By Cortney S. Warren, PhD, ABPP
When your clients are fixated on their former lover after a breakup, helping them explore themselves instead of staying focused on their ex is key to helping them move forward. Theoretically, this is because hyper-focusing on their ex—reliving details of the breakup, searching for ways to reconnect with or punish their ex, searching for information about their ex’s new life—makes them crave their ex more, drives unhelpful behavior, and keeps them stuck in past pain instead of transforming into the next phase of their life.
There are myriad ways to start chipping away at the obsession. Educating your client about the brain mechanisms associated with romantic love is a great way to start because it normalizes their experience. Emerging research suggests that falling in love often looks like an addictive process, leading us to feel addicted to our mate. So, it makes biological sense why they may feel obsessed with their ex—it’s not their “fault” and doesn’t make them bad, broken, or flawed.
It also helps to validate that they may be going through a grieving process. Losing their lover probably signifies the end of a relationship with someone that mattered greatly to them. As they go through the stages of grief—often experiencing shock, denial, bargaining, and strong emotional reactions—the goal is to emerge into a state of acceptance of the loss while creating the next phase of their life in spite of it.
Finally, using cognitive restructuring is essential to challenging many of the distorted thoughts and core beliefs that your client likely holds about their ex—that their ex was the best, they can’t live without them, or no one else will want them. Honest and helpful thinking about their breakup helps clients use the loss as a platform for self-exploration and growth.
Cortney S. Warren, PhD, ABPP, is a board-certified clinical psychologist; and former tenured associate professor of psychology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV). Having won numerous professional awards for her research, Warren is an expert on addictions, eating pathology, self-deception, and the practice of psychotherapy from a cross-cultural perspective. In addition to her academic work, Warren is a speaker, author, and coach with a passion for bringing psychological tools to the public. She earned her doctorate from Texas A&M University after completing a clinical internship at McLean Hospital/Harvard Medical School in 2006.