I have a friend who went through a break up not long ago.
Saying she was obsessed with her ex is an understatement. Even months after the breakup, she couldn’t stop contacting him and wouldn’t stop talking about him.
I wasn’t surprised at how she handled the breakup because their relationship crashed in the most cliche fashion — he swept her off her feet within a short amount of time, he suddenly pulled away, and when she voiced her concern about their incompatibility or his lack of effort, he broke up with her instantly like he had never been hot on her before.
She was left heartbroken and confused. She was perplexed by how easy it was for him to cut contact with her. She wondered what she had done wrong to push him away. Even after he revealed to her through his post-breakup treatment of her that they were not a good fit, she couldn’t get over how perfect he had been in the beginning and how wonderful her life would be had they ended up together.
Isn’t this story familiar? I know my friend is not alone in her suffering.
She might have gone down this path because of her personal issues such as childhood traumas and an insecure attachment style. However, like everyone else, she was also a helpless victim to a number of cognitive effects that set her up to fail.
Different cognitive effects at play
Any of us could fall into the traps of these powerful cognitive effects and lose ourselves in the misguided pursuit of our exes:
“Halo effect” and “Cognitive Dissonance”— The perfect first few dates
“Intermittent Reinforcement” — The rollercoaster
“Sunk Cost Fallacy” — The post-breakup chain
Let me explain it to you.
1. The halo effect
The Halo effect occurs when you use your limited impression of a person to make an overall judgment of that person.
Translation: When your ex sweeps you off your feet, they make such a strong positive impression on you that you can’t register their mistreatment of you later as part of who they are.
You think that they must have “changed” or acted out of character as opposed to them showing you their full, true self.
2. Cognitive dissonance
Cognitive dissonance refers to the discomfort you experience when holding two conflicting beliefs or ideas.
Translation: You’re stressed by seeing the two versions of your ex — the interested one when you first date them and the toxic and incompatible one later in the relationship or after the breakup. To avoid this stress, you have to cling to one version and make excuses for the other.
Now, look back at the Halo effect and guess which version you will hold onto harder?
One plus two equals…
To you, the person they appear to be during the first few dates is the “real” them —forever perfect — and the person they turn out to be later must be a product of external factors, or even enabled by you. In other words, you blame yourself for their mistreatment of you.
Worse, if they act hot and cold to you throughout the relationship or after the break-up, you can say goodbye to your sanity and hello to another mental cocktail: Intermittent Reinforcement.
3. Intermittent reinforcement
Intermittent reinforcement happens when rewards are inconsistent.
Translation: Your ex showers you with attention and affection one day and ignores you the next. They tell you it’s over and block you, then come back and ask to see you again. You get hooked.
No matter how horrible you feel, you keep hanging around, waiting for the next “high” that would make everything okay again. The fact that you don’t know when it will come makes it millions of times more addictive.
Unfortunately, the traps don’t end there.
After enough time has passed, you’re now at risk of falling victim to a new devil: the Sunk Cost Fallacy.
4. Sunk cost fallacy
Sunk cost fallacy occurs when you continue a behaviour because of your previous investment in it.
Translation: You’ve invested so much time and energy in your ex. You’ve done so many things you wouldn’t do otherwise because of your ex. You think, if you stop now, everything is going to go to waste, so you have to go on and make things right again somehow.
How to unknot your brain
I hope, by now, you have a better understanding of why it is so hard to get over a short-lived relationship even though rationally you know it isn’t right for you. And the list above is just four out of many factors that might contribute to your psychological hell.
So, first of all, don’t be too hard on yourself. You’re doing well.
Now, to outsmart those psychological effects and move forward with your life, you need to focus on the facts:
1. Your ex isn’t right for you.
If they were, you would still be together. They wouldn’t have pulled hot and cold on you. They wouldn’t have left you feeling so hurt and empty.
2. The person they appear to be in the beginning isn’t real.
When they sweep you off your feet, they don’t do it for you — they don’t know anything about you yet. They do it for themselves.
You don’t know the real them, but you know for a fact that they don’t treat you well and they don’t choose you every day. You need a partner who chooses you every day.
3. Healthy relationships don’t turn you into an addict.
A partner who unknowingly uses intermittent reinforcement on you is one who has issues — low emotional intelligence, immaturity, insecure attachment style, or personality disorder, you name it.
A partner who is aware of intermittent reinforcement and does it on purpose is a selfish, cruel person you need to stay away from as far as possible.
I don’t know what type of partner your ex was, but none of those types would be able to form a healthy, happy relationship with you.
4. The sooner you commit to moving on, the less you lose.
I understand that you’ve invested a lot of yourself in your ex and it’s painful to pull the plug now. But if you continue to invest despite hurting inside out, you’re in denial.
No — it won’t get better. No — your ex won’t be able to make up for the misery they have put you through. The only person who could do that is you when you commit to moving on and removing your ex from your life for good.
The longer you live in the past is the less time you have to live the life you love; meanwhile, your ex is enjoying themselves and planning their future somewhere—it’s not fair. You deserve to be happy now.
Yes — when you fight against these cognitive effects, there’ll be a short-term emotional shock. You will have to face yourself and own up to your mistakes and poor decisions, and it will be a hell of its own.
But, it’s okay. The negative feelings will pass. As you shift the investments of time, love, and care into yourself, you will feel indefinitely better and stronger. A whole new world will open up in front of you.
To avoid psychological traps in the future, remember to keep your eyes on the big picture and your long-term happiness while staying aware. You can do it.