I never considered getting back with either of my ex’s.
Not that they were chomping at the bit to be with me again, either. There was far too much water under the bridge.
Yet saying good-bye to love, or what you defined as love, can be a lot more difficult than you think. Let’s look at some of the most common destructive patterns when you can’t seem to let go.
The drama of the yoyo relationship…
Many people break up and reconcile. Break up and reconcile. Break up and reconcile. These relationships can be quite dramatic, and in fact for some the very chaos of that pattern can be addictive. You can become so accustomed to life being full of traumatic, angry good-byes and reckless, seductive hello’s that a more normal relationship seems boring.
And you’re likely to exhaust the energies of friends and family who watch you do this over and over.
The desperation of love addiction…
Or you can create problems by becoming obsessed with having someone in your life. There’s even a diagnostic category of love addiction, with specific symptoms. One highly acclaimed treatment center says this about the love addict:
Love addicts live in a chaotic world of desperate need and emotional despair. Fearful of being alone or rejected, love addicts endlessly search for that special someone – the person that will make the addict feel whole. Ironically, love addicts oftentimes have had numerous opportunities for the truly intimate experience they think they want. But they are much more strongly attracted to the intense experience of “falling in love” than they are to the peaceful intimacy of healthy relationships. As such, they spend much of their time hunting for “the one.” They base nearly all of their life choices on the desire and search for this perfect relationship – everything from wardrobe choices to endless hours at the gym, to engaging in hobbies and other activities that may or may not interest them, to the ways in which they involve others in conversations and social interactions.
This sounds like its own kind of emotional hell to me — acting on the belief that that perfect relationship will fix your inner fear. Healthy relationships don’t complete your life. They enhance your life.
The bitterness and confusion of not getting emotionally divorced…
Then there’s what I call emotional divorce. Perhaps you’ve heard someone talking about their ex or their divorce, and the intensity of their anger or sadness feels raw and almost ugly. Yet when you ask, “So how long ago did the relationship end?”, the answer startles you. “It was five years ago.” Emotional divorce takes time, energy, and self-reflection. You have to take responsibility for the part of the failure or the problems that was about you. If not, you can remain bitter or despairing.
But many people do have fantasies about getting back together. They talk about what they did wrong and wonder if they’d still be together if they’d only tried harder. That kind of question is hard to face. Yet sometimes couples often don’t want to do the hard work of letting go. So, they continue sleeping together, meeting late at night at Sonic, or spending significant time together…even if they know they’re holding on to a memory of what was and no longer is.
Is it normal grieving or have I made a mistake?
But let’s say you simply miss your ex, whether you were dating or married. How do you know if this is normal grieving or if you’ve made a mistake? Most relationships are a mixture of happy and not-so-happy. And remember, you’re not only grieving your ex, but you’re grieving all the effort you put into the relationship. That can take a reinterpretation of the relationship.
Here are some questions to consider when you’re uncertain.
1) Are you afraid of being alone or simply lonely?
Loneliness, or the fear you’ll not find another partner, can be much harder to handle than anyone expects. If you’ve got kids together, you may miss those moments that you used to share; the type of moments that only the two people who brought these particular children into the world would find funny or tender. So first, you need build skills at handling being on your own, whether it’s single parenting, or enjoying solo Saturday nights. If you do, you’re far more likely to be assured “getting back together” isn’t based on fear.
2) Are you romanticizing or idealizing the relationship that was?
History and familiarity can be very comforting. You used to smile when he sang in the shower. You had a soft spot for the way she curled up next to you. You miss those things. And memory can romanticize “the way we were” and rediscovering passion can excite and seduce. What has changed enough for you to trust that whatever broke you apart would be different now?
Try to be more reality-focused on the positives of your ex and consider the changes they have made; quote those reasons to yourself when you’re considering giving it a go rather than the more romantic memories. “He has a steady job now and seems to have matured.” “She’s much more giving than she used to be.”
But remember that your own changes, your own growth are the only things that you have control over. If you do try again, give the “new” relationship between the two of you time to develop to see if you can build and maintain fresh patterns of communication and behavior. This will give you confidence that this relationship has far more healthy potential.
3) Do you believe you and your ex have the capacity to fully forgive?
Forgiveness is key. Both of you must take responsibility for your end of whatever caused the break-up; this is vital for a relationship to reemerge. You have to talk through those disappointments and hurts, give apologies for the impact of your choices on the other, and not rationalize mistakes. What fresh information are you learning? Can you truly leave the past in the past? (This process can be healing whether it’s for emotional closure or for actual reconciliation.)
But it has to be a two-way discussion, and forgiveness must be something you can both offer if you want to move forward into a healthy new chapter together.
4) How will you handle the reactions of others who supported you during the break-up?
Handling other people’s reactions can be difficult as well. The people that love you witnessed the devastation, heard about the fights, the affair, or the silent treatment. They may have misgivings that they either voice openly or keep to themselves.
This is true especially if either of you have trash-talked the other. You may have done the work to forgive, but others may need more time. You cn talk about how to help others accept and trust this new alliance so that you’ll have their support.
If you do decide to try again, remember you want to build a new relationship, with fresh patterns of communication and different expectations.
You cannot go back. But you can go forward.
Dr. Margaret Rutherford, a clinical psychologist, has practiced for twenty-five years in Fayetteville, Arkansas., Her work can be found at https://DrMargaretRutherford.com, as well as HuffPost, Psych Central, Psychology Today, the Gottman Blog and others. She’s the author of “Marriage Is Not For Chickens”, a perfect gift book on marriage, and hosts a weekly podcast, SelfWork with Dr. Margaret Rutherford. Her new book, Perfectly Hidden Depression, will be published by New Harbinger in 2019.
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