Don’t Let Your Heartbreak Turn Your Behavior Toxic
Breakups are often messy, so you don’t want to make things worse by becoming a problematic ex. Before you brush off that possibility, consider that heartbreak can cloud your judgment and make you behave in ways that you’re not proud of. A study even showed that romantic rejection activates the same areas of your brain as cocaine cravings.
“What makes an ex enact problematic behaviors is typically an unresolved emotional connection with the partner,” says licensed marriage and family therapist Boone Christianson. “Their self-esteem is dependent on the partner. They haven’t processed the emotions of the separation and built a life independently of the partner’s influence.”
“Such behaviors tend to cause trouble and disrupt the healing journey,” adds Callisto Adams, Ph.D., a certified dating and relationship expert and contributor at HeTexted.
To avoid slipping into toxic territory, here are some examples of problematic behaviors to avoid and steps to take to cope with your breakup in constructive ways.
How Problematic Exes Behave
Christianson says that toxic exes often have a tendency to perceive misunderstandings as personal attacks or deliberately create misunderstandings. Perhaps you’re craving attention from your ex and initiating a fight helps you get it. Maybe you are holding on to their stuff on purpose to have an excuse to see them again. You may take everything your ex says and does personally. Neither of those tendencies is healthy.
You’ll also want to watch out for the urge to punish your ex. Even passive-aggressive statements can be problematic, says Christianson. And yes, constantly posting cryptic-but-not-that-subtle quotes on social media counts. “Posting things such as pictures or quotes about relationships that negatively portray your ex (even if it’s indirect) can take a toll on their mental well-being,” according to Adams.
Problematic exes can also turn into stalkers. More than 60% of female survivors of stalking and 44% of male survivors of stalking reported that the person stalking them was a current or former partner, according to the CDC. You may be thinking, “I am not a stalker.” But contacting your ex non-stop is problematic. According to Safe Horizons, common stalking behaviors include repeated calls, text messages, emails or social media posts.
“Constant texts or calls, not considering or listening to what the other is asking or needing, going around one’s social media despite their requests not to, stalking, and reaching out to the ex’s new partner are just a few examples of problematic behavior as an ex,” according to Adams.
What to Do If You Recognize Yourself In Those Behaviors
If you recognize yourself in any of the behaviors outlined above, don’t beat yourself up — but do use that awareness as an insight that can drive what you do next.
“If you are the one perpetrating these behaviors, you must recognize them to decide what you want to do with them. Being aware of the behaviors will help you identify the emotions driving them and the work you will need to do to resolve those,” says Christianson.
Don’t beat yourself up. Toxic people rarely admit they have a problem, so recognizing that you need to change the way you engage with your ex is a huge first step in the right direction.
“If someone is starting to gain some awareness, I would say that there is no shame in this kind of behavior. It’s perfectly understandable given the kind of relationship trauma this person experienced, both during the last relationship and before, likely in their family of origin,” adds Christianson. “Start by gaining compassion for where you are at, then work to change the behaviors you don’t want in your life by processing the painful emotions driving them. A good therapist can help with that.”
If your ex has expressed that they don’t want to stay in contact with you, it’s crucial to respect their wishes, even if it hurts and you miss them.
“If, despite your ex’s attempts to let you know they need space, you’re still reaching out to them (even if done randomly), you might want to retreat and consider the weight of your actions,” says Adams. As she puts it, “refrain from disrupting your ex’s healing journey.”
Whether the breakup was your choice or not and whether it ended on a good or bad note, both you and your ex must undertake individual healing journeys moving forward. Remember that getting over someone is very much like grief — it’s not a linear process, and you may go through ups and downs before reaching a place of acceptance.
The important thing is to keep holding space for your emotions in healthy ways instead of trying to avoid the pain by projecting behaviors onto your ex.