Every day brings a new raft of breakups as men and women let go of relationships that weren’t right for them. It’s what these men and women tell themselves about their past relationships and their exes that determines how well their next ones will go. Forgiveness is a crucial part of the healing process after a breakup. When most relationships end, each member of the couple feels angry about things their partner did or said. The mistake most people make is the failure to make forgiveness a priority in the getting-over-it process.
Make sure you understand specifically what angered you most about your ex.
Anger is perhaps the most underrated emotion. Most people are scared of their anger, afraid it will cause them to lose emotional control or that others will think they look “crazy” if they show just how upset they are. Anger, however, is a fact of life and it comes automatically with any relationship. Even in the best relationships, two people will inevitably make each other angry at some point. By the time a relationship ends, the anger has usually accumulated to the point that even the smallest tiff can morph instantly into a full-blown argument. After a breakup, take inventory of your anger and ask yourself a few basic questions. If I had to pick one thing that my partner did which angered me the most, what would it be? What are some examples of things he or she did that made me feel taken advantage of, humiliated, or neglected? In what ways did I feel betrayed?
Put your anger into writing.
Simply thinking about your anger isn’t enough to successfully heal after a breakup; you have to put your feelings into writing. Write down some of the most upsetting episodes with your ex in a journal or on scratch paper, and keep that document in a shoe box in your closet. Some people like to call this the “Ex Box.” Putting your thoughts in writing is powerful because it helps you organize your feelings into sound bites, little thought fragments that will stick in your head. From time to time, you can go back to your Ex Box and read what you wrote, and those notes will act like a friend, consoling and reassuring you when you start missing your ex or find yourself recalling more of the good times than the bad ones. The notes in your “Ex Box” serve as the objective archive of what happened to you in that relationship.
Figure out what the lesson was that you were supposed to learn from your relationship.
When a relationship ends, people tend to feel overwhelmed by the sense of sadness and loss, failure and emptiness. The key to moving on is getting rid of your angry, negative feelings so that you can walk into your next relationship in a positive emotional space. In order to get rid of your angry or desperate feelings after a breakup, focus all your mental energy on figuring out what the lesson was that you were supposed to learn from the relationship. Once you understand that the relationship wasn’t for nothing – that it actually taught you a very important lesson – you’ll feel more positively toward your ex and forgive him or her.
I’ll share some examples of lessons clients of mine have uncovered over the years from their past relationships: they need a partner who values monogamy as much as they do; they need someone who is more of a homebody than a social butterfly; they need someone who would never, ever flirt with someone else in front of them; they need someone who doesn’t have a passive-aggressive way of arguing; and they need someone who is reliable and shows up when they say they’ll show up. Uncover what lesson you were supposed to learn from that individual about what you need most in a relationship.
What to tell yourself and others about your ex when people ask in the future…
You know how movie stars are always interviewed about their love lives? They sit back on the host’s couch and say something about their ex that a publicist probably fed them moments before the cameras rolled: “The relationship didn’t work out but she is the most incredible person, and I feel lucky to have spent that time with her.” When you start dating someone new, find your own celebrity interview answer, as opposed to bad-mouthing your ex. Try something like this: “We both gave it a solid try, and I know it wasn’t meant to be or we would still be together. Instead of focusing on the things she did or didn’t do, I choose to focus on the lessons the relationship taught me, and I learned a lot.” A wonderful lyric from the song “Bless the Broken Road” by Rascal Flatts captures a healthy perspective: “Others who broke my heart, they were like northern stars, pointing me on my way, into your loving heart.” What wise lyrics! After all, our exes are, in fact, our northern stars, pointing us toward partners who will make better matches for us in the future.
Dr. Seth is a licensed clinical psychologist, author, Psychology Today blogger, and TV guest expert. He practices in Los Angeles and treats a wide range of issues and disorders and specializes in relationships, parenting, and addiction. He has had extensive training in conducting couples therapy and is the author of Dr. Seth’s Love Prescription: Overcome Relationship Repetition Syndrome and Find the Love You Deserve.