The Atlantic

Editor's Note: Every Wednesday, Lori Gottlieb answers questions from readers about their problems, big and small. Have a question? Email her at dear.therapist@theatlantic.com.

Dear Therapist,

I’m a 40-year-old single woman. Never married, no children, and I’ve been struggling for years to get over my ex. He was my first love and we met when I was in my early 20s. It was a very immature relationship that culminated in me breaking up with him finally (for about the third or fourth time), mostly because of a growing fear that I knew I would want kids and was worried that I was wasting my time with someone who wasn’t willing to work on a future with me.

This was more than 10 years ago, and although my ex and I have occasionally stayed in touch, been intimate, and reconnected after a few years of separation, we have not been able to have a healthy relationship. I’ve tried to be honest about my wanting a different type of relationship with him, but he doesn’t seem to want that. I have tried moving on by ignoring my feelings for him, ignoring him when he has reached out to me, and repeatedly reminding myself that ours is not the kind of relationship that I want. But it all feels like a lie.

The truth is, here I am, thinking about the last person I had the strongest romantic relationship and potential with. And I feel like a fool. I tried blocking him on my phone, but I still saw his calls. I have avoided his social media since it just triggers sadness instead of happiness and joy. I need some practical help to get him out of my mind.

Anonymous


Dear Anonymous,

The hardest thing about “getting over” someone is that in order to move on, we have to figure out what we’re actually grieving. Whenever we go through a breakup, we don’t just break up with our partner—we also break up with our future. By that I mean, the future we had imagined taking place with this person. And when we’re grieving the loss of our past and our future, it’s hard to stay in the present—and do something to improve it.

Therapists talk a lot about how the past informs the present—how our histories affect the ways we think, feel, and behave, and how at some point in our lives we have to let go of the fantasy of changing the past, or else we remain stuck. Changing our relationship to our pasts is a staple of therapy. But we talk far less about how our relationship to the future informs the present. Our struggle to release a wished-for future can be just as powerful a roadblock to change as our struggle to release a wished-for past.

It may seem like you’re completely focused on the present—specifically, getting your ex out of your head now—but because so much of your fixation with him involves thinking about the relationship you used to have and the relationship you want with him going forward, you’re toggling between past and future without actually living in the present. Once you anchor yourself in the present, though, you’ll be able to accept the loss of your longed-for future so that you can create a new one.

This anchoring might begin by considering why you’re currently investing so much emotional real estate in a person you can’t have—a person who, even when you were in the relationship, didn’t share the desire for the future you wanted. You say that your ex was “the last person I had the strongest romantic relationship and potential with,” but how strong can the potential have been with a person who doesn’t reciprocate the connection you’re seeking? Most important, is it possible that you haven’t found the connection you’re looking for in the present because you aren’t, in fact, open to men who might love you the way you want to be loved?

As painful as it is to not be able to have your ex, I think that in some ways it’s his distance—his occasional appearance without really getting too close—that keeps you emotionally tied to him, because something about that distance probably feels familiar, like home. Most of us are drawn to romantic partners because our unconscious pulls us toward the familiar—the characteristics of whoever cared for us growing up, even if they made us feel edgy or confused or unseen (like your ex does). It’s no coincidence that people who had angry parents often end up choosing angry partners; or that those with alcoholic parents might be drawn to partners who drink quite a bit; or that those who had distant or critical parents find themselves married to somebody distant or critical.

Why would people do this to themselves? It’s certainly not intentional. In the beginning of a relationship, these characteristics may be barely perceptible and often the person seems very different from our parents, but our unconscious has a finely tuned radar inaccessible to our conscious mind. It’s not that we want to get hurt again—it’s that we want to master a situation in which we felt helpless as a child. Freud called this “repetition compulsion.” Maybe this time, a part of you imagines, I can go back and heal that wound from long ago by engaging with somebody familiar—but new. The only problem is, by choosing the familiar partner, we guarantee the opposite result: We reopen the wound and feel even more inadequate and unlovable.

The therapist Terry Real describes our well-worn behaviors as “our repertoire of relational themes.” I have a feeling that this repertoire has kept you stuck on your ex and prevented you from finding a better relationship. But that repertoire can change. In therapy, a person might act out her repertoire with the therapist, but if the therapist responds in way that’s unfamiliar—say, more understanding or accepting than the family the patient grew up with—this “corrective emotional experience” changes the patient: The world, she learns, turns out not to be like her family of origin. Similarly, if you can intentionally put yourself in the unfamiliar situation of going on dates with emotionally available men, eventually you’ll get the experience you’re seeking with a compassionate, reliable, and mature partner—and that will start to feel like home.

None of this happens overnight, nor can you simply will away your thoughts or feelings as they come up. But the more you work to anchor yourself in the present and start to get curious about your current relational repertoire—despite the losses of the past and the future—the less power those feelings will have over you. Maybe you’ll do this with a therapist; maybe you’ll find support elsewhere. Either way, it will require you to look inward at yourself rather than outward at your ex, and when you do, a gradual shift will take place. Eventually, one day you’ll be sitting at home with the family you haven’t met yet in the future you can’t quite picture now, and someone will bring up the year you turned 40, and you’ll remember this time not with despair, but with relief. Because you’ll marvel at how unfamiliar that old home feels and how welcoming your new one does.


Dear Therapist is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, mental health professional, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.