This is an image named “dumped by text” so you get the idea (Photo by Flickr user Funk Dooby)
Think about your ex for a moment. But like, really. It may have a been a while since you were together. You may no longer speak, you could have drifted apart, or you might still be friends, able to regularly meet over a nice pale ale and glass of merlot.
There’s a generally accepted sense that the only way to heal after a breakup is to “let go” of the person you were once so attached to. It’s a theory that’s become a ripe breeding ground for rom-com tropes: the drastic post-breakup haircut, nights spent rambling at friends or out careening on the pull and just about anything a Katherine Heigl character would do in a melodramatic “eating ice cream out of the tub” montage. But it may not be that simple.
Since ending a relationship feels so awful – for particular reasons we’ll get into in a minute – self-preservation calls for squeezing the poison out of your life. That normally means eliminating all traces of your ex. But psychotherapist Dr David Braucher has found that you can separate the person you dated from the way you visualise them later. It started with a patient of his. “What he said was that every time he succeeded at something, he would imagine his ex being proud of him. This patient had the memory of his ex functioning almost like a teddy bear,” in a way Bruacher describes as not too distant from British psychoanalyst Donald Woods Winnicott‘s “comfort object” theory.
“When this patient was telling me about his ex, he was really talking something he created. It wasn’t the person as he experienced them, but was something more a part of himself – just like how the comfort a child gets from their teddy bear is really coming from the child, not from the object itself.”
In a Psychology Today blogpost, Braucher names this as a distinction between “recollected feelings and memories — the internal image of the ex” and “the feelings engendered in his or her actual presence“. In fairness, this could work for some. If you can remember, say, really good sex with your ex and still find that it makes you feel good or turns you on, they become almost like a fantasy rather than the real person who fucked you over and got with your best mate or whatever. Those memories of times an ex made you feel good can turn into a fuel that fires more positivity in your life, rather than negativity.
“Learning to distinguish between the internal image of an ex and the actual person can lead to appreciation of our own loving feelings,” Braucher writes. “While we may feel consistently injured and angry when in the presence of an ex, in our internal world we may be able to access love and compassion for that same person.”
Well, maybe – it’s still just a theory. Dr Helen Fisher, a researcher and biological anthropologist isn’t as easily convinced. She’s spent decades analysing what happens to our bodies when we’re in love, then rejected in love. A lot of her reservations about how holding onto your ex would work stem from the way that our brains actually process love, based on what she observed after looking at the brain activity of more than 70 people.
“We put 15 people in the brain scanner who’d been dumped an average of 62 days beforehand, and they were a real mess. Oh boy, were they a mess,” she says, speaking from New York. “We found activity in a brain region linked to feelings of intense romantic love. We also found activity in the region related to deep attachment to the partner. We found activity in three brain regions linked with craving and addiction, and we found activity in a brain region linked with physical pain and the distress that goes along with it.
“So when you’ve been rejected in love, you’re still madly in love with the person, you feel deeply attached to the person, you crave the person, you’re obsessed with your thoughts about them, you go through swings into incredible sorrow, and you feel physical pain and the distress that goes along with it.” Not exactly an ideal mix for a long evening spent rehashing your last kiss, the last time they left their scent in your bed, the first time you felt the lurch in your stomach that confirmed you loved them.
Our brains are such powerful organs that they can only create the physical pain we feel from emotional hurt, but work overtime trying to understand why a relationship’s over. “People will say: ‘I should have gone on that trip with her,’ or ‘I shouldn’t have said that thing to him,’ ‘I should’ve’ this,” Fisher says. “You’re trying to figure out: What did I do wrong? How could I have done it differently? What can I learn from this for next time? So the brain is in a pretty bad state.”
Ana* remembers “muddying the waters” while trying to stay close to an ex, and needing to recalibrate. “In my experience, I haven’t been able to be friends with an ex until they’re out of my system and I’ve fully accepted that nothing will ever happen in the way I want with that person. This is speaking from the perspective of the ‘rejectee’ who is heartbroken but I think the same applies both ways – you can’t, or shouldn’t, be friends with an ex until they are over you.”
According to research that Fisher’s quoted in her own books, you generally go through two stages of grieving a relationship: protest and resignation. “Eventually, the brain regions linked to attachment become less active, the pain begins to go away. The memories do not go away. And that’s why you’ll always remember that person, but the pain associated with those memories will begin to dissipate. And then you’ll find somebody new and begin to wonder why you ever did that in the first place,” she says, chuckling.
While there may be some people out there who can look fondly back on old times, turning their ex into an abstract concept, others will likely end up having to burn old memories out of their mind to move on. Both approaches rely on the idea of fantasy: either turning your ex into a symbol that doesn’t horrify you in the present-day, or needing to create a narrative that helps you slice them out of your life romantically for good.
“I’ve known people who, for years, would hold onto an ex. Talk about the ex, hope the ex would come back – and that sometimes would involve cyber-stalking and various attempts at making connections,” Braucher says. “The smallest response from an ex could lead to weeks and weeks of: ‘What do you think she meant when she said she misses me? Do you think that means she’s gonna come back?'” Ultimately, he says, memory and fantasy have the power to collide “and generate an alternative reality”. If nothing else, how you feel about your ex says a lot about how real or imagined they’ve become in your life today, and how amicably things may have ended. Right. Now you can stop thinking about them – well, if you like.