It happened. The relationship I never thought would end, ended. Three weeks later, I caught my ex making out with my doppelgänger on the sidewalk bench where I first told him I loved him. For months after seeing them together, I’d intentionally walk past the bench on my way home from work. Why? Because despite the fact that I was proud of myself for no longer being in that relationship, which was, at best, unhealthy, my hope was that they’d see me seeing them and feel ashamed, guilty, or awkward, and would break up as a result.
While I now look back on my reaction with chagrin, relationship experts say this kind of post-split behavior is normal — and usually far less malicious than it sounds. “For the majority of people, the desire to sabotage an ex’s new relationship is not inherently evil,” says Rachel Wright, M.A., LMFT, a psychotherapist and marriage and relationship expert. Usually it stems from the subconscious thought that if we’re able to break up our ex’s new relationship, they’ll come back to us.
Relationship therapist and Couples Candy founder Megan Harrison, LMFT, says acting in a way that you think could ruin an ex’s new relationship is a common part of the “denial phase” — the point in time when, despite all evidence suggesting otherwise, you want and think you might still get back with your ex.
But there’s a thin line between tampering with your ex’s new relationship and negatively affecting your own health and wellbeing. That’s why experts agree being able to identify if, when, and why you’re acting as a saboteur is an important step in the post-breakup healing process.
What counts as sabotage, exactly?
Generally speaking, Harrison says any action you take because you think it will hurt your ex, damage their current relationship, or benefit you personally fits the bill. Commenting on an ex’s Instagram with the hope that it will anger their new S.O. or trick their friends into thinking you’re still together, watching their new partner’s IG stories, or keeping tabs on your ex through mutual friends so you know when and how to bump into them are all examples of sabotage.
According to Wright, even behavior that is completely normal between exes who have agreed to try to be friends such as texting about getting lunch or checking in on how their family is doing can qualify as sabotage if you have ulterior motives (aka getting back together). The distinction is often a matter of timing.
“It’d be totally fine for me to text Brad, the guy I dated for six months freshman year of college, to hang because we’re buds now,” says Anna C., 24. But it would be suspect if she tried to hang with the guy who broke up with her for his childhood bestie three months ago, because she knows that she is not yet over him.
“If you suspect your ex would not act in the same way toward you, that’s a sign that you may be trying to sabotage them,” says Wright. Another good litmus test of whether or not you’re taking things too far is if you’d readily own up to your behavior. “If you’d be ashamed to tell your best friends or family members the ways you’re contacting or keeping tabs on your ex, chances are you’re crossing a line,” she says.
Why do we do these things?
Again, it often comes down to the hope that if you break up your ex’s new relationship, your ex will want to get back together. But if the breakup was particularly nasty or one-sided, “it could be that you’re trying to cause your former lover the same amount of negative emotions as they caused you,” says Harrison. In my case, the goal wasn’t to get back with my ex, but to make him feel ashamed about publicly flaunting his new girlfriend and relationship just weeks after we split.
John C., 22, acted from a similar place after catching his boyfriend cheating on him. “I thought if I could get my ex to grab a bite to eat, he’d realize he made a mistake, break up with his new boyfriend, come back to me, and then I could dump him and he’d have no one,” he says. “I just wanted my ex to understand the kind of pain I was going through.”
If you notice yourself reaching out to, publicly interacting with (or trying to interact with), staging run-ins with, or doing things you know will get under your ex’s skin, Wright suggests reflecting on your motivations. Ask yourself, What am I trying to accomplish? In my dream world, how would this play out? Are my actions serving me or mental health? Thinking through these questions can help put your behavior in perspective.
Sabotaging your ex is really just sabotaging yourself.
“It takes an enormous amount of emotional energy, time, and effort to sabotage an ex and their new relationship,” says Harrison. Let’s take my bench walks, for instance. While the bench was only two blocks out of my way, every time I took a detour, I cost myself five minutes. Over the course of a week, that’s 35 minutes wasted on my ex and his new relationship. Over the course of this four-month pattern, I lost more than 10 hours. Yikes.
Beyond being time-consuming, this kind of behavior also interferes with self-growth. “You can’t move forward with your life if you are constantly trying to find your ex in real life, monitoring their life on social media, or otherwise plopping yourself into and interfering with their life,” says Harrison.
John certainly found this to be true. “Once I stopped trying to hurt my ex, I was able to actually deal with and heal from my own hurt,” he says.
How can we move past the desire to sabotage an ex?
“Letting go of the anger that makes us want to sabotage an ex takes an enormous amount of courage, because those negative feelings keep us connected to our ex,” says Harrison. But it’s an essential step in moving on from them and toward self-growth. So as much as you may not want to, it’s time to block your ex and whoever they are seeing. Delete their numbers so you aren’t tempted to call or text them, unfollow them on social media, you get the idea. This limits how often you’ll be reminded of your ex, which is essential for training your brain to think of them less frequently.
While blocking and deleting are acts of self-care and preservation, if you’re nervous, Wright says you can send your ex a text or DM along the lines of, “I just wanted to let you know that I’m going to block you on social media in order to help myself really move on from our relationship. Thanks for understanding!”
Beyond that, Harrison recommends remembering why things ended in the first place. “Focusing only on the good memories and trying to get them back — as opposed to the very legitimate reasons you broke up — only hinders your ability to let go,” she says.
And do your best to recommit to yourself. “Do things that make you feel good about yourself and who you are outside of that now-ended relationship,” Wright says.
If you’re still struggling, there’s no shame in seeking outside assistance. “A therapist will help you unpack why you’re still stuck on this ended relationship, help you develop healthy coping strategies, and give you the tools to move on,” Wright says.