The most common piece of advice given to people who've just gone through a breakup is also the thing they least want to hear: You should really spend some time alone. To someone who's reeling from a heartbreak, or is suddenly sleeping alone in their bed for the first time in months, it feels condescending and cruel. It also directly contradicts the other extremely popular breakup platitude that insists the only way to get over a person is to "get under" someone else (which is the advice Selena Gomez and Justin Bieber, and maybe even Bella Hadid and the Weeknd, seem to have recently followed). It sucks to be instructed to be alone. And what sucks even more is admitting that it's actually a pretty solid piece of advice.
There are valid reasons why taking time to yourself between two relationships is valuable and healthy – especially if your last relationship ended in a traumatic way, like by finding out your partner cheated, or because of emotional or physical abuse. "If you go into another relationship quickly after that – within a couple of weeks or even a couple of months – that trauma has been wired into [your] brain circuitry and [you'll] see the new relationship through a similar lens and have a hard time trusting," said Dr. Danielle Forshee, a psychologist and social worker who specializes in relationship and marriage counseling.
But even if your breakup was the most amicable breakup to ever occur and there are no hard feelings, it's still wise to take some time to be willfully single. How much time you need is up to you, but if you find yourself constantly comparing any new crush to your ex, that's a good sign you still need more time. Forshee said barreling through the pain and into a new relationship leaves you vulnerable to things like codependence, anxiety, and depression. "We start to feel like we need somebody," Forshee said.
To be clear, it's perfectly normal to crave another relationship when you're heartbroken. A lot of it is actually a bit beyond your control, and has to do with neuroscience and chemicals released by the brain. "After you break up with somebody, your brain isn't used to being alone," Forshee said. "When you're with somebody your brain releases feel-good chemicals like dopamine. It makes us feel really good – it's one of the chemicals released when we have sex, when we use drugs, when we gamble. All of a sudden that's gone."
Struck by a sudden loss of brain chemicals that make you feel good, it's normal and very much human to seek out comfort. Which explains why, a few days or weeks after breaking up with someone, you might find yourself missing a previous ex from several relationships ago. "We're all vulnerable to falling into dating our exes again because we know there's comfort there," Forshee said. "We know, in a rudimentary way, that we're going to get a dopamine rush when we get back together with that person." Your brain basically already associates "feeling good" with a former ex. And in a scramble to feel good, it's easier to crave being with someone you've already dated, rather than trying to form an attachment to a total stranger. It's why the idea of getting on Tinder or going on a first date might feel revolting, while resting your head on an ex's shoulder sounds like the most comforting possible sensation – even if that ex was a trashcan and you know (logically) that breaking up was the right move.
But even if you avoid falling back into a relationship with an old ex who suddenly seems great and perfect compared to your most recent one, and do start dating someone new too soon, you're still putting yourself at risk for developing bad dating habits. "You essentially get addicted to love," Forshee said. And what she means by that is that people get addicted to the "neurochemical flurry" that happens in your brain when you meet and feel attracted to someone new. It's why the feeling of infatuation exists and is so exciting and strong, and is essentially scientific backup for the honeymoon phase.
"People usually go from one relationship to the next after this [feeling] starts waning off because they think that when they don't feel so passionate and lustful for someone anymore, maybe that means they're not in love," Forshee said. "But that's usually not true. The second phase of love – the real love – is the attachment phase." For people who jump from one relationship to another, it's easy to never to get to that attachment phase. The feeling of being addicted to love, for most people, is really a craving for meeting and falling for someone new. It's like a high. And just like a high, it eventually wears off, which is where the pattern of breakups happens. Forshee said the average amount of time it takes for those happy new relationship feelings to wear off is between 12-18 months.
In her own practice, Forshee said she sees lots of people (primarily women, who are more likely to seek treatment) who are struggling with this sort of chronic relationship and breakup cycle. "It's very debilitating for them," she said. "They go years where they're just in relationships. They've lost themselves and they don't know what it feels like to be happy, or get happiness from some other source besides a relationship." What's happened is their brain has basically developed a very clear cut pathway between happiness and dating someone, and a lot of the time, it's very much possible to have trained yourself into thinking this way and not even realize it.
All of this sounds terrifying. The idea that you can lose the ability to form happiness outside of a relationship is horrific – especially for women, who are simultaneously socialized to be the perfect companion while also being wholly independent. But Forshee said it's possible to re-train your brain out of the habit of serial relationships. It's not what you want to hear, but what she suggests is the same thing all of your friends are suggesting – to spend some time alone. Not just to "heal" and "get over it," but to examine your own relationship faults that could be leading to chronic breakups and feeling like you constantly need someone new.
"You have to force yourself to gain new experiences that are really uncomfortable," Forshee said. "What I'm essentially asking people to do is take the brain path that is covered in leaves and boulders and climb over them, sift through them, get caught in the thorns, and on your way, you'll finally experience that you can pave a new path. You can find happiness and pleasure in the end, and it will become easier over time."
Forshee said she's seen people in her practice have the emotional breakthrough that comes with breaking a serial dating habit, and it's glorious. "Oh my god, it feels amazing," she said. "Finally they're able to feel whole, where they can actually be in a relationship that is positive, healthy, and mutually beneficial."
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