An image saying the title of the story "Ask me in six months again" and author "Hilmar Brohmer". It also includes the logo of Science & Fiction and a picture of a calendar with a broken heart icon on one of the days.

Getting over heartache is not easy - especially when you cross paths with your ex.

Content warnings

Breakup

The short story

It’s been half a year – six goddamn months – and I am still shaking inside, I feel stress hormones pumping through my blood while my legs and arms are getting numb and my brain processes everything in slow-motion. “It’s so ridiculous! I cannot believe how ridiculous this is”, I am thinking. Slowly, I am calming down. This whole “emotional episode” is over in a matter seconds or minutes. Fortunately! Three or four months ago, I would have to recover from this for the rest of the day. But now, I am going back to baseline quickly – my heartrate is going down again. “Easy, it’s fine. It’s not the first time this happens. It’s an ordinary situation, so chill”, I am telling myself.

The worst thing is, throughout these seconds, I need to keep up my poker face– after all I am standing in the middle of the hallway of the marketing institute I am employed at. I am talking to a colleague from another section. We met two minutes ago, while I was going back to the office coming from the toilet. This is a routine walk, which I do approximately three times a day for the last six years, which makes roughly 700 walks to the toilet per year or 4200 walks in total, accounting for vacation days and conference travels. But only for the last 350 walks or so, I do not feel relieved after the toilet. This has nothing to do with the toilet though. The toilet is fine. It also has nothing to do with the outlook of potential hallway conversation, either. In this situation, my colleague actually just asked me, if we want to go for lunch later, before I phased out.

The issue is that right in the middle of the hallway, between my office and the toilet, there is another office – the one that my Ex is working at. We broke up six months ago. And the reason for my emotional episode is that she just came out of her office with her empty coffee mug, while I was talking to my colleague. She said “hi” in a friendly manner and walked off to the coffee machine around the corner. Quick steps, a familiar walking sound of her heels, not wasting time, well dressed as usual. I hate this.

I don’t hate it in a way as of hating her. I hate it because seeing her reminds me so much of better times, when we encountered each other two years ago, just when she started her contract. The coffee machine is kind of the social corner of the institute and we met there for the first time, talked a bit of our research. I gave her tips how to do some marketing- related analyses – tips that she does not need any more today (and certainly not from me). Then we met more often, even arranged “accidental” meet ups on our phones, while our colleagues were clueless that we already had something going – a nice early-summer affair that resulted in late-summer relationship. The perfect summer. Everything from this summer is becoming vivid again – this is what I hate. “It’s fine. Shake it off. You are not 15 anymore, come on.”

“No, why ‘shake it off’? I think this idea is great: I still like pasta and tomato sauce. It’s not just for 15-year old’s”, I am hearing my colleague evaluating the lunch plans. Apparently, I said this last sentence out loud. “Ok, ok. Pasta is fine”, I reply. “You are right – let’s meet for lunch in an hour or so.” “But wait, I’m still considering to eat a burger, though. Have you tried these burgers? Sometimes they are great, sometimes they are awful.” My colleague was still not satisfied with his pasta decision. “You know, maybe you’re just overthinking it…” But just as I want to leave, I hear her clattering heels again approaching from the side. “Hi, again”, she says and stops by holding a steaming mug of coffee in her hand. This time, it’s not as bad. I still feel my heart jumping for a split second, but it’s far from the emotional episode from a minute ago.

Our break up was civil, more or less mutual, but still gut-wrenching and, well, heartbreaking. In the months before, we both saw more and more that our ideas of life, including our values and plans for the future, were not as aligned as we thought before. We communicated our disagreements in ways that it became increasingly toxic. I stopped talking with her about several topics, and so did she, simply because we both knew that this would spare us from yet another verbal fight in this week. And there were already many fights per week. They were not too aggressive. Not yet. We usually avoided name-calling and personal insults. But they were not pretty, healthy discussions either. So we me made the tough decision to stop it. And we both fell in the valley of heartbreak, avoided contact for some months and took our time to heal. But apparently, it was easier for her than for me. I only know it from other team mates, who are in contact with her, as I dodge this topic whenever we meet.

“You are still here?”, she asked. “You know, tough decisions have to be made.”, my colleague replies. “It’s just lunch.”, I say. “I see – that’s very tough.”, she says and gives us a forced pity smile – which reminded me of the condescending one she often gave me, when we were in a heated argument. I am clearly overinterpreting this, but still turn to her: “Well, I just told him to make a choice and then live with it.”

“Yes, makes sense. But sometimes it’s hard to make a choice, because you have to deal with whatever the consequences are, right?”, she responds looking in my direction. For a second, her look shifts to a compassionate, authentic smile that I loved one year ago. My colleague interferes, “Pasta, burger, whatever. Did you make your decision already?” She says: “I did. It was tough, indeed. But now I am kind of okay with my choice… how about you?” I turn around to head to my office, as I reply: “Ask me in six months again.”

This story was originally written in English.

The paper

Athenstaedt, U., Brohmer, H., Simpson, J. A., Müller, S., Schindling, N., Bacik, A., & Van Lange, P. A. (2020). Men view their ex-partners more favorably than women do. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 11(4), 483-491. https://doi.org/10.1177/1948550619876633

Connection between story and paper

In three studies we asked young adults (with overall 876 participants) about their attitudes towards their ex-partners. Participants had to think about ex-partners and indicated, to what degree they agreed to statements like “My ex-partner has many positive traits” on 5-point rating scales from “completely true” (1) to “not true” (5). We found that heterosexual men – on average – seem to have somewhat more favorable attitudes towards their ex-partners than women. My co-authors and I suggest that this may be due to the fact that women are often better in constructive coping by making use of their social networks after their breakup and, in consequence, getting closure sooner. Men, on the other hand, may try to get distracted more often by sports, short-term rebound partners or by using drugs, which are less constructive coping strategies that keep their ex mentally present longer. In general, the phenomenon that men often have a harder time dealing with breakups requires more research, which is also the topic of this blog post.

The author

Born 1987, Hilmar studied social sciences in Halle, Frankfurt, Oslo, and Tilburg between 2007 and 2015. He completed his PhD in psychology at University of Graz in 2020 before focussing on environmental science and science communication.

Dr. Helena Hartmann
Dr. Helena Hartmann
Neuroscientist, psychologist and science communicator (she/her/hers)