My friend Zach recently broke up with his girlfriend of two years.
He loved her, but he didn’t think they were heading toward the more permanent relationship they both wanted.
They were fighting about his work and about her renewed friendship with a man he couldn’t stand. About two weeks after they broke up, Zach called me and said he was having second thoughts about their split.
He still loved his ex, he missed her, and he worried that he had made a mistake breaking up with her. It is natural to have second thoughts about your relationship and to miss your ex, and some couples do get back together after they split.
But if you want to move on, or if your ex has already moved on, below we review some strategies to overcome those lingering positive feelings for your ex.
Our Thoughts and Feelings are Not Necessarily the Same
After making a difficult decision, like my friend Zach’s decision to break up with his girlfriend, you may have conflicting thoughts and feelings for your ex.
For example, Zach’s thoughts centered on the fact that he and his girlfriend were fighting too much and were not likely heading toward marriage, but he felt happy about the good times they had together and he felt love for her. When our thoughts and feelings don’t match one another, we experience cognitive dissonance (Festinger and Carlsmith, 1959).
Although our thoughts about our partners or our relationships may be negative, if our feelings are positive, this mismatch can cause uncomfortable feelings of dissonance.
One way to resolve your conflicted thoughts and feelings after a breakup is to focus on the negative things about your ex which caused your rift (whether you initiated the breakup or not, both members of a former couple tend to blame the other for the split, see Gray and Silver, 1990).
Focusing on the negative aspects of your relationship is referred to as “devaluing” and this process can help us to reduce the distress associated with continued positive feelings for our former mates (Geher et al., 2005). For example, in her autobiographical illustrated novel, Marjane Satrapi initially thinks about her ex with tender feelings “I had just lost my one emotional support, the only person who cared for me” (p. 233).
But upon further reflection, she realizes that her boyfriend wasn’t as supportive as she initially believed. She thinks “How could I have been so blind? What relationship? What love? What support? What an asshole!” (p. 236). This anecdote shows that although we may initially regret breaking up with our partners, by focusing on the reasons we chose to split from our partners, we can resolve those feelings for our exes in a way that helps us to move on.
Don’t Stay Friends
Many people think it’s a good idea to stay friend with their exes, and in some cases, it may be. However, staying friends with your ex may perpetuate your positive feelings for your former mate and your desire to reunite with your ex (Schneider and Kenny, 2000).
When we focus on the good things about our ex-partners, we may retain more positive attitudes toward them (Geher et al., 2005), which may help us to stay friends with one another, but may also make it harder to move on after a breakup. Sometimes, these positive feelings for our exes may not even be conscious feelings (click here for a discussion of how our unconscious feelings for our ex-partners may keep us from moving on), but they can still keep us pining for our previous partners.
For example, Imhoff and Banse (2011) found that more positive unconscious attitudes toward ex-partners were associated with more distress following a breakup and a stronger desire to reunite with an ex. However, negative unconscious feelings toward an ex were associated with less distress and more well-being following a breakup.
Find a New Partner
You may be thinking that it’s too soon to start dating again, but individuals who establish new relationships are less likely to experience breakup-related distress as well as lingering positive feelings for their exes (Imhoff and Banse, 2011).
If it is too soon for you to actively engage in a new relationship, consider some new friendships or flirting to remind yourself about the options you will have once you are ready to start dating.
Spielmann et al. (2009) found that individuals who thought that they would be able to find new partners easily experienced less desire to reunite with former partners. Maybe the new possibilities help us to overcome our attachment to our exes, or maybe the positive thoughts about potential new partners help to replace the positive thoughts about former partners.