The Hook Up: 5 Ways To Cultivate Willpower and End That Harmful Relationship


Hi Anna, I’ve been in an on-off relationship for quite a while now. We both love each other, but other factors have made us both realize that the relationship is not right for either of us. We both want entirely different (and conflicting) things out of the relationship and our expectations are not something we can compromise. We figured this out long ago and have tried many times to break up.

The problem is, we both still love each other and it is so hard when we’re heartbroken and lonely not to end up getting back together. We’ve tried will power and we keep going through the same cycle over and over again! It’s worse than quitting smoking! But we know it isn’t the right thing for either of us.

How do you make a break up stick? How do you manage to get through heartbreak when you know that getting back together is just a phone call away? I really want to get on with my life and I know the longer we stay together the more harm we’re doing to each other. Sincerely, Desperate

Anna says: The answer to your question is both immensely easy and the hardest thing in the world: You need to quit this girl cold turkey. But before you start panicking, realize that this isn’t a forever kind of deal. Eventually, you will be able to be friends with your on-again, off-again lady, but not before you get her out of your system. So keep that in mind. It should help you deal with some of the immediate pangs of longing.

Essentially what you’re struggling with is an issue of willpower, which is — good news! — a mental muscle that science claims we can learn to control. It’s curious how not doing something is sometimes the most challenging task we face in our lives, isn’t it? You brought up smoking as an analogy, and that’s actually a very poignant one. Love produces a chemical reaction in our bodies, just like nicotine. And drugs and booze and gambling and yes, sometimes shopping too. Our brains become dependent on these chemicals and once we take those away, our brains are like, nuh uh. And we end up reaching for the Miller High Life, or, in your case, the gal you so desperately don’t want to be entangled with anymore.

You’re both somewhat at fault here, but it’s entirely understandable. In fact, I give you mad props for your honesty and self-determination in admitting that you’re not right for each other. That is a huge first step and it requires ovaries of steel. Lesbians have to break up at least eleven times before it’s really over. It’s in the By-Laws of Sapphic Socialization, Chapter 17, line 32. But beating yourself up over your current failed attempts will get you nowhere. What will is will power! How do we cultivate it? Let’s explore this in a totally fun, platonic, email relationship kind of way shall we?

First of all, and this is terrible news for dieters, but researchers have found that boosting your glucose (aka sugar) levels helps you to maintain willpower. From the New York Times:

Researchers also found that restoring glucose levels appears to replenish self-control. Study subjects who drank sugar-sweetened lemonade, which raises glucose levels quickly, performed better on self-control tests than those who drank artificially-sweetened beverages, which have no effect on glucose.

The findings make sense because it’s long been known that glucose fuels many brain functions. Having a bite to eat appears to help boost a person’s willpower, and may explain why smokers trying to quit or students trying to focus on studying often turn to food to sustain themselves.

If you find yourself in a situation where you are so itching to text your ex about that hilarious inside joke you have involving Ronald McDonald and rabbis, eat a cookie, take a 10-minute breather, and see if it doesn’t help your resolve to leave Ronald in the past where he belongs, or buried in your subconscious because no one gets that joke anyway. Actually, in a similar vein, laughter and positive thoughts are also said to boost self-control. So watch a clip from Bridesmaids while eating that cookie and tell yourself what an awesome snowflake you are! I’m happy to tell you that as well, whenever you want. Just look up this column and bam, snowflake city! Also, try not to let yourself get super hungry or stressed or tired if you can help it. It’s when our energy is depleted that we tend to start wallowing and making bad decisions. Taking care of yourself is the easiest way to start building up your resolve.

Another tactic you can try is to break things down into smaller, more manageable steps. For instance, can you go 30 days without contacting your ex? Sixty? Tell your ex that you’re both not allowed to talk to each other for some small amount of time, and when you make it, you can reward yourself with something like a text or a brief phone call (but make it brief! We don’t want you falling off the wagon).

What also helps is to have a support network that is rooting for you to succeed, and/or will chastise you if you fail. For me, I need to feel the pressure of alienation and disappointment from my friends and loved ones in order to actually get things done. Just ask my yoga teacher, who leaves Facebook comments about how I’m a “bad lady” whenever I skip class. Maybe that’s not your style per se, but it does help to have people holding you accountable. (As an added tip within a tip, physical exercise is fantastic for your mental and emotional health. It gives you an immediate sense of accomplishment, gives you all kinds of happy brain chemical boosts, and makes you hotter. What’s not to love?)

If you want to go all out, you can join one of those motivation sites like StickK that will donate money to a cause you hate, like an anti-gay organization, if you don’t succeed in whatever task you set forth. It’s proven very effective amongst my circle of friends, who would literally rather die than donate to Rick Santorum’s campaign.

Another strategy is to think long-term. I know I’m always telling y’all to live in the moment and shiznit, but sometimes it really is better to futurize. For instance, if you’re staring at a jar of Nutella, trying not to dive into it like a deranged snorkler, it’s helpful to think about how great you’ll feel several months from now when you’re looking all hot in that bikini you just bought for summer. Similarly, think about how awesome it’ll be when you and your ex have both moved on from this relationship, and can chat freely with your new girlfriends about days gone by over some Clamato and biscuits. Or, you know, something less disgusting. You know what I mean.

In Alcoholics Anonymous, they have sponsors — someone they can call on when they’re feeling tempted to drink. Get yourself an ex sponsor and call that person when you feel like you might slip up. It could be a friend or a relative, whoever you feel like is in your corner. You might also have to do something for this person in return, depending on how often you’re calling them, but hey, what are friends for? Offer to cat sit for them or read their historical fiction screenplay or something. The point is, if you feel tempted to get back with your ex, you’ll have an acceptable outlet to talk some sense into you or allow you to vent.

Lastly, if you screw up, that’s OK! Get back on the wagon. Try again. Don’t resign yourself to settling for someone who makes you unhappy just because you have a slip up or two. We all mess up. What matters is we keep trying to live the best lives we can with the messes we’ve got. I know you can do this. But you have to believe it in order for it to truly sink in. OK? OK!

What say you, AfterEllen gals? How do you cultivate willpower in the face of adversity?

Hailing from the rough-and-tumble deserts of southern Arizona, where one doesn’t have to bother with such trivialities as “coats” or “daylight savings time,” Anna Pulley is a freelance writer living in San Francisco. Find her at and on Twitter @annapulley. Send her your Hook Up questions at

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