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How Do I Get Over My Ex?

My ex and I work in the same restaurant, and while we have different jobs there, we still have a lot of contact. We broke up three months ago after being together since last May. She was by my side while I battled testicular cancer and we became really close. Since then we have been hanging out pretty much the same amount as we did when we were together and would occasionally hook up. This is my first real relationship and my first real breakup so I’m not really sure how to handle myself, and working together just makes everything more complicated. I’ve recently come to the realization that I am better off without her and don’t want to get back together with her but thinking about her with other guys is extremely unnerving. I don’t want to become a crazy ex-boyfriend and I need some advice: please help!

First of all, I have to say that I really sympathize with what you’re going through. Breakups can be very hard, especially when you’ve developed a close bond. The upside is that you know for sure that you do not want the relationship to continue, and making that decision really is half the battle. The other half of the battle is moving on. I’m going to give you some tips on how to get over your ex based on what researchers know about attachment.

Often, the hardest part about getting over a romantic partner is letting go of the person as an attachment figure1 – i.e., a person who you rely on for validation and support. Having others who we can trust to be there for us is one of our most basic needs as human beings. But because these relationships tend to be so close and intimate, most people have only a handful of attachment-based relationships. Furthermore, many people have what we call a primary attachment figure – a person who they are more likely to rely on than others. And for people in romantic relationships, that primary attachment figure tends to be the romantic partner.2 Romantic partners generally make great attachment figures because romantic relationships tend to involve so much intimacy, closeness, and interdependence. Indeed, some researchers argue that the whole reason why human adults even have attachment systems is so that they can form these intense attachments to romantic partners.3 Given the tremendous strength of these attachment bonds, you can see why they can be difficult to let go of, even if a person knows that they do not want to be with their romantic partner anymore.

You say that your ex was there for you during a particularly difficult period of your life. If that’s the case, then it’s quite likely that you’ve come to rely on her as an attachment figure. If this is the first real romantic relationship that you have had, then this is probably the first time you’ve experienced this sort of attachment to a romantic partner, which may be part of the reason why you’re finding this breakup to be particularly difficult. If you’re not sure if you still rely on your ex as an attachment figure, try this exercise. Imagine that something really distressing happens to you – you’re upset and you don’t know what to do. Who do you want to turn to for support? Now, imagine that you just won the lottery. Who do you most want to celebrate with? Was your ex the first person who came to mind? Both times? If so, then she is definitely still your primary attachment figure. It will be difficult to get over her until that is not longer the case.

So if the problem here is attachment, then how do you “detach”? The best way is to replace your ex with other people whom you care about and may assume the role of primary attachment figure. In other words, train yourself not to rely on your ex by spending more time with other supportive people in your life instead. For example, research shows that parents, siblings, friends, and children can all make excellent attachment figures.2 So, visit your family. Have lunch with an old friend.  Remind yourself that your ex is not the only person in your life who you can feel close to, and you’ll find yourself needing her less and less.

It can also be helpful to get back into the dating world.4 This doesn’t necessarily mean jumping into a new relationship right away – it’s never good to rush love, and getting romantically involved with the wrong person can actually make you miss your ex more.5 But scouting out some new dating prospects, and maybe going on a fun date now and then, can really help to shift your romantic focus away from your ex and onto the new relationships that you can look forward to having when you’re ready for them.

Finally, it would be a very good idea for you to spend less time with your ex. You probably know this already, but all of the time spent hanging out and hooking up is just serving to prolong the breakup period. You’re right that it isn’t ideal that you have to work together – that will make it more difficult for you to set boundaries. But in my opinion, seeing her in a professional setting is manageable, especially given that your relationship isn’t acrimonious. What you really need to try to avoid is doing attachment-related things together, which is anything where emotions run particularly high or low. You’ve had a crappy day and need to vent? Don’t call your ex. Something amazing just happened and you can’t wait to share it with someone? Don’t call your ex!  Try to find other people who can fill that space in your life instead, and it will really help you to move on emotionally.

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1Sbarra, D. A. (2006). Predicting the onset of emotional recovery following nonmarital relationship dissolution: Survival analyses of sadness and anger. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 32, 298-312.

2Doherty, N. A., & Feeney, J. A. (2004). The composition of attachment networks throughout the adult years. Personal Relationships, 11, 469-488.

3Fraley, R. C., Brumbaugh, C. C., & Marks, M. J. (2005). The evolution and function of adult attachment: A comparative and phylogenetic analysis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 89, 731-746.

4Spielmann, S. S., MacDonald, G., & Wilson, A. E. (2009). On the rebound: Focusing on someone new helps anxiously attached individuals let go of ex-partners. Personality and Social Psychological Bulletin, 35, 1382-1394.

5Spielmann, S. S., Joel, S., MacDonald, G., & Kogan, A (in press). Ex appeal: Current relationship quality and emotional attachment to ex-partners. Social Psychological and Personality Science.

Samantha Joel - Science of Relationships articles
Samantha's research examines how people make decisions about their romantic relationships. For example, what sort of factors do people take into consideration when they try to decide whether to pursue a potential date, invest in a new relationship, or break up with a romantic partner?

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