Dear Adele,

I finally had the chance to listen to your album, 25. I’m so sorry it took me so long. I love it. It’s brilliant. Thank you for the many hours that I’ve already spent and the many more hours that I will spend in complete auditory indulgence.

racorn/Shutterstock
Source: racorn/Shutterstock

Soon after immersing myself in the album, I noticed a reoccurring theme: You seem to be thinking a lot about ex-partners.** Thinking, ruminating, missing, longing…I’m sure you know what I’m referring to. "Hello" is an obvious example, but later tracks echo this obsession. If “everybody tells [you] it’s bout time [you] moved on,” maybe we should talk about why you’re having trouble.

First, you’re not alone in thinking about ex-partners. Whether it was a relationship that ended three months ago or three years ago, it’s not unusual for people to find themselves missing an ex. Maybe they're even flirting with the idea of reaching out to try to start something again. Rumination and longing might be common, but they can still be problematic.

Why do people dwell on past relationships? It might have to do with rejection. Some breakups are mutual, but often they are initiated by one partner (the rejector) and received by the other (the rejectee). Not surprisingly, being the rejectee is often a subjectively worse experience, linked with more depression and a loss of self-esteem. Being rejected is also connected to rumination, or perpetually thinking about an ex-partner (Perilloux & Buss, 2008).

This tells us that how a relationship ends may explain why some of us think about exes more than others. But it might be more than that.

For example, could our current thoughts about being alone be linked to obsessions about an ex? New evidence suggests as much. Individuals who fear being single tend to long for ex-partners with greater intensity than those who are OK with being alone (Spielmann, MacDonald, Joel, & Impett, 2015). In other words, post-relationship longing may be intimately linked to our own fears about being single.

But what if you’re already in a new relationship? Adele, you and your new partner have been together for awhile, and I'm sure this has changed the meaning of some of your songs for you. In fact, generally, starting something new is associated with getting over an ex (Brumbaugh & Fraley, 2015).

And what if you still think about an ex-partner, despite your new (and improved) circumstances? Longitudinal research suggests that when a new relationship’s overall quality declines, individuals often experience increased longing for a favorite ex (Spielmann, Joel, MacDonald, & Kogan, 2013). Humans have a strong need to belong, and thoughts of a desirable ex may provide comfort in the face of a deteriorating relationship. Even the best relationships have ups and downs, so you might find yourself thinking about an ex when you and your current partner are having an off day.

There's a point of caution here, though: If you think about it, daydreaming about an ex may kick off a vicious cycle in which preoccupation with that individual harms an existing relationship—who wants a partner who's obsessing about someone else? And as the new relationship declines, this could lead individuals to long more and more for a favorite ex-partner. Not an easy cycle to break.

The habit of living in a past relationship, however, is one you want to break: It predicts current psychological health. People who are less accepting of a separation tend to exhibit poorer psychological adjustment (e.g., more distress; Mason, Sbarra, Bryan, & Lee, 2012), so it’s worth your energy to try to come to grips with the fact that a relationship is over.  

So what can you do about it?  

Moving on isn’t easy, as I'm sure you know. But research suggests that some things could help. First, stop calling or making contact with your ex-partners. When you call a hundred times and he never seems to be home, he probably is home; he’s just not answering. This is actually healthy behavior on his part. Refraining from post-breakup contact can help individuals maintain the quality of their current relationships (Spielmann et al., 2015).

If you’re not in a relationship, try to find someone new. You may have learned a lot from a previous relationship and evidence suggests that rebound relationships can actually be positive, lasting relationships (Brumbaugh & Fraley, 2015).

And when all else fails, practice self-compassion. After a relationship ends, the art of being kind to yourself, or engaging in self-compassion, predicts less intrusion of the ended relationship into individuals’ daily lives (Sbarra, Smith, & Mehl, 2012).

** I'm writing this as though the song lyrics in 25 are autobiographical for Adele, and refer to specific past relationship partners, but even if neither is the case, her lyrics still reflect the experiences that many people have in dealing with the end of significant relationships in their lives.

References

  • Brumbaugh, C. C., & Fraley, R. C. (2015). Too fast, too soon? An empirical investigation into rebound relationships. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 32(1), 99-118.
  • Mason, A. E., Sbarra, D. A., Bryan, A. E., & Lee, L. A. (2012). Staying connected when coming apart: The psychological correlates of contact and sex with an ex-partner. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 31(5), 488-507.
  • Perilloux, C., & Buss, D. M. (2008). Breaking up romantic relationships: Costs experienced and coping strategies deployed. Evolutionary Psychology, 6(1).
  • Sbarra, D. A., Smith, H. L., & Mehl, M. R. (2012). When leaving your ex, love yourself: Observational ratings of self-compassion predict the course of emotional recovery following marital separation. Psychological Science,23(3), 261-269.
  • Spielmann, S. S., MacDonald, G., Joel, S., & Impett, E. A. (2015). Longing for Ex‐Partners out of Fear of Being Single. Journal of Personality. Advanced online publication.
  • Spielmann, S. S., Joel, S., MacDonald, G., & Kogan, A. (2013). Ex appeal current relationship quality and emotional attachment to ex-partners. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 4(2), 175-180.

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