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by Anna Breslaw
Conduct a friendly survey and chances are three out of four female brunch companions will agree: Staying friends with an ex is generally bad news. It’s easy enough to say you’ll delete that heartbreaker from your life, but fresh off a breakup, it could be difficult to go cold turkey. Often, try as they might to resist the impulse, exes inevitably can’t stop texting each other inside jokes or Gchatting from their respective offices. Assuming that it was a serious, long-term relationship, it’s easy to see why: You’ve already seen each other at your worst and you know each other better than anyone. It’s a recipe for instant friendship—right?
Not exactly. “It takes self-awareness and self-examination to figure out whether to stay in contact,” says Michelle Skeen, PsyD, a San Francisco-based therapist and author of Love Me, Don’t Leave Me.
She recommends first looking back at the romantic relationship and your ex to decide whether the basic qualities you want in a friend are actually even there. “If the problem was, ‘He didn’t listen’ or ‘She couldn’t deal with it when I was down,’ those negative qualities might also translate in friendship,” notes Dr. Skeen, who suggests bouncing the idea off your close friends. “They might point out something you hadn’t noticed about your relationship or just aren’t ready to acknowledge—maybe they’ll say, ‘You’re still crying every day’ or ‘You’re still not eating right.’”
In fact, a 2011 study from the University of Denver of unmarried, recently-broken-up couples found that continued contact with the ex-partner, even if it was just every few weeks since the breakup, was associated with greater declines in life satisfaction.
Many people keep their exes in their lives only because the time spent in the relationship make them feel obligated to do so, but that’s not a good enough reason to justify it—at least not right away. “Romantic attachment and love are sticky substances,” says Helen E. Fisher, PhD., a biological anthropologist. “It takes time for them to dissolve.”
Fisher and her team put people who had recently experienced breakups in MRI scanners. In those who instigated the breakup, there was little neurological change. Those who were dumped, however, exhibited increased brain activity in several regions associated with reward, motivation, addiction, and obsessive-compulsive disorder—even in those who insisted they were over it.
Another red flag to watch out for: If you check their social media frequently, particularly if you became lax about it while actually in the relationship. “It can be difficult to let go of the knowledge of that person’s life, even if you’re the one who ended it,” says Dr. Skeen. “Social media makes it easier to cling to.” But cyber stalking is dangerous because it harkens back to the early days of your courtship, when your ex-partner was a still mystery—before the reasons for your breakup presented themselves. Even if you insist it’s platonic interest, Dr. Skeen recommends ditching it completely. After all, “friends” don’t creep on their “friends’” Instagram seventeen times a day, right?
So yes, your friends’ advice is as good as the pros’. Overall, experts agree that it’s healthiest not to befriend your ex until you’ve completely moved on (and ideally, until they have, too). As Dr. Fisher puts it: “If you quit drinking, you don’t keep a bottle of vodka in the house.”
One scenario in which you definitely want to cut off all contact immediately: when your ex is a narcissist. And here are the most common relationship problems, according to therapists.
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