How do I let go of hoping to get my ex-girlfriend back?

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Dear Bear

About 2 months ago my ex ended our 4 year relationship with me because “something didn’t feel right.” We shared many firsts from the first kiss right up to the first break up. This deeply saddened me and I am still struggling with who I am without her in my life. She said she wanted to be friends but I probably burned that bridge when I called her names for the first time during our last phone call a few weeks ago. I needed something concrete that I did wrong or I would just keep trying to get her back and I was angry and impulsive.

A little under a month ago I initiated no contact and have begun reading more, playing my violin, and drinking tea/meditating. I also started training as an EMT. I have performed treatments on clinically dead patients that brought them back to life. I wish restarting love was as simple as restarting a human heart but there’s no procedure for love – it’s all luck. I still fantasize about doing some grand romantic gesture like leaving a message in a bottle on her porch inviting her to tea in the park and suddenly we will go back to 3 months ago when she was infatuated with me and I with her. I know this is fantasy and I respect her decision to end things but I can’t get  rid of the hope that she will change her mind. Logically I know all I can do is to move on and eventually find another fish in the sea that loves me after I heal. Even if she came back I would never be able to trust her like I used to and relationships are built on trust.

Either way in the long run I will be happy because I am pursuing a furfilling career and building a support network of old souls. I’m the only one that will always be there for me. The hope is what is killing me. I respect her too much to hit on her after she told me it was over, yet I find myself reading guides on “how to get your ex back” like junk food at 3 am almost every day. How can I kill this hope?

Dear Brave Correspondent,

(This answer comes with music to read and consider it by. Press play and then read on, friend.)

This is, truly, a tale as old as time – breakups are hard, and they’re harder when they don’t feel mutual, and harder still when one feels blindsided. I have sat in my feelings of being discarded by someone I loved, struggling with hurt that felt so overwhelming I didn’t understand why a person couldn’t die of it. I get it, is what I’m saying.

The good news here is that you are already on the right track. You’ve started a new learning opportunity in your EMT training (thanks for that, by the way, we definitely need more EMTs in the world) and you’re taking time to meditate and reflect and also you’ve taken another incredibly important step – choosing no contact for a while. I have so many positive things to say about a period of no contact. I mean, there are also ways in which I hate it and if you think I’ve never peeped around on social media to see if I could catch a glimpse of someone I was pining for or even just wondering about, you’d lose that bet. But taking a break from interacting with someone gives all of those intensely raw emotional nerve endings some time to heal a bit. They’re not constantly being activated by her ringtone, seeing her social media posts, her “random question” about where you used to buy that hot sauce she likes, and so on. No-contact periods are good for letting your tender places get a little more healed (and, when implemented right after a breakup, they also save you from things like getting on the phone and calling someone names and having a total loss of cabin pressure from the built-up stress of how awful you feel. Not relevant to you anymore, Brave Correspondent, but for the rest of the internet watching – the sooner the better.)

Do you have a set period when it’ll be over or a time at which you’ll talk? Since I’m advising, I’ll say I think 3 months is a minimum and honestly, I don’t feel like a year is inappropriate. I also like a plan for what happens after – will you meet? Talk on the phone? Break the silence by email? I know it’s a lot to think about right in the aftermath of a breakup but do Future You a favor and settle it when you agree on the time you won’t be in contact. Also never a bad idea to identify whether there are any circumstances under which you’ll break it – if someone in your family dies? if there’s a grave injury or illness? – and then stick to it.

Here’s a key note: please, please, PLEASE DO NOT set a period of no contact and then sit around going “well, if they really loved me, they’d try to contact me anyway.” If you say it, mean it. Don’t make it a test. It can’t be a referendum on anyone’s feelings; that is an unfair bullshit setup (I feel quite strongly about this if you couldn’t tell) and it’s the exact thing that leads to people thinking that ignoring someone’s boundaries is a way to show love. It’s not. This is not a romcom in which you “just keep trying,” or “win them back.” If your ex says no contact, take it as gospel that’s what they want (if it isn’t and they’re testing you that’s Not Cool and you’re probably better off to have failed it). If there’s any winning back to be done it will be later, after you’ve respected their boundaries and given them space and demonstrated that you can and will put their needs first. So hold on to that Grand Gesture for, uh, a while more.

Also, “how to get your ex back” article is the literary equivalent of peanuts in a bar. They’re designed to keep you thirsty and coming back for more. But that idea of it is keeping you tethered to hope, and it’s a very fair place to want to be but, Brave Correspondent, we need to let it go. I know, that’s hard, so what if we started by practicing letting it go for periods of time? Not to be too woo about it, but maybe there’s some nice, attractive container like a jar or a special box – suitable for your feelings about this, which are precious even though they are also sometimes difficult – where you could sometimes park your hurt feelings and your scared feelings and your hopeful feelings for a while, so they (and you!) can have a rest. You can do a whole business where you imagine them in your hand and visualize their colors and then m o v e them with your mind into the jar or you can just, sort of, open the box and scrape it across your chest and say “okay, everybody into the box.” You may feel ridiculous. But I am here to tell you that sometimes a little ritual concretizes the thing you need to have happen, and Brave Correspondent – you need this to happen.

Of course you miss your ex, but that’s not a thing right now. So build in some time to feel sad every day, to really sit with your feelings (or take a walk with them; I find feelings very often appreciate a walk and return in better shape) and then try not to let it be the whole day’s worth of feelings. Meditating is never a bad idea (the tea is optional) and also – with great love and tenderness I say – please don’t allow yourself to get sold on the idea that the only way to live peacefully with your feelings is tea and meditation. Mosh pits [when we’re not having a global pandemic] are also good, and so is dangling by your toes from a trapeze, and so is embroidery – the point is to do basically anything that lets your brains stop gnawing constantly at your troubles by my dog is currently doing to his octopus chew toy: gnaw gnaw gnaw, look away, walk away, look back, rush back, gnaw some more.

(Try not to drink/use about it, if you can possibly avoid it. That’s also a way people get their feelings to leave then alone for a while, but it has drawbacks. Sometimes it can’t be avoided, but I am giving you full pompoms for success so far.)

The other thing, Brave Correspondent, is that the intensity of your sense of “get her back” will fade over time. Of course it’s high and intense now; new feelings are always big and full of their own demands and none is more of that than love. Remember the falling-in-love part, where everything was giant and insistent and you made questionable choices in order to spend more time/energy/money on the person you loved? The reverse is also, basically, that. Jamie Anderson, who is also famous for being a writer on Doctor Who, famously said that grief is love with nowhere to go and I think he’s right – and therefore, of course, you’re urgently trying to figure out where the love can go. It seems like, it feels like, that will stop the grief : if you can just give the love you have for her a place to go (oh, back to her!) then the hurt will stop.

My advice about this is twofold. 1. No, it won’t. Not really. And on some level you know that, because as you’ve said: there’s a loss of trust. You don’t understand what happened, you don’t know how to keep it from happening again. Even if you succeed in putting all those love feelings back with this person, and even if she accepts them, will you feel safe and secure? My guess is that they will not: they will just feel familiar. Familiarity feels like safety sometimes, especially in relationships. Just ask anyone with, say, a narcissist for a parent who then chooses a narcissist for a partner. Familiar? Yes! Safe? Nooooo. But we do it anyhow, because human feelings really love things that are familiar and therefore comforting even when our logical selves know they’re not good for us. This is what therapy, introspection, and probably a lot of long talks with friends are for.

But also 2. there are a LOT of us, in the world, getting some pretty intense and very terrible messages from the larger culture about what kind of love we deserve. LGBT2Q people, Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color, mad/disabled people: what kind of love, romance, tenderness, fidelity, and connection were you led to expect in movies, tv, advertising, popular fiction, and so on? Were your experiences ever even shown? If so, did you have just a delicious buffet of possibility models to enjoy? Probably not, right? So if you’re a person who lives in a stigmatized body or identity, it makes sense that you might feel like “this is the only person who will ever love me; better go get them back.” Brave Correspondent, I am here to tell you: that’s almost certainly not true. It might feel true because we get this intensely difficult messaging from the macro culture about how we’re too… something: too weird, too angry, too complicated, you name it. But that’s not true. You’re fine, and if you’ve done even a little of your own work around your own trauma and hurt you’re probably even great, so the sooner you can let go of feeling like you have to get this person back because what if no one ever likes you again, the better off you’ll be. I promise.

(okay, and bonus 3: having a romantic partner isn’t an indicator of “success” just like not having one isn’t an indicator of “failure.” I am just mentioning this in case you feel like being picked by a person to be their person is evidence of your fitness as a human and in the absence of that feeling you’re uncertain whether you have value. You definitely and absolutely do, regardless of your relationship status. There are plenty of lovely humans without romantic partners and I am aware of some….very, very challenging people who have romantic partners, so. Evidence suggests it’s not an actual indicator of much.)

Last thing: some of it’s just time. Month one sucks. Months two sucks… fractionally less. Three is pretty much a lot like month two, to be honest with you. But somewhere around month four – around a hundred days of no contact – something starts to change. You have at least a few nice moments that don’t include her. Things don’t smell like her anymore. You, as a solo human, start to come more clearly into your own focus and you’re pretty great, actually. You can breathe a little more. You’re sleeping a little better. The weight on your chest has gotten a little lighter. It’s good, and it’s not very far away now. The hardest part is done. So see it through, Brave Correspondent – take six months off from seeing or talking/texting with or commenting on her Instagram or whatever, and at that point, see how you both feel. I bet you’ll feel better, more balanced, much calmer. Then it’s time to decide if you think you – you, your very own personal self – would be better off with her back or not. You can make that decision when you’re not racked with loss and loneliness, and you’ll be better placed to decide for it. In the meanwhile, Brave Correspondent, tend all the wild and precious lives that come under your care – including your own.

love and courage,

Bear

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