Why Can't You Stop Thinking About Your Ex-Partner?

Why can't you stop thinking about your ex-partner? A month, six months, or even a year have passed and your mind is still attached to someone or a failed relationship. And what's worse, these memories keep conditioning your present. Why does this happen? What kind of psychological mechanism is preventing you from moving on?
Why Can't You Stop Thinking About Your Ex-Partner?
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 13 October, 2022

Why can’t you stop thinking about your ex-partner? Sometimes, you’d probably just love to have a button that would simply allow you to erase certain memories and suffering at will. Wouldn’t it just be great to press it, lower the intensity of your feelings, and stop that person from taking up space in your mind in such an invasive, painful way? Sometimes, love and heartbreak stick to your brain, giving way to obsessive and exhausting mental states.

We all know or have met someone who, despite feeling bad, is unable to leave a painful relationship for good. That avid texter desperately longing for a response. That person who, unable to accept the situation, stalks their ex’s social networks on a daily basis, suffering with each new post as the other moves on with their lives or even starts a new relationship.

What can you do if this happens to you?

A sad woman.

Why can’t you stop thinking about your ex-partner?

Many people go to therapy because they’ve become aware that they’ve reached an extreme state of psychological stress, obsession, and exhaustion. That’s why they feel like they need professional help to stop thinking about their ex-partner.

These situations can really interfere with daily life. Working, enjoying leisure time, or thinking about the future becomes a big challenge for many.

In an attempt to stop thinking about their ex-partner, some people try to distract themselves with a new hobby, sport, or self-help course. Others start a relationship in a vain attempt to forget. Sadly, others try to forget by turning to alcohol, drugs, and self-destructive behaviors.

These situations present the same psychological mechanism as that of an addiction. The brain uses the same mechanisms as someone who can’t quit smoking or goes gambling every day. Let’s have a look at why.

Sometimes, love is like gambling

The metaphor isn’t very poetic, but it’s still illustrative. Some loves become obsessions. They make us act like an addict who goes gambling every day. Thus, one of the answers as to why you can’t stop thinking about your ex-partner lies in the brain reward circuit of dopamine.

When you’re with your partner and everything’s going well, your dopamine levels are stable. You feel satisfied and you have a sense of safety, pleasure, and well-being. However, when there’s a break-up, dopamine and norepinephrine production is drastically reduced. Despair and withdrawal symptoms follow.

What you should do is get away, close all contact, stop checking your social networks, and delete their number from your phone. The more you expose yourself or look for ways to get closer to your ex-partner, the more you reinforce your addiction, your withdrawal syndrome, and, therefore, your suffering.

Separation anxiety: I love you more now!

Anthropologist Helen Fisher has been studying the mechanics of love (and heartbreak) for decades. One thing that can shed some light on why you can’t stop thinking about your ex-partner is what Fisher calls “frustration attraction”.

Sometimes, separation causes more than obsession. People often idealize what they’ve lost, and they have a greater need for attachment. Helen Fisher herself describes it in the following way: “Separation anxiety is like a puppy who’s kept away from its mother. It runs in circles, barks, and groans”.

On the other hand, studies such as those conducted at the University of Graz (Austria) tell us that this tendency is more common among men. They’re the ones who continue to look at their ex-partners with fondness, and many times even think that it’s possible to continue the relationship. Women, on average, tend to focus on the more negative aspects to reassert themselves in the distance and at the end of that bond.

What can you do in these situations?

The most appropriate thing to do when you leave a relationship is to rationalize the causes that motivated it. If you’ve been dumped or if the other person decided to end the relationship, you’re no longer loved. Although this doesn’t define your loveability, it’s something you must come to terms with as soon as possible.

A sad man.

Emotional pain and why you can’t stop thinking about your ex-partner

Ethan Ross, a professor at the University of Michigan, conducted a study in which he showed that the brain interprets social rejection and marital breakdown in the same way as a burn. In other words, the emotional pain we suffer is similar to physical pain. This also explains why it’s so hard for you to move on and stop thinking about your ex-partner.

Attachment, memories of the past, and the impossibility of coming to terms with reality feed the blues. Far from being relieved day by day, pain becomes much more acute.

What can you do?

After every major break-up, you’ll need to grieve. Grief is a stage in which to leave room for suffering and pain and, then, to vent it. After grief comes acceptance. This is the final step, in which we detach ourselves from memories to create new ones. Giving way to a new life stage full of new projects and goals is always the best option.

Nevertheless, don’t hesitate to ask for expert help if you become aware that it’s impossible for you to move on, heal the wound, and, above all, leave behind those who no longer think of you.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Acevedo, B. P., Aron, A., Fisher, H. E., & Brown, L. L. (2012). Neural correlates of long-term intense romantic love. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience7(2), 145–159. https://doi.org/10.1093/scan/nsq092
  • Athenstaedt, U., Brohmer, H., Simpson, J. A., Müller, S., Schindling, N., & Bacik, A. (2019). Men view their ex-partners more favorably than women do. Social Psychology and Personality Science. Advance online publication. DOI: 10.1177/1948550619876633

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.