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Why does the sadness come in waves?

Jesse Martin

February 06, 2014

One recurring pattern I've noticed in the breakup stories that guys share with me is that they are shocked at how (seemingly) fast their ex-girlfriend is able to move on.

Perhaps she started seeing someone else within days of your breakup, or she left you for another guy. Or maybe she just seems to be handling the whole breakup a lot better than you are.

The question remains: how is she able to move on so fast, and why does all this seem so much harder on you than it is on her?

I've come up with, what I believe to be, a fairly good approximation of what is going on. In my view there are several factors at play here.

Her attachment pattern plays an important role

If your ex has moved on seemingly quickly, it may have to do with her attachment pattern, which might very well be anxiously attached.

A study from the University of Toronto has found that anxiously attached individuals can more easily let go of their ex-partners if they focus on someone new.

What they observed is that anxiously attached individuals are naturally pessimistic about their chances of finding someone else. As a result of this pessimism they feel longing for their ex-partners when broken up and put up with more 'crap' during their relationship in order to feel secure.

The authors found that by changing the outlook of these anxiously attached individuals from being pessimistic about their prospects of finding a new partner to being optimistic, the feelings of longing for their ex-partners could be reduced. How could this outlook be changed from pessimistic to optimistic? As the authors admit, a rebound relationship, for one, could have that effect, but also simple optimistic suggestions could result in reduced feelings of longing as well.

Take pause for a minute and truly understand what the authors are saying here. They are saying that simply by giving a woman optimistic suggestions they can reduce her longing for her (ex-) partner.

If something as trivial as optimistic suggestions can change her feelings about you, imagine what genuine interest from another guy could do. This effect cannot be underestimated.

If your ex-girlfriend has an anxious attachment pattern, she may have stayed with you only because she was pessimistic about her alternatives.

We decide to leave a relationship based on our comparison with alternatives

There's a framework that some scientists use to analyze relationships. It's called the social exchange model view of relationships and the underlying idea is that human relationships can be seen as the result of people making cost-benefit analyses and comparing their alternatives. According to this model you choose to leave a relationship based on a comparison with the alternatives you have and not solely based on your dissatisfaction with the relationship.

Ponder that for a second.

If your ex-girlfriend was unhappy, she might have stayed with you because she didn't feel her alternatives were that much better. But when a cute guy at work suddenly showed an interest in her, she was gone in a heartbeat. It's not that the other guy was so amazing, but comparatively, it may have seemed like a better alternative for her at the time.

I believe this is why you ex-girlfriend’s behavior can seem erratic, going from “I love you” to “I love him now”, seemingly overnight. If that’s the case, I also believe there’s another way looking at the situation:

The only thing keeping her in the relationship in the first place was her pessimism towards finding someone new.

The fact that your girlfriend was able to move on so quickly might be an indication of an anxious attachment pattern and her being dissatisfied in the relationship.

On top of that your ex-girlfriend, at some level, was likely dissatisfied with the relationship. And you – as you’ll gradually come to understand – were probably dissatisfied as well.

She started grieving the failed relationship and contemplating her exit strategy long before it happened.

Nobody in a loving, committed relationship wakes up one day, having lost all their feelings of love, and decides to break up with their partner soon after.

These things take time. When the thought of leaving someone first enters their mind, they push it away. They feel guilty for even having had that thought.

They try to convince themselves that they're with an amazing person and that they should feel lucky! Perhaps they redouble their effort in the relationship. They initiate sex more, they get you a bunch of little gifts, they start planning trips. Anything to rekindle the spark they once had. [1]

This might help a little bit, some of the time, but the thoughts keep returning, the feelings aren't going away.

So they confide in a close friend. They go out for drinks, and after weeks or even months of not daring to say out loud what they've been thinking, they blurt out their darkest thoughts. And what they get back from their friends is consideration and understanding. They're there for them. They want what's best for them.

After a couple of weeks of talking it over with their friends and family, they finally make the decision that they're going to end things. But that's going to be so hard! How are they supposed to move on from this? How are they supposed to live life without this other person by their side?

So they get really sad and despondent. You recognize that something is wrong, and attempt to console them. You start doing all these extra nice things for them, because you can tell something is wrong, but you don't know what. They cry in your arms constantly. They want to tell you their feelings, but they're afraid of you lashing out.

So they just remain in the relationship, miserable, and sad, and wondering how much longer it's going to take before they finally actually commit to ending it.

And then one afternoon, after much support and insistence from their family and friends, they sit you down and tell you that it's over.

And that's why when you ask to talk about it, they refuse.

That's why all your texts go unanswered.

That's why they appear to be so cold.

That's why weeks after you break up, they're on instagram and facebook having a great time with their friends.

That's why a couple months after you break up, they're able to start seeing someone.

Because they've already done the grieving part. Everything that you're going through right now, they've already been through it. Only they were able to use your love to help get through it.

It's not that they were able to move on so quick. It's just that they had a super head start on the grieving process.


If she was dissastisfied, she was probably mulling over breaking up with you, consciously or unconsciously, for quite some time. This gives her a perceived head start in recovering after the breakup. I've found support for this view by talking to women who went through a similar experience as the initiator of the breakup. I also had a client who experienced something similar recently and was able to talk to his ex about it. Here's what he said:

I had an in-depth text convo with her today. Turns out she's been slowly processing her decision to let go before finally unleashing it on me.

So although it may seem that both your recovery processes should have both started the second you broke up -- it often doesn't play out that way. She's going to be further along in processing her emotions.

But there's a more important truth here: Her recovery -- anything she is doing for that matter -- has nothing to do with you anymore. You have no responsibility anymore towards how she feels.

Your mind is going to want to fixate on her. You're going to want to know what she's doing, how she's doing, who she's doing it with. That's because on a physical level you're still in love with her, you're still biologically addicted to her. Your biological wiring is engineered to motivate you to find out about her so you can get back together with her.

We need to see this phenomenon for what it is: thoughts and feelings. And they're not helping you recover.

You need to start catching yourself when your mind wanders towards anything that pertains to her.

Acknowledge the experience:

"I feel like I want to know how she could move on so quickly. It's making me feel really sad about myself"

"Even though I feel sad and feel that I want to know more about what she's going through -- whatever she is going through no longer has anything to do with me. I am now caring about myself first and foremost."

Then redirect your thoughts or change what you're doing.

Rinse and repeat.

It's not a race

Just because she moved on quickly, or quicker than you, doesn't mean she's better off in any way. It's not a race for whoever finds the best relationship first. Your mind is going to want to compare your progress to hers. Don't let it. It doesn't contribute anything to your path forward from here. Instead, focus on who you want to be and what you want your life to look like.

Those who are quick to walk away, never intended to stay

The title of this section is a popular quote that gets thrown around when someone's ex moves on quickly. I think there's some truth to it, but it's also (obviously) an oversimplification.

As we saw earlier in this article, whether we stay in a relationship is largely based on how we view our alternatives. If your girlfriend dumps you for the first guy that shows her attention (e.g. a shitty alternative) then I think it's fair to say she wasn't going to be around for a long time anyway.

If, however, you two split up and she is able to move on with her life seemingly quickly, she might also just be "good" at moving on. Resilient people don't allow themselves to ruminate and take a pro-active approach towards bouncing back. In this case her moving on quickly says nothing about how she felt about you or the relationship - it only says something about how resilient she is.

So it depends. Her moving on quickly doesn't necessarily mean she never loved you. At the same time, if she's left you for the first guy that gave her a compliment - you can be confident she never intended to stay.

Make sense? Let me know.

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