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How to Deal With Reminders of Your Ex

New research explores how to cope with reminders of an ex romantic partner.

Breakups can be hard. In extreme cases, they can lead to physical and mental health problems. Breakups are especially difficult when you still have feelings for an ex. And these feelings can surface over and over whenever you're reminded of your ex — running into them at a party, seeing their latest Facebook post.

Friends may advise you to "move on" and stop pining over an ex. But how do you move on? What is the best way to help you get over those feelings? Do you simply try to distract yourself by pursuing hobbies and spending time with friends? Do you comfort yourself by saying it's normal to still pine for your ex? Or do you convince yourself that your ex was not worth being with in the first place, and focus on his/her faults?

In a new study just published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, Langeslag and Sanchez explored the effectiveness of these different strategies for coping with a breakup when we encounter reminders of an ex.

In their research, Langeslag and Sanchez explored three different techniques for getting over an ex:

  1. Negative reappraisal of the ex-partner
  2. Reappraisal of love feelings
  3. Distraction
Source: Wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock

The two reappraisal strategies used a technique called cognitive reappraisal. Cognitive reappraisal is a common strategy people use to manage their emotional reactions when bad things happen. It involves reinterpreting a situation in a way that reduces the emotional blow — seeing the silver lining around the cloud. This strategy can be used in a variety of situations. For example, if obligations at work interfere with your ability to take a vacation, you could reappraise the situation by saying that the vacation would have been very expensive, and by not going, you can avoid that financial strain. If you were rejected from your top choice college, you could tell yourself that it was far away from your family, and that you probably would have missed your family too much if you had gone to that school.

Cognitive reappraisal is effective in psychotherapy. But can it also help people get over a breakup? One way of reappraising the situation after a breakup is the reappraisal of love feelings — changing how you think about your lingering loving feelings for your ex. This involves telling yourself that it's alright to still have feelings for your ex, and that you should accept that without feeling guilty about it. You can also reappraise your partner in a negative manner. Negative reappraisal of the partner involves thinking about your ex-partner's faults or bad behaviors.

There are multiple ways of "getting over" an ex. Part of getting over your ex involves simply feeling better. Feelings of sadness and anger often follow a breakup, and reducing those negative feelings is an important part of moving on. Another part of moving on is to fall out of love with your ex, to stop pining for your ex. Another part is to simply stop emotionally reacting to your ex, to be able to see your ex's latest social media post without reacting or paying much attention to it. So the researchers examined all three of these elements of coping with a breakup: mood, feelings of love for the ex, and attention to reminders of an ex.

The study

The researchers recruited 24 participants, aged 18 to 37, who had experienced a break-up and were still upset about it. Each participant provided the researchers with 28 photos of their ex to be used as reminders of the ex during the experiment. In the laboratory, they were hooked up to an electroencephalogram (EEG) to measure their brain waves, while they thought about their ex. Before viewing each photo of their ex, participants were given a prompt for how to manage their feelings. Sometimes, they were prompted to negatively reappraise their ex by silently answering a question involving something negative about the ex (for example, "What is an annoying habit of your ex?"). Other times, they were prompted to reappraise their love feelings by reading and trying to believe a statement that condoned acceptance of loving feelings for an ex (for example, "It's OK to love someone I’m no longer with."). Other times, the prompts asked participants to distract themselves by thinking about their answer to a question unrelated to their ex (for example, "What is your favorite movie?"). In the control condition, there were no prompts. After each prompt, the participant saw a photo of their ex, and then answered several questions about how they felt. They rated how in love they felt, and how positive or negative they felt in general.

How effective were these strategies?

Negative reappraisal of the ex-partner significantly reduced feelings of love for the ex. So dwelling on their ex's bad qualities was effective in making participants fall out of love. However, this strategy also had the negative consequence of making them feel bad. Participants reported the most negative feelings in the negative reappraisal condition. Thinking about how it's OK to still be in love with your partner did not affect participants' mood or their feelings of love for their ex. Distraction did not affect how in love people felt, but it did improve their mood. So distraction made people feel better, but did not affect how they felt about their ex. All three strategies reduced participants' attention to the photos of their ex when viewing them a second time (measured by EEG activity).

How should you cope with a breakup?

This research suggests that if you want to fall out of love with your ex, dwelling on their negative qualities is one way to do it. But it can also take a toll on your mood. Distracting yourself may be a way to temporarily improve your mood. But the authors of the article warn that this is likely not an effective long-term strategy and certainly not a strategy to use in isolation, as other research has shown that distracting yourself from a problem can ultimately backfire. Accepting your own feelings of love for an ex did not appear to be an effective strategy. But in this particular study, participants were asked to think about statements about love that were written by the researchers — they may not have been able to get themselves to actually believe those statements. Perhaps people who really do accept their loving feelings for an ex would feel better about their breakups.

Even though this study only examined moment-to-moment feelings, it nonetheless suggests that you can actively do something to change how you feel about your ex. My own research has often focused on how happy couples frame how they think about their partners in a positive way, by downplaying their partner's faults. This research suggests that doing the opposite — playing up your ex's faults — can help you fall out of love.