Why Can’t I Get Over My Ex? The 7 Most Likely Reasons, According to Therapists
If you're hung up on a broken-down relationship for weeks...or months...or even years after a breakup, researchers have found that the causes consistently circle around a few particular themes.
Few things turn a human’s world upside down like the end of an intimate relationship. No matter the reason for the split, a person in love enters an emotional free-fall. A 2019 study that was published in PLOS One found that our mental state after a breakup actually resembles symptoms of clinical depression—while research in 2010 in the Journal of Neurophysiology suggested that our brain clocks the pain of heartbreak in the same way as it registers physical pain. So if you’re feeling like your heart’s been ripped out of your chest and asking yourself over and over, Why can’t I get over my ex?, well, science says your pain is very real and not uncommon.
But why, exactly, do some relationships make it feel like there’s no way to move on? Relationship researchers have searched for patterns to find that the answers consistently circle around a few particular themes. Here, therapists refer to that insight to help explain what’s going on when you just can’t get over your ex—and they offer tips to help you heal.
Why can’t you get over your ex? Because there’s no timeline for heartache
Researchers have tried again and again to answer: How long does it take to get over a breakup? In short, research shows it depends.
The human brain hates this uncertainty and treats it as a threat to survival. So on top of your already-existing emotional conflict, that stress adds another layer. (Read more about this in Here’s How to Get Over a Breakup—and How Long It Might Take.)
That tug-of-war can start to take over your thought patterns, too. It’s common for people to idealize their ex, says Dontea’ Mitchell-Hunter, LMFT, therapist and CEO of Soirées In Therapy. “As we struggle with feelings around insecurity and dependency, we sometimes start to think that there’s no one better out there, this is the best it was going to get, or it was hard enough finding this relationship.”
In this case, you want to surround yourself with loving support (maybe some friends who can make you laugh!), be kind to yourself, and consider trying something that will help you remember how great you are—like getting back into a hobby you gave up for the relationship, connecting with an elderly loved one, or volunteering—which research has shown can be very healing.
Why can’t you get over your ex? Because a breakup triggers unpleasant feelings about ourselves
Getting over a breakup is a unique experience for all of us, says Michelle Hagen, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist at Cerebral. But “For some, it could take a lot longer to get over the breakup due to the complexities involved in our own relationship with ourselves,” she says. “Breakups could elicit feelings of rejection, which may be magnified—it can decrease our self-esteem and affect our ability to create a positive narrative beyond the previous relationship.”
Why can’t you get over your ex? Because you’re blaming yourself
Rumination is also very common after a breakup, Hagen says. Rumination refers to engaging in repetitive thinking or continuously focusing on the negative feelings and distress. And this cycle often gets caught up in obsessing over ‘what you could or should have done differently,’ which leaves you unable to start processing these negative emotions.
Why can’t you get over your ex? Because you’re caught up in good memories
It’s not just ruminating over negative emotions that can keep you feeling stuck. “Euphoric recall” is a tendency to only remember the good times—and it’s a coping mechanism that triggers the reward centers of our brain, similar to the same brain patterns that occur when an individual satisfies an addiction.
“When a relationship ends, we often focus on the hopes and dreams we had, the visions we had created for the future,” says Carla Manly, PhD, clinical psychologist and author of Date Smart. And if we don’t unravel these illusions, we can’t make space for new beginnings.
Why can’t you get over your ex? Because you’re not letting yourself grieve
You’re fresh out of a breakup, so your friends are taking you out several nights a week—or maybe you’re coping by throwing yourself into your work.
While the clinicians say these are totally normal responses, eventually, you will have to make space for the feelings that arise. It might be tough, but to ever move past them, research shows you need to feel them fully. “Give yourself permission to be vulnerable,” Hagen says, and grieve the loss of connection, loss of routine, loss of ‘what could have been.’ “Processing through the stages of the breakup such as denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance could help us heal, learn positively from the relationship, and carry those life lessons in the future.”
Why can’t you get over your ex? Because there’s unfinished business
Maybe you were caught off-guard by the breakup, or still don’t understand why the relationship ended. “This is the ‘there are still things left unsaid’ feeling,” says Stacey Sherrell, LMFT, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Los Angeles, CA and co-owner of Decoding Couples. In other words, you don’t have any closure. For some people, talking with their ex may bring some clarity—but if poor communication was an issue in your relationship, you might not get the answers you’re looking for.
Still, Mitchell-Hunter explains, to find a sense of closure, “You’ve got to be able to talk about what you’re experiencing.” Otherwise, “If we don’t talk about it, if we don’t acknowledge what our body is feeling, it’s going to stay within us.”
She says this process is different for everyone. You can talk about your breakup with your friends, but it’s OK if you don’t want to. “Engaging in journaling can provide a safe space to explore your thoughts on paper, identify your emotions, and create positive solutions that could help you heal as you move forward,” says Hagen.
Why can’t you get over your ex? Because you’re still following them on social media
If you’re still scrolling through your ex’s feed, you’re not alone. According to a recent YouGov survey, only about 25% of people unfollow their ex on social media.
Is checking up on them this way a bad idea? Yes, says Sherrell. “Seeing them move on and move forward in life can actually create the effect of keeping you stuck,” she explains—even if what they’re posting isn’t representative of how they’re feeling.
If your algorithm keeps them popping up on your feeds due to mutual friends, consider taking a break from social media altogether to give yourself the time and space to focus on healing, Hagen adds.
Dontea' Mitchell-Hunter, LMFT, therapist and CEO of Soirées In Therapy
Michelle Hagen, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist at Cerebral
Carla Manly, PhD, clinical psychologist and author of Date Smart
Stacey Sherrell, licensed marriage and family therapist in Los Angeles and co-owner of Decoding Couples
PLOS One: "Romantic relationship breakup: An experimental model to study effects of stress on depression (-like) symptoms"
Journal of Neurophysiology: "Reward, addiction, and emotion regulation systems associated with rejection in love"
YouGovAmerica: "Do Americans stay friends with their exes?"