Making sense of the lingering feelings

Maybe the memories hit you in the morning like a phantom semi-truck, pummeling your routine. Or maybe the thoughts creep in on a quiet lunch break, teasing you like a puzzle you can never solve. Or perhaps the annoying hauntings come to you as you lay awake at night, too tired to fight the unsettled, wandering questions that never seem to end.

Not all breakups are equal. Some barely register, while others are rather intense—throwing us into an emotional aftermath, both devastating and aggravating. Like a pitiful lullaby for sad, forlorn grownups, these more intense breakups push us to analyze everything for hidden meaning. So we ask ourselves: where is he? What’s he doing? Is he happy? Why could we never see eye-to-eye?

. . . And is he haunted like this, too?

For me, the biggest question was: why him? I didn’t feel this way about the others. Sure, he had his qualities, but on a superficial level, he wasn’t the most handsome or kindest—and we certainly didn’t have the best chemistry. In fact, our relationship was rather dysfunctional. My friends breathed a sigh of relief after we broke up—for the final time, that is.

And although the future of my dating was filled with better fits—the best of whom I would marry—thoughts of my past relationship with him would creep in years later, even in my happiness. His ghost would choose the quiet, insecure moments, and in a blink, with all his baggage and all his condescension, his soft, deep voice would read my mind and voice those hard opinions. A half-welcomed, half-rejected routine, it’s like my subconscious couldn’t get enough of his narrating; and sometimes, it would make me wonder: sure, our relationship at times was pretty miserable, but was ending it a mistake? If I was thinking about him this much, surely there must be something to this—right?

And so I would go down the rabbit hole of self-deprecation, reanalyzing everything. And I mean everything. What if I said this instead? What if did this instead? What if I tried this instead?

What if?

I thought I was losing my mind, but as it turns out, this kind of question-loop is completely normal. Certain relationships—especially ones that happen in our early adulthood—can really pull our heartstrings and tug at our minds. But we should all relax because that doesn’t mean he’s “the one that got away” or that you’re doing anything wrong. Sometimes, it’s just how we think things through. And more often than not, the emotions aren’t about the ex as much as they are about you and what that relationship is telling you about your psyche.

And no, that doesn’t mean we’re selfish; it’s just how the mind sometimes reveals itself to us. Here’s what the experts say.

That melancholy? It’s actually grief.

Your ex-boyfriend might not be dead—but that doesn’t mean you can’t mourn him. In fact, you probably should. “A break up is a loss. Just like a death, it’s normal to have waves of memories or emotions,” explains Carrie Krawiec, LMFT at Birmingham Maple Clinic. “You may expect them to get fewer or less intense over time, but unexpectedly you may get a tidal wave of emotions when reminded of a memory, experience, even a smell, song, or just the temperature of a certain day can trigger us of a loss.”

Unfortunately, there’s no ceremony in our culture that gives these heartbroken feelings their due—although there are some good rules we should abide by. But keep in mind, when you break off a close relationship, your brain is undergoing real physical pain. We should take some time to honor that, and realize it’s not something we can just “get over.”

After all, as humans, we’re hardwired for deep connections and meaning. And only a few relationships really give us this. So of course if an especially intense romantic relationship ends, it’s going to hurt. “Anything that we connect to, and that holds meaning in our lives, becomes an inherent part of who we are,” Dr. Joel Schwartz, MA, PsyD explains. “We pine after TV shows we loved that are over, old movies we loved, places that were important to us as children, etc. So why would we not pine after loves and lovers who also had a meaningful impact on us?”

It’s important to acknowledge that some heartbreaks just stay with us—the pain might fade, but the scar might still be there.

Your reaction will give you insight into your mental state.

“A partner forms a bond called attachment much like our earliest attachment figures, our parents. When we bond to someone they become an internal fixture in our psyche,” explains Krawiec. And the way we respond to losing an attachment can provide us some golden insight into ourselves and how our mind works.

For example, people who are critical might be inclined to nitpick signs they missed—or spend time judging their ex’s decisions. People who are sentimental might find themselves sighing over a sweet moment. But these insights go beyond individual personality, too. In fact, our reactions might also provide insight into the state of our own mental health. “People with depression will be more likely to fixate on the loss with regret, resentment, guilt, worthlessness, hopelessness, and loss,” shares Krawiec. “People with anxiety may be more likely to worry about future relationships and be triggered when another person’s behavior triggers an alert system in the form of reminders of previous memories.”

Go easy on yourself—and seek to learn what this means.

I’d love to say that after I met the love of my life, got married, and had a baby—my ex totally stopped haunting me, full stop. But if I told you that, I’d be lying. Of course, as time went by, the intensity of the feelings and thoughts have greatly faded, but it’s not like he totally disappeared. Yet when you really think about it, he was never really there. I wasn’t thinking of him as much as about what he’s come to represent in my mind. And through lots of writing and contemplation, I realize he comes to me when I’m unsure of myself. He represents my insecurity, my anxiety, my doubts.

Maybe your ex represents something entirely different in your mind—maybe not. But either way, if thoughts of your ex come to you, over-critiquing yourself to better control your thoughts won’t get you anywhere. Instead, find ways to use this information to your advantage. Figure out what this means about you—not about you in relation to him. And look for ways to rewire your brain. If thoughts are particularly haunting, consider therapy.

“Introspection and self-awareness have not been a part of our cultural legacy—it is not taught in schools or modeled by parents or other cultural leaders—who never learned, themselves,” explains psychologist Jan Harrell, Ph.D., and co-author of Love Now! Untangling Relationships. “Instead, we seek fulfillment from external sources: a beloved other, achievement, accomplishment, acquisition.”

She goes on to explain that in the same way that we have nagging thoughts about neglected tasks, like emails that need replies or bills that need to be paid, our brains obsess over relationship failures. “We are designed to solve problems and puzzles, and a relationship with a beloved that does not work, causing disappointment and sadness, keeps our brain engaged,” she explains. “We are not able to dull or numb the signal of pain that is our alert to fuller knowledge and freedom.”

In other words, we obsess over breakups because of what they teach us—not because something is wrong with us, and certainly not because we need to get back together with the ex. So if an old flame is coming to mind, that doesn’t mean anything is wrong with you (or even him). It just might mean our brain is signaling that there’s a lesson to be learned here, and we must apply that lesson to the present, rather than losing ourselves in the past.