newer research into addiction actually postulates that the reason why people get addicted to drugs and alcohol, in the first place, is because drugs and alcohol are artificially stimulating these parts of the brain that are there for the purpose of bonding to other people. And, even more interestingly, that the ultimate cure for drug or alcohol addiction is less about simply stopping the substances, but really facilitating healthy attachment bonds to other people.

This is very, very, very big stuff. And just like with a drug or alcohol addiction, when you first lose someone that you are attached to, either through a breakup or divorce, you will always, almost always, go through a withdrawal experience, particularly if you are not the one initiating the breakup. But sometimes, even if you are, you will go through a period of time where you are craving contact with the ex because you’re in a lot of pain, and contact with your ex feels like the only thing that would relieve that pain.

Associated with that are obsessive thoughts. I mean, I’ve talked to people who will report 90 to 95% of the day, they’re thinking about their ex, what their ex is doing, what they’re thinking, what they might be feeling. or thinking about things that happened in the past, or imagining running into them, or like playing out different things in their mind’s eye. It’s like they are still very much in contact with their ex even though it’s happening in their own minds.

There can also be, during especially the beginning phases of a relationship ending, an almost compulsive desire or even active effort to reconnect with an ex. And it could be looking for information about your ex ,or stalking them online, or asking friends about your ex, or showing up at places where you think your ex might be, or texting your ex, or trying to get your ex to engage with you. So, there can be a lot of that.

This first stage of a breakup or divorce is so incredibly hard. And I talk about all of this in a lot of length. I mean, certainly, there’s the book. But I mean, I’ve done podcasts on this before, if you want to learn more about all of the stages of a breakup. Let’s see. What did I call it? I think it was maybe even Stages of A Breakup. Stages of breakup, recovery, something like that. If you scroll back through the list of podcasts, you’ll find it.

But here we are, even after the early super intense phases of a breakup or divorce when it’s super fresh and immediate, those are incredibly intense. But even many months and years later, people can still be thinking about their ex, wishing about their ex, imagining that they might get back together with their ex, comparing their new partner to their ex. I mean, it just goes on and on and on.

One of the biggest reasons why, and one of the first things to look at if you want to have this be different, is recognizing what I’ve been discussing. That your pre-historic brain, your monkey mind, the part of your brain that you really, really needed, say 50,000 years ago, when our modern life wasn’t nearly as developed as it is now, believes that you are in danger because you have lost your attachment. 

Understanding that this very elemental part of your brain is like yammering at you and making you have thoughts and feelings and cravings for contact can be extremely helpful when you understand that just because you’re having these thoughts and feelings does not mean anything about the actual relationship itself.

That is so important. I’m going to restate this. Just because you’re having thoughts and feelings about your ex does not mean anything about the relationship. It doesn’t mean that this was the love of your life. It doesn’t mean that this was like a great relationship. It doesn’t mean that you should get back together. It doesn’t mean that this was your soulmate. It doesn’t mean anything except that you bonded to someone, and now this bond is broken.

This is so important because this thing right here messes up so many people and, as a therapist, as a coach, we have to oftentimes spend a lot of time here. Clients come in and they’re talking about their ex and their feelings. And then these things happened, and they had these beliefs about the relationship, and they had these experiences about the relationship, and they take these thoughts and feelings to mean that the relationship was, sometimes, more significant than it was.

That’s not to say that the relationship itself wasn’t very significant when they were in it. But it can be very confusing because I think that we oftentimes look to our feelings for guidance. And when we’re having really strong feelings of love or missing our ex or craving contact or wanting to be with them again or feeling sadness or anger or regret for the relationship having ended, it can be very, very confusing to think that we really need to stop it altogether because it feels so important.

How To Stop Thinking About Your Ex

One of the first things that we work on is beginning to detach that feeling part that’s having this monkey mind experience from the rational part of your brain who was able to say, “This person cheated on me,” or, “This person never talked to me. This person was uncommunicative. This person had values that were very different from mine. We fought all the time. We didn’t enjoy each other’s company a lot. I didn’t trust them and, in many ways, maybe this was a toxic relationship where they clearly did not love me and care about me.”

We need to start moving into this other piece of the brain, which is this thinking part of the brain, which is very different from the emotional part of the brain. And in doing this work in therapy and having these conversations around why this made sense and really strengthening that part of your brain that wants the relationship to be over, that is really that first stage of being able to consciously and willingly decide for yourself that the relationship is over.

The other big reason that people keep thinking about their ex far into the future is when it feels like the relationship was taken from them and that perhaps they were broken up with, or they weren’t totally sure that they were done but then their ex moved on. Or, sometimes even, say, you might have broken up with your ex and like feel really good about this but then, all of a sudden, your ex finds a new partner and starts moving on.

Then again, having these thoughts and feelings all over again, like the relationship is being taken from you, as opposed to you being the one deciding for yourself that this is over. And so, another really interesting thing that happens with any relationship that’s ending, either a divorce or a breakup, is that they can feel very open-ended. As terrible as a death is, when someone that you love literally passes away, it’s horrifying. It’s traumatizing. Iit’s all of these things, and yet, there is a certain finality to it.

Even though in the very early stages, even of a death, there can be a lot of denial or bargaining or feeling like it isn’t true, which is also very normal. But with a breakup, there is this space that a lot of people enter into where it’s kind of this purgatory experience. Like, “Yeah, we’re not really together, but we’re still friends and we still talk sometimes, and sometimes we might still leave and hook up. And if anything really crazy went down, I would still call my ex to talk about it or tell them about it.”

Even though consciously and officially, the relationship is over, there is still this very profound and enduring attachment. The ex is still, on an emotional level, your person, and there’s this little bit of an open door, that, “we could get back together? Or if they grew and changed and realized who they need to be in order to have a good relationship with me, then we could try again? Or if we worked through these issues that we were having?

Or what can be so hard to, sometimes, when people go into, “If I were better, if I were more lovable, if I were more something, then I could get my needs met by this person even though I couldn’t get them met when we were actually together.” And it’s almost like this magical thinking, in a way, because it really sort of moves past the reality of what the relationship was actually like. And it moves into this almost fantasy, or it takes the very best parts of the relationship because there were good parts.

I mean, even in a bad relationship, there are still like really great parts and things about this person that you loved. And it’s this very optimistic way of thinking that deep down they still love you and, maybe you guys need to just go do your own things for a couple of years but you’ll reconnect at some point in the future. And sometimes, it turns into full-blown fantasies about your ex. 

But sometimes, it’s almost just like this sort of subconscious feeling that it’s not done and there could be the second chapter. And what this does, again, is it maintains your attachment and your connection to your ex. And because of this, it can keep you stuck for a long, long time. When you are in this kind of emotional place if you haven’t had that closure, and if it doesn’t really, genuinely feel over for you.

The Phases Of Letting Go

A lot of what we do in, again, our work with individual clients who come to us for help with this sort of thing, and even what I teach in my online breakup recovery program, which is really around how do you get really clear inside of yourself that this relationship isn’t over? Because of course, you know, that it’s over. But how do you move into a place where it’s “OverOver” and you let go of those thoughts and hopes that there could be a second act or this like hope that your ex could get it together and be different somehow or realize what they lost? I don’t know. 

But when this happens, what I see with a lot of the individuals that I work with, when people move away from this place of longing and wanting and wishing and hoping, and instead move into this emotional place where they’re, “No, this is over because I want it to be over and I say it’s over, and we are never going to be together,” a couple of things happen.

First of all, they move into this place where all of a sudden, there is a lot of grief because denial and kind of bargaining and imagining these possible outcomes, is, among other things, a very effective way of protecting us from the feelings of grief that come when a relationship is Over-Over because it hurts. It’s, again, like something died, and we have a lot of pain to cope with when we are never going to be with this person ever again, and we know that and kind of lean into that.

A grieving process will begin that, interestingly, is different, as terrible as early stage breakups and divorces are with all of the terrible like almost panicky feelings and the craving for contact and obsessing about the ex. A lot of times, when people move into this grieving phase, it’s deeper grief, and it’s like a more profound loss. And what is also true is that when you move into this stage of healing and can actually move through it, when you come out the other side, you’re done in a different way, emotionally.

But even then, when you’ve processed the loss on a deep level, you can still stay attached to your ex if there is unfinished emotional business that you haven’t done yet related to this relationship.

This brings us to our third sticking point. So, even after you’ve moved through these other phases, you’ve gone through that terrible anxiety and monkey mind like, “Oh no, we need to be together,” and you’ve worked through this grief, another place people get stuck is when they are still angry with their ex and they haven’t been able to fully process this anger. Or if they are dealing with dark emotions, like guilt or regret, that hasn’t really fully been worked through, there’s still these gnawing feelings that they’re carrying around inside of them.

Other things that can get people stuck on an ex is, still on some level, wanting your ex’s approval and love even if you’ve worked through the other two phases. You know it’s over, but there’s still this part of you that almost wants validation from your ex. And until you can get that, it feels like there’s this loop that hasn’t closed. There’s this unfinished thing that you wanted or needed from your ex that can hold open an emotional wound.

Similarly, if your ex, even after everything that you’ve been through, is still your primary attachment, like if you haven’t transferred your attachment needs away from your ex and to a healthy relationship, or better yet, to yourself first, you will still have that open wound feeling related to your ex. And when people talk about needing to love yourself first, like back and turn into all kinds of things, a pop psychology, you can find all kinds of stuff about that. 

But, I think, related to attachment, if you do not have a secure and healthy attachment with yourself where you’re able to talk yourself through difficult things, and be a comforting supporting person for yourself and be comfortable, to a certain degree, with being alone, you will still have this open, wounded feeling related to your ex because that attachment need is still going unmet. 

How To Get Over Your Ex

In this phase of healing, a lot of what we do with our clients here at Growing Self, is really helping them do this deeper emotional work that’s, in my experience, very hard to do on your own. I mean, in our online breakup recovery program, I have little journaling exercises and things that can help you crack into some of this. But it’s hard, I think, because a lot of times people who are in this space aren’t fully conscious that it’s happening.

They’re having thoughts about their ex, but they are having difficulty getting down to that core level where they’re able to access and express, for example, their anger or their feelings of guilt or regret. And, again, this is totally understandable because we humans try to avoid pain whenever possible. Like, who wants to put your hand into a fire? And some of this emotional stuff can really feel like that.

I think, being able to have a secure and supportive attachment to a therapist or coach who’s able to, first of all, make it feel safe enough to go there but also actually help you stay there instead of pulling back out of it super quickly. That’s something that I see with clients anyway, they need support to stay in those feelings as opposed to talk themselves out of it or minimize it or distract themselves.

I mean, we need to stay there for a little while. That can be very, very hard to do. And on this note, so I think that that’s one of the layers of why people get stuck is that unfinished emotional business. We need to go in and drain those emotional abscesses.

But another piece of it that’s very closely related is when people have done this work. They’ve, worked through all the feelings. But even at that point, they can still get stuck because they have insecurities or anxieties related to themselves that this relationship triggers even to this day, even if the relationship was over four years ago.

They can still feel triggered because it turns into, “My ex moved on, but I didn’t.” What does that mean? Or if they had been dating and haven’t connected with their next person, it can turn into anxieties about being alone and worries about what was it about them in this relationship, or what is it about them currently, or, “Look at this, my ex has moved on and they’ve gotten married and is pregnant, and I’m still here.”

When people feel sort of blocked from being able to move on victoriously into their own lives and achieve and achieve their goals and really like move into that next phase of life, there can be a lot of anxiety, particularly, I have found if they don’t really understand what and why their past relationship went down the way that it did.

This is like this fourth layer of growth that people often have to go through is, really, for once and for all figuring out what happened. Why did that relationship turn out the way that it did? “Yeah, some of it had to do with my ex, but maybe some of it had to do with me too.” And what was that? Because it’s never one person’s fault, right? 

But I think that part of the insecurity that people often feel in the aftermath of a breakup is this fear that comes from not knowing what they don’t know and knowing that they don’t know everything about what happened.

I think that until people really dive in and do that autopsy, and maybe not even just this most recent relationship but all the relationships, and figure out, “Who am I in relationships? What are my patterns? What am I bringing to the table in a positive way? But also, what am I bringing to the table that’s maybe not helping me? And what do I need to do to really begin continuing to play by my strengths in relationships?”

“But also, with humility and self-awareness, cop up to maybe some of the things that I have been doing in my relationship. And it could be something that I’m doing in the relationship in terms of the way that I’m relating to people or my attachment style. But also, what about the patterns that I have and the type of people that I’m choosing? Is there even a blind spot there?”

That, I think, is where breakup recovery can dovetail and overlap with some of the dating coaching that we do because I think that there’s really always this growth and self-discovery phase. But what I have found is that until people really do that and feel confident and self-aware and really know what happened and who they are and what they want next and also kind of have a plan for how to create that, continuing to think about their ex can still feel really triggering because every time they do, it’s this little sliver of anxiety.

But once people have done this work and really feel confident and good about themselves and have almost wrung all of the lessons out of this past relational experience, they can continue to kind of feel uneasy about it, and it can make it difficult to let go of.

Now, the fifth level of attachment. So, when people have gone through the crisis, leaned into the grief, worked through that unfinished emotional business to really put in the work of developing themselves and sort of resolving all of those insecurities and getting clarity and self-awareness. All of those are like the growth opportunities that come from an old relationship, and I would say 90% of when people are continuing to have thoughts and feelings about an ex well after the relationship is over.

Those are the usual suspects. Those things are almost always why. But even after that, there is still this other thing that happens that can keep you attached to your ex maddeningly frustratingly. Even if you hate your ex and don’t want to have anything to do with them, you can still be accidentally maintaining your attachment to your ex by simply thinking about them, or even a thing, especially having a feeling charged thought about your ex. Even if it is a negative thought or a feeling about your ex. And here’s why.

How Attachments Are Formed

Going back to what we were talking about in the beginning about how romantic relationships and human bonding is similar to an addiction is that like any addiction, our connections to other people are formed through repeated contact over and over and over again. There’s a reason why your best friend growing up was the kid next door or the person that you saw the most is that proximity has a lot to do with how people form these attachments.

What also happens, like think back to early-stage romantic love, like when you started to have a crush on your ex or anyone for that matter, in addition to getting all twitterpated when you were around them, you thought about them. That’s one of the hallmarks of human attachment, is that we think about the people that we’re attached to, even when they’re not there. And you often see this happen during a crush. You have little conversations in your mind with a person, or you imagine what they’re doing, or you have fantasies about seeing them again.

That is part of the way that human beings maintain their deep and profound attachment with other humans, even when they’re not there is through our ability to envision things and play out little mental movies in our mind’s eye, or reminisce, or future think. We have very powerful brains that are capable of all of that stuff. And here’s the rub, and I’ve talked about this in other applications primarily related to anxiety, but it’s true for relationships too.

The emotional part of your brain cannot tell the difference between things that you’re thinking about and things that are actually happening in front of you, which sounds crazy. But you’re, I don’t want to go into all the details. But basically, your brain is built in layers. And the smart part of your brain, like the human part of your brain, is the outermost layer that knows what’s happening, it operates in reality, it thinks deep thoughts and has language and all of this stuff.

But the limbic system, the part of your brain that experiences emotion, will have the same feeling from a mental movie that you’re playing in your head, the same feeling between that and something that you experience in real life, IRL, as the kids say. And so for that reason, even once you’ve done all of the work that I’ve been describing, unless you have figured out very reliable, effective strategies to get control over what is happening in your brain, you will still be perpetuating your attachment to your ex without realizing it, without wanting to.

But every time they pop into your head, it’s like, a little piece of glue that like welds you back together again. And so the final thing that we teach, surprising to some people because some people really want to do this work first. They’re like, “Tell me how to stop thinking about my ex. Tell me how to distract myself so that they don’t come into my head anymore, and that I’m not feeling these things anymore.”

Doing The Work To Get Over Your Ex

Unfortunately, what actually happens is that you have to do all these other layers of work first, because there is valuable information. And if you just skip ahead to, “Help me not think about my ex anymore.” First of all, you will have so much unfinished business. And this is how and why people get stuck on their ex for months and years is that they try to not do the work. They just jump right back out there. They start dating again. They try distracting themselves with other things.

There’s no judgment. I totally understand why this makes sense, is that nobody wants to suffer. And to step into the growth work and do it all layer by layer, it’s hard. And it takes months, honestly. And there’s lots of feelings that come up, and people would prefer to just skip ahead. I totally respect that. And when you skip ahead, you’re just kicking that can down the road, and who can relate? I certainly can.

I tried this when I was going through my terrible breakup in high school. It’s like, I just want to be done, so I’m going to start dating. I’m going to get myself into a rebound relationship and forget this unpleasantness and just kind of move on with my life. And then after that relationship ends, predictably because you were not anywhere even close to being emotionally available to have a healthy new relationship with someone because you didn’t do this healing and growing work right. That rooster comes home to roost or nest, whatever the saying is.

You will eventually, sooner or later, have to do this work. Some people will move from relationship to relationship to relationship, and only after their third or fourth or fifth relationship ends, then they show up in therapy or coaching to say, “Okay, what’s going on?” And then we just have to peel back the layers and often find this primary wound and have to do all the work of healing and growing that I have been describing.

Your feelings are there for a reason. Pay attention to them. Don’t try to escape them. And when they come up, thank them. Embrace them. Lean into them, and start working through these things that I’ve been describing.

Now, after all of this is said and done, and you have done this work, there is nothing else to think about, there is no other insight or self-awareness to be gained, there is no unfinished business, you may still have this experience where you’re maintaining your attachment to your ex just because they’ve become such a fixture in your mind. You sort of habitually think about them, then it does become time to learn thought-stopping skills, distract and replace skills to very consciously and deliberately shift your attention elsewhere. 

This can often be enhanced by mindfulness skills, present moment awareness skills, some acceptance and commitment skills. All of these are cognitive and emotional skills that can be learned. Again, you know, they take time, but usually, when people have done all of this work, that part feels like the easiest thing. And once you get to that space, you’re done. There is nothing else to think about. Your ex is no longer a thought in your head.

What I have experienced time and time and time again, as I’ve walked through with people through this process, is that there comes a time when people have done all this work, that they don’t think about their ex at all. Or if they do, it’s like any other memory, you know? I mean, someone that you used to know, right? And it’s not that big of a deal. It is not emotionally triggering. You can think of your ex and wish them well. There is no need to “remain friends with your ex.” You’re not harboring fantasies of reunion. It’s just kind of blank. And that’s perfect.

I think that people that are really in the midst of this anxiety and angst and pain, is what they wish for is just to kind of not feel anything when it comes to the ex. And that is what is ahead of you. Now, again, if you try to skip over all the steps and just go into, “I don’t want to think about this anymore. I don’t want to feel about this anymore.” It is unlikely to be successful.

I do hope that this discussion has provided you with a roadmap for understanding what is happening, why you’re thinking about your ex, and the step-by-step process, the work that you need to do in order to really genuinely authentically be done with this relationship for once and for all. And not just be done with a relationship, but really benefit from this relationship, even if the relationship itself was horrible.

What you have now is the opportunity to learn about yourself, and grow as a person, and mature and, really move into a new chapter a new level of being that you might not have been able to attain had you not been through this experience. And I’ll just leave you with that thought. 

That’s another thing that I also often hear from my clients who go through all of this. I’ve had people say, “This was horrible. This was one of the worst things that ever happened to me, I would not wish this pain on anyone. And on some level, I’m so glad that it happened because I wouldn’t be the person that I am today had I not gone through this. And I’m happy now and I am happy with my life, and I’m grateful for who I am and what I have and so, for that, I’m grateful that I had this life experience.”

That is my sincere hope and wish for you. I hope that this podcast was one little supportive thing that helps you along that way. And thank you for listening today. Again, if you have questions for me for an upcoming show, you can trot right over to growingself.com and jump into our comments section. I also have specific listener questions that I’m answering more and more of on IG TV through Instagram @drlisamariebobby on Instagram.

You can join our free online breakup support group which is a hidden Facebook group available at facebook.com/drlisabobby. You have to send a request to be added to this group. It’s not something that you can just find online and join, but send a request and we’ll get you into that. And we have so many more resources for you at growing self.com. Tons of breakup advice in our blog and a number of other podcasts. And, of course, Exaholics: Breaking Your Addiction to an Ex Love. So much for you, and I hope it helps you on your journey of growth. Thanks.

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