The Love-Addicted Divorce: Letting Go of Your Ex, Honestly
by Dr. Cortney S. Warren, Ph.D., ABPP
“Sometimes your heart needs more time to accept something that your mind already knows.” – Paulo Coelho
Getting divorced is a downright awful experience. As if slogging through legal documents that remind you of contentious fights about money, kids, or pets with your now-ex isn’t unpleasant enough, you’re also losing a lifestyle, a family system, and even a dream relationship with someone that started with great promise and ended in flames.
The truth is that romantic breakups leave many struggling to let go of their ex. This is, in part, because falling in love can actually be viewed as an addictive process. When we fall in love, we become hyper-focused on one special person who makes us feel euphoric. Over time, we develop an internal narrative about who they are and build the foundation for a relationship around it. When a marriage is going well, feeling addicted to a partner feels amazing – living in Santa Barbara with romantic beach walks at sunset, drinking a glass of Santa Ynez pinot with your mate by your side is pretty enchanting. However, if the relationship ends in divorce, we can enter a state of withdrawal that keeps us fixated on our ex, even when we rationally want to let them go and move on.
What does a love-addicted divorce often look like?
First, it’s common to find yourself thinking obsessively about your ex – what they’re doing, who they’re sleeping with, or how they’re spending your collective money before a judge separates your assets. You might re-live old conversations, rehearsing what you’d desperately like to tell them in your own mind. Second, you may feel strong urges to reach out and contact them – fighting off cravings to send them nasty text messages, express your ambivalence about the divorce, or even beg them to get back together. Third, you may feel a range of intense emotions that are easily triggered by situations that remind you of your ex – anything from a moment of intense anger as you walk by your favorite restaurant on Coast Village Road to profound sadness as you see their latest social media with a new significant other by their side.
Finally, you may also find yourself acting in harmful ways to distract yourself from your pain – anything from heading to your favorite bar to impulsively dating your neighbor. Together, these unpleasant symptoms leave you emotionally taxed, physically exhausted, and generally struggling to function in a productive way.
If you’re living through a love-addicted breakup, how do you let go of your ex? How can you transform this divorce into a source of growth, strength, and empowerment? Although love addiction isn’t a clinical diagnosis, the experience of feeling addicted to an ex can be incredibly harmful to your well-being and quality of life. Healing requires an honest look in the mirror – a fundamental shift in your focus away from your ex and onto you.
There are a host of basic psychological skills that you can learn and use to help yourself move on. A few recommendations include the following:
1. Take some space: Set healthy boundaries about when and how you’re willing to communicate with your ex – and limit the amount of time you spend with them.
2. Stop having sex with them: Being sexual with your ex generally makes it harder to let go.
3. Pause. Try not to act impulsively: Think before you act – drinking a lot, using drugs to distract yourself, or acting in spiteful/angry ways toward your ex aren’t likely to help in the long run.
4. Increase your self-care and social support: It may seem simple, but getting enough sleep, eating healthy food, exercising, and meeting with trusted friends is key.
5. Challenge unhelpful thoughts: When the content of your thinking is inaccurate or unhelpful, it’s time to practice challenging it.
Using your divorce to understand yourself more deeply and making choices consistent with the life you want to live is what propels you into your next life adventure. For anyone interested in learning more, I just wrote a book on this topic called Letting Go of Your Ex: CBT Skills to Overcome the Pain of a Breakup and Overcome Love Addiction (2023). Come join me for a short talk and book signing at Chaucer’s Santa Barbara on Tuesday, February 21st at 6 pm. Hope to see you there!
Dr. Cortney S. Warren is a board-certified Clinical Psychologist and Adjunct Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health at the Kirk Kerkorian School of Medicine at UNLV. For more information on her work, visit https://DrCortney.com.