You just broke up with your significant other, and you’ve realized you have to remind yourself how to function as a normal human being.
Like your annoying car GPS, you find yourself narrating internal commands to get from point A to point B. “Stand up. Walk to shower. Turn on water. Submerge.”
You go through the motions and you force yourself to survive. In this semi-human state, you have little to cling to, but you hold on tightly to one mantra you vow will keep you going: You will not contact your ex.
In keeping true to your conviction, you’ve done everything you can to prevent yourself from succumbing to sending that forbidden text (which you’ve already written out and deleted at least 16 times).
You’ve saved your ex in your phone as “DO NOT TEXT, SPAWN OF SATAN,” etc.
You have a constant reel of pep talks playing in your head to remind yourself you’re better off alone, you deserve so much more, you never really cared about him anyway and you’re so much better looking.
You have even recruited your friends to aid in the process by making sure that whenever you’re all out drinking, they pry your cell phone from your fingers after your second drink (despite how much you try to convince them you're not that drunk and you can control yourself).
These tactics seem to be working, but after about a week, maybe two, you feel like you’re going to jump out of your skin.
No matter how many times you blast “I Will Survive,” you’ve realized you simply can’t. You grab your phone, and you send the message.
You might say, “I miss you,” or, “Can we please talk?” But most likely, it’s something completely nonchalant, like “I just downloaded the new Mumford album. You should check it out.”
It's as if nothing happened between you two. After you press send and see your message appear as the final one in your conversation, you immediately regret it.
You start to panic. "What if he doesn't respond? How could I have been so weak? Maybe I should send another one that says I meant to send it to someone else, whose name happened to be right before his. No, that’s stupid."
Minutes pass. Hours pass. A day passes. No response. Now, you absolutely lose it. You not only send another message, but you also call.
You call again. You show up at his apartment. In a matter of 24 hours, you have gone from being a strong, independent single to an absolute nut job.
Here’s some consolation that might make you feel a little less like a stage 27 clinger: The reason you can’t help but call, text or show up at 4 am banging on your ex’s door can be explained by a process behavioral psychologists call an extinction burst.
In scientific terms, it's defined as a temporary increase in the frequency, duration or magnitude of the target response.
Let’s make it simple: Think about what happens when you purchase something from a vending machine. You put money in the slot, make your selection, press the button and out pops your sugary treat.
You engage in a behavior (making the purchase), which is positively reinforced (delicious snack) and leads to future purchases. It's positive reinforcement at its finest.
Now, imagine what would happen if you put your money in the machine and your Skittles failed to make their way to the slot at the bottom of the machine because they got stuck.
It's pretty predictable: You start to bang on the machine, curse and throw your body weight into the glass (like that’s going to do anything), all in an attempt to shake your overpriced bag of heavenly goodness free.
Unfortunately, nothing works, and you’ve only managed to attract a crowd of spectators who stare wide-eyed and open-mouthed, as they wonder if they should call the authorities.
This is a prime example of an extinction burst.
You’ve completely lost control because the positive reinforcement that usually falls to the bottom of the machine has now gotten stuck, and you're left empty-handed.
Now, compare this example to the actions that have landed you the title, “crazy ex.” In this situation, the replies from your significant other you are accustomed to receiving are much like the bag of Skittles.
You put something in, and you expect to receive something in return. Put in money, and receive candy. Send text, and receive text.
When this behavioral pattern, which has been reinforced for so long, is suddenly disrupted, you start throwing yourself into heavy machinery or showing up at your ex’s workplace on two hours of sleep demanding an explanation.
While both situations might paint you as a psycho, your actions are in line with what any behavioral psychologist would predict.
So, the good news is, you aren’t so crazy after all. The even more good news is this is the first step to extinguishing a behavior (in this case, your tendency to contact your ex).
Unfortunately, your ex would have to continue to completely ignore you through your “extinction burst,” and beyond that in order for you to stop reaching out for good.
We know that rarely happens.
More than likely, your ex will take the bait and say something eventually. Regardless of what the response is (from a simple, "Hey, babe" to a more aggressive, "Leave me the hell alone"), any response is enough to keep you around.
My advice? Move far, far away.