How to Deal When Your Ex Moves On
How to Deal When Your Ex Moves On
We have all been there… witnessing our Ex move on without us. As both a therapist and breakup recovery coach who has walked with many people through the breakup recovery process, as well as a fellow human, I know that if you’re in the early stages of getting over a breakup or recovering after divorce, it can feel like a flaming knife is stabbing you in the gut when your Ex moves on with someone else. What’s worse, it can feel impossible to think about anything else.
How are you supposed to focus on your own life and your own recovery when you can’t stop imagining your Ex cuddling up with a new partner? How can you let go and move forward when you’re stuck in a painful obsession?
I created this episode of the podcast for you to answer these questions and others. You’ll learn why you can’t stop thinking about your Ex’s new relationship, and the powerful cognitive skills that will help you shift your focus.
Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby
P.S. — For more comforting and actionable content about getting over a breakup, check out our “healing after heartbreak” collection of articles and podcasts.
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How to Deal when Your Ex Moves On: Episode Highlights
When you learn your Ex is dating someone new, it can unleash a cascade of powerful feelings. Many people feel panic when their Ex starts a new relationship, as if they’re about to lose something that they lost a while ago. You may feel rage, jealousy, sadness, and rejection when you imagine your Ex and their new relationship.
These feelings usually don’t make much sense. They can happen even if you know the relationship was toxic for you. They can happen if you didn’t feel heartbroken about the breakup, or if you were the one who ended things with your Ex. And if you didn’t want the relationship to end and you’ve been struggling to repair your self esteem in the aftermath of the breakup, thinking about your Ex with someone new can really derail your healing process.
Still, not thinking about it can feel impossible. Many people feel trapped in their own heads after a breakup, ruminating about what went wrong and what their Ex is doing now. Imagining your Ex kissing, cuddling, or having sex with someone else can feel like pouring several gallons of gasoline on the nightmare fire. These obsessions can be especially bad at night, when you’re not distracted by the activities of daily living. They can keep you from getting a good night’s sleep, creating a downward spiral where you simply don’t have the energy to counter negative thought patterns and the painful mood states they create.
Rumination is a normal part of the breakup process, but it isn’t helpful. It makes you feel terrible, and, unlike reflecting on your experiences in a moderate and intentional way, it doesn’t help you learn anything new or valuable. Constantly thinking about your Ex keeps you attached to them and emotionally invested in their life, rather than gaining your emotional freedom and moving forward with yours. To get unstuck and fully heal your heart, you have to overcome obsessive thoughts about your Ex and their new relationship.
How to Stop Obsessing About Your Ex’s New Relationship
Time alone does not fix a deeply ingrained thought pattern like obsessing about your Ex. Many people stay stuck in this place for many months or even years, especially when they don’t have the support or the tools they need to stop.
“Getting back out there” before you’re healed and ready for a new relationship isn’t a good strategy either. If you’re not in a strong emotional place, dating is likely to create new problems for you rather than helping you get over your Ex.
To get your mind off your Ex so you can move forward, you’ll need to practice a few specific cognitive skills: self-awareness, mindfulness, and thought shifting.
These skills can be very helpful, but it’s also important to know that they are so much easier said than done. Don’t expect to kick your obsession habit in a day (or a week, or even a month). Reprogramming a deeply ingrained thought pattern takes a couple of months at least, and requires practicing these skills over and over and over — especially at first. Support from a good breakup recovery counselor who understands attachment and rumination can help you stick with it when it feels hard.
The first skill you need is self-awareness. Self-awareness is the ability to think about what you’re thinking about. The fancy psychologist term for this is “metacognition,” but it simply means observing what is happening in your own mind and noticing the reaction that it’s creating in your body.
Self-awareness helps you remember that you are having a reaction to something that’s happening internally (your thoughts), not to something that’s actually happening in your environment. That sounds obvious, but it’s easy to forget.
We have emotional and physical reactions to the things we think about, not just to the things that are actually happening around us, and your minds can’t automatically tell the difference. For example, if you imagine yourself being chased by a bear, you’ll feel a little surge of anxiety throughout your body. If you imagine your Ex on a date with their new partner, you might feel sick to your stomach and deeply sad, as if you were actually gazing through the window of the restaurant watching them slurp spaghetti.
To increase your self-awareness, practice noticing what you’re thinking about and bringing yourself outside of that thought pattern as if you were just observing it. You might literally say out loud, “Right now I’m imagining my Ex on vacation with their new partner. I’m thinking about them scuba diving and then watching the sunset together. This is not actually happening right now, it’s only happening in my mind. These thoughts are making me feel sad, and I’m feeling that sadness in my throat and a little bit in my chest. I also feel my eyes filling up, as if I could cry…” and so on.
Notice that you’re not trying to change what you’re thinking about — you’re simply staying in contact with the reality that you are thinking and these thoughts are what is creating the feelings you’re experiencing. Self-awareness becomes more automatic with practice, and you’ll naturally have greater separation between your thoughts and the feelings they create.
Mindfulness is about being in the present moment, in contact with your present reality — rather than running through thought patterns you’ve had a thousand times about things that happened a long time ago (or things you wish would have happened instead, or that might happen in the future, etc.)
The easiest way to practice mindfulness is to get very focused on your current physical experience. When you notice yourself thinking about your Ex, you might look around the room and begin to notice the details of every item you can see, and to catalog them. You could look down at your desk and notice the shade of the stain and the patterns in the wood grain. How does it feel to run your fingernail along the surface? What about when you run it across a scratch? Does the wood feel cool to the touch, or is it the same temperature as your fingertips? Maybe there’s a sunny spot that feels warmer.
Now you’re thinking about your present reality, rather than obsessing about your Ex. Doing this once can feel difficult and possibly not worth the trouble (since you’ll probably have to do it 150 times a day to truly stop every thought about your Ex). But as you practice, your “mindfulness muscle” will get stronger and you’ll be able to redirect obsessive thoughts more easily.
And redirecting those thoughts is important — not only because they’re unpleasant and painful, but because obsessing about your Ex keeps you attached to them, rather than healing and moving forward.
- Thought Shifting
The third and final cognitive skill you need to master to stop obsessing about your Ex’s new relationship and get over your breakup is thought shifting.
Thought shifting means intentionally redirecting your attention to something positive that you want to move toward. It’s only possible when you’re in the safe space of your present reality, so once you’ve spent a minute or two building self-awareness about the thoughts you’re having and then becoming mindful about your actual present experience.
The positive thoughts that you chose to shift towards will be very subjective; the thoughts that are helpful for you won’t be the same as the thoughts that are helpful for anyone else. Some people like to think about things they’re looking forward to, like an upcoming vacation. Others like to focus on a project or a goal.
You could also find a mantra that brings you comfort, and repeat that mantra to yourself when you want to shift your thoughts. For example, you might say, “I’m having a painful emotional experience right now and I trust that it will pass,” or “I believe that I’m exactly where I should be in my life at this moment.”
Thought shifting is important because it’s impossible to “just stop thinking” about something, but it is possible to replace a thought with a different thought. If you repeatedly choose thought patterns that are positive and that help you feel better, they’ll become habitual, and your habit of obsessing over your Ex’s new relationship will get weaker and weaker.
Why You Keep thinking About Your Ex
Understanding why you can’t stop thinking about your Ex’s new relationship can make it easier to cope with the painful feelings these thoughts bring up.
It’s not because there’s anything wrong with you, or because your breakup was the wrong choice. It’s just how human beings react when they lose an important attachment bond. We are built to form deep, intense physiological and emotional bonds with our romantic partners. This happens whether or not you’re in a sustainable and healthy relationship with someone who would make a good life partner for you. If you’re in a toxic relationship, an abusive relationship, or a dead-end relationship, you’ll form this bond nonetheless.
When that attachment bond is broken and you have to detach from someone you love, your brain enters a withdrawal process as if you had just stopped taking heroin, and it begins sending emotional and physiological pain signals that make you feel frantic to reconnect with your Ex.
Anxiously obsessing about your Ex’s new relationship is really an attempt at reconnecting. Your brain experiences your Ex’s new relationship as a threat to your survival, and so it focuses on it and looks at the situation over and over from every possible angle. This is your brain trying to “solve the problem” and keep you safe.
Of course, your Ex’s new relationship is not in any way a literal threat to your survival — but that doesn’t change how you feel. Human beings evolved in a context where staying connected to other people meant staying alive, and so your brain treats the people you’re attached to as essential to your survival.
It can be helpful to remember that these fear-based, anxious, obsessive feelings are not a sign that you want to get back with your Ex, or that ending your relationship was the wrong choice, if you were the one who ended it. They just mean that you’re a human being having a normal reaction to losing a relationship with someone you were attached to.
Healing after a Breakup
Heartbreak is one of the most gutting emotional experiences any of us can have. But believe it or not, you will likely look back some day and be grateful this happened — many people who go through heartbreak eventually do.
Painful, traumatic experiences are how we grow. They teach you things about yourself that you could never learn by living a spotless life. You will gain valuable new skills (like self-awareness, mindfulness, and thought shifting), and become stronger, healthier, and more connected with who you are and what you want out of life.
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How to Deal When Your Ex Moves On
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Music in this episode is by Cigarettes after Sex with their song “Pistol.” You can support them and their work by visiting their Bandcamp page here: https://nightbeats.bandcamp.com/. Under the circumstance of use of music, each portion of used music within this current episode fits under Section 107 of the Copyright Act, i.e., Fair Use. Please refer to copyright.gov if further questions are prompted.
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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