For those of you who are struggling to get over a past relationship, 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. Luckily, there are some things you can do to help you to move on. Here are 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.
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 your ex is definitely still your primary attachment figure. It will be difficult to get over him or her until that is no 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’s important to minimize the amount of time with your ex. In particular, 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.
This article is an adaptation of a previous article I wrote for the website Science of Relationships: http://www.scienceofrelationships.com/home/2012/6/11/how-do-i-get-over-my-ex.html
1. Sbarra, 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.
2. Doherty, N. A., & Feeney, J. A. (2004). The composition of attachment networks throughout the adult years. Personal Relationships, 11, 469-488.
3. Fraley, 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.
4. Spielmann, 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.
5. Spielmann, 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.