First off, thanks so much for what you provide here. I know it’s centered around dating and relationship advice, but as far as I can tell, it’s just as much about being an actual decent person. I hope you appreciate your work as much as I do.
I suppose the best way to start is to just dive in, so here goes.
My ex recently got engaged. On one level I’m happy for her, or at least I want to be. She’s by all accounts an improbably lovely person and even after splitting, I’d like to know she’s fulfilled, or at the least happy.
Our breakup, though in no way mutual, was amicable. We were a good couple, not of the fantastical “the world has never seen a love like this before” bullshit variety, but a respectful, mature and compatible one. After nearly 4 years together, I suppose we should be. So needless to say, I was pretty well blindsided when one day she said “I can’t do this anymore.” And shortly afterwards, I found out she moved in with her now fiance. It was pretty devastating.
There have been a lot of unresolved issues for me personally since then. There was never any closure, which is fine in the sense that she didn’t owe me anything, that maybe there was nothing to close off. She said her piece, I respected her choice, and she got in her car and drove off. End scene.
So, I went through the ceremonial mental gymnastics post break to fill in the blanks myself for questions such as:
What was wrong with me?
How did I fuck this up?
Why wasn’t I worth an effort (Seriously, there was no moment where she said there was something she needed or wanted from me, all things seemed fine until she ended it and tipped out)
What if I had fought more for the relationship then?
What if I never meet someone like her again?
What if…and on and on it goes until that bastard of a mental roommate, that inner critic, speaks up and says “Forget it you piece of shit, just keep swiping right on Bumble until you’ve grown comfortable enough with the understanding that you’re gonna die alone”
Hey, thanks mental dialoguing. Knew I could count on you.
Since, I’ve tried really hard to grow from it. The love and attention I was putting into her, I started putting into relationships I have, like my parents and siblings. Tried new things, whether it’s scuba diving or meditating or dancing (thanks for that tip, ballroom is great). Began getting involved in my community and volunteering again.
I feel that I’ve grown emotionally and understand that in retrospect, despite seemingly checking a lot of boxes, I didn’t put in the work to become more emotionally vulnerable and intimate.
But then this news comes up, and all these questions come flooding back as well as the hurt. I’m wondering if this is the way it’ll be until I meet someone else. Or am I not emotionally fit to be available now? Despite being cool with where I am and who I am, there’s still a void. How long does that last?
Appreciate your time and thanks again for the great work you do,
Picking At The Scab
One of the unexpected consequences of our current circumstances is just how much more intense everything feels. We’re all under a great deal of constant pressure — even if we aren’t consciously aware of it in the moment — and that means that means that a lot of our feelings and emotions are much bigger and louder than we’re used to. Even things that might normally not bother us feel immense and hit us in ways that we don’t expect. So it’s not surprising that you’re dealing with some strong and complicated feelings right now. These are normal feelings to have, even under normal circumstances… but these are decidedly not normal.
But that doesn’t mean that you won’t get through this. It’s a matter of understanding why you’re feeling the way that you’re feeling… but also understanding that what you feel isn’t necessarily accurate. Not that your feelings aren’t valid, but that they’re leading you to conclusions that aren’t correct.
Let’s start with this: you aren’t going to get closure from your ex. Please notice very carefully how I phrased that; you’re not going to get closure from her, because closure isn’t something she can give you. The closure you want is something that you’ll have to give to yourself; you have to decide for yourself how things went and why. This can admittedly be tricky; getting to acceptance when you feel like you’ve been rejected or found wanting is difficult. It’s very easy to feel like this was all your fault, especially in your case. When your ex leaves you and seems to leap straight into another relationship, it feels like it couldn’t be anything but a measure of your worth as a man and a partner.
But that’s not always the case.
One of the things that we often don’t think about when it comes to relationships is that relationships aren’t just two people; they’re an entity in and of themselves. People grow and change over time, and so do relationships. The problem is that sometimes relationships grow in directions that aren’t compatible with the people who make up that relationship. This isn’t inherently a bad thing, nor does it mean that someone did anything wrong. Not every relationship is meant to last until death do us part; some relationships are only for a specific time and place, and that’s fine. Short and medium relationships are as valid as long-term ones. They’re just as real, enriching and valuable, even if they don’t end when one or both you die in the saddle.
So part of making your peace with your break-up and getting that closure is recognizing and accepting that you two had a good thing together for while it lasted… and then you reached its natural conclusion. While it’s sad when a relationship ends, that doesn’t mean that it was a failure… or that you failed, for that matter. It just means that you reached the end of that particular story.
This is why the question of “what is wrong with me” or “how did I fuck this up” aren’t helpful or even accurate. Many times, the issue is “nothing” and “you didn’t”. What happened is just life; you and your ex grew and changed and those changes took you in opposing directions. That doesn’t mean that you did anything wrong or that she did. You were on the same path for a while and then your paths diverged. Trying to force those paths to converge again would just be an exercise of futility and frustration. You might be able to make it happen, but it would stunt and damage the relationship and make the resulting end even harder and more painful for everyone involved.
Similarly this means that there often wasn’t anything you could do. You could have fought as hard as you could for that relationship… but fighting wouldn’t necessarily change anything. It’s like trying to change someone’s favorite flavors; you can offer as many variations on other flavors as you want, but it’s not going to make a difference. You can’t control your partner or force her to feel or not feel things. Nor, for that matter, can you shape her life or growth like a bonsai tree, or twist yourself into knots trying to be something you’re not. That’s not a fault in you or a flaw; it’s just that you and she were no longer right for one another. There’s no failure, there’s no good guy or bad guy. As a wise man once said: you can commit no mistakes and still lose. That’s not weakness, that’s life.
The closure you want is to accept that this relationship was for that period of time. It was there and it was great. It ended, but it’s all the sweeter for that. Lingering in that moment only keeps you from moving forward and starting the new chapter in your love life.
The other thing to realize is that no, you’re not going to meet anyone like her. Not because you’re doomed to die alone and unloved, but because nobody else could be her. I know — hoo boy do I know — that it feels like what you want is her but without the whole “doesn’t want to date you” parts. But you don’t want her because she isn’t right for you any longer. You’re going to move forward and you’ll meet someone (many someones, even) who are right for you and who are compatible with who you are now, in this time and place. Her love may have been one in a million, but out of all those hundreds of other thousands of potential lives, they’re plenty that’ll be just as nice. If not better.
All this stings because you feel like your break up was your fault and it wasn’t. Her growth and change wasn’t because of you or despite you. It wasn’t something you could’ve stopped or avoided. It just was. So while it hurts and deserves to be mourned, it wasn’t your responsibility.
What do you do now? Well, first, you forgive yourself. You forgive yourself for holding onto this pain, for all the little things you think you should’ve done and for the things you didn’t do. Then you make your peace with the end of your relationship. You accept that this relationship came to it’s natural conclusion, take what you’ve learned about life, love and yourself and apply it to your next relationship. Finally, you accept your feelings. Note them, name them and acknowledge them. This is your sadness that the relationship ended, this is your fear that you might not find someone else, this is your feeling rejected by someone you cared about. Acknowledge that you’re feeling them and let them pass, rather than wallowing or using them to punish yourself for sins you didn’t actually commit.
Then, mentally tell your ex goodbye and wish her all the best. She’s your past, and it’s time for you to look forward. Carrying around this pain and self-recrimination is only going to slow you down and make it harder for you to find your future. While you were dating her, you learned a lot about yourself and about love. It’s time to apply those lessons and move into tomorrow.
You’ve got this, Picking at the Scab. You’ll be ok, I promise.
All will be well.
One thing I hear over and over again from people is that I should be completely happy by myself before I attempt any sort of romantic engagement.
If that’s to be taken seriously, then how is dating not just an interruption of either of our lives? If I’m content with being alone, then how wouldn’t inviting someone into my daily life not just make them feel unnecessary? How wouldn’t my partner just feel like a proverbial tacked-on wheel to an already functional vehicle?
This is an interesting question because I have mixed feelings about the idea of “you should be happy by yourself before you date someone”. Not that I disagree with it — I don’t — but because people toss it out there so frequently without understanding it. It’s kind of like the oft-quoted line from Ru Paul: if you don’t love yourself, how the hell are you gonna love anyone else. People assume that this means that you can’t love someone or date them if, say, you struggle with depression or self-worth. But what it actually means is that you have to understand and trust yourself, be willing to be good to yourself and do what’s right for you if you’re going to love someone. Otherwise you’re setting yourself up for failure. You’ll pick people who aren’t right for you, you won’t have the necessary boundaries to make sure you aren’t taking care of your own needs and you’ll be offloading your own locus of control onto someone else.
So it is with “be happy by yourself”. The reason why people get this wrong is because… well, they’re coming at relationships from the wrong angle. They treat relationships as a “need”, a “I MUST have this in order to be happy” or “I can ONLY be satisfied if I’m dating someone”. That’s a bad look on anyone. The problem with this outlook is that you’re functionally abdicating responsibility for your own emotional health and well-being. When you’re saying that “you need X to be happy”, you’re putting the responsibility for your happiness and satisfaction on someone else; your theoretical partner is now responsible for making you happy and feeling satisfied. That’s not what they signed on for. Folks are struggling to hold onto their own emotional well-being; being the sole person in charge of another person’s happiness is just one responsibility too many.
It’s akin to the idea of the manic pixie dream girl: the idea that this woman’s whole purpose in life is to make her boyfriend a better person. But that’s not a person, that’s a prop.
At the same time, having a great life while you’re single doesn’t mean that adding to it is a disruption. You can be happy and satisfied while being single and still want to date. You can have a great life and date someone without it being a disruption. Having a great life, one that you’re happy with, actually makes you a more desirable partner. It means that you’ve got your shit together. You’re in a good place emotionally, you’ve got a solid social circle, you have interests and passions and live an interesting and fulfilling life. These are all positive qualities, things that we look for in potential partners. It means that they aren’t going to be looking to us to pick up the slack for them. It also means that they’re living a life that we would like to take part in. After all: if you’re having a great time with friends and activities… why wouldn’t someone else look at that and say “hey, I’d love to give that a try. I bet that I would have a great time with them!”
Being “needed” sounds sweet and romantic… right up until you try to live it. That’s when you discover that this isn’t love, it’s control. It’s anxiety.
Your life should be great… and a relationship should be the capstone on it, not the foundation. Otherwise, all you’re doing is giving up control of your life. The loss of that foundation — because relationships can and do end, even when nobody has done anything wrong — destroys your life and happiness.
A relationship is a complement to a life well lived. It’s the wine that ties a great meal together; it increases the quality, but isn’t a prerequisite.