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A Glimpse Into the Unhealthy Habits of Exaholics

After three years, a move closer to her mother and a new puppy, Aaron and Gemma split. For Aaron, the breakup came out of nowhere. Just weeks earlier, they subscribed to a local CSA, planned their garden and bought airline tickets to his high school reunion.

And then he saw something that he couldn’t un-see.

“It’s Max-Man from Tinder. This weekend?”

Her phone flashed the illuminating text, then faded on her side of the bed while she slept. Aaron grabbed her phone, punched in a few logical pass codes and unlocked the jarring truth: Gemma was on Tinder.

Instantly, he felt intense anger and then crushing distress. They fought. Devastated, he pleaded with her to try again, but she was well out of the relationship and had been for a while.

When he asked her why, all she could say was that it was “just too hard to talk about.”

Stuck in the Past

The breakup happened almost a year ago this spring, but the pain is still agonizing. Those words, “too hard to talk about” haunt Aaron. He wonders over and over, what was too hard to talk about?

Aaron checks Gemma’s online presence several times a day, fueling an obsessive drive to peek into a powerful window into her world.-Polly DrewBut as his grief turned to anguish, he does more than just wonder about what happened between them. Although he’s made a geographical move and can’t drive past their house or run into her at the coffee shop, Aaron sometimes spends hours stalking her on social media, dissecting her posts, likes and follows.

Gemma thought that she was doing Aaron a favor by offering to stay friends, thinking that the geographical distance would be enough. But now Aaron checks Gemma’s online presence several times a day, fueling an obsessive drive to peek into a powerful window into her world.

Almost a year after friends and family tried to mend Aaron’s broken heart, he has plunged much deeper into pain. Paralyzed with shame from knowing that he “should be over this by now,” he feels hopeless and helpless against his craving to know all about Gemma.

Pain and the Brain

Aaron is not alone. Most love relationships that end suddenly, result in a heartbreaking pain. And this pain is so real that your brain does not know if you’ve broken your arm or broken your heart. The same areas of the brain light up on an MRI.

And most humans will do anything to avoid pain: they drink, they drug, they over-eat or they stew in dark thoughts which can lead to an addiction that causes erratic behavior and disturbs inner peace.

Even when the lovesick person knows intellectually that it’s over and desperately wants internal peace, well-meaning family and even some psychotherapists may suggest that the lovelorn try for closure from the estranged lover.

“But getting closure is a myth,” said Dr. Lisa Bobby, a Denver Marriage and Family Therapist. “There is no final day of reckoning that will tie up loose ends and stop the obsessive thoughts and longing.” She said that understanding what is going on biochemically, combined with a healthy dose of compassion goes a long way to assist in breakup recovery.

The Path to Empowerment

In her book, “Exaholics: Breaking Your Addiction to an Ex Love” (Sterling, 2015), Dr. Bobby offers a sensitive, easy-to-use manual based on brain science. She gently helps the reader pave a clear path to the empowerment needed to move on.

First steps:

  • Recognize that your inability to get over a past love is not your fault. Much like an opioid addiction, your brain with its “limbic systems ablaze” addicts you to another person on a primal level.
  • Honor your feelings — they are real — but act from your core values. They point to deep beliefs and show you to your best self. Bobby says to make a list of qualities, circumstances and characteristics that are most important to you. When your feelings try to run rough shod over sanity, the list clarifies what is important in the long run.
  • Have a plan for self-care. To get through the long haul of healing, make sure to eat and sleep well, and get moderate exercise. Consider keeping a journal to voice your feelings or join an online support group.

Once you get self-care in place, it’s time to turn off the brain’s stimulation for your lost love. This means consciously abstaining from all things that get the mammalian part of your brain to work. Don’t look online. Ask to be blocked. Don’t drive past his place of work. And most importantly, stop fantasizing.

Dr. Bobby’s tips for abstinence:

  • Stay in the present. “Thoughts of your Ex are time travelers” Bobby writes, meaning that fantasy distracts you from the here and now. Even say to yourself, “I am having a thought about something that is not happening right now.” Focus and say what IS happening: “I am driving my car to work. It is a sunny day. I feel safe.” This will help strengthen the primitive part of your brain which helps to shift away from obsessive thoughts.
  • Use the “stop and replace technique.” Plan for the intrusive, 20-plus thoughts you’ll have about your Ex today. Instead of ruminating on them, replace the disruptions with something comforting. First say to yourself “STOP!” And then, remind yourself of a longtime friend you are going to take a walk with that evening, a movie you enjoy, an upcoming lunch date or vacation. Work hard at establishing a long list of pleasurable activities that are easy to access.
  • Use a mantra to break an obsessive thought. Say: “I wish to be free and release my Ex to the universe.” Use the mantra as a default to set an intention and break an intrusive thought.

Embracing Recovery

Dr. Bobby is clear that these cognitive techniques take practice, time and patience. And the practice of doing them doesn’t necessarily heal the obsession and end the addiction. But what it does do is provide relief and give you a sense of control over your goal to abstain from the relationship.

As in all recovery work, once abstinence is achieved, recovery can begin. “Exaholics” takes a 12-step recovery approach, with the traditional AA 12-steps converted to healing from a break-up. For example:

Step One: “We admit to ourselves and others that we are powerless over our thoughts and emotions about our Ex, and we struggle daily in life as a result.”

But there is a huge difference between being a person addicted to alcohol or drugs and a person who is addicted to an ex-lover. Abstaining from alcohol or drugs can lead to freedom from addiction, but there is no cure.

Fully detaching from an Ex is not only curable; liberation from a former love can make your life better, bolder and make you brave.

The poet George Herbert’s quote was never truer:  “Living well is the best revenge.”

Image Courtesy of iStock

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