Woman saying goodbye thinking about how to detach from someone you love

Are you feeling heartbroken after a breakup? Do you wish you could “just get over it” already and detach from someone you love so that you can get back to feeling like yourself?

If so, you’re in good company. Heartbreak is a human experience that’s nearly universal. It’s normal and expected to struggle with sadness, fear, agonizing self-doubt, and unwanted thoughts about “what if” when you’re detaching from someone you love. In fact, the only people who haven’t felt this way are those who haven’t fallen in love yet, or the tiny segment of people who are still in a relationship with the first person they ever loved. 

For the rest of us, the road to real, enduring love is bumpy, and involves a few broken hearts. And yet, many people arrive in breakup recovery therapy or divorce counseling believing there’s something wrong with them, or with their healing process. 

They wonder why they’re still pining for their Ex, despite seeing clearly why the relationship failed. They often believe that their heartache has gone on for longer than it should. They may be Googling words like “codependence” or “attachment issues” and wondering if these terms can explain why they feel so terrible.

If you’re having thoughts like these, you should know that there isn’t anything wrong with you. You’re simply experiencing what we all experience when we lose someone we’re deeply attached to. Recovering from a breakup or divorce is the painful process of releasing this attachment so you can find peace and move forward. Learning about how attachment works can help you heal your heart in the aftermath of a breakup. 

What Is Attachment? 

An attachment is the strong psychological bond that we form with the people we rely on to meet our emotional needs. It’s like a string that keeps us tethered to the people who are important to us, and as long as that string is in place, we feel safe, secure, and connected. 

We come into this world wired to attach — it’s the loving bond between babies and mothers that makes it possible for children to grow into adults. Imagine if these bonds didn’t exist, and mothers felt indifferent about their babies, and babies felt no drive to remain connected to their mothers. Humans wouldn’t have made it very far! 

Even as adults, we need strong, secure attachments to other people to be our happiest and healthiest selves. We can have attachments to our family members and our friends, but these bonds are especially strong with our romantic partners. When we kiss, cuddle, or have sex with someone we’re attracted to, our brains reward us with feel-good chemicals like oxytocin and dopamine. Over time, we get “hooked” on these rewards, supercharging our attachment to our person. 

You rely on your partner to meet other needs as well — like the need for love, understanding, and even company. When you lose a relationship and these needs are no longer being met, you suffer. You may become an “exaholic,” craving your Ex like an addict craves drugs. You feel sad, scared, and alone, and your brain tells you that the way to resolve these feelings is to hold on to your attachment by any means possible (even if your only way to stay attached is by thinking about your Ex non-stop, or obsessing about your Ex’s new relationship). 

Attachment bonds don’t go away overnight. They wither away slowly, and quite painfully. This is why heartbreak hurts, and why the path to healing from heartbreak is allowing that bond to fade away. 

But, Why Am I Struggling to Detach If I Ended the Relationship?

I often meet people who feel confused about how hard they’re taking their breakup since they were the ones who called it quits in the relationship. They wonder why they’re in so much pain if they no longer want to be with their Ex.  

Here’s why: Attachment bonds defy reason. Even if your brain knows for certain that the breakup was for the best, your heart still feels a connection to your Ex and longs for them. These confusing feelings may even make you doubt your decision to end the relationship, which is totally normal. This doubt doesn’t mean that your breakup was the wrong choice — it’s just a normal part of the process of letting go of someone you care about. 

When I meet a client who’s second-guessing their decision to break up, it’s often because they’re having a hard time sitting with painful feelings. Our brains don’t like pain, and they try to find ways to make it go away (like, by telling you that you should get back with your Ex, or that you should have sex with your Ex). 

The best remedy for this uncertainty is to find ways to tolerate painful emotions. Write them down, talk about them, cry about them. Give yourself permission to feel everything. Eventually you will detach from your Ex and the painful feelings will fade away, while your reasons for ending the relationship will remain intact. 

Ok, But I’m Pretty Sure There Is Something Wrong with Me

As normal and expected as heartbreak is, it’s easy to start believing that you shouldn’t be feeling how you’re feeling when you’re going through a breakup. It’s true that some people struggle more with breakups than others. For example, if you have an anxious attachment style or had early experiences with abandonment, you might feel even more distress than the average person when relationships end. 

If you’re having trouble detaching from someone you love, it could be that you don’t have anyone else to attach to… including yourself. A pattern of not letting go of past relationships may indicate that you have too small a circle of support (or none at all), or that you don’t have a healthy relationship with you. 

Let me be clear, desiring connection is a good thing. Forming strong attachments with others is a sign of emotional health. But if you’re truly having a hard time letting go of your relationship, it may be time to look inward. You can start by asking yourself these questions: 

  1. Can I name at least one other person I can trust and rely on?
  2. What have I done lately to expand my support system? How have I invested in other relationships outside of my Ex?
  3. Do I feel comfortable being alone? If not, why?
  4. What am I actively doing to grow and heal during this time? 

Detaching from Someone You Love in a Healthy Way

Grieving a relationship takes time. Sometimes a long time.

You may find it helpful to think about detaching from someone you love in the way we think about grieving someone who has died, because in fact you will experience the same stages of grief. These stages are denial, bargaining, anger, depression, and acceptance. 

The good news is that it does get easier over time if you’re grieving in a healthy way. You don’t have to move through the stages in order, but your process of detaching should end with acceptance. 

Here are some suggestions to help you walk through the stages of grief:  

  1. Eliminate triggers. This may mean cutting out all contact with your ex and getting rid of items that remind you of them. This isn’t the time to try to be friends with your Ex — for now, your priority should be healing and letting go. 
  2. Explore your own interests. Schedule time for activities that make you feel excited and engaged, and that get your mind off your Ex for a while. 
  3. Give yourself time and space to feel all your feelings. It’s all valid and all a part of your process of letting go.  
  4. Use healthy coping strategies to take care of yourself emotionally, such as getting more exercise, talking with friends, journaling, going to therapy, and getting plenty of sleep
  5. Remind yourself why it ended and that the pain will not last forever. It will pass. 

Letting go of someone you care about is so hard. Whether you’re struggling with intrusive thoughts, wrestling with regret or self-doubt, or simply feeling sad and hopeless that there may not be another person out there for you, you are not alone. 

Remember, we are all wired for connection, so these feelings make sense. I hope that this article has helped you learn new ways to take care of yourself and process the loss of the relationship so you can move forward to find an even better connection. 

Getting involved with therapy or coaching with a clinician who truly understands the nature of attachment and the science of love and loss can be incredibly helpful as you navigate this challenging process. If you need additional support in this journey, myself or many others on our team would love to partner with you. 

With a Hopeful Heart,

Georgi C., M.S., LAMFT

P.S. — You can find more expert advice to help you through your breakup in our “Healing after Heartbreak” collection of articles and podcasts. 

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