Episode 31

Published on:

7th Feb 2023

Breakups, Love Addiction, and Relationship Science: Welcoming Dr. Cortney Warren

Have you ever had trouble letting go after a breakup, even if you initiated it? Why does society make you feel like you are less-than if you are not in a relationship? Is love addiction a thing? And how can psychological science, and cognitive-behavioral therapy, help shed light on how all of us can be better in regard to relationships?

Today we're talking with psychologist Dr. Cortney Warren, author of the new book "Letting Go of Your Ex." We go way past the trite cliches of love and breakups and get real about dating, falling in love, breaking up, and how to heal-- and what we all can be doing to think about relationships a little differently.

Follow Baggage Check on Instagram @baggagecheckpodcast and get sneak peeks of upcoming episodes, give your take on guests and show topics, gawk at the very good boy Buster the Dog, and send us your questions!

Here's more on Dr. Andrea Bonior and her book Detox Your Thoughts.

Here's more on this podcast, which somehow you already found (thank you!)

Credits: Beautiful cover art by Danielle Merity, exquisitely lounge-y original music by Jordan Cooper


Dr. Andrea Bonior: Have you ever had a breakup that gutted you, or a relationship that was difficult to let go of? Do you know someone that you think might be, at the risk of sounding like Robert Palmer, addicted to love? How can relationship endings cause us so much devastation, even when they were the right thing to us?

Today we’re talking with Dr. Cortney Warren, board-certified clinical psychologist and author of the new book “Letting Go of Your Ex.” We go way past the clichés of relationships and see what the science says about how our brains can conspire to make breakups so, so difficult—and how it may be even harder now than ever before. If you yourself, or someone you care about, has ever stumbled after the ending of a relationship, you’ll want to listen to today’s Baggage Check.

Welcome. It’s so good that you are here today. I’m Dr. Andrea Bonior and this is Baggage Check: Mental Health Talk and Advice, with new episodes every Tuesday and Friday. Baggage Check is not a show about luggage or travel. Incidentally, it is also not a show about whether ZZ plants and ZZ Top are in any way related.

Okay, on to the show.

So today we’re getting down and dirty about love. Well not that dirty, this is still a not-explicit show, though we’re obviously talking about relationships, so bear all that in mind if you’ve got little ears belonging to little ones drinking from sippy cups in the backseat. Ah, sippy cups. Now there is a stage that just sort of stops without you realizing it. One day, and you don’t really know when it’s coming, that will be the last day that you ever have anything to do with a sippy cup. And you will bow down to the sippy cup gods and bid them a fond farewell, no doubt, because finding all the tops and making sure they don’t leak and that they don’t get moldy…. Alright, sorry. We’re talking about breakups, I know, so put a sock in it, lady and get on with it!

Well if we are going to talk about breakups, there is NO ONE better to talk about it than my guest today, Dr. Cortney Warren. Her new book hot off the presses is called Letting Go of Your Ex: CBT Skills to Heal the Pain of a Breakup and Overcome Love Addiction. So this is a breakup book that uses psychological science, and Dr. Warren is a former professor and board-certified clinical psychologist who has worked with folks with all kinds of devastating relationship struggles. We had a most excellent conversation about whether love addiction is a thing, how we can get past the clichés of breakups, cultural pressures about couplehood, how modern relationships AND modern breakups tend to be more difficult, how cognitive-behavioral therapy skills can be used to help move through the aftermath of a relationship and feel a little bit stronger…. This conversation I think will be helpful to a lot of people. And you can check out her website at drcortney.com, that’s drcortney.com. Alright, take a listen!

So, Dr. Warren, I am really glad to have you today to talk about brexit break ups and love and all of these things. Welcome to baggage check.

Dr. Cortney Warren: Thank you so much for having me, Andrea. Uh, I am really looking forward to this conversation.

Dr. Andrea Bonior: Thank you. So, just to start out, it strikes me that it's been a weird few years, obviously, in terms of the pandemic and how much this might have affected relationships. Have you been seeing any trends or noticing anything over the past few years in terms of people's relationships or how they're choosing to stay together and not stay together? Maybe in light of the pandemic or just in light of all the other struggles we're seeing lately?

Dr. Cortney Warren: The biggest thing that I've seen in the last couple of years is how much dating relationships have moved online. And I don't even mean to start dating. So when you're looking for a mate and you join Match.com or Plenty of Fish or the JDate, the millions that seem to exist now, but the relationship actually itself is based online, which is, uh, very different than historically we have experienced. Right. Because for a long time, people couldn't even go out to dinner or even if they wanted to meet for a coffee or do something in person. That was an option. In the last couple of years, because so much has been online, I think a lot of the dating relationships have spent much more time in a digital world than in actual interpersonal world in person.

Dr. Andrea Bonior: Wow. So how does that typically work? I know in the past there were long distance relationships, so certainly it's not unheard of for people to be in a romantic relationship where maybe they haven't spent much time together. How does it typically work? Let's say people started dating during the pandemic. Maybe they weren't seeing each other in person for whatever reason, or they were long distance. Is there typically a push at some point towards, okay, we got to actually spend some time in person or else there's something really missing here, or do some people sustain this for the long haul? What do you see?

Dr. Cortney Warren: I don't think we have a lot of long term data on that yet.

Dr. Andrea Bonior: Right.

Dr. Cortney Warren: Because this is a pretty intense last couple of year period. I think that some people are pretty comfortable having online relationships, to be honest. And we're certainly seeing a lot of conversations about what being in an online relationship means, uh, around cheating or around emotional attachments to other people. Because even for individuals who are already in a marital relationship or in a committed relationship, a lot of them are seeking out social support online. Even dating online, so to speak. And that kind of provides us with a lot of grist for the mill, we would say, about what does that mean? Um, is it fulfilling to just have an emotional connection? Do you really need to see the person? Does there need to be a sexual intimacy connection? Is it committed or not committed if you're actually seeing the person in person versus it's just an online relationship. So I think it's actually producing a whole lot of conversation that is leaving people questioning, well, what do I want and how do I want a relationship to look at this point? And how much does it matter to me if it's somebody that I see and have fun with in my actual physical body versus someone that I can talk to online or share stories with? And maybe it doesn't really matter if we see each other.

Dr. Andrea Bonior: Mhm, yeah, there's so many varieties. It seems like relationships can take really a different term than they might have before. People have more options on the one hand perhaps, than they ever did before, but that also means maybe there are more opportunities for things to go wrong if people don't really see things the same way in terms of what they want.

Dr. Cortney Warren: One thing that really occurs to me with the online dating format is this paradox of choice, which you probably know about, which is really this idea that the more options you have, the harder it is for you to make a choice. And so when you're confronted with literally thousands of dating options, there are thousands of apps you can join, there are thousands of websites, then when you get into them, there are thousands of choices about should I swipe right or swipe left? Do I want to look at this person? What should I share about myself? What kind of profile picture am I going to put up? Am um, I going to edit my picture? Do I want to have bunny ears in my picture? All of these like very complicated choice points. One of the things that happens is I think people get really stuck in a fantasy that somehow there is a person out there that is the ideal and that if they just search a little bit more, they're going to find them. And it makes actually dating for a lot of people pretty difficult because they'll go on many dates or interact with many people and as soon as they notice something that they don't really like about the person they're talking to. Now the immediate thought then is, oh well, I just picked the wrong person because there are thousands available, so clearly I just need to keep looking. And so I think for some people in the dating world right now, they're very frustrated in the process itself because they probably do have a value system that says, I'd really like to bond with someone. Or I'd like to connect with someone that, uh, shares kind of a lifestyle plan or at least likes things that I like so we can enjoy each other's time. And it's easy to get mired in the fantasy of what's actually out there and trying to sort through just the myriad people and situations that you're going to encounter as you're trying to potentially find someone that you really want to spend time with, whether it's a serious relationship or just a fling or a really long term commitment that you're looking for. It can be really frustrating.

Dr. Andrea Bonior: Yes, it certainly can be so frustrating. I mean, I have to say I have several clients where this is at the top of their list in terms of stressors and like you said, in terms of there sometimes being so many choices at your fingertips that it becomes overwhelming in a way. Are there any benefits that you see in terms of this online world when it comes to dating that maybe we need to sort of relish because there is such a frustrating aspect of it? Are there bright spots of it that we can really focus on?

Dr. Cortney Warren: Definitely bright spots. I mean, one of the bright spots is you can really see this as a big experiment and like anything in life, the more that you can learn about yourself through the experience, the better. So it's easier than it's ever been probably in history to get a date right now for any human, for anyone out there who's interested in talking to someone because there are so many people looking and they are so easy to get in touch with online. And that's a huge plus because maybe you're someone who is a little anxious about dating or you don't have a lot of experience or you're going through a terrible breakup and you're not sure how to get started again. The good news is here you have a platform to practice and that doesn't mean it's always going to go well, but you have more opportunity to explore yourself and your needs and what you like and what you don't like right at your fingertips because there are so many people readily available to you.

Dr. Andrea Bonior: Yes. And when you put it that way, guy, it sounds downright grand. Yes. So thinking about, unfortunately, when relationships end and thinking about the severe pain that can come in terms of a breakup, and it's something that most people go through at some point, and whether they are the ones that ended the relationship or they were on the side of having the relationship ended for them when they didn't want it to end. Um, what are some general things that you tend to see? I mean, what would be kind of a typical emotional experience for a breakup? What can people expect to have and then think, okay, this is within the realm of functional and healthy and it doesn't necessarily mean that I'm not handling this in the way that I should.

Dr. Cortney Warren: Break ups are such a big life transition, especially if you're dating someone who you really cared about, and that includes situations where you are the person who broke up with them, even if you really loved them, but for whatever reason, you decided this is just not going to work out. There's still a transition that oftentimes looks like a grieving process where you are going to notice your entire lifestyle changes. Because however your partner was with you in your life, whether they slept at your house or you texted them every night before you went to sleep or you had Sunday meals together or you loved watching football together or whatever it was, they are no longer there and you are really going to notice that absence in your life. And that's very normal. That is part of the journey of transitioning from one kind of lifestyle that included this other person in a pretty substantial way, usually to a life where there's going to be a lot of space and empty energy that was once filled with your relationship and is now open for you to fill with something else. But that can be jarring. It can be very sad. It can feel somewhat depressing. Even if you're going through a normal breakup, not one that's really extreme, where I would say you might really want to get someone to talk to about that because that sounds really hard, but some anxiety, some sadness, some just discomfort is really, really normal. And of course, everybody has their own breakup story and breakup situation. The longer you were with someone, it may feel more jarring. Or if you have children together, if you're getting divorced, uh, if you were madly in love with your partner and you did not want to break up, oftentimes, that makes your symptoms more severe.

Dr. Andrea Bonior: And so there can be such a wide range. I hear sometimes in pop culture, oh, well, it will take X amount of time to mourn, depending on these three factors. And that gets you a magic formula. There really is no magic formula, is there?

Dr. Cortney Warren: Absolutely not. No, there is no formula. I certainly think, as psychologists, both of us would argue, that there are always things you can do that are helpful or harmful to you. And so taking active steps to help yourself through the transition will really pay off over time. But there's no magic formula for when that's going to happen.

Dr. Andrea Bonior: Yeah, well, let's talk about some of those steps because I think psychological science does have so much to teach us, and cognitive behavioral therapy has so much to teach us that can be applicable in these scenarios. What are some of the things that you see as being particularly helpful if somebody's going it alone, say they've had? What is the scenario I see all the time, which is a relationship that really meant something to them and it was kind of a mutual breakup. So we're not even talking about this big explosion or this sudden betrayal, or one person desperate to stay together and the other person wanting to end it. We're talking about even a more amicable breakup, but one that feels really painful. Maybe you're a couple of months in, you're still feeling particularly sad. It really is impeding your ability to kind of enjoy life in the way that you might typically you're maybe starting to catastrophe, oh, I'm never going to meet somebody else, or whatever went wrong with this relationship is going to automatically go wrong in the future. What are some of the preliminary things that people can think about or tools that they can use to start pulling themselves through this hard time?

Dr. Cortney Warren: Mhm well, you just highlighted some of the most important cognitive distortions, we would say, or irrational ways of thinking that all of us do as humans. Every single one of us has ways that we think that really empirically, really based on information, are objectively false. But at the time they feel true. And if you let yourself continue to think those things, what's going to happen is you're going to feel worse emotionally. You're physiologically probably going to feel worse. You're not going to sleep as well. Your eating might be pretty disturbed. If you're wanting to eat more, eat less, binge eat, you're going to notice anxiety more in your physiological body. And then you're going to want to act in ways generally that aren't very good for you either. Usually when a breakup happens, the actions are based on trying to make contact with your ex, get some sort of understanding of what happened, get some sort of closure on this relationship. Oftentimes it's questioning like, am I sure that we want to do this? Is this really the right choice? That kind of churning which is just so painful and uncomfortable, or your actions are trying to distract yourself from your discomfort and your pain. And oftentimes those distractions are pretty self harming in the long run. So if you find yourself in that situation, anyone certainly one place to start is really to just become aware of what your primary symptoms are. What is the hardest part for you right now about this? And pause there. Pause. Because self awareness is always the first step to change from my perspective until I can get you to see the reality of the situation and what you're experiencing, it's very hard for me to help you shift it. So let's say you notice that you're having some of those catastrophying thoughts. Or let's say you notice, gosh, I'm thinking to myself, I'm never going to get over this. I'm never going to meet somebody else. This was my one chance at, uh, love and I blew it. And now it's over. Pause. Now is your opportunity to really look at the evidence for your thinking patterns. Is this really accurate or is this really not accurate? The reason that thinking is so important is that oftentimes if you're struggling through a breakup, you're going to find that those automatic thoughts, those thoughts that immediately pop into your head, are coming from an underlying core belief system that is being triggered by the breakup itself. So for example, what I mean by that is if you're thinking to yourself, I'm never going to find somebody as good as this person was for me. Underneath that, sometimes you're thinking to yourself, I need a mate to be safe, or I need a mate to be whole and healed. And underneath that might be something even more profoundly flawed, but more true to your early childhood and cultural learning experiences. Like, if I don't have a mate, I'm worthless. Or men or women that you date are never going to be trustworthy. Or something pretty profound about you as a human being, other people as a human being, or the world of dating, the world of relationships. So really starting to become aware of your thinking and objectively see it, not try to avoid it, not being judgmental towards yourself, not beating yourself up at all. This is an observational experience. See what you can learn from that about yourself. And as you start to notice that some of your thoughts are very destructive, they're not helpful for you. They either make you feel emotionally worse or they make you want to act in ways that are harmful to you or they make you physiologically feel sick. Pause. Now we need to try some CBT strategies. And there are so many wonderfully empirically supported CBT skills or even act skills or dialectical behavior skills that are all variants of CBT. As you know, one of the first ones that I do with people who are particularly obsessively thinking about their acts is thought stopping, which, as you probably know, is literally trying to notice when you're having a thought that's really unhelpful and put up a big stop sign in front of it and say I am seeing that thought. I notice that it's there. I'm just going to let it walk right by me. And I'm going to focus instead on the present moment. And this is where you can incorporate some mindfulness. You can incorporate some non judgmental self talk and some mantras about what you actually want to focus on in your life. Putting in a bunch of self care is really important, especially in the beginning, going through a breakup, developing your friendships, family relationships, making sure that you have a support system around you, taking care of your physical health, getting some exercise, eating well. And then um, the longer you go through when those sort of worst in the moment symptoms are starting to slowly dissipate because you're sort of moving forward, you'll have some time and opportunity to reflect back on your relationship from a, uh, bigger perspective, a larger perspective from the beginning to the end. It gives you a more detached view of who you are and who your ex was. So that moving forward, you can really make choices for yourself about what you want now. And oftentimes when people are going through a breakup, they really struggle to date again because most of them want to date, but they're bringing potentially some baggage from their old relationships into it. They may be wary of getting into a new relationship because of what happened in the last one. There is sort of all this angst about, well, now what? And I'm still thinking about my ex. Like, is it even fair for me to date now? I think the more you can take an objective observer perspective on the whole course of your relationship, not just the end of it, from beginning to middle to end, to see how did I get here and what did I love about my partner? And what really do I hope I don't do in the future, both in terms of who I pick and in terms of who I'm going to be, who I want to be in relationship with someone else. And that really sets you up for your next adventure, which I can't say is going to be always easy. But I think that the goal always is for us to see every life experience as an opportunity to grow and evolve and change. And so the more you can see that that, uh, this is actually a gift, even if it really doesn't feel like it in the moment, because your future is yours to create. And, um, you can still create this wonderful next phase, whatever that means. Even if you want to be single for a while, feel no pressure internally to date immediately. In fact, I think it's usually a really good idea if you've gone through a pretty rough breakup, to take some time to yourself.

Dr. Andrea Bonior: There's so much good stuff there. And that's great advice. And I think with the thought stopping technique, I think this can be so powerful. And just my listeners and talking about some mindfulness techniques is something that we've been doing for a while here and there. I think it's important to emphasize that, uh, it's not a matter of fighting the thought or judging the thought. It's not a matter of saying, oh, what's wrong with me for having the thought go away, go away, go away, and using all your energy. It's a matter of recognizing and labeling it. And in the moment saying, this isn't helping me, this isn't teaching me anything. There's no insight here. And let me instead gently move my attention to the present. I think this is a game changer for so many different people. And I know in my work I've talked a lot about the fact that traditionally we used to say, oh, there's that thought. Fight it, fight it. And we get so scared of it, and we judge ourselves for having it. But the truth is, some of these thoughts are totally expected after a breakup and they're cognitive distortions often. So we need to recognize that they're distortions, but their presence can be very normal. And I think when we can learn to take the judgment part out and sort of be curious and notice them and then decide what to do with them because I think so many messages in our culture say, you're supposed to just be over it by now, or Why are you still thinking about him? What's wrong with you? He wasn't good for you. Move on. And I think when we really open up ourselves to a more gentle type of mindset about, hey, we all have these thoughts and they're going to be part of the breakup, you might have doubts. You might say, oh no, should I not have done this? Let's instead view them objectively as much as possible, rather than judging ourselves for having them. Because there's so much judgment, there's so much I think we're so harsh on ourselves, especially in this arena about relationships. What's wrong with you that you couldn't make it work? Why did you waste all your time on this person? What were you thinking? And I find that that just makes people feel so much worse.

Dr. Cortney Warren: Agreed. It really does. Being judgmental towards yourself or others just doesn't lead to very helpful outcomes, mhm. It's just going to keep you mired in your own pain, either directed at yourself or directed towards others. And generally speaking, that is not associated with psychological well being for sure.

Dr. Andrea Bonior: So I know you've done a lot of work too, on the concept of love addiction and the concept of folks for whom it does become a dysfunctional pattern and they are just in it. And I'm cycling through these relationships over and over again, and I'm not able to actually find out why they're not working because I'm so busy seeking out the next one. Can you talk a little bit about the idea of love addiction and how somebody might start to think, okay, maybe there's a pattern here for me that applies to me and it's not particularly healthy?

Dr. Cortney Warren: Absolutely. And I should say right off the bat that love addiction is not a clinical diagnosis. So this isn't something that you would come into our office and we would give you sort of a diagnosis of a love addict. But one thing that's happened in emerging research, particularly in the last ten years, let's say, is that we have this influx of neurobiological data on what are called process or behavioral addictions, where your brain and body look very much like you're addicted to a behavior. We see this with the first time diagnosis of gambling or problem gambling, gambling disorder in the DSM, um, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders where you feel addicted to gambling. It is the process of gambling. You're not ingesting a substance like drug or alcohol addiction, which is generally what people think of when we talk about addiction. But there's also an emerging body of literature on highly processed foods and the addictive nature of them, on sex, on pornography, on Internet gaming. And so the idea is, when you engage in a substance or a stimulus that highlights these highly rewarding areas of your brain, it oftentimes looks in your behavior like you're addicted to them. So when it comes to love addiction, there is a lot of research to suggest that falling in love is actually designed to be an addictive process. Uh, evolutionarily. Our bodies are wired to be sure that we will have sex, have a baby, and survive with a partner long enough for that child to live and for the mom to be able to sustain the life. And so if you think about, or if any of you have ever been madly in love, that madly in love feeling that we talk about, you actually look very much like you're addicted to your mate. You're hyper focused on them. Um, you think about them all the time, day and night. You're creative time with them. You plan your whole world so that you can have as much access to them as possible. And that looks highly addictive. Now, when you're in a relationship that's healthy, or when you're in a relationship with someone who also is in love with you, this does not feel like a problem. This is the honeymoon phase of romantic love that is all over cultural billboards. This is what people are hoping to attain. This is the fantasy. This is the fantasy experience. So if you've had that experience of really falling in love with someone, but then you break up, either because that person doesn't want to be with you or because you realize that they're really not healthy for you in some way. What happens is it looks oftentimes much like you're in a withdrawal period where you feel hyper focused on them, as if they were your drug of choice. You think about them. You check what they're doing on social media. You want to call and text them as much as possible. You think about what they're doing, who they're with. You reread old emails and old text messages. It becomes this addictive process that feels horrible because you're no longer with this person. And so idea of love addiction is really that for anyone who has been through a really bad breakup, which research will tell us is going to happen to all of us, we're probably all, at some point, going to both have our heart broken and break someone else's heart. If you're dating, if that happens to you, it can be excruciatingly painful to try to move on.

Dr. Andrea Bonior: It really can. And so when should somebody think, okay, it is time to talk to a professional. Okay, it is time to get some support that maybe my friends or my family aren't able to provide.

Dr. Cortney Warren: A couple of key things that I look for. If you really notice that you're doing self destructive behaviors so you're drinking more than you'd like to or using actual substance, m, more than you would like to. If you think you may be actually clinically depressed, where you can't get out of bed in the morning, you're feeling very sad, you have crying spells that you can't seem to stop if you're having panic attacks or any severe anxiety reaction to information that you learn about your ex, which all of these things are pretty comorbid with really rough breakups. If you notice that you are stalking your ex and you are concerned that you're unable to stop trying to track them down and are following them, that's also a big red flag that I would recommend you find a good mental health practitioner who can help you move through it because there absolutely is hope. This book that I wrote is really an addictive framework conceptualization of breakups and a CBT based skill program of how to overcome them. So starting with understanding your symptoms and learning some really basic skills to stop them, m then getting a little deeper into a lot of the thinking processes that are probably going on with you. Because the reality is when we fall in love with people, we become very self deceptive generally. We tend to think that they are the greatest human that ever existed and that they make up our whole world and as long as we're with them, everything is going to work out, everything is going to be wonderful. And I am um, unfortunately love's executioner here as Herb Yellen's book was titled to tell you that none of these things are true actually. So hammering home some of the rebuilding your self esteem, helping you feel empowered again by recognizing some of those core distorted thinking patterns that are really typical of love addicts and are really typical going through bad breakups and then moving forward into the next phase of your life, which is a lot about forgiveness forgiving yourself and your ex. It's looking at your value system, it's understanding how to put your values into practice that guides your thinking, feelings and behavior moving forward. And so absolutely you can get over a real horrible breakup. I know it sucks for anyone who is going through one out there right now, you probably feel absolutely horrendous. It can really pop your world in a pretty ugly way and you can get through this. The first thing that I tell everyone I see who is in the midst of a bad breakup that they don't believe when they come into my office and hopefully believe soon as we work together is that your value is exactly the same whether you're with your ex or not. And that, I need you to know, is my goal of helping, you know, like in your gut, in your body, in your belly, your ex does not define you and they never did.

Dr. Andrea Bonior: I think that's such an important point because I think the whole nature of. Relationships sometimes is that we see ourselves in relation to the other person. Right? We even see this in friendships sometimes because I am more outgoing than this person. I'm an outgoing person, right? Or I've been with a partner for a long time, and I'm the one that organizes stuff. So I see myself as an organized person within this relationship. And then if the partner is gone, what does that mean about me? Who am I anymore? Because if I've been seeing myself through the lens of, um, who I am compared to this person or who I am when I'm with this person, it can be incredibly destabilizing for folks, even beyond just the grief of the breakup, but just the idea of the identity confusion. If I'm not with this person, who am I? And so this is just a, uh, fundamentally important thing that you mentioned. It's so profound. It seems so simple, but it's so profound, the idea that your worth is the same. Because I think for a lot of people, they don't realize to some extent just how deeply they don't feel that because it's like this way that they define themselves as completely eradicated. Not to mention the cultural messages that especially maybe some of these gender based messages that if you're not with someone, then you don't have as much value. That if you're not part of a couple, that you somehow are less real as a person. I think that's kind of insidious, how often that cultural message is baked into our everyday life.

Dr. Cortney Warren: I see that so strongly as well. The idea that you could choose to be single as a woman and that your value is the same as someone who you would have been a spinster.

Dr. Andrea Bonior: Right?

Dr. Cortney Warren: It's such a negative connotation. And there's oftentimes for people who have experienced a breakup where they felt humiliated or they felt invalidated or left, like there was cheating or there was a situation where they didn't know that their partner was dating someone else, so much of that hits at what you are describing as that identity. It feels to them as if that means they're worth less somehow. Not only now are they single and don't have this partner who they revered in some way. If it was a love, uh, addicted breakup, certainly it's usually someone that you revered in some way. But you also are confronted with, well, what does that mean about me? What does that say about me? Did I deserve to be treated that way? Was it somehow something that I did wrong? Now everybody in my community and in my social group or on my college campus I see this on university campuses a lot, knows that my partner left me for another person. So clearly, no one's going to want to date me again because I'm this marked person. Something must be wrong with me, which is absolutely not true.

Dr. Andrea Bonior: And it just shows how, once again, I think the technology starts to maybe get in the way. Because now when you are a part of a community and there's the community online, this stuff follows you, right? It's not just like, okay, I can make a fresh start and my friends know about this breakup, but it's not a huge deal. It's more, wait a second, my entire social media had pictures of this person for the past two years. And there it is staring me in the face. And hundreds of people knew that I was with this person, and now they're going to wonder what happened because I'm not with them anymore. I think it's even harder to sort of reshape your identity after a breakup now because of social media, because of how much our whole curated personas are out there. Um, what do you typically see people do in terms of how soon do they announce on social media? Do they immediately sort of take away some of the pictures? Do they change their relationship status? Do they block people? Because I think it's a whole other layer. It's a whole separate thing that just 25 years ago was not an issue when you broke up. You didn't have to think about any of those things. Do I unfriend this person? Do I stop following them? What do you typically see and how do people struggle with it and how do they manage it?

Dr. Cortney Warren: I think it's a massive challenge for most people going through a breakup today. Especially people who are, uh, in the younger generations, millennials and younger, who really grew up with social media, really grew up with an online culture at some level, which is normative for them. Everybody is online. All their friends are online. They have TikTok and instagram. And Facebook is probably old at this point. I don't know. They have all of them right. Um, and one thing that you do find oftentimes when people are struggling with the breakup is that they search for information about their ex. Because when you think about an addictive cycle or even an impulsive behavior cycle, what happens when you're fixated on something is that as soon as you get that little dopamine hit, as soon as you get some information or some contact with your ex, you are momentarily going to feel a little bit better. That sounds kind of odd, uh, but that really is how we generally act. When you act impulsively for a moment, you're distracted. You're not thinking about whatever it is that's just crushing you inside. But in the long term, the problem is that it's going to escalate your symptoms. It's going to make you feel worse. And so oftentimes, if I'm working with someone who is really struggling with the breakup, we make a very deliberate choice about their social media interaction. Oftentimes I do recommend for them to unfollow or defend at least their ex for a while. Not because they can't ever, uh, talk to their ex again. Not because they don't like their ex or even love their ex, but because the exposure to information about their ex in such a constant fashion ends up being much more harmful than helpful to their recovery process. Um, so I think of it more as like, we might need to pause your social media interaction because as you know, also it isn't just about your ex following your ex. It's all your ex's friends and all your mutual friends and all of the people in your community who also get posts m when that's harmful to you. When you find that upsetting pause, you might just need some time ah, and you can revisit that again at a later date. But taking a pause from social media when you're going through a breakup isn't a bad idea in terms of your question about when do people announce it, it's very highly variable. Um, on the one hand, you'll find people who break up and an hour later are posting a picture of them on their next date. Right. On uh, the other hand, you'll find people who won't announce anything and just kind of go silent. I think that it's a really personal journey. It's very vulnerable to share on social media or really with anyone what's going on in your personal life. And that may or may not be helpful for you based on who you are and based on the circumstances of the breakup. Uh, at a minimum, though, I'm going to always defer to is this helpful for you or harmful to you? And if it's harmful to you to be on social media after a breakup for whatever reason, then I'm going to support you in taking a break from um, it right.

Dr. Andrea Bonior: And it really speaks to the importance of the importance of people observing themselves and really being honest. Like, okay, do I actually feel a ton worse when I go ahead and see if my ex has been online or is back on the dating scene in terms of this app? Because I think sometimes people just do it out of automatic habit and they don't really take the time to stop and pause and say, uh, how do I really feel right now? Did this actually just send me into a tailspin? And once you observe, you can at least be a little bit more clear and honest about whether or not it's really helpful or harmful for you. And I've certainly worked with clients where it's a gradual wean off that kind of works better. And then I've worked with other clients who say, I've got to stop right now. And that works best for them because it's like, I just got to pull the plug, cold turkey. I'm not going to go on Instagram for a while or I'm not going to search this person's profile for a while. And I think people just have to be honest with themselves about what habits are making them feel worse, because habits stick so easily, of course, especially when they provide that momentary scratch of the itch. I just want to look for a minute because I'm just kind of curious if he liked this post that I put up about our dog and he better because it's still our dog even though it's mine now. And then they get into this cycle where now I'm checking every ten minutes to see if he's online and that kind of thing. And it can be really hard.

Dr. Cortney Warren: Absolutely. Those compulsive behaviors that we see a lot of times in breakups that constantly refreshing your phone, looking to see if they've updated anything. And a lot of the fantasy thoughts that go through our minds actually in the midst of a breakup really make your ex seem like they are living the best life possible after a breakup. I don't know if you noticed that with some of your clients, but there's this almost like fantastical notion of when my ex is out with this super hot person and they're having great sex and they're going to these parties and I am here by myself in my room crying. Right.

Dr. Andrea Bonior: Yes.

Dr. Cortney Warren: Um, again, it's really common. It's really common to think that way, but it isn't necessarily true. And so helping all of us to become aware of our thought patterns and really hammer at any of those that are really deceptive, that hurt you, is key to moving forward.

Dr. Andrea Bonior: Mhm, yeah. And there's no shame in needing the help and experiencing those thought patterns. I've had some people say sometimes, like, I'm just not myself, this isn't who I'm supposed to be. I can't believe that I'm still feeling bad and I haven't moved on. Really. There's no shame in any of this because relationships really they cut deeper than virtually anything else in our lives. And so when they end, it can throw people into a tailspin in a way that they may have never experienced before. I think it can really shake them and then it can make them feel bad about feeling bad. Sort of how I refer to the idea of these exponential feelings, right? Like I'm having a hard time with this breakup and then now I'm judging myself and having a hard time about the fact that I'm having a hard time.

Dr. Cortney Warren: No question. There is absolutely no shame in struggling through a breakup. You are not alone. No one is alone struggling through a breakup. It is massive. Whether it feels like a sort of normal breakup or whether you are really kind of in the depths of despair and would benefit from some help. I really believe that therapy is the greatest gift that you can give yourself. There is nothing to be ashamed of of finding a good therapist. In fact, it takes a tremendous amount of courage to be willing to explore yourself at a really deep level and be vulnerable with another person. And it's an honor and a privilege for most of us who work in the mental health field to see people who are willing to look in the mirror. To that degree. I have a profound amount of respect for people who pursue therapy, whether they, quote, unquote, need it or not. Mhm it's really a difficult journey that is highly beneficial, and it's a gift to yourself, and I respect that tremendously.

Dr. Andrea Bonior: Yeah, you put that so beautifully. It's so true. And I do think one thing that the pandemic has brought has been a little bit more willingness for people to talk about their struggles and to put more of an emphasis on mental health and hopefully to destigmatize getting help a little bit more than it would have been thought of in the past, because people really are struggling. I mean, even outside of relationships, we see really more anxiety and depression symptomology these past couple of years than we've basically seen, typically ever since this data has been collected. So it's a real concern. Yeah. Has there been anything that we haven't talked about in terms of breakups that seems particularly important in terms of your work?

Dr. Cortney Warren: I think that really, any life journey that we go through that's difficult feels horrible. And it is actually the time that most of us are most likely to grow and evolve and change. Because as much as we'd like to think of ourselves as people wanting to grow and change in general, the biggest predictor of therapeutic growth is actually distress. It's actually when you feel the worst, when you feel so bad that you can't afford to stay the same, that you're willing to do the work to shift. And so what I would love to leave listeners hearing is that even if you feel horrible right now, going through a breakup, this is your best opportunity to move into a more evolved version of yourself, to transform through it and use it really as a platform for growth. And that is actually a massive gift because your future life, having gone through this breakup, may be much more fulfilling than the one you were going to have if you had stayed with your ex. And I know that that's hard for people going through a breakup to see, but once you come to the other side, the number of people who will say to me, oh my gosh, I am so glad we broke up. I'm so glad I got divorced. I know I hated it. I wouldn't want to ever live through it again. And I couldn't see it at the time, but now I absolutely know that this was a better choice for me.

Dr. Andrea Bonior: Mhm I love that. I mean, the struggle really often is the catalyst for some of the most important changes that we can make. And leaning into the struggle is something that we talk about a lot here on Baggage check. The idea that the struggle itself can be something of meaning, it's something that can lead to insight. It's something that we don't have to run away from or try to mask or try to numb or try to hide. And I think certainly when it comes to relationships, they can contain some of the most deep, profound struggles of our lives. But of course, the flip side is that when we can learn something and when we can go on to have a more fulfilling relationship, either with someone else or also just with ourselves, from what we've learned about ourselves, that's the ultimate price, really, that is worth something important. And like you said, we may never want to actually go through it again. We're not saying, oh, this was the best, but we're taking something really meaningful away from it. And I think that you've probably helped so many people today, just giving them really some words of hope about this and how they're not alone and how there are some tools that people can use to be able to come out of this with a better insight into themselves and also with some increased strength. Thank you so, so much for taking the time to talk with us today. Where can people find you and your work if they want to learn more?

Dr. Cortney Warren: My website is Drcortney.com. Dr cortney.com. Uh, and I am on Twitter, YouTube, TikTok. I give a lot of workshops and I do a lot of public speaking. So if you have an interest in doing some sort of workshop or woman's groups oftentimes, you might find me there, and I would love to have you participate.

Dr. Andrea Bonior: Wonderful. Wonderful. And we'll be on the lookout for your new book as well.

Dr. Cortney Warren: Thank you. Amazing. I really hope it helps a lot of people.

Dr. Andrea Bonior: I bet it will. I bet it will. Thanks again.

Thanks for joining me today. Once again, I'm Dr. Andrea Bonior, and this has been Baggage Check, with new episodes every Tuesday and Friday. Join us on Instagram at @baggagecheckpodcast. Give us your take and opinions on topics and guests. And you know you've got that friend who listens to, like, 17 podcasts. We'd love it if you told him where to find us. Our original music is by Jordan Cooper, covered by Daniel Merity and my studio security, it's Buster the Dog. Until next time, take good care.

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About the Podcast

Baggage Check: Mental Health Talk and Advice
with Dr. Andrea Bonior
We've all got baggage. But what do we choose to do with it?
Every other Friday, licensed clinical psychologist, best-selling author and popular psychology professor Dr. Andrea Bonior takes your mental health questions, and makes you part of the conversation. Join her and other voices as they translate research into real life, and talk about relationships, emotions, health, psychological disorders, stress, finding meaning, work, and occasionally-- just occasionally-- the most obscure dance crazes of 1997.
All are welcome, and nothing is off limits. With science, compassion, and humor, she's here to help.

About your host

Profile picture for Andrea Bonior

Andrea Bonior

Andrea Bonior, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist, speaker, and the best-selling author of “Detox Your Thoughts." She was the longtime mental health advice columnist for The Washington Post, and appears regularly in national media, including CNN and NPR, with several popular courses on the LinkedIn Learning platform. Dr. Bonior’s blog for Psychology Today has been read more than 25 million times. She serves on the faculty of Georgetown University, where she recently won the national Excellence in Teaching award, given by the American Psychological Association.