How to move on (but faster)

Four practical tips on overcoming heartbreak and a personal reflection on the voids in my life. Est. reading time: 9 minutes.

“Getting over heartbreak is not a journey. It's a fight, and your reason is your strongest weapon.” Guy Winch

I hope this will be the last time I’m writing a post about this breakup. Sometimes it feels like an excuse, like an escape from the other drafts and the stack of books standing guard beside my desk. But on some days it’s been near impossible to focus on anything else. Getting it on the page and out of my system, I figure, will help me move on.

A few days ago, I watched a very helpful TED talk called “How to fix a broken heart.” Jillian Anthony interviewed the speaker, Guy Winch, on her substack. I like how Winch reframed getting over heartbreak into an active process rather than waiting for time to heal the wound.

“I’m sure you’ve either experienced or have encountered people who six months after a breakup, a year after a breakup, seem very much in the same place they were after day one. Time can help, but … there are many other things we can do to accelerate the process and to soothe the distress of it as we go. We should refrain very much from doing the things that will set us back, and there are many.Guy Winch at Cruel Summer Book Club

These four ideas from his talk stood out to me and I will touch on them one by one:

  • Don’t get stuck searching for the big explanation.

  • Don’t go back for the fix.

  • Tear down the idol.

  • Fill the big voids in your life.

Don’t get stuck searching for the big explanation.

There is no breakup explanation that's going to feel satisfying. No rationale can take away the pain you feel. So don't search for one, don't wait for one, just accept the one you were offered or make up one yourself and then put the question to rest, because you need that closure to resist the addiction.” Guy Winch

Having been ghosted, the door was left wide open for me to explore all possible reasons, to analyze everything she and I had said and done. I felt a compulsion to examine every moment of our last meeting, to pour over clues from old conversations. This was a dangerous and harmful trap.

Not only was it impossible for me to find an answer, many of the possible explanations seemed trivial and unsatisfying compared to the intensity of my feelings. I was intuitively looking for causality, for a meaningful or dramatic explanation. I was secretly convinced that my special pain deserved a special reason.

In a business context we are used to post mortem analysis to learn and improve. When Reginald Lewis lost out on his early deals, he had to figure out how to assemble the right team of associates and advisors. This allowed him to focus on the relationship with the seller and shepherd the next buyout deal across the finish line.

But that is the wrong attitude to bring to a breakup. The answer is forever locked away in someone else’s mind and no amount of obsessive inquiry will reveal it. There is no prize for twisting this Rubik’s Cube. While we should always try to learn from our mistakes and past relationships, the immediate goal is to move on.

“You have to be willing to let go, to accept that it's over. Otherwise, your mind will feed on your hope and set you back. Hope can be incredibly destructive when your heart is broken.Guy Winch

Don’t go back for the fix.

“Brain studies have shown that the withdrawal of romantic love activates the same mechanisms in our brain that get activated when addicts are withdrawing from substances like cocaine or opioids. … This is what makes heartbreak so difficult to heal. Addicts know they're addicted. They know when they're shooting up. But heartbroken people do not. … You have to recognize that, as compelling as the urge is, with every trip down memory lane, every text you send, every second you spend stalking your ex on social media, you are just feeding your addiction, deepening your emotional pain and complicating your recovery.” Guy Winch: How to fix a broken heart

I have a hard time deleting things and throwing stuff out. Over time, I collect memories, artifacts, and history like a dusty bathroom vent. This piece of advice was a wake-up call to conduct a spring cleaning.

Folders full of pictures, social media profiles, long chats and email chains waiting on your phone - these are all reminders of the past. They are temptations and open invitations to go back and indulge. They are ways to conjure up the feelings that hide in the ashes of memory. 

I would rather not rely on my own depleting willpower to keep myself from scratching the wound. Social psychologist Roy Baumeister wrote that people with the “best self-control” were adept at structuring their lives to “conserve willpower” by avoiding temptations and creating habits that “eliminate the mental effort of making choices.”

So, I created conditions that serve me and remove the bad choices. Elegance over force. Instagram is gone from my phone, as is her number. Our chats are deleted, her social media profiles are blocked. Let the past be the past.

Tear down the idol.

“Heartbreak is a master manipulator. The ease with which it gets our mind to do the absolute opposite of what we need in order to recover is remarkable. One of the most common tendencies we have when our heart is broken is to idealize the person who broke it. We spend hours remembering their smile, how great they made us feel. All that does is make our loss feel more painful. We know that. Yet we still allow our mind to cycle through one greatest hit after another, like we were being held hostage by our own passive-aggressive Spotify playlist.” Guy Winch

This was exactly what happened to me. I went through a period of infatuation and idealization. Suddenly, she checked all the boxes. Everything about her and her life seemed perfect to me. Of course, that makes it near impossible to let go. It is hard to imagine finding something so flawless ever again.

And because you are not with that person, the infatuation doesn’t fade in the face of reality.

The solution was as easy as it was surprising: to create a list of all the reasons why that person would not make a good partner. A list of all their flaws, everything that made the two of you incompatible, every moment that was exhausting and annoying. The purpose is to tear down the idealized image and shift perception back to reality.

This was not a fun exercise. I felt dirty digging up ugly memories and faded frustrations. My list’s headliner is the ultimate insult: the disrespectful indifference of ghosting me, of leaving me stranded in emotional no man’s land. I keep this list on my phone. Right now, I still pull it up regularly. But I look forward to the day when I can delete it and forget it ever existed.

Fill the big voids in your life.

“To fix your broken heart, you have to identify these voids in your life and fill them, and I mean all of them. The voids in your identity: you have to reestablish who you are and what your life is about. The voids in your social life, the missing activities, even the empty spaces on the wall where pictures used to hang. But none of that will do any good unless you prevent the mistakes that can set you back, the unnecessary searches for explanations, idealizing your ex instead of focusing on how they were wrong for you, indulging thoughts and behaviors that still give them a starring role in this next chapter of your life when they shouldn't be an extra.” Guy Winch

I always thought of my relationship with my ex-wife as a case of “opposites attract.” She was outspoken, funny, decisive, spontaneous, and dramatic. I was quiet, reserved, a creature of habit and routine. She was a combustible mix that turned my life upside down.

I met her in college during a semester abroad in New York. After I returned to Germany, we briefly resorted to Skype and visited each other whenever we could. After I graduated, we traveled the world, then quickly moved in together. It was a roller coaster of spontaneous and sometimes ill-advised decisions. I burned through my savings, dropped out of an internship program at one of Germany’s largest companies, and finally proposed to her above the rooftops of Tuscany. 

It was the two of us against the world.

Our honeymoon ended when we had to build a life together, when we had to reconcile our different values and ideas about money, activities, friends, and family. Instead of finding a shared vision and building something lasting, we started pulling in different directions. We were both immature and unfortunately I was a poor communicator. Eventually, we exhausted our love and affection for each other.

I didn’t do a good job addressing my voids after my divorce. My efforts to find new hobbies, friends, and communities were incomplete and half-hearted. That hurt the healing process.

And I can see now how this pattern started repeating itself with last year’s summer fling turned existential crisis. It was like swapping a life that looked like Disney’s 1928 cartoon Steamboat Willie for an episode of Rick and Morty. Suddenly, there was an abundance of color. The picture became sharper. And the story was richer, with meta commentary and new wacky and zany characters. Oh wee. In other words, I stepped into a more interesting, more intense, more fun world. This triggered a passion that I am still working my way past because, honestly, I miss it.

The idea of solving the big voids of our lives goes way beyond breakups. As long as these holes exist, they shape the paths we take. And we’re tempted to look to others to fill them for us. If my life feels boring, I might fall again for a woman who turns it into a wild sequence of adventures - which will inevitably exhaust me. Better to face those voids head-on today and repaint my life in the rich colors of creative exploration, community, and, yes, occasional drama.

“Rick: Listen Morty, I hate to break it to you, but what people call ‘love’ is just a chemical reaction that compels animals to breed. It hits hard, Morty, then it slowly fades, leaving you stranded in a failing marriage. I did it. Your parents are gonna do it. Break the cycle, Morty. Rise above. Focus on science.” Rick and Morty, S1E6