Breakups, Unrequited love & Romantic Loss: How To Get Over it & Move On

Some of the issues you deal with as a life coach are in the realm of romantic relationships, and more specifically, hurt and loss in romantic relationships. One of the most difficult obstacles to overcome as a human is unrequited love, the idea that you love and adore somebody who does not reciprocate that love and affection. It’s one of the things at the heart of so much disappointment, so much psychological turmoil, and mental stuckness.

We as humans have chief desires for intimacy, sexual connection, and being appreciated and loved. When we choose partners that don’t choose us back, it is like being ostracized from our tribe. Humans evolved with a core survival mechanism to keep from being shunned. If we were rejected from our tribe, in an evolutionary context, we would suffer the consequence of being alone in a very dangerous world, without the protection of our friends, families, and significant others. Therefore, removal from our tribe represented death, in a very real sense.

Romantic loss, a rejection or betrayal by the person that you trust the most, is a serious threat to our survival as far as our evolutionary psychology is concerned. This evolutionary psychology stays with us and explains why we are affected in such a negative and hurtful way by rejection.

The Brain Wiring Of Attachment

You can compare this concept to writing computer software. When you attach to somebody, you are wiring the brain cells in a way that reinforces the love, affection, recognition, and support system that person represents. The greater degree to which you imprint this person, by looking at photos, fantasizing about them, spending time with them, having intense romantic encounters with them, and sharing all your deepest secrets, the more you strengthen this connecting and attachment. The greater the strength of that “computer software” is written, and the greater an attachment is formed.

Researchers have developed several theories about what we do in the face of this attachment, because it’s scary and risky, and it involves the real potential for being hurt and rejected.  One of the more accepted of those theories is Attachment Theory.  This theory states that we each have a different way of handling this bond or connection. Some of us are more avoidant in our attachment styles, meaning that when we get close to people as a way to protect ourselves, we keep them at a distance. As intimacy increases, we distance ourselves from our significant others in various ways.

Another style is the anxious attachment style, which is the opposite of the avoidant style, which says the more that you connect with people, the more anxious and needy you become, especially if they become less attached to you. Finally, there is the secure attachment style, attachment is handled in a secure, positive way, usually through effective communication and coping mechanisms.

When you examine these ideas of romantic loss and being ostracized, the evolutionary computer software that we’ve written makes us want to avoid losing our tribe at all cost. And in the modern day our “tribe” is often represented by that one person who is the focus of our desire and love. This, and the concept that our brain wires very strongly to connect and attach with others, illustrates why detachment can be so very difficult for people.

How To Finally Detach

One of the reasons I wanted to write this blog is because when you explore detachment, there’s not a wealth of accessible information. What do we do when we are confronted with romantic loss, unrequited love, a situation where we are, for lack of a better term, rejected by someone we choose who does not reciprocate?

We get stuck and we can’t move on because much of our psychological potential and our mental focus resides with this person. All the places, memories, and situations we’ve encountered with them, have resulted in very strong attachments. So how do you disconnect? How do you rewrite this brain software that aligns so strongly to someone when there’s no chance of reconnecting?

Step 1: Moving Beyond The Fairy-Tale

You first have to make a choice to view the relationship in a realistic sense. Many of us have a fairy-tale notion that relationships are supposed to be a particular way, and that we’re going to live happily ever when we meet our knight in shining armor, or our princess; a very Disney-like view. Those belief systems are really tough to break, and have consequences when we are confronted with romantic loss.

We imprint those old beliefs, often carried by us since childhood, on top of this very real attachment software that we’ve built, making it very difficult for us to believe that the connection is really over. Moreover, we hang on to the hope that it will improve, and that this person will figure it out. Of course, this has ramifications for our own self-efficacy, self-esteem, and our ability to see and respect ourselves.

We must become very realistic about these fantasies we’ve told ourselves about relationships and we have to rewrite these fairytale beliefs.  Unfortunately, betrayal does happen and people who you choose don’t always choose you. People also change. You grow, they grow, and sometimes you grow apart. Your choice comes down to making the decision to move on with your life.

Frequently individuals want to stay in the wound; they want to remain hurt, and they stay in the hope that it can change because they see this person as their “soulmate: or “one true love.” I realize that is confusing.  Why would we do that to ourselves. Simple, the pain we know is sometimes less painful than confronting an uncertain world.  We humans often cling to what we know despite the possibilities that await when we move on.

One of the things that happen when you write software like this is that you start to lose your ability to be objective and to see the potential in other people.  You might start thinking, very wrongly, “this was the only person for me.  I will never find someone like that again.”  Sound familar?  This is the brain glitch talking, and a completely false reality our brain makes feel real.

Step one, the most difficult step, is finally making a choice to disconnect. If you don’t make this decision fully, you will continue to re-immerse yourself in the fantasies, pictures, and videos. You will also try to interact with these individuals, through texting, email, and continually thinking about them. Once you make the choice to disconnect, you are consciously making a pact with yourself that you will cease to engage in those fantasies and in that interaction as well as your old behaviors.   This is vital because you cannot continue to repeat the same patterns, as far as your brain is concerned, and expect for your brain to treat you differently.

Rewiring The Brain

There’s an old saying in biology and neurochemistry that “brain cells that fire together, wire together,” meaning that when you have habitual thinking, that thinking perpetuates itself. You must think differently and do things differently. Now it’s time to begin to reprogram your brain – how do you make that change?

First, you need to remove this person from your day-to-day interactions and thoughts. Now, of course this is not always possible if you have children it may mean you will have to interact. If you work with the person, you may have to engage with him or her.   But the fact remains, you want to remove as many of the reminders of this person as possible. That frequently requires some things that may seem, at first glance, childish, such as blocking or erasing their phone number, and removing them from your social media platforms. These actions are necessary because you do not want to engage in behaviors that remind you of this individual.  While it may seem petty on the surface, it is an absolute essential first step for the brain to disconnect.

You want to remove this person from your daily thought processes, and get him/her out of your reminder bank. This process involves cleaning house, so to speak, getting rid of old photos, deleting social media contacts, erasing old text messages, doing away with old love letters and generally removing them from your mental space so you don’t have reminders.  Some people even like to make a ritual out of this process. Regardless of how you do it, it must be done.

After this process, you want to begin to do things differently. There are certain activities that you participated in together. Things like restaurants where you dined, or maybe hiking together, traveled to a certain place together, sat in your home in a specific place, drove to a special place together, or interacted with certain people together.

What you want is to begin to deconstruct all of those behaviors and develop new behaviors. This is a great opportunity to remake yourself, in general, and do some of the things that you’ve always wanted to try, because now you are able to focus. Take energy that was allocated to that person and begin to focus it on yourself, which is a very important process. You want to think about new behaviors and new actions. Not only are you clearing mental reminders, you are getting rid of action reminders.

Remember that the brain associates certain actions with certain things. This goes for music as well; listening to your favorite music that reminds you of a person, traveling to your favorite city that reminds you of a person.

Remove The Sexual Fantasies

Often, in our fantasy lives, we fantasize, masturbate, or recall past sexual contact, which is a very human experience, but they are not discussed enough. You also want to remove that person from these fantasies which are some of the most powerful reinforcing attachment behaviors. You can’t expect your brain to open to new experiences if you keep it stuck in the old.

We humans are very sexual creatures, and have a key need for sexuality. This can be difficult to manage for some people, especially men. You want to replace that fantasy around the person, the thought process, romantic process, and sexual process that you associate with that person with someone or something else, because every time you call them to mind and have those intense fantasies about them, you are essentially reinforcing the wiring in your brain.

So, now we have this idea of removing them from your mental space. We have this notion of getting them out of actions that you used to take together, and ridding them from your private, romantic and sexual space, which is extremely important.

Looking At Why We Attached 

Once you begin to clear house with the person, detach and make sure that the reminders of them are not there, you want to begin to do something that’s very, very essential. A lot of people will say that it’s a good idea to engage with other people, maybe have a rebound guy or girl, or get back out there quickly and start dating.

Those measures can be helpful, but one of the things that is often overlooked is the question of why we attach in the first place? Why do we attach so strongly? Partly, because we project onto our romantic partners our own needs, wants and desires. We want and expect them to fill these gaps within ourselves; gaps that involve worthiness, self-acceptance, self-respect and belief in ourselves.

Our romantic partners sometimes act as surrogates, to some degree, for our own self-esteem, self-respect, and our own needs for self-actualization and providing meaning in our lives. Once you recognize this, you start to understand that you, as an individual, are now responsible for those concepts, and should have been responsible all along.

Romantic loss points to our own sense of worthiness and we need to get that worthiness back. We need to discover a way to find within ourselves, build within ourselves, and create within ourselves a degree of self-love that can endure without needing someone else to fulfill that role.

Humans, by our very nature, are not islands unto ourselves. We’re social creatures. We must be in relationships, but as Carl Jung said, “The quality of any relationship can never exceed the quality of the relationship with ourselves.” This is the point where self-development, self-help, and self-actualization becomes critical.

Emotional Integrity & Emotional Alchemy

When you begin to feel loss, rejection, jealousy and all the pain that accompanies romantic rejection, unrequited love and loss in the romantic realm, there is a psychological technique that says: first identify, then name the emotions.

Emotions contain a very peculiar energy. Once you identify and name them accurately, feel them deeply and turn your attention to them, they often dissipate. If you’re feeling jealousy or sadness, a common reaction is to avoid or deflect those feelings. People either try to distract themselves, or they veer from sadness to anger, for example.

You want to maintain emotional integrity, which means first naming accurately the emotion you’re feeling, and then feeling that emotion. So you would say to yourself, “I am feeling sad,” or, “I am feeling jealous.” Then you would allow yourself to turn inward and feel that emotion. Truly feel it. If you need to cry, you cry. If you need to do anything else, you express it; this is a personal experience. Stay there long enough to feel the emotion lose some of its potency, lose some of its power.

Then you replace that belief. Once you see it begin to dissipate, you replace that emotion, which is a form of belief, with a self-actualizing statement, a statement of being that you want to cultivate. For example, you might say, “I am worthy,” in a very present-tense, real-world statement, as if it is true. “I am worthy.” This is a good one to use in romantic loss, isn’t it? We feel unworthy, because we feel unchosen, and ostracized, as if we are not good enough, worthy enough, or not pretty enough, or perhaps we did something wrong. We ask, “Why would this person not want me? I must not be good.”

You need to claim, “I am worthy,” and then remain in that feeling of worthiness by trying to call to your mental state a time when you felt worthy, or even a fantasy around worthiness, to give your brain something else to which to attach. The more times you can capture these negative feelings of hurt, name them, and feel them, then replace them with a positive statement of being, you begin to rewrite some of the brain chemistry around the loss and the attachment. Not only that, but you begin to replace, bolster, and amplify your own ability to self-love, self-respect, and self-care.

Rebuild & Or Strengthen Your Social Network

The final thing I’ll reiterate about this process is that we are not islands unto ourselves; we are very social creatures. One of the things to do when you are dealing with detaching from loss in the romantic realm is to focus on the people who lift you up. This can be difficult because when we are deeply involved in a romantic relationship, a marriage, or a long-term relationship, we, especially men, don’t necessarily have a social support system, so you have to rebuild that network

Again, it’s a great time to become the person you’ve always dreamt of being in health, fitness, money, and in your career. Pour your focus and new energetics into those pursuits; it’s also a great time to clearly define the type of person that you want as a friend.

A critical factor in detaching from someone is to take off the rose-colored glasses. We have this uncanny ability to see the person of our affection in nothing but a positive light and we forget the downside, which is they don’t choose us. And why, in a million years, would someone with self-respect and self-love choose somebody who does not or no longer chooses them for whatever reason? We also lose site of their own shortcomings and things that were not good for us.

What we want to do is define who and what type of people we want in our lives, not just in a romantic sense, but in a friendship sense, and begin to put ourselves out there in a way that helps us develop those concepts. If you are an individual who finds yourself without friends because you’ve been in a long-term relationship, you want to cultivate connections with people of the same sex, or with people whom you are not romantically interested in, so that you can develop real friendship and support.

This is necessary because many people will try to replace one romantic relationship with another romantic relationship and find themselves in the same situation, with the same issues within months or years. Not only do you want to define for yourself at this time the relationship that you desire romantically, but also you want to define the type of friends that you want.

Final Thoughts

Just like you want to rewrite your stories about some of the fairy tales around what relationships are supposed to be like, you also want to finally rewrite your story around the idea of relationships in general. Relationships are perhaps one of the best ways to amplify and speed up self-actualization. Research shows there are three things that are most determinant of success: your ability to believe in yourself, the ability of others to believe in you, and your ability to see stress, loss, and grief as growth-enhancing.

One of those key points is other people’s belief in you. Obviously you take a big hit when you lose someone who is close to you, who will no longer provide that belief. When you go through this, you want to bolster your belief in yourself by talking about your worthiness and working on self-love. You want to create a new social structure with good friends, whom you have no romantic interest. You also want to cultivate the idea that loss is one of the greatest teachers.

An idea exists when you lose somebody close to you romantically that sounds like this: “Oh, it’s about them and not you.” What I would say is there’s truth to that statement, but it also contains some untruth. If you can see that it IS about you, and it’s an opportunity to make yourself better. If you saw parts of yourself in the relationship that were not kind, not loving, or were neglectful, or any of those things; now is the time to recognize and fix them, not with the hope of reuniting with this person, but with the mindset of growing and getting better.

The Story Edit

There is one final tool that is essential to know and understand to get over romantic loss.  It is called the “Story Edit” and it has been researched extensively in work with PTSD.  IN case you have not realized it, loss of the romantic kind is very much a form of PTSD. To download this powerful exercise, just hit the link below. It is free and I will write more on this technique in a future blog.


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