When you’re kicking off a new relationship, a variety of love-life saboteurs can rear their ugly heads. While many of these obstacles are surmountable—a couch potato-ish guy can happily get on your go-go-go level, for example—one in particular can turn into a deal breaker faster than you can say, “Adios, dude.” If your new romantic interest isn’t over his ex, the relationship could end in a way that’s decidedly not happily ever after.
“When you fall in love, you go through a biological process that welds you to another person,” says Lisa Marie Bobby, Ph.D., marriage and family therapist, a lead expert at Exaholics.com, and author of Exaholics: Breaking Your Addiction to an Ex-Love. “The same biological and neurological systems that are implicated in love are also implicated in things like heroin and cocaine addiction.” Huh. No wonder it can be so hard to kick the ex habit.
If you’re dating someone who’s three to six months out of a significant relationship, Bobby has some words of caution. “Unless he explicitly says he’s over his ex and is pleased to be out of the relationship, assume he still has some attachment,” she says.
It obviously varies from person to person, but in that timeframe after a big breakup, people are usually still on the emotional mend. That’s not to say it’s impossible for you two to make it. But to figure out whether you should stick it out or cut your losses, ask yourself the following questions.
1. How Does He Talk About His Ex?
If he can’t get her name out without his eyes getting a little misty, it’s clear you have a problem on your hands. But there are also more subtle conversational clues that can hint as to how healed his heart is. “If you hear idealization or fondness when he talks about her, that can be an important indicator that there’s still an emotional attachment,” says Bobby.
Another tell is if he often blames himself for the breakup in a way that seems like he’d change the past if he could. “If he alludes to that, he may feel like if he had just been better, they could have continued being together,” says Bobby.
That level of wistfulness or what-if thinking can stand in the way of a budding relationship, even if you two would normally be Disney-movie perfect together. “When people are addicted to an ex, they still feel like their ex is their person,” says Bobby. “Even if they’re out in the world talking to other people or going on dates, they’re not available emotionally.” The thing is that having residual feelings for an ex is completely normal, so how do you know if he’s emotionally available or not?
One good sign is if he can talk about his ex in a pretty objective way without assigning blame, getting worked up, or sounding regretful. While there’s always a chance he could be putting on a show, it’s also possible he’s well-adjusted and ready for something serious. He should also be showcasing genuine interest in you, making it clear that he wants to spend time with you and be sensitive to your feelings and needs, says Bobby.
2. Is Everything Moving Too Quickly?
It’s easy to get caught up in a whirlwind romance. Going from singledom to hanging out with someone 24/7 can be pretty thrilling, especially if you throw in things like last-minute getaways and meeting each other’s friends. Unfortunately, it’s an unfair truth of the universe that, when relationships burn so bright in the beginning, they can often fizzle out faster than you’d like.
That’s especially true if he’s fresh out of a relationship. “People who are feeling more vulnerable do tend to rush in very quickly,” says Bobby. “If he’s trying to do that with you, he may still have an attachment to another person and be attempting to recreate that experience.” That’s not exactly ideal—neither is him eventually having a lightbulb moment that he’s not over his ex, which is sometimes what happens in this scenario.
3. Was He the Dumper or the Dumpee?
Even if he dumped his ex recently, he could be further along in the recovery process than another guy who got dumped by his ex a while ago. “It’s possible to process grief and make peace with a relationship ending before it actually ends, and many times that happens for the person who’s breaking up with the other,” says Bobby.
“In that context, it’s much easier for someone to truly connect with a new person.” If you don’t already know details about what went down with his ex, ask. Talking about how they ended will probably give you some insight about whether you two are beginning in a good place.
4. Can You Give Him Space?
If you know for a fact he’s not over his ex but you still think you two could have something real, you have one main course of action that will help things to eventually work out: “Give him time and space,” says Bobby. “The biggest mistake you can make is trying to force it.” As hard as it may be, focus on filling your life in ways beyond him.
See other people if you’re not exclusive, spend time with your friends, work on your runninghabit, and generally don’t hang your romantic hopes on him. You can keep him in your life, but don’t get hooked on someone who’s emotionally unavailable, says Bobby. If he eventually makes some headway and is ready to date seriously, chances are he’ll let you know.