A Guide to Getting Un-Stuck from Your Last Relationship

So you broke up. Maybe it happened last week, maybe it happened 10 years ago. Here’s your troubleshooting guide for those of us who could use a little nudge out of a rut.

Let’s start with the basics: relationships are serious business. Primary attachment is the term psychologists use for the bond we form with our mothers as infants, and later in our romantic relationships with our partners. When that bond breaks, detachment can cause a lot of emotional and physical pain that you may have a tough time shedding.

Here are a few situations you might find yourself in, and what to do when you’re there:

If you feel physical pain when you think about your ex…
What’s happening: It’s not all in your head. The physical component of attachment is very real, and there are good biological reasons for it. Bonding hormones (especially oxytocin) are what we have to thank for making us think that being in an ex’s arms again is just what we need (spoiler: not true).

What to do: The good news is that there are proven ways to minimize the physical pain we feel after heartbreak. Exercise is a powerful tool to boost your mood, fight depression, and is a surefire way to boost self-esteem. Mindfulness meditation also soothes activity in brain regions associated with pain and anxiety.

If you can’t stop thinking about your ex…
What’s happening: Researchers at Rutgers scanned the brains of people who had recently been rejected by someone they still loved. The areas of their brains that showed activation are associated with obsessive behavior, similar to the kind seen in cocaine addicts in other studies. When we lose the source of our feel-good hormones and neurotransmitters, we naturally seek out a replacement “fix.”

What to do: If you’re obsessing, don’t beat yourself up. Negative self talk – you know, the “Why am I still thinking about this? I’m so weak!” kinds of thoughts? They actually encourage the cycle of obsession to continue, as every time you beat yourself up about not having moved on already, you lower your self-esteem, and your resolve and willpower drop. Be kind to yourself, and if you can’t, try some self-compassion exercises.

If you feel alone and it’s getting to you…
What’s happening: I guess I should have titled this article “Why Hormones Rule Your Life,” because it’s basically true. Touch is vital to life for social primates like us – research shows that the hormones stimulated by touch make us feel supported, connected, and less stressed.

What to do: Start by acknowledging that loneliness is just as vital to life as a connection. They are two sides of the same human experience, and both play important roles. Second, remember that there are lots of ways to stay supported if you’re missing the encouragement from your ex. Pick a goal, get a goal-digging buddy in on it with you, and go for it. Reach out to people you haven’t seen in ages. You never know what will come of it.

If the feeling of emptiness is overwhelming…
What’s happening: Sometimes the most devastating breakups are an indicator that our lives had lost their balance; that we cleared everything away for this relationship. When a large part of our identity and self-worth becomes wrapped up in a relationship, if and when it ends, the loss can feel more devastating.

What to do: Assess whether your life was balanced before the breakup. If it feels like there’s nothing left in your life you can get excited about, this is a great opportunity to rebuild from the ground up. When we work hard to enrich all the other facets of our lives: work, community, family, friendships, self-growth, health, spirituality, travel, and so on, the end of a relationship is still devastating, but the richness of the rest of our lives softens the blow of a breakup. Pick one area of your life you’d like to enrich this month and go for it. See what happens.

If you feel like you can’t move forward…
Dig deep to figure out why. There are lots of reasons we get stuck. One way we do this is by giving ourselves permission to, consciously, or otherwise. Staying stuck is an easy way out of our problems because we don’t have to face the unknown or whatever is next. Sometimes subconsciously we can also become addicted to the pain of heartbreak, so it’s important to assess whether you’re grieving or whether you’ve become hooked on your own suffering.

As Heather Havrilesky put it in her interview in The Atlantic: “There must be something evolutionarily adaptive about wearing out the same grooves in your brain over and over again. Or that just must be the way that effective animals are wired like they don’t mind just chasing the rabbits down the holes over and over. But oftentimes if you can simply get someone to just let go of the problem and admit that it can’t be solved using their brain, that’s half of the struggle. I see more and more that the core root problem of a lot of these mind puzzles is a basic lack of compassion for the self.”

If you find that you’re in any of these situations, stay strong and know that you are not alone. And then ask yourself: how would it feel to get unstuck? You can do it, one step at a time.

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