Michael is counting. It’s been 700 days since he last spoke to Melissa, the woman who dumped him abruptly after a whirlwind courtship, leaving him stuck poring over her online presence instead of eating or sleeping. The only thing that seemed to help was EXaholics, a resource-rich forum for the lovelorn and fixated. The online community of exes is the first to model breakup treatment after addiction treatment. And like Alcoholics Anonymous, it begins with admitting you have a problem and that you need help to deal with it. Then, the website demands that you go no contact — a cold-turkey break from the drug (person) that’s destroying you.
For Michael, that was critical. In the twilight hours after the breakup, he didn’t know what to do with himself, so he stayed on Melissa’s Facebook page. He noticed when she logged on in the morning. He noticed when she logged off. Mostly he wanted to see if, now that she’d ended things, if she was still keeping her normal routine. Or was she suddenly staying out later? “You see, with some people they can’t stop following their ex on Instagram or Twitter,” Michael said. “For me, it was Facebook. It was the only way I could keep tabs on her.”
Facebook was how he and Melissa first connected romantically. He’d known her for many years as a friend, but after she messaged him to say her relationship with her husband was coming to an end, they embarked on five months of dating. They soon found they liked the same TV shows. And things got physical quickly. The sex was electric, and soon turned into pet names, declarations of love and talks of marriage.
Sure, there were red flags that made him uneasy — an ex-husband not far enough in the past, for starters, whom Melissa seemed to like to provoke, and her threatening, extraordinary good looks — but Melissa was always quick to proclaim her genuine affection. She told him the story of her failed marriage, how her sexual experimentation with her husband and other couples had led the both of them to the arms of others, ultimately ending them.
“I was skeptical at first, but she was very reassuring,” Michael said. “And she was probably the most beautiful person I’ve dated. I would characterize her as out of my league in the looks department.” Then, inexplicably, she grew cold. They managed to get through a major holiday and her birthday, but a few days after that came the hourlong phone call where Melissa said she just wasn’t that into him anymore.
“Just not feeling it,” he recalls. “Those were her words. For whatever reason, I wasn’t interesting anymore.”
Feeling cruelly cast aside, he now found himself back on her Facebook page, reading the digital tea leaves. He was too proud to call her and beg her to come back, but he couldn’t turn away from the fix of her online presence, either. Playing digital detective and going back over the scene of the crime was easy now that he was living out the clichés of a breakup: He couldn’t function, and as a self-described news junkie, he couldn’t even watch his favorite 24-hour news channels. “I just didn’t care,” he said. She was the only thing his brain wanted, the only thing it would settle for.
After 10 days of this, he Googled “obsession in relationships,” which led him to EXaholics. Going through the stories of other people unable to move on, he started down the daunting road to recovery. If there is a song lyric that sums up the sentiment shared by the some 10,000 users of EXaholics, which launched in 2014 and was quickly praised for its unique approach, it’s the first line of Sinead O’Connor’s Prince-penned ode to obsessive love, “Nothing Compares 2 U.” Marking the passage of time since parting ways like only the truly obsessed could, it fires off the opening salvo of heartbreak: “It’s been seven hours and 15 days/Since you took your love away.”
The site feeds precisely this kind of rabbit-hole thinking about where the wrong turn came in a love affair. Forums include a main daily check-in for reporting on how you’re doing, and various sub categories like “Still Sleeping with My Ex,” and “Social Media & Ex.” There are webinars and other links to help you intellectually comprehend your emotional state. To get in requires a login, and a login requires a subscription of $9 a month. An administrator for the site says that’s not to turn a profit — it only covers the cost of keeping the site going, since they intend to keep it advertising-free so as to not inadvertently promote resources they don’t actually recommend.
EXaholics’ most wildly popular feature is a forum called “Counting Days,” where users check in to say how long it’s been since they initiated contact with their ex. A typical post includes how many days have past since they last spoke and how they’re handling it all. (Out of respect for the site’s devotion to keeping it anonymous, I won’t repeat users’ posts here.) Good days and bad days are supported without judgment. People don’t really give advice on the site; they just tell their stories.
Michael says “Counting Days” was a saving grace. “It was inspirational for me to see people so dogged about wanting to move with their lives even though their heart is still attached to someone who doesn’t want to be with them,” Michael said. Two weeks into joining EXaholics, he unfriended Melissa on Facebook.
Jacqueline Duke, who runs a private practice in the North Shore neighborhood of Chicago and has been an adviser to the site since its inception, ensuring that it gives clinically relevant advice, says the EXaholics model is backed by science.
“There has been a lot of research, especially in the past 10 years, that supports that certain chemicals and neurotransmitters in the brain act the same way in love and after a breakup as they do under the influence of substances and subsequent withdrawal,” she tells me. “It only made sense that if the brain is chemically responding to love and breakups similarly to addictions, the most empirically supported, longstanding, traditional mode of treatment (12 steps, group support) would be the most effective in treatment. EXaholics is the first to treat it that way in a ‘group’ format with their online community. People can work a 12-step program with any type of addiction, but it is found to be extremely more successful when done so within a supportive group environment.”
Though that supportive environment at EXaholics is now about 10,000 site users, split evenly among women and men, psychologists say breakups can be harder for men, who are traditionally less expressive and more likely to compartmentalize emotions. A study in 2015 found that while women tend to feel worse in the immediate aftermath of a breakup, men take longer to get over it. Duke says that’s for a few reasons. “Men seem to be more bruised in their pride and in their confidence after a breakup,” she said. “It really shakes their sense of self a bit more.”
Women also tend to turn to friends to help them reframe the narrative of the relationship and the breakup toward a story of empowerment. “By telling the story over and over, each time you revisit it, you make it a little more empowering to yourself,” she says. “Eventually you can say, ‘I’m glad I went through it and that it’s over.’”
Men, by contrast, may only open up to a therapist, their mother or a close friend, Duke says. “Men aren’t repeating that story to gain a sense of mastery over it.”
That gendered difference in approach can come up when the jilted lover sees that their ex has moved on. Duke cites a study where men and women were asked if they’d be hurt more by a partner moving on toward happiness, or more hurt by seeing their ex with someone new. “Men tended to be really stuck on the whole imagining their ex with another person,” she said.
Imagining what she’s up to can get the best of a man. Some 60 days into the breakup, Michael broke down and called Melissa. He was surprised when she answered. “I said ‘Hey, this is Michael,’ and she laughed and said, ‘I know who it is.’” They talked for about 20 minutes, both wondering if the other was watching a new TV show. (They were). “It felt great to talk to her,” he said. Still, he knew he was just excited about what site users call “crumbs” communication, just enough to keep you hopeful, but not enough to signal getting back together. It meant he had to go back to EXaholics’ counting days forum to update everyone that’d he’d relapsed, which meant starting back at zero days with no contact.
Soon after, a mutual friend told him Melissa had married someone else and was pregnant. Melissa had failed to mention it on the call. In a panic, he checked Facebook to see what he could find, but he’d already unfriended her, so he came up empty-handed.
But now he had something more valuable to help him push past feeling stuck: anger. “Once I found out about the new relationship, that really helped me to move on,” he said. “It was motivational in the sense that I didn’t want to be with her anymore if she can be with somebody else like that. There was something purifying about the anger, and it was just burning away any feelings I had left for her. It actually felt great. I didn’t initiate contact any more after that.”
“I don’t think women have that same anger, a lot of times,” Duke said. “They can go through breakups over and over again and somehow always make improvements on themselves. Whereas men are like ‘ouch.’ I also don’t think men have that heartbreak more than once or twice. They don’t let it happen again; they don’t want to be that vulnerable again.”
Michael was certainly determined not to get his heart broken again. So he shored up with every bit of research he could find about why it happened to him. He read books recommended by the site like the No Contact Rule; It’s Called a Breakup Because It’s Broken; and High Fidelity, where author Nick Hornby revisits all his past relationships to see what went wrong. (“It’s the male Eat, Pray, Love,” Michael says.)
He began to note patterns in other users that he saw in himself: The desire to rescue women coming out of bad relationships, to do everything for them, and to lose himself in the process. He stumbled onto the term white knight syndrome, which he realized described him perfectly, and a relationship he’d had before Melissa, too.
Duke told me that men who tend to suffer the more intrusive thoughts after a breakup often have this savior complex. “They really seek out these women to save,” she said. “Sometimes it’s emotionally, but sometimes it’s financially, too — ‘I even bought her a car to help her get to work,’ they’ll say. And when it ends, it reinforces them feeling undeserving of a fully functioning woman in the first place. And there can be a double sense of failure — the failure to save her, and the failure to save the relationship.”
They may also have an anxious attachment style, which, in short, is one of three styles of attachment formed in early childhood that psychologist Mary Ainsworth outlined in the 1960s. These include secure, avoidant and anxious; the third style manifests in abandonment and trust issues, the hallmarks of which are neediness, emotional ups and downs, and a tendency to latch on hard.
Michael fits both an anxious attachment style and a savior complex, and in a way, the breakup forced him to simply transfer all that obsession with Melissa into self-obsession. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. He began doing what Duke described as a typically female approach to breakup: moving through the story over and over again, eventually framing the narrative toward one of empowerment. Yes, he had once wanted to spend his life with Melissa, yes, she had broken his heart, but now, he could see the relationship’s failure as a dodged bullet.
“She has some particular needs in that relationship and I was not in a place where I could fulfill them,” he says now of Melissa. “I had some neediness that prevented me from really being happy because I was so emotionally reliant on her. I developed emotional reliance I had never have, and for that reason, I’m grateful the breakup happened.”
It’s now been 16,944 hours since Michael last made contact with Melissa. He got over her in a few months, but he kept doing the daily counts not just for the sense of pride it gave him, but also to check in and to see how everybody else on the site was doing. He likes the support network and to cheer others on, as each day brings a new user who is breaking new ground, alongside another who is bottoming out.
Michael still finds himself drawn to women who need saving. But because he put in the work of self-scrutiny, he’s much more cautious and keeps his distance when women like Melissa flirt with him. “I’m trying to repel those kinds of relationships now,” he says.
He also realizes there’s still a bit of an obsessive in him, it’s just that now he has the tools to channel it more productively. He has stopped obsessing about Melissa, stopped obsessing about the sex, and stopped obsessing about himself. And now?
“I obsess about building my business,” he says, laughing. “Getting more clients.”