Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Are You Addicted to Your Ex?

A broken heart can make your brain go into withdrawal.

Source: Lopolo/Shutterstock

Months after Katie’s boyfriend broke up with her, she still couldn’t get him out of her mind:

"He’s the first thing I think about when I wake up every morning. I remember we’re not together, and I cry. Then I look at his Instagram page and see him going on with his life, and it feels so unfair! My friends tell me I should move on, but how can I? He’s always in my head. I want to be OK again, I do. But without him, I’m just not."

Four months after her breakup, Katie was showing no signs of recovering from her severe heartbreak. Sadly, her situation is by no means unusual. Many of us struggle to get over an ex when we’re heartbroken. We spend months feeling completely obsessed with the person who broke our heart, unable to let go of the relationship we lost. We crave the person so powerfully that we go through all of our texts and images of them just to get a brief taste of what it was like when we last felt whole—when we last felt okay. Without the person who broke our heart by our side, nothing else seems to matter. No one else seems worthwhile.

It’s as if we’re addicted to the ex ... because we are.

Brains studies have found that the withdrawal of romantic love activates the same mechanisms in our brain that get activated when opioid addicts withdraw from heroin. In other words, love is addictive, and the withdrawal of love hits us like it would if we were suddenly deprived of any "substance" upon which we had become dependent: We go through withdrawal.

Katie's brain was responding like the brain of an addict. It was trying to get her to find a fix. And since Katie couldn’t have her ex back (the heroin), the best she could do was indulge in memories of him—the images and videos and texts (the methadone). Such reminders can soothe for a short time, but they also make the next wave of cravings even stronger.

Heartbreak is a drug from which it is difficult to break free.

How to Quit the Heartbreak Addiction

Getting over heartbreak has many similarities to quitting other types of addictions, like drugs, cigarettes, alcohol, or gambling. You need to take seriously the pressure your mind will create to get you to seek contact with the drug/person/activity, because you will have to resist this pressure and find ways to manage the intense cravings you will feel.

1. Go cold turkey.

To get over your ex, you have to eliminate all contact points with them, at least temporarily, or to the extent you can if circumstances do not allow a full disconnect. That means deleting them from your phone, blocking them on social media, and copying pictures and video to where they are least accessible.

2. Use mindfulness to ride out the cravings.

Cravings come in waves. If you feel overcome by the need to reach out to your ex, focus on your breathing, meditate, and ride out the wave of need until it subsides. The peak intensity of such waves typically passes within a few minutes.

3. Distract your mind.

Keep yourself busy. The goal is to fill your mind with whatever you can, so there are fewer openings for your ex to pop into your thoughts. Since we cannot tell ourselves to NOT think about something—we can, but it doesn’t work—we need to think of something else instead, and keeping busy and engaged with whatever you can is the best way to do that.

4. Slips make the cravings stronger.

Recognize that you need to be as disciplined as possible, because slipping up and, for example, going through happy vacation pictures of you and your ex will set you back and increase the intensity of your cravings.

5. Reframe what your ex means to you.

When you were together, your ex was a source of happiness, security, and stability. That was then. Now that they’ve broken your heart, they are something else—heroin. Stay away; he or she no longer provides happiness and security, just emotional pain.

The key to recovering from heartbreak is to recognize that you are addicted, and that you need to break the addiction. Doing so requires the same determination and fight it takes to get over any addiction. Be strong, be determined, persevere, and you will win.

For more about healing from heartbreak, see How to Fix a Broken Heart (Simon & Schuster/TED Books 2018).

Copyright 2018 Guy Winch.

More from Guy Winch Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today