How to Get Over an Ex (and 2 Major Mistakes to Avoid)

Obsessing about someone, positively or negatively, will only prolong your grief.

Posted Jun 30, 2016

Antonio Guillem/Shutterstock
Source: Antonio Guillem/Shutterstock

One way we avoid having to deal with the difficult and painful emotions that accompany the loss of a romantic relationship is by obsessing about our previous partner. This usually takes one of two forms—vilifying or idealizing.

When we vilify an ex, we mentally replay everything negative they ever did to us. We hyperfocus on their flaws, make interpretations about their motives and their mental health, think of them as warped, and perhaps even believe them to be immoral or psychopathic. This is upsetting, but vilifying an ex provides momentary relief from the heartache that comes with loss. It also takes the focus away from the role we may have played in the demise of the union.

However, when we idealize an ex, we mentally replay every positive interaction and build the ex up to be something that perhaps they never were—perfect. We imagine ourselves as worthless without this perfect person. This too is painful, because each time the ex is put in a golden light, we cast a dark shadow on ourselves. Idealizing, just like vilifying, distracts us from our grief and the need to accept the loss as real. Idealizing an ex gives the mind a softer focus in a world that otherwise seems to promise nothing but pain and misery in the future.

If you notice yourself drifting into either of these two potential obsessions while you manage a breakup or divorce, consider that vilifying and idealizing actually prolong the grief process. Try to be aware of when you vilify or idealize your ex and redirect your attention to your own feelings about the loss. Remind yourself that vilifying and idealizing are distraction techniques that keep you mired in regret.

If you go to extremes about the character of your ex, consider doing a relationship autopsy in which you take a calculated, rational look at the facts of the relationship, both your role and your ex’s. (I describe how to conduct a thorough relationship autopsy in Breaking Up and Divorce 5 Steps: How to Heal and Be Comfortable Alone.)

The goal of an autopsy is to think about your relationship in a constructive and realistic manner. It’s natural to obsess as your brain comes to terms with a new reality; the obsessing is the first stage in the brain’s massive reboot as it eventually accepts the loss as real.

When you obsess, write down the facts of your role and your ex’s—the good, the bad, and the ugly. Write the story of what really happened so that you can grieve in a healthy manner and then move on.

Without taking a cold, hard look at the reality of your relationship—and not from an overly positive or negative perspective—and experiencing the feelings this process engenders, you will remain stuck in unproductive thinking about the partner. Only by examining the facts will you be liberated from your obsessive thoughts. 

There is always a backstory to a relationship ending, and it usually says something about the responsibility both parties have in what transpired.

Write your relationship story. Then let yourself feel it. This will help you let go.

Jill Weber, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice in Washington, DC and the author of Breaking Up and Divorce—5 Steps: How to Heal and Be Comfortable Alone. For more follow me on twitter @DrJillWeber, follow me on Facebook or check out drjillweber.com