Dear Dr. NerdLove,
A few years ago I was in a relationship with a woman. We originally met through Tinder, but we did actually develop feelings for each other. Unfortunately, the timing of the relationship did not work out. We lived far apart from each other and with our busy schedules (she was an undergraduate, I was a medical student at a different university) we only got to see each other 2 or 3 times a month on weekends. After 6 months or so, I broke off the relationship and it was a painful experience. I regret how things ended, I regret the way I acted at times, and I still sometimes wish things could have worked out differently.
Jump to today, I have grown a lot as a person. I’ve learned a lot about myself as a result of mental health counseling and gained experience in romantic relationships. Now, I have learned that this woman will be moving to attend a graduate program at my university. I am debating whether or not I should try to reach out to her. I am concerned that she still harbors negative emotions towards me, but I think it may be worth the risk of reaching out through social media and gauging her interest in reconnecting. What do you think I should do? Would it be disrespectful to show up again after all this time trying to make amends?
Thanks in advance,
Before we get to your question, TTH, I’m going to go off on a bit of a digression. This is going to sound completely unrelated, but stick with me for a second, I swear I’m going to tie it all back in.
Mass Effect has long been one of my favorite gaming experiences; the trilogy, with it’s epic storyline and compelling characters has resonated with me in a way most games don’t. Recently, I’ve been plowing my way through the Legendary Edition, playing the entire trilogy in one go. I’m about 1/3rd to 1/2 of the way through Mass Effect 3 at this point and… well, this time around, ME3 is hitting differently. Part of what’s struck me about the third game — where the dreaded Reapers have finally appeared and the entire Milky Way Galaxy is in very real danger of being exterminated — are the reactions of the non-player characters, the civilians you encounter in areas like The Citadel. One of the things that hits a little harder this time around are the folks who are desperately searching for some sense of stability and normalcy. Some are pretending the crisis doesn’t exist, some are clinging to shreds of their old life and many are trying to find solace in relationships. Everyone is looking for a sense of calm in the storm, a little bit of familiar order in the chaos.
Now, back in the real world, one of the things I’ve noticed recently is an uptick in folks who are dealing with complicated feelings about their exes. A lot of them are folks who are hoping to rekindle things, or at least reconnect with them. This isn’t entirely unsurprising, in my experience. The last year and change — with the presidential election and attendant drama, the Jan 6th insurrection and, y’know, the global pandemic — has been a time of chaos and upheaval. In times when it feels like everything is going off the rails, it’s human nature to want the familiar and known. Nostalgia is a powerful narcotic and it’s very easy to let the golden glow of the early days overwhelm your memories of the bad times. An ex, even in a relationship that ended badly or needed to end is a known quantity. They represent a different time when things felt a little less chaotic being more in control.
Just as importantly, as we’ve all faced the very real risk of disease and death and social upheaval, there’s an understandable impulse to look at your life and your regrets and want to try to make changes. Sometimes that means looking back and wanting a second chance when you feel like you’ve made a mistake. Other times, you want to try to at least make amends for things you feel like you did wrong.
Which brings us back to your question, TTH.
If you’re a regular reader of the column — or you check the archives — you know that whenever someone asks me about getting back with their ex, I have questions for them that they need to answer, first.
In case you missed it from last week, here’re the questions again:
Question #1: Why did you break up in the first place?
Question #2: Has the reason why you broke up changed?
Question #3: Why Now?
Question #4: Do you miss THEM, or do you miss what they represent?
Question #5: Are they right for you, NOW?
In your case TTH, questions #3 and #4 are the most relevant. Why now, and what, exactly, are you hoping to get out of this?
These aren’t idle questions to ask. Part of why it’s important to really dig into yourself and your motivations is because you want to avoid unnecessary pain and heartbreak, on your side and on your ex’s. One thing I’ve seen all too often are people who don’t want to get back with their ex… not really. It’s less about trying to rekindle an old flame or repair a broken relationship and more about the need of the moment. In that moment they want their ex back, and it feels real and immediate… but that moment passes. Sometimes that desire flares up because they saw that their ex has moved on. Other times, it’s because they’re tired of being alone or frustrated with dating and want to go back to a time when they didn’t have to think about it. And still other times, it’s about their feelings — unfinished business, regrets or even a desire to relitigate the break up.
The problem is that, when they succumb to the moment and try to get back with their exes, it falls apart all over again. Either their ex doesn’t want them back and they’ve hurt themselves over a momentary impulse, or they do get back with their ex successfully… and realize that they’re no longer actually interested, and end up hurting someone who went into this in good faith.
Getting back to your letter: you say that you’ve gone through counseling and you understand yourself better. That’s excellent! Similarly, you’ve got more relationship experience under your belt and you’re in a better place now than you were when you and your ex broke up. Again: this is great, and you should be proud of all of that.
But with all of that new self-knowledge and understanding, and the understandable regret for how you ended things, why are you thinking of reaching out now? Sure, your ex attending a graduate program at your university presents an opportunity; she’s going to be in general proximity to you and back in your life in some ways. However, if you feel bad about how you ended things and want to make amends, why have you not reached out before? I presume that you haven’t had these revelations within the last couple of days. Similarly, if you know that she’s been accepted to a graduate program at your university, that you’re in contact with her in some way. You’ve had opportunities to reach out before and say “Hey, I know this is out of the blue, but I wanted to apologize for how I ended our relationship.”
So why is it only now, now that she’ll be back in your city that you’re feeling the need to reach out? Is it honestly only to make amends? Or is reaching out to make amends the convenient way to try to rekindle things? Are you trying to make things right because you feel bad about how you treated her, or are you hoping that this is your opportunity for a second chance?
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not casting aspersions or doubting your sincerity and suggesting that you’re being manipulative. I’m sincerely asking you these things so that you ask yourself these questions. That’s going to make a big difference in how to approach things — and whether it’s a good idea to make the attempt in the first place.
There’re a lot of factors in play here, up to and including how you ended things and — importantly — how she felt and currently feels about your break up and you. If the break up was ugly and scarring, she may not want to hear from you, even if it’s because you’re trying to apologize and make amends. Part of making amends, after all, is to recognize when reaching out would just cause further harm or pain. And if she’s still hurt by the break-up, reaching out to make amends as an opportunity to try to get back together could be especially painful.
Now all that having been said: I don’t think that messaging her out of the blue is going to be the best course, regardless. If you two are still in regular contact, it might be different, but it sounds like you haven’t spoken to her since the break up. Assuming that you can answer the questions and everything is a genuine desire to make amends and see where you two stand now… it would still be better to do this in person. As someone who’s patched things up with exes and came out the other side with renewed friendships, this is the sort of thing that’s best done face to face, if at all possible. And since you and she are attending the same university, the possibilities are there.
However, I would caution you against seeking her out to try to make this happen. What I would suggest instead is that you wait until your paths cross organically. This may not happen; universities can be pretty big places and if you’re in a graduate program, you’re usually sequestered in your own world. But if it does and you happen to bump into each other, you’ll be in a better place to gauge how she feels about seeing you. Is she cool with you, or is it uncomfortable and stilted? Is she happy to see you, or is it clear that she’s just being polite until she can leave? If — and it’s a mighty big if — it seems like she’s cool and you’re cool, you can propose meeting up some time. Or you can wait and see if she reaches out first and tries to reconnect.
If and when she says yes, then you have a better opportunity to say “I want to apologize for how I ended things, way back when. I handled everything badly and I know it hurt you, and I’m sorry.” After that — not before, after — you can maybe, possibly see if you and she can try again.
And keep in mind: she may be willing to see you and talk about things, but she may still not accept your apology and that’s fine. She isn’t required to, and you have to be willing to accept that. That doesn’t mean “try harder to earn her forgiveness” or “find some way to get her to see you’re sincere”. It means that you accept her feelings on the matter and leave her alone. If she changes her mind and wants to see you again… well, the ball’s in her court. She knows where and how to find you.
The most important thing however, is to take things — however they go — at her pace. She may need time to feel comfortable with meeting up with you, or to want to talk about how things ended. She may well also require time before she’s ready to talk about things going forward, whether platonic or otherwise. But if you honestly want to make things right, then that’s going to be part of the process.
It ain’t easy, and it certainly isn’t guaranteed. But those are the chances you take. You have to decide if it’s worth it.
Hello Dr. NerdLove,
Here’s the thing about social skills, Wallflower: they’re skills. They’re not innate; they’re something that you can improve with deliberate practice. But you have to actually practice them. I know a lot of folks who can tell you all about how much studying they do, how much research they’ve accomplished, how many books they’ve read or even courses and seminars they’ve attended… but they’re still stuck. And the reason for that is because all the studying and theory in the world isn’t a substitute for actual boots-on-the-ground experience. You can take all the notes you want on how folks flirt on TV or in movies — God knows I reference plenty of them as examples — but none of that matters if you don’t put them to work.
That’s why you can’t study or theorize your way to confidence. Confidence is built through experience. Confidence isn’t about succeeding or knowing you can’t fail, it’s knowing that doing something won’t destroy you. Fear + survival = confidence, and that only comes from real-world application.
Now that being said, this doesn’t mean that you need to go out and start hitting on folks for practice. The great thing about social skills is that you can practice them in low-stakes, low-investment environments. At 20, you’re in a good position to actually practice being social. If you’re going to college or university, there’re an almost infinite number of opportunities for you to go to events or gatherings and just work on talking to people. Not to hit on them or flirt or find a partner, but to just talk, without an agenda. If you go with the mindset that you’re just practicing, that you’re only out to meet people and enjoy yourself, then it’s much easier. By not being attached to a particular outcome, you’re better able to relax and just be in the moment, instead of weighing every word that comes out of your mouth or the nuance of every gesture or intonation from other folks. All you’re doing is talking.
The more practice you get in just talking with people and joking with people, especially when it doesn’t “count”, the better you’ll do when you’re in a place where you do want to flirt and joke and maybe see if someone wants to grab a coffee somewhere. The same skills you apply to joke and make friends are the same skills that ultimately help you find a significant other.
Even if you’re not going to college, you have opportunities to practice your social skills. A public-facing job — whether its in sales, customer service, even service industry jobs — means that you’ll have to talk to many, many people from all walks of life. It’s very hard to not become more socially fluent and at ease in those cases. You’re literally required to talk to people and put in the proverbial 10,000 hours of practice.
However, one thing you should definitely stop doing, even if you do nothing else, is talking yourself down. I get the impulse to insult yourself or make fun of yourself before anyone else can; God knows I’ve done it enough in my time. However, constantly insulting yourself, saying that you’re unattractive or that you’re a raccoon or what-have-you affects your self-image. Even if you’re only doing it jokingly, when you say and think things often enough, you train your brain to accept them as true. Self-depricating humor quickly goes from being jokey-jokes to how you actually feel about yourself and how you expect others to treat you. Learning to love yourself, even hype yourself up is important, and it goes a long, long way towards helping you build up your confidence and self-esteem.