Dear Dr. NerdLove,
I’ve been a long-time reader of your articles, and after so many years, I now find myself in need of your advice. It’s a bit of a long story. For context, I am a single 27-year-old man, and the woman in question is my ex, and is about to turn 26. We both work in the same profession. I’ll start with the background first.
In the fall of 2018, my ex and I first met when we were working together at a new internship. We clicked instantly, and the attraction was mutual. We began dating almost immediately. I have no doubt about the sincerity and genuineness of the relationship at the time; I have never been happier, and she loved me and appreciated who I was and what I could provide. Having said that, I need to say that at the time, she was married — to a man who I later found out was emotionally abusing her, before and during our own relationship.
Unfortunately for me, this was also my first ever relationship, which means I made some mistakes of my own, and those mistakes — combined with her renewed desire to try to make her marriage work — resulted in her ending our relationship in December of 2018. I was absolutely heartbroken.
This was not just some work affair or side thing for me — she was my girlfriend, and I was devastated. So much so that I ended up making the mistake of playing the “We can still be friends” card on the table, and ended up locking myself into that emotional prison for a further four months, until in April of 2019, she finally made me promise not to contact her anymore, because she was committed her decision and wanted to focus on that relationship. And I agreed, because I wanted her to be happy, and because I could understand where she was coming from.
And so it was for nearly eleven months. As I’m sure you know, going no contact cold turkey from a person you WANT to be with is one of the most horrible experiences a person could have. In my case, I developed depression, felt lonely and miserable, and I even sought help in a support group for failed relationships to find solace. Not one day went by that I didn’t think about her, and — surprise surprise — I was, and am, still in love with her. After so long without hearing from her, I eventually wrote an acceptance letter to her which I did not send, and I’m quoting myself here, “because I had to let her go.” That’s where I was.
Imagine my shock, then, when she did reach out to me! Almost eleven months later! It felt like a miracle. She wasn’t sure if I wanted to hear from her (she couldn’t have been more wrong), but she said that she was finally leaving him for good, due to the continued emotional abuse, and that she thought of me. We have been texting daily since (as of this letter, almost a week), and have even had a short phone call. I haven’t been this happy in a long time. I missed having my friend in my life. But I also miss having her as my girlfriend. And that, finally, is where my question begins.
Dr. NerdLove: I am still in love with my ex, who is now formally separating from her husband. I want her and I to try again. I want us back together. Should I tell her? How should I tell her? When? And is there any hope for us, in such a complex situation?
I have been happy talking to her as normal, and discussing our work and so forth, but when she left, I told her that I loved her and would always welcome her back; surely she’s at least considered the possibility of trying again, otherwise, why reach out to me at all? I can tell she’s a bit different now: she seems a little distant and sad, and a tad overworked, perhaps as a coping mechanism. I want to support her, but I’m not sure how.
To make matters even more complicated, right now, my ex is still located near me, but when she graduates from school, she will be moving back home to Texas, and then after that, when she acquires her license, she will be moving one state over from me (I’m in Virginia) to begin her dream job. Which means even assuming that she wants to actually rekindle our relationship– which is still a huge unknown and may not even be a possibility — it’s going to be forced to take on a long-distance component very soon. But I can deal with that. After having once gone fourteen months without seeing her, there’s very little now I wouldn’t do to be able to be with her.
Doctor, is there any hope for us? And is there anything I can do to let her know that I don’t care about the past, but that I do want to be there for her in her future? I love her so much, but I feel like a compass that doesn’t know where true north is anymore.
Thank you for reading, I know it was long, but if this is or can be a second chance, I want to do it right this time, and any advice or insight is appreciated 🙂
So… this was a bad scene, SW. Dating someone who was married, not in an open relationship and whose marriage was apparently an abusive shitshow is usually not a recipe for happily ever after, especially since it was your first relationship. While there are couples who start out that way, it’s an uphill climb at best, and this being your first serious relationship turns that particular learning curve into more of a learning precipice. Doubly so with the fact you were having a really hard time sticking the landing with the “let’s just be friends” part afterwards. Trying to be friends after a relationship almost always requires time away, if only so that you can actually start to get over the break-up and move on.
You… didn’t do that. I mean, things were bad enough that she basically had to initiate the Nuclear Option on you, because you couldn’t let things go. And it doesn’t sound like you did any better afterwards; it sounds like you were soaking in a lot of misery and angst about her and weren’t really able to move forward. In fact, it sounds a lot like you were (and are) still neck deep in it when she reached out to you.
That doesn’t exactly fill me with confidence about your state of mind regarding all of this.
Here’s the thing about getting back together with your ex: the only way it works is if things have actually changed. If the circumstances that broke you up are still in play, if you (or they) haven’t changed or grown past them or resolved those issues, then all you’re doing is setting yourself up for the 12″ dance remix of your first break up. And if I’m being honest with you: it doesn’t sound like that’s the case. To start with, there was the marriage issue. Her marriage wasn’t the problem that you two had… not in the way that you think, anyway. While you were seeing this as an amazing relationship and one that could last the ages, I suspect that… well, you were more of her attempt at ejecting out of the flaming mess that was her marriage. One of the reasons people will cheat is because they’re slamming their hand down on the “relationship self-destruct” button. In cases where a partner is being abused or mistreated, finding a piece on the side is often a way people will try to motivate themselves to get out; it’s both incentive to leave and a reminder that you have options. While I don’t doubt that she genuinely cares for you, I strongly suspect that you and she had very different ideas about what this relationship was — even if she wasn’t aware of what her idea of it was, yet.
I also suspect that’s part of why she’s reaching out to you after all this time; you’re a connection to a normal life without her now ex, a reminder that happier times can and do exist. What I don’t think she’s looking for is to rekindle your relationship.
And honestly, that’s a good thing, for the both of you. Like I said: trying to make a post-break-up relationship work involves time and distance so that you can heal and move on. You haven’t done that. Hell, you were barely entering the acceptance stage when she called you out of the blue. Now that she’s back, all those hopes and dreams that you’d been clinging to, the ones that were starting to burn down to embers have flared back up again. But while you’re a little bit older, and a little more aware of the mistakes that you’ve made, I’m not entirely sure that you’ve actually internalized those lessons. You can’t really do that while you’re still holding out hope that you’re going to be able to pick things back up and they’ll be like they were before.
But all that is before we tack on the complication of her future and yours. She’s already got plans to up stakes and head back to Texas once she’s gotten her degree and her future is going to be keeping her at a distance from you. While, again, relationships can and have survived long-distance — even intercontinental distances — that’s still playing at a level that, frankly, I don’t think you’re ready for.
I think what you need, more than anything else, is to let this one go so that you can heal. I get that you want your friend back in your life, but in the state that you’re in, I don’t think you’re going to be able to separate “having her as a friend” and “holding onto the hope of getting her back”. Which means that you’re not even going to have a replay of your first break-up… you’re going to have a replay of the second time, when she told you that she couldn’t be in contact with you anymore.
I get it. Believe me. I fully empathize with you because I’ve been there, done that — repeatedly — and got my heart stamped on — again, repeatedly. Telling her you want her back is just going to be inviting more misery into your life. The only question is how quickly.
I think your best decision here is to keep your distance. You can be friends, but it’s going to require space because you still aren’t over her. You need to heal, which you can’t do while you’re trying to win her back.
If you two have that connection that makes you good, close friends, then you’ll still be good, close friends when you pick things back up down the line. But if you try to rekindle things instead? I think all that’s going to happen is that you’re going to end up hurting yourself worse and shutting that potential friendship down before it has a chance to be rebuilt.
I’m a long-time reader and I first and foremost I want to thank you for sharing so much helpful advice in a healthy and progressive way – it has helped me a lot.
I hadn’t been in a relationship in my life until I turned 25 when I met – let’s call her M. We were co-workers and also studying in the same field so we had a lot of things to talk about, pretty similar views on many issues and, additionally, had been through some of the same painful experiences in life with bullying and loneliness. Needless to say, we quickly became very close friends in a way I hadn’t been with someone in quite a while – and initially, that was all there was to it since she had a boyfriend and I really didn’t want to get mixed up in something like that.
Well, sometimes life happens and when you spend a lot of time working and studying and just generally going through a lot of things together, and when so many other things align as well, it’s hard not to fall in love. And boy were we starstruck. Despite the fact that she was in a long-term relationship at the time we quickly spiraled into something that didn’t really resemble an affair, but was more akin to a relationship as well, only that it had to be hidden. I had never been this intensely in love in my life. Being apart from her almost physically hurt – and this is probably where the problems started.
The following months were an intense ride of ups and downs with us splitting up several times only to quickly get back together a few days later, and her eventually promising me to leave her boyfriend for us to be together but then never really committing to it because the “circumstances weren’t right that day” and other excuses. When things were good, they were intensely good, but when they were bad – it hurt a lot. There were many times when she’d even text her boyfriend while we were traveling together. As someone with low self-esteem and being terribly afraid to lose her, I never really enforced my boundaries and basically just swallowed my pride, a decision I now deeply regret because of the pain it caused me and her boyfriend who never found it – how she managed to hide the whole thing is beyond me. At the same time, it is important to point out just how good the “highs” were, how romantic things were, how good the sex was and how much I learned about myself through her.
Skip forward a few months, we are still illegitimate, and she leaves for a semester abroad. I even visited her a few times – once with a friend who I insisted to fill in about us because I was close to snapping and couldn’t stand hiding the truth anymore. This is where things started to really go downhill: After that she grew both very depressed and distanced herself from me. We would have a lot of pointless arguments about ridiculous things, and I eventually grew resentful because she never split up from her boyfriend. We spoke less and less, and then at some point, there was a call where she told me how she had gotten closer again with him and that she didn’t feel like she missed me anymore. At that moment I snapped and ended the whole thing and just blocked her everywhere. The last months had been very painful and at this point, it felt like the realization of something that had been true for quite a while already.
Once she came back, however, she basically begged for us to meet once where she confessed to me that she lied to me about wanting to end things because she “wanted things to be easier for me”, which felt so intensely manipulative. I was truly confounded by this and we didn’t speak again after this. Soon it was my turn to leave the country to study abroad and I wanted to work on my healing process. It felt great, I met new friends, and I went on a few dates – only that I would always end up disappointed or even disgusted at myself, and every time there was this tiny thought creeping up on me how things had been better with M and how no one would ever be able to truly compare to what I had felt for her. It sometimes felt like I was just forcing myself to accept a sort of substitute for something profound that I had lost. Needless to say, no one of these dates went any further than a one night stand.
After coming back from my semester abroad, with many friends having left town by now, I fell into a minor depression and struggled to rebuild my life at home. It was at this time that I ran into M again – and realized just how much I still felt for her. Contrary to me, however, she seemed to have fully rebuilt her life. A few weeks later we even kissed, only for her to tell me afterward how things didn’t feel the same and it had been a mistake. I was devastated, and humiliated by my own stupidity and lack of pride.
Ever since then I’ve been working on improving the other aspects of my life: Being more social, actively meeting new people and going on dates, and overall it is working as long as I don‘t run into M. But every time I‘m on a date I start comparing how well we match to how things felt with her, and every time I run into her I am just feeling depressed afterward. I’ve just been on a date with someone who I certainly have a minor crush on, with her being smart, beautiful, hard-working and very cute, but at the same time, it always felt like I never could really hold a relaxing conversation with her.
I just don’t know where to go from here. I think I suffer from a bad case of Oneitis, but it’s just so hard to not compare potential partners to the immensely intense way I felt for M back then. How do I start healing? Or, even better: How do I find someone who will make me feel the same or even more than her? Where do I go from here?
– Feeling Broken and Alone
There’s a lot here, FBA, but the short version is that the reason why you’re still hung up on your ex is because you’re addicted to her… in a way. The clue is in something that you said in your letter:
The following months were an intense ride of ups and downs with us splitting up several times only to quickly get back together a few days later, and her eventually promising me to leave her boyfriend for us to be together but then never really committing to it because the “circumstances weren’t right that day” and other excuses. When things were good, they were intensely good, but when they were bad – it hurt a lot.
What you’re describing is what’s known as intermittent reinforcement. You get those moments of good feelings interspersed with a whole lot of bad experiences. There’s just enough good — and the highs from the good are strong enough — that you crave them, especially when they come increasingly rarely or paired with greater levels of disappointment. The patterns of splitting up only to get back together later, promises that never actually get fulfilled, doing things “because she wanted them to be easier for you”… these all end up serving to create this sense of uncertainty that you can never fully resolve. As a result, you put more and more effort in to get those highs — the great sex, the sense of validation — to try to offset the constant anxiety and fear of losing her. It puts you in a position where you start accepting patently unacceptable behavior because you’re hoping for another of those moments of relief.
It’s shockingly easy to fall into this pattern and even to convince yourself that it’s fine. When you’re young and/or relatively inexperienced, the idea of “incredible highs and equally incredible lows” can seem a little romantic, even exciting because LOOK AT HOW GREAT THOSE HIGHS are. But those lows hit you much harder and do more to you than those highs can alleviate. It’s ultimately a losing equation, one that leaves you worse off than when you started. At the same time, though, it can be incredibly addictive. It’s the same sort of psychology that casinos use to keep you throwing money at slot machines and card tables.
Now this doesn’t mean that she was doing this intentionally… but at a certain level, I think she was aware that she was keeping you on a string. Much as with Still Waiting, I think you had a very different idea of what your relationship was from her. While you were seeing this as a Love To Last The Ages, I think that she was seeing you as an easy distraction from her boyfriend. And past a certain point… well, she decided that maintaining things with you wasn’t worth the price. Especially since you apparently were far more invested in things than apparently she was.
All of this is to say: it’s entirely understandable why you feel the way you do. And understanding that is going to be key to moving forward. Intellectually, you understand that this was a bad relationship. Emotionally, on the other hand… well, you’re still hung up on her because of what she represents. Here was this woman who you felt you had this incredible connection with, who was with you despite having a boyfriend and all the validation that came with it. By the same token, the part of you that got so hung up on her recognizes that it was a bad scene. So you’re stuck in this place where she represents the pinnacle of what could be — the validation, the sex, the sense of being The Man because you had her — and your being foolish enough to let her treat you like this.
So there’re two things that I think you need to do. The first is simply to let go of her and what she represents. The version you’re comparing every date to is your fantasy of her, not the reality, the version that you remember with all the bad parts cut out. Taking each new potential date as an individual, seeing them for themselves instead of in comparison to your ex is an important part of moving forward. The more you focus strictly on them as themselves, the less you’ll be comparing them to the imaginary version of your ex.
The second is to forgive yourself. You were, as many are, someone who loved not too wisely but too well. You wanted to believe in something that ultimately couldn’t happen. There’s nothing wrong with hoping for a dream to come true. You don’t deserve blame for caring for someone who didn’t care for you the way you deserve. You need to forgive yourself for all of this, for letting her get under your skin like that and for not standing up for yourself when you needed to.
When you do that, you put yourself in a position to learn and to grow. Your next relationship will be all the better — and all the stronger — for it.