There are few events in life that are more distressing than the end of a romantic relationship, wondering “why can I get over my ex?” This article explores the science behind breakups and why we still long for our exes.
If you find yourself dwelling on the past – wondering “why can’t I get over my ex?” – you are not alone.
Breaking up with a loved one disrupts many aspects of our lives.
Not only do we miss the person who was once our other half; we also feel shaky on our feet as we try to figure out who we are without them.
The good news is there is ample evidence to explain why breakups leave us so shattered and why we cling to the memories of our ex months or even years later.
There is also a great deal of scientific research on how to recover from a breakup.
In this article, we’ll explore both.
If you recently (or not so recently) suffered a breakup, I hope this article is a comfort for you and the first step in your journey to recovery.
A note before we begin: This article shares the science behind why breakups are so tricky and some practical tips for recovering from a bad one.
What this article is NOT is a how-to guide on getting your ex back or making them jealous.
The purpose of this article – and all the work I do – is to help you get your self back.
I also believe that breakups don’t have to leave you broken – they can leave you better.
The aim of this article, and all of my work, is to help you heal and recover from emotions that are keeping you from genuine happiness.
My recommendations are based on scientific evidence and rooted in personal growth.
Because the thing is: breakups are incredible opportunities for growth and personal exploration–if, and only if, we allow ourselves to learn from them.
I know that it is possible to recover from a breakup and come out the other side stronger and happier.
Before we talk solutions, though, let’s explore the science behind breakups and why you’re asking the question why can’t I get over my ex? in the first place.
Why Can’t I Get Over My Ex? The Science Behind Breakups
Whether you were together for a short time or forever, your ex was probably one of the most important people in your life.
It’s likely that you were also one of the most important people in their world too.
Both of those points are hugely important.
When we give love to someone else, we get all sorts of enticing chemicals dumped into our brains.
When we receive love, our brains get to drink of those yummy chemicals, too.
It’s normal to miss our exes because we’re also missing the good feelings that came along with loving and being loved.
When hearts are happy, our brains are happy because love truly is a drug.
Losing love is a bit like going into withdrawal – even if you know the breakup was for the best.
Even if you were the one that did the breaking up.
Science has shown that breakups can cause all sorts of mental, emotional, and physical complications in our bodies.
Young adults who experience a breakup are more likely to face clinical depression. They’re also at risk for sleeplessness, anxiety, and immune deficiency (Field, T., 2017).
Breakups can cause us to feel the worst of human experiences: grief, rejection, betrayal, and distress.
What’s worse? Breakups also impact our identities – both socially and in the way in which we view ourselves (Slotter, E et al.).
When we are in a romantic relationship, our partners become the primary person we turn to in good times and bad.
We seek them out when we’re feeling vulnerable. We become accustomed to the comfort, security, and reassurance they provide us.
Romantic partners are also the people with whom we celebrate our achievements and success.
In romantic relationships, words like we and our begin to replace me and mine.
Unconsciously, our identities begin to merge in a romantic partnership. When the ties that held them together break – we can face something of an identity crisis.
Breakups alter the way we see ourselves – what scientists call our “self-concept.”
In one study, scientists found that immediately following a breakup, people demonstrated significant confusion about their self-concept.
Which is to say, when we’re going through a breakup, we’re really not ourselves.
As we let go of our relationships, it is up to us to begin reconstructing who we are without our ex.
A final reason we often find ourselves asking, “why can’t I get over my ex?” when a relationship ends is because reminders of the people we once loved are everywhere.
We see them on social media, out with mutual friends, and frequently, we have things scattered around the house that we associate with our exes.
Because of these constant reminders, the doors to a long-term relationship rarely feel fully closed.
Breakups are a choice.
Whether you made it together, or it was made for you, the decision to end the relationship was just that – a decision.
Wherever a choice is made, there is an opportunity for hope and doubt to creep in, wondering if we made the right one.
This kind of “what-if” wondering happens even to people who initiate breakups.
With social media, mutual friends, and a complicated loss of self – it’s easy for old emotions to rise to the surface.
If we allow ourselves to hope that a reunion with our ex is possible, we prevent ourselves from moving forward without them.
While choosing to let your ex go won’t make you miraculously stop missing them, it is the first step to recovering from your breakup.
Here are the early steps to take in the wake of your breakup.
Why Can’t I Get Over My Ex? How to Begin Recovering from a Breakup
#1) Get Rid of the Reminders
In the age of social media, it can feel impossible to go half a day without some reminder of your ex popping up on your screen.
Throw in old photographs, shared houseplants, and the inevitable discarded pile of your exes toiletries– and you’ve got a non-stop reel of ex-footage from the time you wake up to the time you fall asleep.
Get rid of as much of it as you can.
I know people get weird about this stuff.
You don’t want to block your ex because then they would know that you were still thinking about them.
You don’t want to mute your ex on social media because you kind of like keeping tabs on them.
You’re holding on to their old toothbrush because you never know when the next pandemic might hit, and you might need it…
Here’s the thing: these reminders are making your recovery from this breakup so much harder.
If you can’t bring yourself to block and delete your partner from social media, at least give yourself the gift of muting them from your news feed.
If you aren’t willing to pack up their things and drop it off to Goodwill, for the love of Pete, at least do the packing part.
Put the reminders of your ex in a box and tuck it away someplace you won’t see it often.
Out of sight, out of mind, is an adage for a reason.
It is so much easier to recover from a breakup when we aren’t faced with daily reminders of the person we’re missing.
Do yourself a favor and get rid of as many reminders of your ex on- and off-line as you can.
Similarly: consider making environmental changes, such as buying new bedsheets, changing the wallpaper on your phone, hanging a new painting on the wall.
These seemingly-minor changes can contribute to a new sense of optimism and possibility as you work to build a new life for yourself.
#2) Build a New Self-Concept
Remember the science I shared earlier about our self-concept and how we have to reconstruct a new one in the wake of a breakup?
When our identities have been tied up with our exes, it’s normal to feel uncertain of who we are without them.
As I wrote earlier, I genuinely believe that breakups don’t have to leave you broken – they can leave you better.
Allow this breakup to be an opportunity for you to reconnect with former interests, hobbies, and friends.
Open yourself up to discovering new things too.
Prior to your breakup, your routines and habits were unconsciously designed around the life you shared with your partner.
Create new routines by disrupting what you’ve always done.
Visit a new coffee shop or restaurant every week.
Take a different route to work.
Ask a friend you haven’t seen in a while to play a game of pool with you in some dive bar you’ve never been to before.
Go on a trip.
Prepare a dish you’ve never cooked – one that doesn’t remind you of something your ex used to make.
Shake up your routine so you can experiment with new ways of being in the world on your own.
Awesome side effect? You’ll feel better, meet new people, and be the kind of exciting person that new love interests will be drawn to getting to know better.
I know you may not be ready to think about loving again, given where you are right now.
One day, though, you’ll want to open yourself up again.
Being the kind of person who is happy, self-assured, and living a full life will put you in front of more new people when you are ready AND make you more attractive.
#3) Think (un)Happy Thoughts
This may feel counter-intuitive, but science shows that building negative associations towards an ex helps us to recover from a breakup more fully.
In a study done on breakup coping strategies, viewing exes in a negative light was found to be the most useful tool to get over an ex (Langeslag, S. J. E. & Sanchez, M. E., 2018).
I can see why this works because far too often, we seem to view our exes through rose-colored glasses.
After a breakup, we often focus only on the good characteristics of our ex – forgetting the bad altogether.
The truth is, your relationship ended for a reason.
And your ex had things about them that irked you just as much as they had characteristics that you adored.
Next time you find yourself dwelling on your ex, grab a paper and pen and write down all of the things that were terrible about your past relationship.
Make a list of your ex’s flaws.
Recall the instances that they rejected you, humiliated you, or made you feel small.
Record the times you were disappointed.
Journal about the reasons you’re glad your no longer with them.
Return to this list whenever you find yourself longing for your ex again.
I know this may seem like a cruel exercise.
The purpose of this list isn’t malicious, nor is it intended to villainize someone you once loved.
The purpose is to view your ex as a whole person – one with great attributes and faults.
For a short time, I encourage you to put more of your attention on your exes flaws, then what you miss about them.
Consider it a way to balance out the longing and take a tangible step towards recovering from your breakup.
Are you ready to let go of your past and begin the work of healing from your breakup for good? Sign up for my comprehensive online course, “The Breakup Recovery Blueprint,” today.
This course includes daily writing exercises and weekly guided meditations for surviving (and eventually thriving) through the end of a relationship.
Much like this article, this course is not aimed to help you get your ex back – it’s designed to help you get your self back.
For more information on my Breakup Recovery Blueprint program, click here.