Let Go of Your Ex in 5 Easy Steps—and Then Move On
A friend of mine whom I’ll call Claire just went through a horrendous divorce from her businessman husband of 23 years. After nearly six months of legal wrangling, she emailed to let me know that they had finalized the divorce. I took her out for a celebratory lunch, where Claire insisted that she’s ready to move on. “I’m so happy to get that $#@!*% out of my life,” she said. “Every time I think of him and what he did I want to scream.”
For all the Claires out there, here’s something important you should know. As long as you are harboring such intense feelings for your ex—positive or negative—it will be nearly impossible to find a satisfying relationship with someone new.
That’s a finding from my landmark study, which has been following hundreds of couples and singles for more than 30 years. My new research discovered that singles who were able to say “I don’t feel much of anything for my ex” were more likely to find a successful long-term relationship than those who were grieving, held grudges, or worse—were still in love.
How do you know if you’re holding on to strong feelings about your ex that hinder your dating prospects? Here are some signs: You still have photos, mementos, and favorite tchotchkes from your relationship around the house. You occasionally “peek” at your ex’s social media sites to see what he or she is up to. You have strong negative reactions when his or her name comes up in a conversation. Or you panic when you discover that your ex will be at the same event you’re attending.
When you’re ready to put yourself back out there into the dating world, here are a handful of ways to keep strong feelings about the past from sabotaging your success in the future.
- Take your emotional “temperature.”When you think about your past with your ex, are your emotions strong? If you have unusually positive feelings, memories, and associations, you may be over-romanticizing the relationship. On the other hand, if you have unusually negative responses to the past (you can usually feel these in your body in the form of tensing up, frowning, or a sick feeling in your gut), then you have emotional baggage that may affect your current behavior and attitudes toward yourself and a person you might date. For instance, you feel bitter, and that makes you feel distrustful of the opposite sex, whether they deserve it or not. A high emotional temperature is not good for you; it needs attention and healing.
- Find positive ways to release those emotions. An excess of emotions about your ex will weigh you down as you travel down the path of seeking a new partner. Some constructive, positive ways to release emotions associated with your ex include: vigorous physical activity; staying active and busy with friends and family; doing volunteer service that takes you out of your self-absorption; engaging in creative activities that allow you to express yourself; screaming your anger and frustration in a safe place, like your car; hitting and kicking a mattress; and writing down your feelings in a letter to your ex—then throwing it away.
- Share your divorce/break-up story with a trusted friend. My study found that singles who kept silent about their previous relationship were less likely to find a new partner. Conversely, 80 percent of singles who talked about their break-up or divorce with others found new, healthy relationships. Ask an empathetic friend if she or he would be willing to hear your entire divorce story, starting from when things went wrong, through your present-day feelings and situation. Telling your story not only helps you feel better, but also gives you a way to get perspective and share your feelings, which speeds up the healing process.
- Change the object of your blame. More than 65 percent of singles in my study blamed their partner for the divorce or breakup. (He/she did something wrong.) Women blamed their ex more than men did. But partners who were able to share responsibility for the breakup or who blamed the relationship itself (“We grew apart,” or “We were ill-matched”) fared better in terms of emotional healing and were more likely to find a new partnership. When you can replace an “I” or “he/she” statement with a “we” statement, your emotions about your partner will quickly diminish.
- Avoid emotional and memory triggers. You can’t rewrite history and completely wipe out all memory of your ex, especially if the two of you share children and friends. But you can take action to minimize objects in your immediate environment that remind you of your ex, as well as people who upset your equilibrium. Scan your home for items that remind you of your ex—then have a tag sale or donate them. Avoid places where you and your ex used to go—at least until you’ve truly moved on. Keep contact with your ex to a bare minimum; for example, if you share custody of children, try to limit the amount of time you see or talk to your ex, at least at first. Finally, set boundaries with his or her family—again, avoid contact as much as possible at least until you’re completely healed.
My study supports the idea that once you are able to feel nothing, or very little, about your ex, you will be more mentally and emotionally prepared for meeting a new person, choosing new patterns, and discovering a new life. So forget your ex—and move on!
By Dr. Terri Orbuch, The Love Doctor®