Now don’t flatter yourself, I am not talking about you. I am talking about the dark peppermint chocolate I am craving, my upcoming travels to Borneo, the ongoing bills I need to pay, along with how f***ing cold it is! However amongst all of this, there are times when you slip into my awareness. Those piercing blue eyes are a little irresistible and difficult to get out of my mind, along with the fact that you referred to me as a human Borealis… so maybe I am thinking about you a lot. Okay I give in, I can’t get you out of my head! However truth be told, I don’t want to think about you anymore.
As a psychologist, I see people more often or not around the period their relationship breaks down. And let’s be honest break-ups SUCK! Your whole world gets turned upside down and you feel a little lost. That one person you used to talk to about anything and everything, the person you used to turn to in times of need, have inside jokes with, snuggle with in the winter chill, and look the list very well could go on but the point is – it’s all over! Whilst at times we hate to admit it and really struggle with the concept, it’s something that we need to accept at one time or another. It’s over. However, how is that even possible when they are in the forefront of our mind? When we begin to question our sanity – am I completely insane for constantly thinking about that one person?
The answer is NO! You are not insane for thinking about that one person. Thank f**k for that! How about that for a sigh of a relief. Numerous readers would have experienced a sigh of relief there. There’s definitely one positive! Many people experience intrusive thoughts about their ex-partner. For some individuals it is easy to dismiss these thoughts, however for majority of us we struggle with it. Why is this so?
Science reveals that the activation strength of a neural pathway, which produces a thought is determined by at least three internal factors: the recency and frequency with which the thought networks are activated and the emotional load they carry (Cayoun, 2011). This doesn’t just apply to relationship breakdowns, however it is relevant to any thought that we have. Every thought we have establishes a neural pathway within our mind due to the firing of neurons.
For instance, if I said “don’t think about the purple monkey whilst reading this blog piece”, nine times out of ten you would automatically think about that purple monkey. However will you think about that purple monkey again? Probably not. This is because, this thought is not a frequent thought nor does it carry an emotional load therefore the neural pathway is quite weak. The reason why you thought about the purple monkey was due to the recency of the idea being placed in your mind.
However, when we think about things quite frequently, the neurons in our mind fire regularly and strengthen the pathway of that thought. These in turn, become more easily activated. So in terms of relationships, if you have dated an individual for a significant period of time, even if it was for a short period of time, you would have spent a lot of time thinking about them. Therefore that pathway would have strengthened over time due to how often you thought about your ex, along with the emotional load that the thoughts carry. Essentially when a relationship has ended, in order to stop thinking about our ex, we need to weaken that pathway. Unless you want to continually think about you ex – that is okay too, however I dare say it will cause you a whole lot of pain.
So how do we actually do that? Well, there are a lot of factors which contribute to weakening the pathway and it is situational in terms of how fast it works but first things first – you need to spend some time grieving that the relationship is over. For a lot of us that can be hard, and by grieving the relationship I don’t mean reciting in your mind all the good times you had together, or sit their questioning why it is over. I mean reflecting on what you learnt from that relationship because for one reason or another the relationship came to an end. Whilst it’s difficult to sit in the pain, I get it, however it is crucial as you don’t want to repeat similar patterns of behaviour and you don’t want the ending of one relationship to influence any new relationships.
Here are some steps you can take to weaken the pathway of your ex and gain some closure, allowing the door to open for new adventures!
A ‘F*** you’ letter
You may be holding onto memories of your ex, and that doesn’t have to be bad thing. But you need to be careful not to put on those rose-coloured glasses. It’s is important to reflect on the ways in which you were incompatible. Write everything down; everything you wanted to say to your ex, but you never got the chance to. Maybe your ex called you horrible names, pointed out your insecurities or blamed you for a number of things, however they weren’t perfect, and neither was your relationship. So this is your chance to say everything you wanted to say, guilt free! Just let the words roll off your pen. Don’t place any expectations on what you are writing because at the end of the day NOBODY else is going to read this except you. *Writing this letter is a form of therapeutic release, it is NOT advised to pass this letter on, and rather it should be ripped up and placed in the bin or better burnt!
A letter of gratitude
Since you have written an ‘f*** you’ letter it is important to also write a letter of gratitude, as all these memories come with lessons and growth opportunities. Writing down what you were grateful for in the relationship allows you to focus on how you grew during the relationship or the things you would like to foster in a new relationship. For instance, if you were grateful for your ex cooking dinner when you worked back late, in a new relationship you would be grateful for someone who fosters dual responsibilities and looks out of your wellbeing. By writing a letter of gratitude you will begin to see your ex as a teacher and hopefully you will be able to see that everything you went through in that relationship has helped to prepare you for the next one. No matter how your relationship made you feel, you learned from it. That’s something to be grateful for.
Setting new routines
It is really important to set new routines as they will help to weaken the neural pathways in the mind. Instead of always going shopping on a Sunday, the day you used to go shopping with your ex, choose another day to go shopping or go to another grocery store. The last thing you want to do is keep reminding yourself of the things that you used to together. This would be counter-intuitive as it would only continue to strengthen these heavily weighted neural pathways as opposed to weaken them. I know it can be difficult, however this is a great time to start new hobbies, invest time in old interests or reconnect with friends who may have felt neglected in your relationship.
Meditation is KEY to weakening neural pathways and forging new (and more productive) pathways. Whilst meditation in the beginning may be a little difficult, due to the recency and frequency of your thoughts, over time it will become a lot easier. Trust me! This is because your thoughts (about your ex) are not being reacted to or reinforced in mindfulness meditation; instead the focus of your attention is shifted back to your breath. Consequently, the activation strength of these networks decreases and the corresponding thoughts (about your ex) are progressively weakened. YAY!
Opening your heart
With one relationship ending it is a great time for self-reflection and to ask yourself – what do you actually want in a relationship and in life in general?! A lot of people come to see me and tell me that they have a desire to be happy, yet they are unware of what will actually make them happy. Similarly, in relationships we need to spend time exploring what we actually want from a partner, in order for our needs to be fulfilled. Because maybe there were things that your ex did, that made you really unhappy or possibly your needs were not always met. Did they always take, and you never received? It is okay to know what you want. That does not make you a needy person. It makes you an individual, who is proud of what they want. And, honestly it is so IMPORTANT to reflect on what you want in a relationship because it helps prevent you from relapsing into a similar relationship. So define what honesty means to you, along with trust, adventure, and fun, which are just a minute number of things one may want from a relationship – focus on the qualities and values you want, as opposed to what the person looks like, or what they do for a living.
Another question to consider is what do you actually want out of your life? You now have the chance to be free, whether it be by choice or not it is time for you to make the most out of your single life. Now by that I don’t mean going out and sleeping around, although if that is something you want to do there is no judgement. What I mean is enjoying the freedom of doing what you want, eating what you want and wearing what you want! Now I know that this can be a little daunting at first, as I understand your world has fallen into a million pieces, however over time with the new routines you have set, you will establish new neural pathways which will weaken the ones that are breaking your heart.
However more importantly, if there is anything that you can take away from reading this article it is TIME. You need to give yourself time. There is absolutely no time frame on when you should be over someone. The more pressure you put on yourself to move on, or to stop thinking about someone, generally speaking the more difficult it is. This is because you are aiming to suppress your thoughts, as opposed to openly deal with them in an appropriate time frame.
It is impossible to truly “forget” about anything or anyone THAT had a significant impact on our lives. However you have to allow yourself to feel your feelings about the past, and process them, in order to live in peace with them.
I know the road ahead may seem a difficult, but please don’t forget the incredible individual that you are. You have many strengths that you bring to this world and one day, someone will appreciate you for all of you!
*If you are finding it difficult to process a relationship breakup please don’t hesitate to get in contact with us and make an appointment with one of our provisional psychologists or psychologists.
Cayoun. B. A. (2011). Mindfulness-Integrated CBT: Principles and Practice. Wiley-Blackwell: United States of America