Yet even now, as you lie awake at night—perhaps alone and single, or even perhaps with your partner sleeping beside you—your mind still returns to those halcyon days and there you are, still thinking about your ex. Those days of intense love and joy. Of all-consuming attraction. And then of the despair when it all ended.
And as you stare at the ceiling, a brokenhearted 20-year-old trapped inside a 40-year-old’s body, you can’t help but wonder whether they were the one you were meant to end up with.
Of course, meant is a strong word. After all, if the two of you staying together was fate, well—it would have been so. But you didn’t—and yet you just can’t shake the feeling. Why can’t you let it go? Why are you still so profoundly affected by an event that’s long gone? And when it really comes down to it, why are you still in love with your ex? You’ve known other loves, other heartbreaks, sure. But they generally just faded into the background. You rarely revisit them. What’s different? You have to know—it’s eating you up inside.
The answer may lie in your attachment style.
Securely attached people can roll with the punches
One of the key factors influencing how we relate to others and process the emotions surrounding our relationships is our attachment style. This is formed through a myriad of personal experiences spanning our entire life, and has a strong effect on our future expectations. On a more deeply psychological level, our attachment style even affects how our emotions interact with our memory itself.
People who are securely attached are adept at regulating their emotions. They can take the bad as well as the good. They don’t think in binary, where everything is either wonderful or catastrophic, and they have broadly optimistic outlooks. They believe love can always be found, and that there will always be people to support them when the going gets tough. They’re mindful not to exaggerate the positives—if a relationship’s going well, they simply enjoy it in the moment and don’t extrapolate what it means to other aspects of their lives.
By extension, if things go downhill, they’re not crushed or devastated. That’s not to say they don’t feel these emotions, of course, but they’re not incapacitated by them. They can still go out and function, even if they’re feeling blue. And perhaps most importantly, their belief that people will be there when they need them means they don’t feel the need to intersect with that one special person. Unlike binary thinkers, securely attached people don’t view relationships as a matter of either finding true or being alone forever. They’re not prone to catastrophizing, idealizing, or believing they need to be “saved” by the love of a soulmate. That means they’re resistant to constructing larger-than-life love stories, which only set them up with impossible expectations.
A preoccupied attachment style means you’re more likely to ruminate
Other people view love as a scarce commodity which must be guarded and protected at all costs. They may even see it as a zero-sum game; that is, if someone over there has love in their life, someone else necessarily has less—because there’s only so much to go around. Individuals with this mindset are more oriented toward believing they must connect intensely with just one other person—so when they meet someone who fits the bill, they’re at risk of obsessing over the idea of losing them. They’re more likely to indulge in immersive fantasies of passionate love, and perhaps manifest these in life with grand romantic gestures—but these highest of highs lead to the lowest of lows. And because their relationship defines them, they may replay the tiniest of occurrences over and over, rather than accepting their partner’s transgressions as part of their inherently flawed character.
This is where memory comes into play
When you have an intense emotional experience, your amygdala (a key player in your brain’s emotional processing) assigns a “tag” to the memory. When you later retrieve that memory, the emotion is brought along for the ride, whether you like it or not—and often you won’t like it, because the feeling may eventually seem inescapable.
Similarly, if a certain emotion is experienced, through some neurological gymnastics your brain may bring that old memory of your ex to mind, front and center, without you having asked for it. And there’s a positive feedback loop, too: The more you dwell on a memory—or the more you feel that specific emotion—the more strongly those neural pathways are reinforced, in a process known as long-term potentiation.
People with preoccupied attachment styles are likely to perceive their past breakups as having been ambiguous or having gone unresolved. They obsess over the minutiae of what happened, determined to figure it out. But this approach isn’t particularly effective—and that’s how some people end up lying in bed at night unable to think of anything else. Even decades later.
What can you do if you’re not over your ex?
No matter someone’s attachment style, we all share a need to feel understood, and to make sense of the world around us. So if you can’t make head or tail of why your relationship ended, your brain won’t know how to store the information in your memory, so it just bounces around trying to keep itself active in your mind.
Probably the most important strategy is to try staying future-oriented and realistic. If you’re in a relationship now, endeavor to stop treating your current partner as a comparison to your ex. Instead see them as an individual, for whom you could probably do more to improve the relationship.
Don’t focus on trying to figure out the past. People with the dismissive attachment style actually do this automatically, disregarding losses and negative social events as inconsequential. This can be handy in the short term when dealing with a breakup, but it can also blunt their emotions, lead to denial of any personal wrongdoing, and suppress pain—despite pain being an adaptive emotion reminding you not to go down that road again.
Another key point: talk things through. Sit down for an honest and frank conversation with someone you trust, whose opinion you value, and who will tell you like it is—even if you don’t want to hear it. Alternatively, seek professional help from someone who can help you understand why you feel as you do. Either way, once you begin engaging in solution-focused and future-oriented thinking, you’re more likely to gain some perspective, understand yourself better—and be able to truly move on.
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