Why Can't I Stop Thinking About Someone I Barely Dated?
For one thing, new relationships literally alter your brain chemistry.
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Your "friend" has been on a few dates and they’re feeling pretty Frank Ocean about their new someone. They get starry-eyed and think this one might be the one that gives them reason to disable their OKCupid account. Then they get the dreaded text message stating “a connection is missing” or some other bit of breakup polite-speak.
Your friend is devastated and not ready to move onto their next Tinder match. They keep checking their former fling's Twitter and Instagram accounts, wondering what went wrong. It feels worse than a breakup with a long-term partner, for which friends are understanding and there are well-known stages of grief. Months later, “your friend” is still hung up on this thing and wondering if they’re developing into a stalker or a weirdo or at least a sad sack.
Unrequited love has a long, romanticized history in song and literature—from Dante’s poems about Beatrice to Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther, and from George Jones’s “He Stopped Loving Her Today” to Taylor Swift’s “Love Story.” There are few subjects more dramatic than a passion that burns mercilessly against all external forces, even the beloved’s rejection, and in spite of the distress it causes the bearer.
Being bypassed by someone who could have been your one and only may seem like a rare, gut-wrenching tragedy worthy of a novel or epic poem. Psychologists say it’s quite common.
Roy Baumeister and Sara Wotman, then of Case Western Reserve University, authored one of the definitive studies on unrequited love, published in 1993. In their sample of 155 men and women, more than 98 percent said they had given or received intense romantic passion that went unreciprocated at some point in their lives.
The reason for the commonality of this phenomenon is a harsh truth: “Most of us think of ourselves as more desirable than others actually see us,” Baumeister told The New York Times. “So people we think of as of equal desirability may not see it the same way.” That’s "science" for: We don’t know when someone is out of our league.
Clinical psychologists say it’s normal to feel initial shock and pain at rejection from someone you’re into. “It is not weird if a person continues to think about a short-term partner well after the end of a relationship,” says Shani Graves, a licensed mental health counselor in New York City. “It actually happens more often than people care to admit.” Graves adds, “At times, we place ‘all of our eggs in one basket’ with hopes of the person being something truly significant in our lives.” This can give us a distorted view of how wonderful it’s going during the brief courtship and “limits us from truly getting to know the person,” Graves says. “So when thing don't work out, we're left confused and hurt.”
Tanisha M. Ranger, a clinical psychologist in Henderson, Nevada, adds that “human beings have this thing with unfinished business. We remember things that are incomplete much more so than completed ones.” Ranger noted the Zeigarnik effect, a cognitive bias by which people are more likely to remember or find significant tasks that are left undone, could be applied to larger emotional tasks, like maintaining the interest of a potential romantic partner.
Also, new relationships literally alter your brain chemistry. Serotine starts flowing and the mind rides a wave. “When something is hot and heavy, even if brief, it has made changes in your brain chemicals that your brain likes, and it's not a fan of having them taken away,” Ranger says. “When that drops, it creates feelings of loneliness and longing.”
Long-term relationships usually peter out and deflate over a period of months. So their end, though painful, usually comes as a gradual process. The end of a new relationship, and the shutoff of all the euphoria and energy that comes with it, is like the abrupt cutoff of a drug. And with that comes withdrawal.
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The Worst That Can Happen
First, keep in mind that it’s usually the shunners who feel worse in these situations than the shunned, a surprise finding of the Case Western study above.
One reason is that the rejected person gets so much encouragement from culture. “The aspiring lover has many guidelines for pursuit—what to say, how to let them know you like them, and why to keep going despite an initial cold reaction,” Baumeister told the Times. “There must be a thousand B-movies where at first the girl rejects the hero, who persists and wins her in the end. So the would-be lovers just keep trying, like in all those movies. While the pursuer has all these tactics to try, over and over people who were being pursued told us, ‘I didn't know what to say, I never hurt anyone before.’”
While the idea of the scorned lover who refuses to extinguish their passion may have seemed chivalrous in the ages of Dante, Goethe, and Dickens, a refusal to accept no for an answer is, to put it mildly, problematic for the 21st century.
Negative impulses can also arise if the rejected person doesn’t have adequate resiliency. “The hurt, if not healed, is left to linger and fester,” Graves says, “causing social media stalking, wanting answers, and to know if the person has moved on as well.”
This distress can be a manifestation of deeper issues. “Pathological attachment rooted in relational trauma can manifest as obsessive preoccupation with someone one dated briefly,” says Sheri Heller, a licensed clinical social worker in New York City. She says “love addiction” is “a terribly painful disorder fueled by traumatic loneliness and an absence of secure bonding and mirroring throughout one’s lifespan.”
Those afflicted see a new relationship as a “fix” and reel when it’s over. After rejection, “the love addict goes into severe debilitating withdrawal,” Heller says. “During withdrawal, abandonment panic is interspersed with unresolved traumatic memory and self-loathing.”
What Will Probably Happen
Most people get over it. That was Baumeister’s finding. The rejected “think they can never be happy again,” he said in a piece in the Chicago Tribune. “More often than not, they’re wrong.”
“There's no set length of time in which one must heal, especially when feelings are involved,” says Racine R. Henry, founder of Sankofa Marriage and Family Therapy in New York City. But your friend can reduce behaviors that will prolong the pain. “Delete their contact info,” Henry says, “remove pictures from your phone, unfollow and perhaps even block them from social media. Let your friends know that person is no longer a topic of conversation. You can't possibly erase them from your memory but you can put some space between yourself and that other person.”
Several mental health professionals interviewed for this story recommend a period of self-care and support from friends. After a while (even a stretch of time that may seem disproportionate to the length of the affair), your friend should feel normal and ready to date again.
What to Tell Your Friend: You’re not a weirdo and, unless you’ve already crossed some lines, you’re not a creep or stalker. You are also not Dante Alighieri or Cyrano de fucking Bergerac. You just felt hope and a chemical rush as a natural response to a promising new relationship and it’s normal to feel distressed when it’s over. Understand it wasn’t easy for the other person either. Take whatever time you need, but if this continues to tear you up inside, you might have underlining loneliness and attachment issues to address with a professional.
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