So this is probably, like, the 57th article you’ve read after getting dumped. You’re probably pretty sick and tired of trying to figure out how to get over “the one that got away” already.
I get it.
A lot of “advice” out there tries to deconstruct getting over a breakup into these nice little lists, as if you can get over someone you loved and lost by checking another item off of your list like you’re going grocery shopping or something. And sure, you probably should “take time for yourself” and “reconnect with friends” and all that, as we’ll see. But to me, all of these things seem like slapping a band-aid on the gaping flesh wound where your heart used to be: technically, they don’t really hurt to try, but by themselves, they can only do so much.
So before admonishing you to “get back out there,” I want you to try to look at things a little differently first. Getting over an ex has a lot more to do with knowing who you are and the story you tell yourself about your past relationship than it does with trying to mitigate the pain every time you’re reminded of them. Because that pain is coming, whether you like it or not.
To that end, it’s a process, not a destination. You have to be patient. I know, that sucks to hear, but the only way around it is through it.
So grab that bottle of gin and/or gallon of ice cream and let’s tackle this fucker together.
And I know you probably won’t believe me when I say this, but it really is going to be okay.
WHY LOSING A RELATIONSHIP HURTS SO MUCH
Relationships form the basis of meaning in our lives. And not just your interpersonal relationships1, but even the relationships you have with your job or your identity or your possessions. But because humans rely so much on our social lives to survive and thrive2, our relationships with each other carry an extra special weight.
Therefore, when you lose a relationship, especially one that was so important and central to your everyday life, you lose that associated meaning. And to lose meaning is to lose a part of yourself. So all of these things are intimately connected — your relationships, your sense of meaning and purpose, and your perception of who you are.
That feeling of emptiness we all feel when we lose someone we love is actually a lack of meaning and lack of identity. There is, quite literally, a hole inside of ourselves. Everything becomes a blank void, empty of any real purpose, and we might even begin to wonder if there’s really any point to life at all.
If you wallow in this kind of thinking for too long, you end up clinging to the past, desperately trying to “fix” everything to somehow get your old life back.
But the hard pill to swallow here is this: part of you is now dead and gone. It’s time to accept that and start rebuilding your life so you can move on.
GETTING OVER SOMEONE REQUIRES NEW SOURCES OF MEANING
Surrounding yourself with people who truly care about you is probably one of the most common pieces of advice for getting over someone. It’s great advice, but it’s not because you’ll just start to “feel better” and then forget about the fact that, oh yeah, you’re going to be sleeping alone tonight, aren’t you? And it’s also not because these people provide an outlet for you to work through the failed relationship out loud, though that doesn’t hurt.
No, the real reason is that connecting/reconnecting with people who care about you will start to add meaning back into your life, the meaning that was so abruptly pulled out from underneath you like a cheap dining room rug.
In order to restore that meaning through reconnecting with people, however, you need to make it about more than just you and your past failed relationship. Yes, you need time to vent and to figure things out, and having someone there for that is helpful. But you can’t start to rebuild meaning in your life until you take the time to cultivate relationships that are separate and distinct from your old relationship and your old self.
SEE THE RELATIONSHIP FOR WHAT IT WAS
Another way to separate yourself from your past relationship and move on is to take an objective look at what the relationship was really like. If part of the story you tell yourself is, “We were so perfect for each other. We should be together forever! Why doesn’t he/she see that?” then I’d bet you’re falling victim to more than a few biases that you’re simply not aware of.
The truth is, our memories are pretty shitty5, 6, and we often only remember the things that fit into whatever story we want to believe right now. In this case, we remember the good times most because that’s what we want our reality to be right now.
And if you can’t objectively see if/when you’re doing this, it’s possible your relationship failed because, in reality, it was a toxic relationship. Toxic relationships only ever survive on drama, and as the drama ramps up to keep the relationship going, you become dependent on that drama, or even addicted to it.7 And then you’re really fucked because now the meaning you derive from that toxic relationship is skewed and distorted. You start thinking that irrational jealousy or controlling behavior or dickish and snide comments were somehow actually signs of their undying love for you.
So I’m here to tell you this: Relationships don’t end because two people did something wrong to each other—they end because two people are something wrong for each other.
It’s incredibly difficult to see it when you’re the one getting dumped, but sometimes, a relationship needs to end.
INVEST IN YOUR RELATIONSHIP WITH YOURSELF
There seems to be some debate out there about whether or not you should take some time to yourself and just be alone for a while. I think you should, and doubly so if your failed relationship was a toxic one.
If your identity has been so wrapped up in a relationship that’s now gone, well, it’s a good time to explore who you are in contexts outside of that relationship. Rushing out to find someone to fill that void without really figuring out what you want and what you need (see below) is a recipe for recurring relationship disaster.
A lot of times, it’s this very lack of awareness around one’s needs that leads to a relationship falling apart in the first place. So one of the best things you can do is figure out who you are, what you need, and how to get those needs met. And to truly know that, you have to figure it out on your own.
FIGURING OUT WHAT YOUR NEEDS REALLY ARE
Conflicts in relationships almost always arise because one or both people aren’t getting their needs met in some way. And it’s often the case that those needs are either not being communicated effectively or someone’s needs are being ignored. Either way, the root cause of the problem is a lack of awareness of one’s needs. Relationships end when someone decides the cost of not getting their needs met is no longer bearable.
Our fundamental emotional needs include8:
- Status. Feeling important or superior; feeling challenged.
- Connection. Feeling understood and appreciated; shared values and experiences.
- Security. Feeling safe and reliable; feeling trust.
We all have these needs in our relationships, but we all prioritize them a little differently. And disproportionately valuing one need over the others often causes issues in our relationships that might even develop into long-term patterns.
The key to understanding what went wrong in your past relationships and having better relationships in the future is identifying your needs and your partner’s needs and finding ways to bridge them together.
If you’re someone who can’t seem to figure out why your relationships all end the way they do or you seem to have the same problems in your relationships over and over again, check out my 28-page ebook that dives deep into emotional needs.
Books on Relationships
Lots of people ask me which books I’d recommend for understanding and creating better relationships. The truth is, most books out on the topic give pretty shitty, vague advice that isn’t all that useful. That said, there are a few books out there that I regularly recommend to people. My top two are The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman and Getting the Love You Want by Harville Hendrix.
If you’re the type who likes a more “academic” perspective, John Gottman’s 7 Principles of a Successful Marriage is nice overview of why relationships succeed and why they fail.
And if you find yourself in relationships where you’re constantly fighting with one another, check out Nonviolent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg.
You can also get my free ebook on relationships and learn more about dealing with emotional needs in your relationships.
More Articles on Relationships
I’ve written a lot about relationships—what makes them good and what makes them bad, why they thrive and why they die, and what you can do to start having better ones. Here’s a list of some of the most popular ones and some of my favorites as well.
- Love is Not Enough
- Fuck Yes or No
- 1,500 People Give All the Relationship Advice You’ll Ever Need
- A No-Bullshit Guide to Meeting the Right Person
- Attachment Theory
- 3 Terrible Reasons to Get Married (and 4 Really Good Ones)
- Compatibility and Chemistry in Relationships
- The Three Loves Theory
- Maybe You Don’t Know What Love Is
- Change Your Mind About Dating
- 6 Toxic Relationship Habits Most People Think Are Normal
- 6 Healthy Relationship Habits Most People Think Are Toxic
- Romance Is Like Alcohol
- How to Survive a Long Distance Relationship
- Why People Cheat in Relationships
- 3 Simple Explanations for Why You’re Still Single
- 7 Things Sex Education Should Have Taught Us But Didn’t
- How Disney Ruined Sex For Everyone
- Sex and Our Psychological Needs
- The One Trait to Look For In A Partner
- How to Date an Emotionally Stable and Amazing Person
- Why Everyone You Date Is A Psycho
- The Guide to Strong Boundaries
- Vulnerability and Avoiding Manipulative Relationships
- It’s Complicated: Why Relationships and Dating Can Be So Hard
- My Girlfriend Just Dumped Me
- Power in Vulnerability
- Tajfel, H., Turner, J. C., Austin, W. G., & Worchel, S. (1979). An integrative theory of intergroup conflict. Organizational identity: A reader, 56, 65.↵
- Young, SN 2008, ‘The neurobiology of human social behaviour: an important but neglected topic’, Journal of Psychiatry & Neuroscience : JPN, vol. 33, no. 5, pp. 391–392.↵
- Redelmeier, D. A., & Kahneman, D. (1996). Patients’ memories of painful medical treatments: real-time and retrospective evaluations of two minimally invasive procedures. Pain, 66(1), 3–8.↵
- Kardash, C. M., & Scholes, R. J. (1996). Effects of preexisiting beliefs, epistemological beliefs, and need for cognition on interpretation of controversial issues. Journal of Educational Psychology, 88(2), 260.↵
- Elizabeth Loftus, one of the world’s foremost researchers in memory, would also be one of the first people to tell you that your memory sucks.↵
- Here’s another article and a Ted Talk to really pile it on. Thanks for nothing memory.↵
- To learn more about toxic people and how to deal with them, check my audio book, Love is Not Enough. It’s possibly/probably the best thing your ears will ever listen to in your lifetime. Seriously.↵
- Ryan, RM & Deci, EL 2000, ‘Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being’, American Psychologist, vol. 55, no. 1, pp. 68–78.↵