Moving on in the 21st century
How many of you have really struggled to move on with your life after a break up? Perhaps you’ve struggled to let go, or perhaps you’ve struggled to stop thinking about them. Chances are, you’re not alone. Now, I can’t speak for the past because I wasn’t around 30-40 years ago, but I have some theories that suggest break ups in the 21st century are excruciatingly challenging and often times, prolonged.
There’s no question that we live in an instantly accessible society. We hear older generations talk about how this current generation is all about “instant gratification” – but can you blame us? Communication nowadays is essentially instantaneous. We now no longer have to search through 32 volumes of encyclopaedias or, heaven forbid, go to an actual real life library to find an answer to a probing question; we have Google. We’ve been conditioned to receive reinforcement essentially instantaneously. Now I don’t use the term “conditioned” lightly either. For those of you familiar with Pavlov’s dogs or classical conditioning, I’m talking about that.
The first conscious decision you have to make is do you have hope that you and this individual will get back together or are you wanting to move on, because you can’t have both. You can’t hold on to the hope that you two will end up together and move on and in order to move on you have to accept that you are not getting back together. This might seem like a challenging decision to make, but I urge you to consider the reason(s) that you two broke up. If it really was as good as your mind is trying to conceive in order to keep holding on to this hope, chances are, things wouldn’t have ended. In order to justify our hope, we have a tendency to reflect only upon the good times. Doing otherwise creates a thing called cognitive dissonance; tension that arises when we are simultaneously aware of inconsistent thoughts (Myers, 2013, p. 733). So instead of the tension, we choose one thought and forget the other; we choose the thought that supports hope, we choose the good times. Because of this, I challenge you to adopt a more balanced outlook; consider what didn’t work just as you might consider what did work.
So you’ve made the decision to move on, now what? Now you have to create an environment that is conducive and compatible for you to do so. It took my last break up for me to realise why people delete their ex off Facebook. I always thought that it was an immature approach, but after going through a painful break up myself (what break up isn’t painful if you’re truly invested) I realised it’s not only the smart thing to do, it’s also necessary. Every time we check in on an ex on Facebook or Instagram or any other website, we reopen those wounds; we never actually allow ourselves a chance to heal and move on. Our wounds do not scar, instead they stay wounds and continue to hurt and prevent us from moving on. Each time we check their webpage, we’re self-harming. Emotionally self-harming. We’re torturing ourselves. For me, just deleting my ex off Facebook and unfollowing her wasn’t enough, especially given that her profile wasn’t private. So I took it a step further and I got rid of Facebook and Instagram altogether. I didn’t delete them, no, but I deactivated them and deleted the apps off my phone; in other words, I made them less accessible. I did this as a compromise to myself – I knew myself enough to know I couldn’t trust myself to keep active accounts and not check in on my ex, but I also knew I wasn’t ready to lose all of my photographs and data from each account. That way, if I desperately needed to check something on Facebook (like a friend’s birthday), I could reactivate my account, retrieve the information I needed, and then deactivate it again. This is what worked for me, but it might not work for you; spend some time figuring out what it is that you need and then implement it. Another reason I deactivated Facebook was because of the mutual friends that my ex and I shared – just deleting my ex wasn’t enough, I would have to manually go through and delete everyone who was friends with her in order to prevent an accidental image or tagged status appearing in my news feed. That was too much effort for me.
Part of the reason people might remain friends with their ex on Facebook and social media alike is because of hope – we hope that they might post something about us. Or perhaps we hope to see that they’re struggling and miss us and will ultimately make their way back to us. Stop. Not only is this idealistic, unrealistic, and our fantasy, it’s not constructive. You made a decision to move on and I’m here to help you stick to that. More often than not, we see images of our ex with someone else or being totally okay after our break up and that just crushes us more. Sometimes, ignorance really is bliss. And this is one of those times.
The ultimate question many of us have – can exes be friends after a break up? Personally, I don’t think they can. Not without someone suffering immensely. Were you and your ex ever “just friends” before you got together? Or was there an immediate attraction? If it was the latter, then isn’t it unrealistic to expect you to behave like friends when you’ve never done that before? Especially given the potential nature of your relationship and the break up? For me, I can’t be friends with an ex immediately after a break up. It’s too painful. And I believe it hinders healing. Let me explain why. Say you’ve been dating someone for a year and during this time you’ve exchanged many messages, many of which are lovey dovey and affectionate. Your phone, through the process of classical conditioning, has now been conditioned to be a source of comfort from your ex. Through acquisition, this association is extremely strong. Now you break up. And the communication changes. The communication is no longer lovey dovey, but hostile and short. Each time you receive a message from them during this break up period, you’ve been conditioned to feel a sense of comfort and affection, but what you receive is polar opposite. So each time their name pops up, you have hope that it will be “just like old times” but it’s not. And it’s not going to be. And each time it hurts just a little bit more. It crushes you. Disappoints you. Breaks you.
Ah but what if this ex of yours does still send you those lovey dovey texts? I urge you to consider why they’re doing this. Look at their past relationships – have they been able to let their exes go while seemingly moving on? Some people like to keep their exes strung along until they find someone better; a source of comfort and familiarity without the commitment. Others, selfishly, don’t want you to move on. Because they want you to want them. They need you to want them. If your ex is one of those people, run. Run as fast as you can. Run until you can’t run anymore. Okay just kidding, but I dated one of those people. They’re called “headfucks”. They don’t know what they want so they keep you strung along as an option. No one deserves to be treated like an option and you are no different. So back to our earlier decision: move on.
Our phones are no different than social media; they prevent us from healing. But what makes phones so destructive is that we can’t exactly get rid of them. And because of instantaneous communication, we know how accessible we are to our ex. We’ve become so conditioned to hearing from them regularly that even when they don’t text us, that hurts too. This is one of the primary reasons (along with social media) that I think makes break ups in the 21st century so difficult; the accessibility. Thirty odd years ago, before cell phones and the internet, once you broke up with someone, that was invariably it. There were rarely any repercussions. Sure, there might be the possibility of running into them in person, or perhaps the estranged phone call, or maybe a hand-written letter, but it wasn’t expected. Nor did you live in a way in which it was. Break ups were clean. Individuals could continue living without constant reminders of their ex other than the environment in which they perhaps shared. But they didn’t take these reminders with them everywhere they went, unlike today with our phones and technology.
Am I advising you to get rid of your phone? No, not at all. But I think that establishing clear boundaries with your ex is something that is necessary for your growth. And by clear boundaries, I mean no communication. No communication severs those aforementioned associations with your phone. It severs hope. It allows you to begin extinguishing your thoughts because you’re not being constantly reminded of them. Nor are you waiting to hear from them. When you stop talking to them, you also stop talking about them. Because there’s no new information to discuss with friends, you’re forced to talk about things other than your ex. And not talking about them means not thinking about them. And not thinking about them means there’s opportunity to heal. I was fortunate after my last official break up that my ex made it clear she didn’t want to keep in contact. She cut me off. She stopped replying. No message was a message. She killed any hope I had that we would get back together. And you know what? That was the greatest gift she could have given me because it allowed me to move on. Let me pause here for a second because I feel like I’m perhaps glorifying this situation - did it hurt when my ex went cold turkey on me? You bloody bet. Could I understand it at the time? Not at all. It broke my heart. Shattered me. Destroyed me. But the pain was short and intense; acute if you will. It lasted a month. Remaining in contact with an ex, however, produces chronic pain and prolongs the heartache; it prevents you from truly healing. It takes great strength to remember that what you want is not always what you need – perhaps you want to keep in contact with your ex, but that isn’t what you need. In the words of The Fray in their song All At Once, “Sometimes the hardest thing and the right thing are the same.”
If you’ve communicated with your ex that you would like distance and they cannot respect that / continue to message you, stop replying. Don’t reinforce their behaviour. Each time you reply, you’re reinforcing them texting you. And each time you reinforce that, you deny yourself the opportunity to move on because you’ll continue thinking when are they going to text me again? If you still can’t decide whether you need to cut off communication with them, observe what your energy does after interacting with them. Do you feel energised? Motivated? Inspired? Or do you feel hostile? Bitter? Sad? If they disrupt your energy and homeostasis, politely excuse yourself from interacting with them. This is your journey and you’re in control of who accompanies you.
Okay, so you’ve cut them out of your life, now what? Delete their number. Delete their conversations. Save whatever pictures you want to save (and transfer them to your computer or something less accessible), but then delete everything. Put all of their belongings or notes or clothes in a box and put that box somewhere less accessible. Going over old texts, pictures, or letters will not serve you. It will continue reopening those wounds and will prevent you from moving on. Establish clear boundaries with friends and family too. Ask them to not discuss your ex with you unless you bring them up. The purpose of this is to create a safe environment for yourself; an environment in which you feel ex-free. An environment in which you can heal.
Because you’re no longer receiving reinforcement from your ex, I’ve found that finding someone else (or multiple people) to communicate with regularly (yes, even via texting) helps. You’re not replacing your ex, more so replacing the reinforcement you were receiving from them. Another tip: don’t force moving on. Create an environment that is compatible with you doing so (like the aforementioned online exorcism* of sorts) and be patient. When you force yourself to move on, or tell yourself things like, “I just want to let go already”, what you’re really doing is thinking about your ex. Thinking about your ex keeps them active in your life. It keeps those wounds open. And worse, it makes you feel bad for not being where you want to be which then creates feelings of bitterness, anger, or frustration; all of which are destructive to your growth.
Having said all of this, I urge you to take an active approach when attempting to move on. Will it happen naturally regardless of what you do? Probably, yes, but can you save yourself a lot of time and heartache by being active in your recovery? Absolutely. I strongly believe that we prolong this process because we’re unable to execute a few crucial steps. I also believe that we somewhat prevent ourselves from healing in our entirety when we remain friends with our exes. When we can’t heal entirely, we also can’t give ourselves entirely to someone else. And your next lover deserves to experience the beautiful completeness of you in your entirety; with scars, not wounds. So don’t cheat them. And don’t cheat yourself.
Lastly, I want to acknowledge that I fully understand the need for certain things to happen naturally – I know all too well that our heart will let go when it’s ready to let go and that it is not something we can force. The purpose of this post is not to force anything, rather it is to lessen the pain of the process of moving on and to create the best possible environment in which to do so. I have recently had to take this approach, an active one, in order to minimise my suffering. Am I emotionally detached from this person? No. Has my heart let go? No it hasn’t. And I can’t make it. But I can control how much I suffer during the process in which it does. And that, my friends, is what I want you to realise; we might not have complete control in this life, but we do have control over this.
*I borrowed this phrase from Lisa Steadman in an interview she had with Lois McCullough from her Unstuck and Unstoppable Summit.
Myers, D. G. (2013). Social Psychology (11th ed.). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.