The Science of Willpower

Secrets for self-control without suffering

4 Science-Based Strategies for Getting Over an Ex

Expert advice on catching willpower and ignoring the white bear.

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Yahoo! Shine asked me if the science of willpower could be applied to a romantic addiction. In other words, can research on other bad habits help you break your "ex" habit and move on for good? Never one to shy away from a willpower challenge, here's my best shot:

Why You're Addicted to Your Ex

Why is it so hard to let go of an ex? Even when a relationship is history, the connection you shared is not easily erased from mind or body (oh, yes, chemistry can outlast commitment). Anything that reminds you of your ex can bring back a flood of feelings. Being single can also blur your memory. You may look back with "euphoric recall," remembering only the highs and none of the lows. Even if the relationship was a disaster, you may not want to believe that you wasted your time and heart on a jerk. So you vow to "make it work," and hope things will change. You might even be trying to avoid future regret. What if this relationship was as good as it gets, and you never find anyone else?

Like any difficult change, breaking the ex habit requires a good dose of self-control and a dash of self-compassion. Here are four tips for moving on, based on latest research on the science of willpower:

  1. Find a Role Model.

    Science shows that we can "catch" willpower from people we admire, and strengthen our resolve just by bringing them to mind. Look to your own life, pop culture, or the news for a "ditch-the-ex" role model. Who's your favorite example of a strong woman who kicked a man to the curb, and is doing just fine on her own (or on the rebound)? Think of yourself as following in her footsteps, and bring her to mind when you're tempted to stalk your ex on Facebook.

  2. "I Won't" Is Easier When You Have a New "I Want."

    The best way to make an old habit less tempting is to find a new "addiction." The bad news is you can't order a new crush from Zappos. So how do you replace the longing for an ex without jumping into a new relationship? Find a new goal—like running a race for charity or writing a romance novel—or return to an old passion you'd left behind, like cooking, bellydancing, or blogging. When that "something's missing" feeling comes up, get busy on your goal instead of fantasizing about getting back with your ex.

  3. Take Care of Yourself.

    Stress is the No. 1 trigger for any addiction, including old flames. Feeling overwhelmed, exhausted, or anxious triggers a physiological need to connect, and a craving for what psychologists call "contact comfort." Stress also makes your brain focus on potential reward, and ignore potential risk. So you're likely to imagine the warm embrace of a romantic reunion, and forget the shame or regret you felt after the last hook-up. Pre-empt stress-induced longing by treating yourself to some serious self-care: Schedule a girls' night, pull out that yoga DVD, get a manicure and massage, or do whatever calms your nerves and lift your spirits.

  4. Beware the White Bear.

    There's one guaranteed way to make sure you never forget your ex: Try to push him out of your mind completely. Psychologists call this the "White Bear Effect." If you try not to think about a white bear, one will assuredly pop into your mind. This is true for all kinds of temptations. Dieters who try not to think about chocolate become obsessed with it (and eat more of it). Smokers who try not to think about cigarettes only end up smoking more. One study even found that if you try not to think about an old flame, you're more likely to dream about him or her. So when an ex comes to mind, don't panic, and certainly don't take it as some kind of sign. Remind yourself why he or she's an ex, then put your attention back on someone you really care about—you.

Kelly McGonigal is a psychologist at Stanford University and the author of The Willpower Instinct: How Self Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do To Get More of It (Avery 2012). 

Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D., is a health psychologist at Stanford University.

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