It doesn’t matter if it was your first love or an exciting, short-lived situationship — it’s easy to get caught up in your thoughts or feelings about a particular ex. In fact, one 2016 study published in the Journal of The International Association for Relationship Research found that many young adults have been there — of 260 undergraduate college students surveyed, 40% were still in communication with their exes while in a different relationship.
When you can’t get over an ex, consulting a mental health professional is usually best, says Shan Boodram, certified sexologist and host of the new Hung Up podcast with Headspace, but there are plenty of accessible tools outside of therapy you can use as well. On Hung Up, Boodram uses her expertise in both sexology and psychology to help each episode’s guests — people who can’t let go of their ex — begin the journey of moving on. To help her guests achieve this, Boodram walks them through what she’s identified as the five different stages of healing after a breakup: freedom or failure, withdrawal, reframing, untangling, and bond reformation.
Below, Boodram shares her best advice for healing from a breakup, and “breaking the tungsten chain” of feeling hung up on your ex.
It can be difficult when you aren’t over your ex as quickly as you wanted to be. What would a healthy timeline be when it comes to healing from a breakup?
It's important to liken breakups to the grief process. Statistically, the grief process can take anywhere from six months to four years to get past that place where your body is neurologically or psychologically still linked with this person. It could take that amount of time for your body and your brain to accept the fact that this person is no longer a part of your life. If you don't engage in healing this way, then it can take longer.
On Hung Up, you often refer to the five stages of healing post-breakup. What would you say is the most difficult phase to go through?
The untangling phase. I refer to it as “untangling the tungsten chain” because tungsten is a metal that you can't burn. Think of a necklace that got all tangled up — it could take a really long time to untangle and there are no shortcuts. You could try to pull up the chain, but you’ll end up tightening things and making it worse. You can try and cut things short, but really, it's a loop-by-loop that requires you to sit there and go through the process. You can't throw it in the fire, you can't run it under water. It requires so much time and attentiveness that oftentimes, we need help from someone else.
A lot of that has to do with perspective and vantage points, and we can get frustrated and start taking shortcuts. This is why I think the process usually requires another person — someone who's outside of things — to give you an alternate perspective.
In some cases after a breakup, you realize you held onto the relationship because you didn’t want to be alone. How common is it that someone misses the companionship or the feeling of being loved in a relationship, more than they miss their actual ex?
I think in 100% of relationships you're going to experience that. Just by virtue of the fact that we're pair-bonding animals, we are going to feel the draw when we sever a strong attachment. Whether it's healthy or not, you're going to feel that longing, you're going to feel that withdrawal unless you went through the grieving process and untangled from the relationship while you were in it.
You have to acknowledge that love, in many ways, acts as an addiction in the brain. You’re going to miss that person for those reasons. Once you've “untangled the tungsten chain” and you've gone through the process of really assessing the relationship both from a bird's eye view and from a personal perspective, that's where you can more so answer that question, "If I thought about the contribution this person had in my life, is it really about the impact that they had on me or do I just miss having a person?"
How can you be sure that you miss your ex and not just being in a relationship?
Once you've gone through the stages of grief withdrawal, you can start to be a little bit more objective. I always say to people that when we talk about breakups, we're not talking about the end of a relationship with a person, we're talking about the end of that relationship with that person. Whether you get back together, become best friends, or never talk to that person again, you still have to end that particular relationship because it’s over.
Do you think some people are just naturally "relationship people" or is there an unhealthy aspect to always feeling like you need to have a partner?
I think it's completely fair to say some people are just naturally relationship people. For some, their attachment style might require it or their commitment structure might be like, "I function really well in monogamous relationships” — their lifestyle needs might be supportive of that. If you're that kind of person and you're really good at breaking up with people, that can be healthy for you, right? Because you enter into all these agreements with people but then you're also aware that you also probably need to end relationships more frequently than someone that doesn't. It's OK to be that way, but I think you also have to become really good at assessing when things aren't working and healing in a healthy way.
In what situations is it a good idea to reach back out to an ex?
The easiest litmus test is to ask if it's even worth it: "Is there anything that this person could possibly say that would allow me to see this from a vantage that would aid in my healing? Do they have information that I don't and is not possible for me to have?"
We did this with the participants on Hung Up, and, when we assessed whether or not the ex call was necessary, we asked, "What's the one question you would ask them?" Some people didn't have one and were just mad. But other people said, "I genuinely want to know why you didn’t pick me?" or, "I'm genuinely curious, why did you shut off all of the sudden?" Those are questions that you can’t answer on your own or through a friend or family member. So in that case, it might be worth it, just to get that last a-ha. It should always be through the lens of, "I need to figure out why this didn't work," versus, "Let's figure out how to make this work.”
Are there a lot of cases where closure is necessary?
It's difficult to achieve but I think we all have that goal. There are some exes where you have no questions, you have no residual anger, and you have an understanding of why it didn't work. Those are examples where you were able to achieve closure.
There are probably other relationships you think of and immediately it puts you in a state of fight or flight or anxiety. But I definitely think that closure is possible. We talk about this in Hung Up, that closure is not a definitive place like, "Oh, I made it to Texas." It's a place in your mind that only you decide. It's also not a final destination — you might experience closure and then something happens. It’s a space wherein you accept the end of a relationship, you understand the end of a relationship, and you can take something positive from the fact that you and this person spent time together.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.