Ask An Adult: Why Can't I Get Over My Ex?
The Debrief: We ask a psychologist why that ex keeps popping up in your dreams when you really thought you were over it. Plus other getting-over-exes questions.
No matter how mature you are, how much you tell yourself it that the relationship ending was A Good Thing, and how much time has passed, there's often that one ex that just won't get the hell out of your mind. And you're not the only one; research from the University of Western Ontario in Canada, found that as many as 88 per cent of people who got dumped - nearly nine out of ten - check up on their former boyfriends or girlfriends on Facebook. And, on top of that, further research found that women are way more likely to be hurt by a breakup than men, who tend to move on rather than sit and stew over it for months while eating cream horns twice daily. Not that I'm drawing from personal experience here or anything.
But, cream horns aside, why is it that we sometimes fixate on certain people, but can let others go?
We spoke to chartered psychologist Dr. Anne Thomas and grilled her on all things ex-related - turns out, there could be quite a few things at play if you're obsessing over a past relayshe.
It could be something you're currently lacking
If you're in a relationship right now and, for example, you're not happy with your sex life, but had an ex who made you come seventeen times an hour, then that explains why you might be fixated on said ex. 'We tend to fantasize when we are left wanting,' says Dr. Thomas. 'We fantasize and focus on things we don't have. If your relationship is lacking, you might fantasize about an ex who has that quality your current partner doesn't. If you're single, you may be fantasizing about the notion of stability, of being in a relationship, so you'll think about a particularly comfortable or stable partner you used to be with.'
This doesn't necessarily mean you're in a bad relationship, or are really shit at being single, it's just human nature for the mind to wander and romanticise certain aspects of the past. 'If an ex keeps cropping up in your thoughts but you're happily in a relationship, that doesn't always mean you're secretly not happy! The grass is always greener - it's human nature to crave what we don't have, and no relationship is going have everything that your exes didn't have.' She adds that, while it's normal to think about an ex or daydream about them, it's important to keep it in check. You can get carried away and end up blowing it all out of proportion.
It could be that you got dumped
If you were dumped, you're more likely to have an ex stuck in your head. Even if it's not in a 'I STILL LOVE YOU' way, but more in a 'he keeps popping up really platonically at BBQs in my dream' way, it's still annoying. 'The ex that finished with you might stay in your head because, either consciously or subconsciously, you're fantasizing about them choosing you or of being the preferred one,' says Dr. Thomas. 'There's all that 'Could I have done better' and 'If only I had done this' going on; when I speak to people in that situation there's a lot of guilt.'
Sometimes, though, if an ex who dumped you does keep cropping up in your dreams when you really thought you were over them, it could be less about them and more about what they symbolise. 'In dreams, everything works as a symbol - so if an ex who frustrated or hurt you turns up, it doesn't necessarily mean you're not over them. They may be symbolising a frustration you're feeling about your career, or your life. If they hurt you, then they could symbolise how you're feeling hurt at the moment - but not necessarily by them.'
It could be that you're still in love with them
This is the hard one, and the one that we all dread the most. It's also impossible to tell if what you're feeling is love, or other circumstantial things and fixations that feel like love, because nobody really knows what love is on a scientific and physiological level anyway. But that aside, what if, after seventy two years, you're still genuinely in love and have never been able to feel true happiness since they left you?!
Well, if it's taking over your life, and it's been a while since you guys broke up, then it might be worth going to see someone. It's rarely about the person, and often to do with your brain getting all confused and fixated on a feeling, emotion, or idea of a person - let's face it, even if you thought they were the best person on the planet and they dumped you, that still means it wasn't right. But we can lose sight of this and disappear in a cream horn hole thinking it's personal when really, as Dr. Thomas suggests, it could be about change.
'There's something called Buyer's Regret which is similar to relationships - people buy a house, regret it, and want to go back to their old home despite the fact that they disliked it enough to leave. People are scared of change, people crave security, and change is threatening even if you're instigating it,' she explains. 'You might crave a person, and feel like you truly loved a person and will never get over them, but actually you're struggling to get over the lifestyle change. And the security that relationship gave you.'
Also, even if a relationship had problems, they were still problems that you were used to and knew how to handle or how you'd both react - which is often more preferable to the unknown. Dr. Thomas adds that it's worth going to see someone, to help you pick apart what it is that's holding you back from moving on. Power to you, champ.
It could be that they're your first love
This old chestnut. It's true that the first time you fall in love, that first rush is so new and so intense it can echo through the rest of your life. But, according to Dr. Thomas, the way of getting over that is to have a bit of a word with yourself: 'A first experience is very important to people, they remember things more because it was new and more intense. But in reality, it would be like going back to your old school: quite nostalgic for a few minutes, but would you want to go back permanently?' She advises really remembering the problems in the relationship, and why it didn't ultimately work; the fact that they're an ex says it all.
It could be down to subconscious triggers that you don't even notice
Your conscious mind might not twig that the guy next to you is wearing your ex's cologne, early that day a song you both used to love was being played in a shop, and you just went passed a restaurant you once had a big argument in, but then boom: you find yourself thinking or dreaming about that ex. 'It might be a smell, it might be a sound, it could be anything really - but subconscious triggers would make you think about the person again, and you may wonder why,' says Dr. Thomas. Thankfully this doesn't mean you're not over them, it just means you have a functioning memory and sensory perception. Congratulations.
It could be that you're just a normal human, fantasizing about normal stuff
At the end of the day, provided thinking about an ex isn't taking over your life five years on from the breakup, it's incredibly normal to daydream about people you used to bonk on the regular. 'A certain amount of fantasy is absolutely normal, and a large proportion of people do it,' Dr. Thomas reassures. 'Our fantasy life is so much more easily controlled, and so much more interesting, than our real life relationships. There may be nothing there with an ex, and that ex might not be a person you'd even like talking to anymore - but in your fantasy life they can be anything, so people daydream and feel better by fantasizing just for a few minutes on what could have been.'
Just make sure, as previously mentioned, that you keep the daydreams in check to avoid blowing it all out of proportion; we tend to look back on the good things, and ignore the screaming fights, crying, cheating, and all the other reasons people end up resolutely not staying together. 'It's called cherry picking,' says Dr. Thomas. 'And we do it with everything, especially exes. This is why it's important to keep an eye on your daydreaming, because you can start to believe your own fantasy. Because that's what it is: a fantasy. There's a reason you aren't together anymore, but of course there was a reason you loved them in the first place.'
Break ups are always awful, regardless of the circumstances, but there is one rule that can be said for exes of all shapes and sizes: look after yourself, and remember that it's a) OK to freak out b) you're totally normal and c) know when to get help.
If all else fails, you could hire a hitman and I'M JUST JOKING.
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