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The Phantom Ex Syndrome is one of the trickiest and most dangerous delusions people yearning for their ex fall for.
Trickiest because it’s hard to notice and stop buying into it. Dangerous because it sabotages one’s re-attraction attempts, usually without the person ever noticing.
At best, The Phantom Ex Syndrome makes you turn off your ex only momentarily, causing all but a light squirm of disgust. At worst, it can obliterate every ounce of emotional connection and attraction you’ve corralled until then.
A Phantom Ex Syndrome Primer
Enter Clueless Clay.
Clay has this overwhelming fear of intimacy and an abnormal need for space, both of which propel him to behave like an idiot when interacting with his new partner, Sally.
- Instead of being honest, he keeps masquerading as this confident badass who doesn’t give a fuck about anything or anyone.
- Instead of opening up to Sally, he shuts down and constantly withdraws, making her feel crushed and cranky, only strengthening his own conviction that she’s not “the one.”
- Instead of focusing on her many positive traits, he can’t look away from her trite blemishes — like her weird way of eating or how loud she blows her nose. And rather than accepting these all too human flaws, he only pulls away more in resentment.
Over time, Sally luckily realizes that Clay is damaged goods — chockfull of emotional issues and limiting beliefs that he doesn’t feel like resolving. Thus, after a few agonizing weeks of flopped compromises and attempts at communication that went nowhere, she dumps him.
After a brief cool-down period, during which Clay reclaimed his treasured independence, he starts to miss Sally.
But, of course, he tries his best to convince himself that he has also moved on. Yet, despite his best efforts, he still constantly finds himself haunted by Sally’s memory, unable to let her go. Unable to escape what once was.
And as time washes away, Clay begins to put his ex on a pedestal, overlook her negative traits, and perceive her as faultless. And when he compares his current dates with her, none seem to quite measure up. Who would’ve guessed?
Sometimes he even buys into the idea that his ex is his soulmate, that he will never find anyone better, and that he must do everything to get her back. Even things that will surely wallop his dainty butt-cheeks with a fucking restraining order.
This, my dear reader, is what we call The Phantom Ex Syndrome.
The Phantom Ex Syndrome Explained
The Phantom Ex Syndrome is characterized by a persistent emotional attachment to a long-gone ex. It’s as if their presence continues to haunt one’s thoughts, emotions, and day-to-day life.
People dealing with this syndrome may find themselves fantasizing about reuniting with their ex, reminiscing about the past, and longing for the emotional connection they once had.
Why all of this stuff happens varies.
One contributing factor is the intensity of the emotional connection you shared with your ex. The stronger the connection, the harder it is to stop ruminating and obsessing about them.
Another factor are simply the number of your unresolved emotions and unaddressed personal issues, as well as your lack of closure. The more of these things you cultivate, the harder you’ll let go of your ex.
Next, there’s the impact of comparison. The theory goes that when you idealize your ex, you simultaneously set unrealistic standards for new partners, making it difficult for anyone to measure up. And since no one can measure up, you can keep focusing on your phantom ex and stay trapped in the past.
And the last factor is your attachment type — particularly the avoidant attachment type. This is arguably the main reason a person suffers from The Phantom Ex Syndrome. Thus, an tad longer explanation is needed.
Let me unpack the whole thing for you…
The Avoidant Attachment Explained
If you’re even a little familiar with my work, you’ll know that I lean heavily on attachment theory to explain why some relationships succeed and others collapse. The theory essentially tackles one of our most fundamental human experiences: our need for emotional attachment.
Now the thinking goes that a person can develop, based mainly on their upbringing, one of four attachment strategies (also called styles or types): secure, anxious, avoidant, and anxious-avoidant.
For an in-depth explanation of these four attachments, refer to my attachment theory article. For now, let’s just zoom in on avoidant attachment. Because while everyone is prone to developing The Phantom Ex Syndrome, avoidants are cursed with it most often.
An avoidant is someone who:
- Is overly protective of their independence.
- Suppresses their emotional needs and wants.
- Is uncomfortable with or afraid of intimacy, vulnerability, and commitment.
- Idealizes their relationship when it’s over, when in reality, this relationship was often lackluster and dysfunctional.
- Is often unreactive amid experiences where you normally should react.
- Is often only able to fully appreciate the value of their relationship after losing it.
The Common Dilemma
Now one of the most prevalent misconceptions about avoidants is that they lack a desire for intimacy.
This is bullshit.
Avoidants, like virtually everyone, yearn for intimacy. They want to form a deep and meaningful bond. They want to have a sense of closeness. They want to feel like they belong somewhere.
But they face a tricky paradox: while wanting closeness and intimacy, they fear that allowing someone to get too close will result in losing their cherished independence.
This internal conflict leads avoidants to develop various coping mechanisms like emotional detachment, downplaying emotions, adopting a “nothing bothers me” attitude, distancing behaviors, keeping multiple romantic options open, forming unrealistic expectations around their relationships, and so forth.
And then what happens?
Well, because of their conflicting desires — wanting closeness and intimacy while concurrently fearing losing independence — avoidants frequently find themselves trapped in a cycle of longing for connection while simultaneously pushing their ex away.
In other words, it’s their coping mechanisms that allow the self-fulfilling prophecy of being “forever alone” to evolve into a reality.
Even worse, due to their distancing, they’re also building up a crooked image of their ex — they’re falling deeper and deeper for a phantom ex. In fact, such an ex often becomes a symbol of the attachment they yearn for but fear to pursue.
Is there a way to bust out of this rut? Of course.
How To Overcome The Phantom Ex Syndrome
Dealing with The Phantom Ex Syndrome is demanding, but here are some strategies to help you uproot it.
1. Challenge your memories. Look back at your relationship and try to remember the full spectrum. Not just the highlights, but the lulls and warts and all the bullshit that went into it too. Try to cobble together a realistic image of your relationship, not one clouded by rose-colored glasses.
2. Focus on self-care. Prioritize your own emotional well-being, engage in activities that bring you joy, double down on your goals, take care of your health and body, surround yourself with supportive friends and family — you get the idea. Nurturing your own growth and happiness will strengthen your resilience in dealing with The Phantom Ex Syndrome.
3. Be vulnerable. If you’re already tight with your ex and are perhaps even dating, consider engaging in open and honest conversations about your problem. Explain how you’re dealing with a Phantom Ex Syndrome and look for solutions together. Let your ex ground you in reality.
4. Confront your potential fear of dependency. As we established earlier, if you’re dealing with a Phantom Ex Syndrome, you’re likely an avoidant. Thus, you probably have a fear of dependency. Explore the underlying reasons for it. By doing so, you can gradually dismantle your defense mechanisms and embrace vulnerability, allowing yourself to form healthier perspectives on relationships.
5. Date someone secure. I know you want your ex back, but try dating someone secure (in terms of attachment style, that is). The theory goes that their security tends to rub on you, making you feel more secure yourself. And the more secure you become, the more attractive you are — to them, other dates, and your ex.
6. Don’t idealize. When you find yourself idealizing your ex, stop and acknowledge that they’re human. Like everyone, they’re riddled with incompatibilities and shitty traits that only cause drama and resentment. Don’t ignore these things. Bring your ex down from the pedestal and approach them as an equal.
7. Forget about soulmates. They don’t exist, never did. There are millions of other people out there who are much more attractive, intelligent, charismatic, healthy, or whatever you’re looking for when compared to your ex. This is okay.
8. Realize that a breakup is a sign of incompatibility. And just admit your ex was probably never a good option. Yes, some people can mend things with their ex for good, but we’re talking about a rare minority here. Sorry to piss in your soup bucket, but you’re likely not in it. Chances are, you’ll be much better off if you just find someone else.
Explore The Phantom Ex Syndrome In More Detail
Here are some resources that will deepen your understanding of this concept and provide even more ways to overcome it.
- The Phantom Ex And The Soulmate: my first stab at this concept. In this article, I explain the Phantom Ex and Soulmate Syndromes and provide ways to find love realistically. It’s like this article, only with a slightly different, more general angle, as opposed to one focused on re-attraction.
- Attachment Theory Explained: a deep dive into the concept. If you liked the stuff on avoidant attachment from this article, you’ll love this one.
- 18 Reasons Why Your Relationship Failed: sometimes, The Phantom Ex Syndrome or one’s avoidant attachment isn’t the only reason for their breakup. Read this article to learn about the other common ones.
- Your Ex Is Not Special (No One Is): an airtight logical case for why you can find someone better than your ex regardless of your age, gender, culture, or whatever.
18 Reasons Why Your Relationship Failed
Breaking up hurts, but why does it happen? Why did your relationship fail in the first place? Discover 18 reasons in this article.
The Phantom Ex And The Soulmate
Learn about the Phantom Ex and Soulmate Syndromes and how to overcome them so you don't remain forever heartbroken and disappointed in love.
I Miss My Ex (Why You Miss Them And 12 Solutions)
Learn why you miss your ex and 12 practical ways to stop missing them to finally feel at peace and in control of your life.
The Inferiority Gap
Conventional ex-back advice has many drawbacks. Here, I address them, argue why they suck, and provide a better alternative.
A few tips for developing self-awareness. The better you become at the skill, the likelier your ex will perceive you as more attractive.