What to Do When You Hate Your Ex

The old adage that says that there’s a thin line between love and hate plays out in my office on a regular basis.  I often marvel as I watch couples weave back and forth between the two emotions.  The couple comes in and immediately occupy opposite sides of my reception area, barely able to make eye contact.  They sit stiffly during the introduction, but then as we begin to talk about their children, the ice breaks and an intimate smile passes between them.  Later, when we get to the details of the schedule or the finances, it’s the return of the blizzard.  When they’ve settled on a set of agreements, that subsides and is replaced with a calm, familiar warmth. 

According to a recent study by Professor Semir Zeki of University College London, there is a physiological explanation for this.  The researchers took 17 people who professed a deep hatred for another person, hooked them up to a brain scan and showed them pictures of their nemesis.  They found that the putamen and the insula, found in the sub-cortex of the brain, light up when viewing the photos, just as they do when we’re in love.  The reason for this, according to Zeki, is behavioral triggers, "Previous studies have suggested that the insula may be involved in responses to distressing stimuli, and the viewing of both a loved and a hated face may constitute such a distressing signal."

This is fairly intuitive for anyone who has been through a tough breakup. We marvel at how we can hate someone we once loved so deeply and yet it feels as inevitable as fall following summer. The question then arises: what to do about it?  No one wants to walk around with residual hatred toward an old love.  It undermines our happiness and makes us bitter.  It probably causes wrinkles and grey hair.  Here are three actions to help replace hatred with calm:

1.      Train the Brain: Learning to watch your mind through meditation increases your ability to choose the thoughts that make you happy.  The first step to changing a mindset is building the capacity to do this, much like building muscle strength.  As that capacity grows, so does the ability to opt for a “healthy diet” of thoughts.

According to Matthieu Ricard, Biochemist turned Buddhist Monk, “You can’t in the same gesture give a handshake and a blow.  So there are natural anecdotes to habits that are destructive to our inner being.  That’s a way to proceed.  Rejoicing as opposed to jealousy.  A sense of inner freedom as opposed to grasping an obsession.  Benevolence, loving kindness against hatred.”

2.      Change your Story: The stories we tell ourselves and others about our experiences actually shape our future outlook.  We go through our days and nights after a break-up re-telling our tragic tale to our imaginary judge, looking for validation.  The problem is that the story of being a victim can become a self-fullfilling prophesy. 

As Philippa Perry says in How to Stay Sane “Our stories give shape to our inchoate, disparate, fleeting impressions of everyday life. They bring together the past and the future into the present to provide us with structures for working towards our goals. They give us a sense of identity and, most importantly, serve to integrate the feelings of our right brain with the language of our left.”  The solution, therefore, is to re-tell our story in a positive light, with compassion rather than judgment.

3.      Act with Compassion: Do small (or large) actions that make life better for others.  When you give, you feel better.  This takes the focus off of the other person and his/her behavior and onto your own sense of contentment.  A slew of current research, including Michael Norton’s work on How to Buy Happiness, shows that altruism increases a person’s sense of well-being and happiness.  Finding meaning in our life and connecting to others help lift us above the mire of our situation.  Don’t shortcut this last step.  It’s where all the action happens.