Gabriella Nissan, Psy.D.
Why Can't I Let Go?
I cannot tell you how many times people (friends and patients alike) have opened up to me about a cycle they have gotten stuck in: frequently thinking about their former partner and keeping track of their whereabouts through social media. Checking an ex’s social media status, recent posts, and photos can start to feel like a new habit. It can be difficult to let go of the past and we can find ourselves feeling stuck.
Ruminating about and feeling preoccupied with the end of a relationship is far more common than you might think. Many people struggle with this in silence due to feelings of shame or embarrassment associated with this. Some may feel barraged with judgmental thoughts such as, “I'm crazy”, or "I'm so pathethic", due to an ongoing need to "check in" on an ex's status. Why is it so common to ruminate about and keep track of our exes, and what we can do to navigate feeling stuck in this unworkable cycle?
Thinking about past experiences actually has an adaptive purpose. The human mind is a story-telling machine that constantly generates narratives. The mind is responsible to analyze, evaluate, plan, compare, foresee challenges, generate solutions to potential problems, and protect ourselves from harm. Consolidating memories helps us learn from past experiences. With greater clarity about the past, we are better equipped to apply knowledge to similar situations we may encounter in the future and prevent, or mitigate the impact of, negative experiences. When we ruminate about past relationships, our mind is trying to make sense of these experiences, to reconcile thoughts or feelings that conflict with our narratives.
Dwelling on past relationships can lead to imagining unpleasant futures and judging and criticizing both ourselves and others. While this may lead to a great sense of pain, it is indicative of what we are longing for; it speaks to what our values are. Thinking about past relationships can be a reflection of the level of intimacy we felt in the relationship or an awareness of the potential for such intimacy. The pain associated with these reflections can be indicative of our hopes to connect to values related to an interpersonal or romantic partnership. On this level, experiencing pain about a terminated relationship sheds light on the direction we want to move in, perhaps clarifying what we are seeking.
It may be helpful to take a step back and consider a shift in perspective: view your thoughts as stories generated by your mind, a story-telling machine, rather than as fixed narratives. As discussed here, thoughts we have are not fundamentally right or wrong, good or bad. Our thoughts are guides for how we interpret the world. The question is how firmly do we get "hooked" or "fused" with those thoughts. When we have an experience that feels incomplete, such as an end of a relationship, our mind seeks to generate potential endings to the story. As such, your urge to check up on your former partner’s whereabouts is your mind’s attempt to continue the unfinished story or provide a sense of closure. Instead of treating a thought as a truth etched in stone, we can treat our thoughts for what they are: thoughts.
A little bit of self-compassion can also go a long way in the recovery from a terminated relationship. While many experience the termination of the relationship as the greatest source of pain, the struggle against these thoughts or feelings, perhaps with judgmental or critical thoughts, may contribute to an even greater level of suffering. Instead, what happens if you take a step back and think about what you would say to a friend or family member if they opened up about this experience? You might find yourself being compassionate and supportive. Perhaps encouraging acceptance for the pain and the reassurance that then will be able to move forward. Try to extend some of the empathy that you would express to a friend toward yourself. Ending a relationship can be tough, and it's natural to have some lingering feelings or curiosity about your ex's life after the relationship ends. Keep in mind that everyone processes pain at their own pace, and there's no set timeline for when it's appropriate to stop thinking about a past relationship or to start dating again.
For some, the ruminations or obsessions associated with a terminated relationship might be an indication of an underlying OCD, one variant being relationship OCD, or R-OCD. If there is an underlying OCD, offering self-compassion or gently unhooking from thoughts may not be sufficient to navigate these experiences. In these situation, seeking professional assistance may be warranted. If you are concerned about your recovery from a terminated relationship, feel free to contact us for support.