Welcome to the Ex Games: a content series about love lost. Whether it's the realization things need to end, the act of rejection, the reality of being single, or the resurrection that is moving on, the Ex Games has every stage of a breakup covered.
And to really bring these stories to life, we've launched the Ex Games podcast, where we delve into the two sides of a break-up story with a new couple each week, and aim to end up somewhere near the truth. Because when it comes to affairs of the heart, everyone plays, but does anyone win? Let's find out.
If there's one thing I know, it's that love sticks. The relationship might have ended, but all the feelings that came with it usually insist on following you around. I've been there, so much so that I never really stopped loving the last person I was in love with.
I don't know if this is because true love is supposed to be stubborn, or whether I'm simply stubborn when I love somebody. But even when that person deeply harms me, it's difficult for me to let them go. Maybe that's why I keep talking to people who broke my heart, even when it's clear they aren't coming back. Is this something I am doing to myself, or is it that true love never really dissipates? Am I delusional?
To find out, I asked two experts — a spiritual matchmaker and a psychiatrist — whether you can really ever stop loving somebody. Both Dr. Grant Brenner, a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who practices in New York, and Heather Kristian Strang, a spiritual matchmaker, concurred that even if love never goes away completely, the nature of it does change.
"[You] may never stop loving the person," says Dr. Brenner, "but you're not in love."
And according to Strang, "In a spiritual sense, all true love is eternal. Death, breakups, divorce — whatever it may be — cannot destroy a true love."
You might still have feelings of fondness and care for your former partner, but when you are not in love, your brain doesn't drive you to be with them in the same way. Sexual desire fades as well. Whether or not platonic care and fondness are considered love depends on how you view the nature of love itself. I've always found the love of friends and the love of romantic partners to be a freely flowing thing. (Although, this doesn't always work out, as I have a habit of dating and breaking up with my friends.)
Dr. Brenner says whether or not you stop being in love depends on the people involved. Some people do fall out of love when the rush and excitement of being around their significant other fades. This might happen because the strong sense of love you felt for a person was based in sexual infatuation — which is still love, I would argue, but a lesser kind.
For others, letting go of those feelings of love is harder, due to their background or their disposition. For example, therapy taught me that I have a predisposition to be stuck in love due to my relationship with my father. The long-term illnesses he has suffered since I was a child caused me to be terrified of loss, which, in turn, makes me cling harder to people who are trying to leave.
Some of us also actively hold on to love in unhealthy ways, such as by continuing contact with the person after a relationship has ended, before lingering feelings have been resolved. "Talking to the person on the phone, exchanging extended text conversations, meeting up with them, [or] talking about them a lot keeps reminding a person of the feelings and reinforcing them," says Dr. Brenner.
I have definitely engaged in some of those behaviors, but even when I'm actively trying to forget about love, I usually find it cropping up again. I can't be the only one who tried to spend a weekend not thinking about a person, only to wind up sobbing at a commercial for a television show we were supposed to watch together. This often makes me feel like my feelings of love are out of control — a force greater than myself that I have to succumb to.
Talking to Strang made me feel like being overwhelmed by the love I still felt after a breakup was a perfectly acceptable reaction to what she calls "the most powerful force in the universe." She says that love's force becomes especially apparent when love is allowed to take its natural course and move a person forward to ascend into the next stage of their life.
"Love will always be an energy that remains even if it did not [serve both of you karmically] and otherwise to continue on in a relationship in this lifetime," she says.
A relationship that serves you karmically is one that helps you heal something that happened to you in your past. They remind you of invisible wounds, like how breakups remind me of the pain of witnessing the gradual loss of my father. Relationships that do not karmically serve us, however, perpetuate these cycles of pain, without prompting us to dig deeper for self-examination. In this case, when love stays long after a relationship has ended, it might be telling you that you need to do some work on yourself.
Strang believes that true love tends to remain even after a breakup. However, it's important to be open and allow that love to transform you into the person you are supposed to become. It doesn't do anybody any good to be stuck in your feels.
You don't have to force yourself to stop being in love, though. Allowing love to exist and sitting quietly with it — observing the feeling and examining it through journaling your thoughts — is healthier than trying to shut it out all together. "When we do this, that love can then move through our body in the way it is meant to," Strang explains.
Love is supposed to be a healing force that reproduces with itself. "If it is true love, it will simply create more loving feelings within you that will positively impact your life — even if you and this [person] cannot be in a relationship any longer in this lifetime," she continues.
It's after I lost love that I experienced some of the periods of my most rapid growth. Working through heartbreak is how I wound up writing my first novel. One of the most healing relationships I ever had was with a close friend of mine. Prior to dating him, I had a history of dating men who were hyper-masculine and seemed to get off on destroying my self-esteem. They rarely made me feel wanted, and in those relationships, I often found myself struggling to prove my worth to them.
My friend and I dated for only three months, but in that time, I think we did a lot of healing work on one another. I actually learned what it felt like to be desired and supported in my goals. Being positively impacted by this person was not the sole reason I stayed in love with them after we split, but it definitely contributed to the feelings of loving, mutual care that lingered.
The nature of a relationship — especially the nature of its end — has an enormous impact on how difficult it is to stop being in love as well. When my friend and I split up, it was an abrupt parting. We had planned on actually being together, but he had gone away for a weekend and realized he didn't have the emotional resources to be in a relationship.
We don't always get to choose how a relationship ends. Understanding that the way love unfolds — even when it's painful and involves losses — is important in developing the person you are meant to be and can permit you to make peace with the feelings you might continue to have for someone, even long after they're gone.
While Dr. Brenner explains that it is possible to stop being in love with someone, it's likely you'll experience residual feelings for a little while. However, he says that feeling like your relationship came to a "fitting close" can help those feelings dissipate and open you up to love again.
A "fitting close" might mean recognizing you and your partner were not compatible for each other. Or, if you don't understand why you had to split, a fitting close might mean that you have faith that you will, one day, be able to accept the loss and put it in perspective. If you don't find a way to have a fitting close, you might continue to fantasize about the person or think about the "what ifs" in the relationship. This may impact your love life down the line.
"It's more likely to interfere with future relationships because there's going to be a part that is not available," Dr. Brenner says. Emotionally, you likely will not be able to fully commit to the new relationship.
Committing to a new relationship before you are out of love with an ex might feel like you're allowing the love you felt for somebody to transform into something else. However, it's not really the healthiest approach to a new relationship. It's denial, which might mean that you still are in love with your previous partner. Dr. Brenner says it can be harder to feel content when you've met someone new while you're still in love with the person from a previous relationship. "[You're] not happy if [you're] still attached to that past love," he explains.
How long a person continues to feel love for the person they parted from depends, in part, on the coping mechanisms they have developed to deal with loss. Sometimes, people can keep those feelings of love to themselves (*cough* repression *cough*), and future relationships seem to go fine on the surface.
But, distracting yourself from the ex you're still in love with through rebounding or other self-destructive habits is a form of denial and contributes to a vicious self-perpetuating cycle, says Dr. Brenner. These destructive actions don't indicate that you're adapting to your continuing feelings for another person, but that you're hiding from them. Avoiding your feelings about someone won't allow love to cause the healthy transformation that the residual feelings are supposed to bring you.
If what you are feeling is not helping you evolve, then you might not be feeling love for your partner after a breakup, but rather, jealousy. "Jealous preoccupation is not the same as love," says Dr. Brenner. Love should not seek to hold you or your ex back or to deny someone else their own personal fulfillment. If you expect your former partner owes you something because you still have feelings for them, then that is not an authentic feeling of love. Love wants the best for another person, even if that means moving on.
When you continue to love someone, seeing them move on might still be a painful experience for you — but it won't lead you to lash out at them. You will understand that the love you felt is a lesson that will inform the future loves that you, too, will meet.
When your love is true and enduring, Strang says it will expand your heart. "The energy of that love will remain for eternity, not to hold you or them back but to support a greater capacity for love and loving in future relationships," she says. When you fall in love again, it might just be that the love never really went away at all. It's simply taken on new form or transferred. And you might be surprised at how much of it you can feel at once.
True love might never go away completely, but it definitely experiences reincarnation. The love you experience in one lifetime goes through many cycles. When you allow love to be a force that transforms you, you'll experience many cycles, too.
You meet a person, you fall in love, and even if the relationship doesn't work out, you can be certain that you will see that love again. Although that love might not look the same the second time around, you can bet the love you feel will be even stronger than it was before.