When my oldest friend told me her ex had gotten engaged and she, like, felt things about the news, I was honestly pretty surprised. The two parted had mutually and amicably, and, really, it was never going to work out. Furthermore, she’s now Living Her Best Life in a modern apartment with her long-term boyfriend and their dog. So why is it that after we’ve moved on, we still often feel angry, sad, bitter, or anything about an ex’s happy milestones, even if we’d never date them again in a million years?
Clinical psychologist Alexandra Solomon, PhD and author of Loving Bravely, puts it pretty simply: “Love doesn’t leave us where it finds us. Going through the entire narrative arc of a relationship…leaves us changed,” she says. “We say that a relationship ends, and it does end, but that doesn’t mean that the knot of feelings we have about that person ever goes back to neutrality.”
Instead, we’re left with a residual network of emotions that can turn on when a person re-enters our sphere. “Because it’s a relationship and because it’s an intimate relationship, there’s no such thing as an absence of emotion or an absence of meaning,” Dr. Solomon adds. “So even though the ‘contract’ has ended, the relationship has ended, it doesn’t mean that the emotion is going to end.”
We say that a relationship ends, and it does end, but that doesn’t mean that the knot of feelings we have about that person ever goes back to neutrality.” —clinical psychologist Alexandra Solomon, PhD
So even when you’re well aware that the ex wasn’t the love of your life, that knee-jerk reaction of learning that someone you slept with three and a half times in 2016 is having a baby makes total psychological sense. Maybe, though, you not-so-accidentally stumbled upon a wedding registry of your college fling, and not only are you shocked that his six-year engagement actually now has a wedding date, but also that he put Settlers of Catan on there, like a total loser. Now, all of a sudden, someone you want nothing to do with is making you feel bad about yourself. How? Why?
You’re riled up about the upcoming nuptials of a man conversationally known as “Dick-pic Dan,” which leaves you wondering if you’re the real loser, because you’re the one focusing on (and judging) his happy milestones. This happens thanks to our tendency to cling onto the “what ifs,” and related self-doubt, even when nothing happening relates to our own lives. “A mistake that we often make is that we take this to mean that somehow we’re on the wrong path,” Dr. Solomon says. “We made the wrong choice, we shouldn’t have broken up, we don’t know a good thing ‘till we lose it.”
Most of the time, the second-guessing is a complete fallacy and simply not productive. Dr. Solomon’s recommendation for dealing? Acknowledge the emotions, then turn the focus on the life you’ve chosen. “We all pay mind to the about the paths we didn’t follow. But we forget how often those paths would’ve been dead ends, and that the journey we’re on now is what matters,” she says.
So the next time you feel a pang of…something…when that long, lost ex puts a ring on someone else’s finger, don’t let the ugly feelings swallow you up. Acknowledge the emotions, respect them, and express them. Oh, and maybe stop lurking on your ex’s fianceé’s Instagram for your own mental-health benefit.
Okay, alternate issue: You’re actually still really in love with your ex. Don’t worry, here are tips to help you move on. And bonus, here’s how to cope when your new partner is jealous that your ex is in your old Instagram photos.