Dating, Parenting, SIngle Parent Life

How to get over your ex: The neuroscience of a broken heart.

Getting over your ex is never easy and when you're a single parent it's even more challenging. Find out how to heal heartbreak faster with neuroscience.

Hi, I’m Kelly. As many of us are experiencing heartbreak as single parents, I decided to adapt my popular article Help your teen recover from a broken heart. I originally researched this topic to heal from my own heartbreak. Applying what I found out certainly helped me, and a number of my readers tell me it has helped them too. I hope you find it encouraging. It does get better!

As a single parent, handling the pain of a breakup is tough. A lot of us have been led to believe that time will heal our broken hearts. If we just keep busy with the kids and work it will get better. The truth is–it does and it doesn’t.

Heartbreak is a complicated thing and research in the last few years has shown that being in love is actually incredibly similar to drug addiction. When we lose the one we love, we are plunged into a kind of withdrawal period.

Handling the pain of a breakup is tough. A lot of us have been led to believe that time will heal our broken hearts. If we just keep busy with the kids and work it will get better. The truth is--it does and it doesn't. Read why here.

Breakups can affect people for months or even years (time doesn’t necessarily help). Some of us are so hurt by a break up, we’re tempting to give up on love altogether! And I completely understand why. The pain of a breakup affects us in so many ways–emotionally, physically, socially and financially.

If you’ve become a single parent recently, like myself, or started venturing out into the dating scene again (check if you’re really ready) then heartbreak is almost unavoidable.

Thankfully, according to new research in Neuroscience and Psychology, there are a number of very effective and practical steps that we can take to heal our pain faster and move on.  

According to Psychologist, Dr. Guy Winch’s TED Talk,  when we’re heartbroken we experience many of the same symptoms as other types of loss and grief, including insomnia, obsessive thoughts, lowered immunity, and even clinical depression.

Here are some of his tips on how to deal with lost love:

1. Understand what’s happening in your heartbroken brain.

Neuroscience has uncovered remarkable things about the brain during heartbreak. Studies have shown huge similarities in the way our brains behave during a heartbreak and a withdrawal from drugs. In both situations, the brain responds in an addictive way.

In the days following a breakup you start to have obsessive thoughts: you become obsessed with the person you love or obsessed with finding answers for what went wrong.

You scroll through their Facebook photos. Flashbacks of special moments, or that final fight, play over and over in your head. You desperately try to contact them.

The reason it’s so hard to let your ex go is simple: every time you think or see something related to them your brain is actually getting a fix.

The first 48 hours are the hardest!

In her research, Biological anthropologist, Helen Fisher used a functional MRI (fMRI) to study people’s brains during heartbreak.

“We put people in the machine, and the results really amazed me,” she said. “We found that when they looked at a picture of the person they love, the hypothalamus was pumping out dopamine.” 

In the base of your brain is the hypothalamus—the area responsible for your instincts and drives such as hunger, thirst, and lust. The hypothalamus pumps out dopamine and is responsible for all those warm feelings we have when we fall in love.

Dopamine makes us feel elated, have mood swings, causes cravings, and is the source of our obsessive thinking. In love, dopamine is at its peak and feels incredible. But when we break up… the dopamine withdrawal hits hard.

Understanding what’s happening in your brain is a good place to start. Whether you were with your love for a month or twenty years, heartbreak hurts. So be kind to yourself and give your brain (and your heart) a chance to heal.  

2. Stay off social media. (Even if it’s just for 30 days).

Easier said than done! But social media is often the main way we contact our partners and the most tempting way of stalking them when we break up.

Going off social media lets our love sick brains take a break. You really don’t need the temptation of looking at their photos and checking up on them. It just prolongs the pain.

If you can’t go off completely, because it affects your job for example, then make sure you can’t see your ex’s posts. Go no-contact.

There is a reason so many dating gurus suggest a 30 day no-contact period after a breakup. Even if you want your ex back (and some experts say no-contact can actually help with this) having a no-contact month is an incredibly powerful tool that helps your brain heal faster.

But no-contact means you need to cut all ties–that includes liking their photos!–not just seeing your ex in person. (I’ll talk more about what to do when you have to co-parent in number 7 below.)

Talking with your kids about your breakup is hard. Your children will have questions (whether they ask them out loud or not). Get this free ebook and have answers ready that will help them through this tough time.
  • Block or hide your ex on Snapchat, Twitter, Instagram and Facebook (you don’t need to unfriend them necessarily).
  • Take social media apps off your phone.
  • Let your ex know you’re going to take some time off social media if that helps.
  • Write the date somewhere to remind yourself when 30 days is up.

When you feel tempted to look (and you will), distract yourself. Ring a friend who knows you’re in a no-contact period. Go for a run. Read a book. Watch a movie. Binge your favourite TV show. Turn off your phone. Distract yourself however you can.

3. Get rid of the reminders. 

As much as possible, remove or hide all the reminders of your ex. Having every reminder out of sight will make recovery so much easier. Thinking about your ex triggers dopamine and feels good, but it also keeps us in love for longer.

Try to avoid places that remind you of them too if you can. When you’re in love, as Fisher explains, “Everything about them is special. The house they live in, the street they live on, it’s all special to you. They’re dopamine triggers.”

Leaving lots of reminders around simply triggers your dopamine reaction again and again, and makes it that much harder to move on.

4. Make a list of why they weren’t perfect. 

Idealising your ex and focusing on how amazing they were is a really common reaction to heartbreak. After a period of time, you may find yourself thinking of all the ways they were the only perfect one for you.

We have a tendency to forget the bad things about a relationship over time, so Winch suggests making a list.

  • Write down all of the ways that the ex was the wrong one for you.
  • Think of all the things that you didn’t like about your ex. Did they do anything that was rude or hurtful. Did they have personality traits or habits that weren’t great.
  • It’s not about being spiteful or hating the other person. A list of the negatives simply acknowledges that no one is perfect. It provides a bit of balance and a reality check.
  • Keep the list on your phone so you can read it whenever you find yourself fantasising about your ex’s perfection.

5. Get a sense of closure. 

Some breakups blindside you–affairs, or an ex suddenly leaving when you didn’t even realise there was an issue. Or, if you’re back in the dating scene, the awful increasing phenomenon of ghosting (how can anyone think it’s okay to just disappear! Rude!)

Break ups without good explanations are tough. The question, “What went wrong?” can torment you. You can waste a lot of energy trying to get an answer, but it only serves to hold you in your heartbreak.

According to Winch,  you either need to accept the reason the ex gave you or, for the sake of closure, make one up. Make sure you give yourself a reason that doesn’t attack your self-esteem.

For example:

  • It ended because he wasn’t emotionally available. (Not because you weren’t good enough.)
  • It ended because she wasn’t able to deal with her personal issues. (Not because you’re not good-looking enough.)
  • It ended because we weren’t a good match. (Not because you’re undateable.)

6. Fill in the voids. 

Moving on involves finding ways to replace the gaps that your ex left in your life.

  • Go out with friends, or meet new people
  • Start a new hobby
  • Exercise (this will lift your mood too!)
  • Volunteer in your community
  • Have fun, think back to activities you used to enjoy in your single days
  • Take yourself out or go on holiday
  • Get outside, be active and involved
  • Be kind to yourself. Treat yourself to activities you love

7. Don’t try to be friends. 

It’s not easy to get over an ex if you’re still trying to be friends. Being friends may be possible in the long term but for at least six months any attempt at friendship will, in general, drag the heartbreak out longer.

So if it’s possible, attempt to have no contact for a month or more. Obviously, this is hard if you’re dealing with divorce and have kids. If you still have to co-parent (there are ways to co-parent in a high value way eventually) aim for minimal contact.

Limit phone calls and stick to short texts or interactions that are child-related only. Create strong boundaries around this for yourself. If you find yourself writing a long, angry or emotional text–stop! Delete it and step away from your phone.

And if your ex is a toxic person for you? If your ex keeps trying to engage with you in a negative or manipulative way, try the grey rock method. Briefly, the grey rock method involves you being as boring as possible. Answer questions as briefly and unemotionally as possible. Don’t talk about your personal life. Stick to the basics. If a text doesn’t need a reply, don’t reply.

Studies have shown that when we’re near a recent ex, our bodies react strongly. We start to respond in the same way as we would to an enemy in battle. Our hearts instantly beat faster and our bodies prepare for a fight. Even the mention of their name can do this initially, so be kind to yourself and limit contact until things calm down.

Fisher’s findings show that there is a real benefit to cutting off as much contact as possible. “Through putting people who’ve been rejected or dumped into the fMRI, we’ve discovered something promising, which is that the attachment eventually reduces. Time does heal the brain.”

8. Distract your brain. 

Obsessive thoughts or flashbacks about the good times you shared are easier to control when you understand what’s happening in your brain during a heartbreak.

The key here is simple redirection. Try to shift your focus to another activity that engages your brain. Make a to-do list, do math equations your head, or play a challenging word game on your phone to distract yourself when you feel you’re starting to obsess.

Fisher found that when her research subjects redirected their focus, “the hypothalamus calmed down and stopped pumping out the dopamine that was making them feel lovestruck.”

You might not believe me, because it feels awful right now–I know–but heartbreak can be a very positive life experience in the long run. When we take the opportunity to grow and learn from a breakup, we can come out the other side as stronger, better people.

Some endings are necessary. Some relationships are unfixable. Relationships break down because they were broken.

And once you’ve moved on and healed, you may find that new opportunities are possible that weren’t before.

If you and your ex do want to heal your relationship (or want to learn how to be more successful in your next committed relationship) I would highly recommend John Gottman’s book The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. I am not an affiliate. I am just a big fan of Gottman’s research and this book is one of the best I’ve read on what makes relationships work well.

Until next time,


Other articles you may find helpful:

A version of this article was published on Zoosk: The Dating Mix

Adapted from

3 thoughts on “How to get over your ex: The neuroscience of a broken heart.”

  1. I am so glad you wrote this article.

    No contact technique is one tool to recover from detachment and the death of one relationship but should be applied forever and not just for one month.
    When a breakup happens more than blaming ourselves, we should take a look at these items from both involved parties:

    Attachment style
    Family of origin and upbringing
    Challenges of life that we endured
    Styles of communication
    Culture or generational differences

    The way we approach love, life, and relationship should change. After my breakup, I removed myself from Social Media, the first time for almost two months, and now it will be indefinitely.

    Take a break and focus on yourself is the best thing to do.

    Have a lovely week!


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