Breaking up is hard to do but getting over someone is even harder, especially if you're the one who was dumped. The glorious life you'd pictured with your ex goes up in a puff of smoke and you're left adrift, wondering if you'll ever find love again.
Most of the available literature on the topic (admittedly, from dubiously qualified online dating columnists and "love gurus") suggests it takes most people anything from a few months to a few years to get over a serious relationship.
Obviously there's no way of knowing how long it'll take you to feel back to yourself, because there are so many factors at play: why the relationship ended, how long it lasted, who initiated the break-up, whether you saw it coming, how dependent you were on your ex, and your attachment to your primary caregiver during childhood, among other things. Yet most people assume they'll get over it eventually.
But what if you're not 'most people'? What if you never get over your ex?
Being 'over' someone means being able to think about them without heightened feelings, such as anger, loss, pain or sadness, and being able to dispassionately accept what happened between you, relationship psychologist Anjula Mutanda told us. This involves some serious emotional and psychological work – without which you won't be able to move on and get 'over' it.
So yes, it's entirely possible to never get over someone "if you don't begin to take time out to have therapy and understand what you're doing and how you're feeling," Mutanda says. Spending time alone and 'dating' yourself is so important after a relationship. You need time to be you again, she says. Go for a coffee. Read that book. Travel. Indulge yourself in what you enjoy and what you'd neglected during the relationship. Go to the cinema with friends. "It also gives you time to reflect on what you want – if you don’t think about what was good about the relationship and what wasn’t, you’re going to fall into the same patterns."
Mutanda says she sees a lot of people rebounding into new relationships too soon after break-ups, which often means they never truly get over their ex and a lingering 'what if?' remains in the back of their mind. "I often see people getting engaged or moving in with someone [new] quickly, because they haven’t had months to spend time on their own and get their head around what’s happened. So often, the solution seems to be to just run into the next available person’s arms."
Dating expert Hayley Quinn agrees on the importance of alone time after a break-up, during which you should feel your feelings. "The key to moving on quickly isn’t to fight your emotions: it's normal to feel sad, rejected or like there’s something missing. I believe in, yes, filling your life with new ambitions, plans and excitement but also having a couple of nights a week to chill out and have space to grieve."
If you're struggling to let go of a past relationship, it may be because you're clinging on to a rose-tinted version of your ex, particularly if you were dumped unexpectedly (or ghosted) and don't feel like you've got closure, adds Quinn. "It's natural if you don’t have something exciting and motivating in your life to look to the past. But of course, the key is to get something new that excites you, not to go backwards."
If you're finding it difficult to let someone go, don't fall into the trap of stalking them on social media and you definitely can't be in contact with them. The "no contact rule" works. Expend that valuable energy nurturing relationships with friends and family instead. It may sound basic, but writing a list of your ex's flaws and the reasons why they were wrong for you can also be extremely effective, as psychologist Guy Winch recommends in his TED talk, "How to fix a broken heart". Do it on your phone so you can whip it out easily during heavy-hearted moments.
Reframe the situation to focus on what you gained from the relationship and be thankful that it happened, Quinn recommends. "Even if that gratitude is ‘thank you for teaching me to listen to my instinct’ or ‘thank you for reminding me to raise my standards', this is all good." This makes it easier to cut your ex loose.
If you feel particularly stuck, speak to someone impartial like a counsellor or therapist, who can help bring to light any underlying issues that may be contributing to your inability to move on. "If your history is one of poor neglectful attachment in childhood, you're likely to find it very hard to trust other people and if you do get into a relationship which then ends, you may feel that it’s because you are somehow bad or that there's something wrong with you," says Relate counsellor, Barbara Honey.
"Sometimes, people seem to be grieving over the end of a relationship but actually, they're grieving for an earlier loss or losses. Losing your partner may remind you of losing your mother, whom you never grieved when she died long ago, for instance," Honey continues. "I think it's very rare never to be over someone."
But it's possible – if you haven't grieved following the relationship, taken stock of what it taught you and spent time alone, that is. Without doing this, there's a real risk you won't be able to properly move on. Sure, you can distract yourself on Tinder and by throwing yourself into a new relationship to paper over the cracks, but you need to do the hard emotional and psychological work to make lasting change.
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