Regardless of who decided to end a relationship or how long you dated, breakups suck. They’re tough in the immediate aftermath, and they continue to be tough years down the line. Anyone who’s ever decided an ex wasn’t “the one” only to have their day ruined when they find out said ex is engaged to someone else can attest to that.
Holistic psychotherapist Alison Stone, LCSW, says that complicated feelings about your ex are incredibly common, and the way we react to certain life events can be surprising — but thankfully, these reactions don’t always mean you want to get back together with that person. “It could be nostalgia, it could be that it triggers a desire to reach out and connect, it could be a sadness that the person is no longer in your life,” she explains.
According to Stone, feeling these emotions for however long you need to is key. And if you’re still looking to gain a better understanding of them, here is some excellent insight into what five common feelings about an ex actually mean.
1. You’re scrolling through social media and see that an ex you broke up with because you felt they weren’t the one is in a relationship with (or engaged to) someone else. You’re so upset that it ruins your day.
Marina, a 28-year-old woman living in the Bay Area, broke up with her ex-boyfriend because she couldn’t imagine a future with him. “I didn’t even feel that down when we broke up because I was sure I was making the right decision,” she says. “Then while scrolling through Instagram one day I saw that he was engaged to someone else, and I felt sick. I was in a new relationship I thought I was happy in, and suddenly I was questioning everything!”
So many of us have experienced some version of this feeling about an ex we thought we were over. But does it mean you’re not actually over the relationship at all? Probably not, says psychologist Patrician Thornton, Ph.D. What’s really going on is that you’re jealous, and not because you’re not over them, but because you’re human.
“As humans, we attach,” Thornton says. “We’re wired to bond and fall in love. Any sense that you may have lost what was once a bond — even if you decided to end the relationship — can bring on feelings of jealousy. We’re very aware of what we don’t have and tend to focus on it. You might not be as triggered if you’re in a new relationship, but it’s hard to know for sure.”
Rather than analyzing these feelings, recognize them for what they are: feelings. “Feelings are normal,” Thornton continues. “We don’t always like them, but they come and go. You can feel shitty one day, and then you feel fine. Wait and see.”
2. An ex who you’re still on good terms with lands a promotion or new job and texts you with the news. Instead of feeling happy for them, you feel jealous and annoyed.
Assuming you and your ex are friendly, this one probably has less to do with any feelings of loss toward your former relationship and more with complicated feelings about your own career. If you’re not passionate about your job or have been looking for a new one for a while with no luck, it can be hard to feel happy about someone else’s success, no matter who it is, Thornton says.
In this case, your best bet is to do what’s in your power to change your situation rather than analyze what this feeling might indicate about your ex. Because it probably doesn’t mean anything at all.
Of course, there may be caveats for your specific situation. If you ended things with your ex because of their lack of motivation, of course you might be hurt or confused by your ex finally getting their act together. Allow yourself to feel those feelings, but know that neither your ex reaching out nor your reaction necessarily signify a desire to rekindle things.
3. You see on social media that an ex is traveling a lot or has moved to a new city, and you feel jealous.
Again, this probably has more to do with feelings about your own life than about your ex. Maybe you’ve been itching to move or want to travel more but haven’t been able to make it happen. While you should certainly examine that, it’s probably worth it to take a closer look at your relationship with social media, too.
“I have my patients take a social media holiday for this reason,” says Thornton. “You get into a cycle of checking it constantly, but to what end? People aren’t putting up horrible things about their lives. They’re putting up the cute baby and engagement pictures and the beautiful travel photos. If that’s getting you down, unfollow!”
And if the circumstances of your breakup had to do with an argument over where to live in the short- or long-term, it makes sense that seeing something like this would be triggering for you. In this case, unfollowing your ex is still probably the best course of action.
4. You find out your ex has a new friend group. You’ve never heard of any of them, and you feel left out.
When Emmy, a 25-year-old woman living in New York City, saw photos of her ex with people she’d never heard of popping up all over her feed, she felt annoyed and strangely left out. When the two were together, one huge issue they had was that he never wanted to go out with her friends, and he always said it was because he wasn’t a very social person. “I was so upset about it that it made me take a long, hard look at what was actually going on,” she says. “Once I’d had a good night’s sleep and some perspective, I was able to see that what I was really upset about was the fact that my ex was a social person — he just didn’t want to be social with my friends. It made me feel that much better about the breakup.”
If you didn’t deal with any issues like this in your relationship but still feel like an outsider, consider this: It only makes sense that you’d feel a little left out if a person you were once incredibly close to now has a new group of friends you’d never heard of. Because it’s normal to bond, it’s also normal to feel left out every now and then.
5. An ex who you’re long over was posting pictures of their new relationship constantly, and suddenly the pictures stop. You start to speculate that the relationship could be over, and you feel happy and excited.
In this case, it may be worth it to ask yourself if you want to give the relationship another shot, especially if you ended things. “You might think, maybe this person wants to get back together with me — maybe I’ll reach out to them and check in with them,” Thornton says. “Or you may want to say to yourself, hey, this is just me being lonely.”
If you didn’t end the relationship, you may just feel happy that they could be feeling some version of what you felt. And that’s OK, too.
“Don’t feel guilty about feelings and thoughts,” Thornton says. “Thoughts are not actions. Just say, OK, that made me feel happy. Point for me. Then get on with your life. Don’t get stuck on the feeling — that’s when you get in trouble, and that’s when you’re putting too much weight into the feeling and thought. It’s a waste of thoughts, and all it does is generate anxiety.”
One thing’s for sure: Having complicated feelings about your ex is normal. Just know that more often than not, these feelings don’t mean you should pick up the phone and ask if they want to get back together. They mean that you’re human.