Q: I was so hurt by [my ex] and I’m realizing I don’t always feel like men have hearts. I’m not sure I can believe everyone doesn’t have ulterior motives and is just using me to fulfill some need in them. I really, really don’t trust and the worst part is that there is no part of me that feels like trust is a good decision… I wonder if the way I’m feeling is because I was so hung up on my ex because I felt so ruined. Like he would be the only one that could make it right that I could ever trust again. I heard that [he] is dating someone new now and secretly, I hope it fails and he realizes why it was so hard for me to get over. He hasn’t dated anyone since me and I’ve always wondered if that’s part of why it was so easy for him to move on. He doesn’t know how easy we had it and when it’s hard with someone else, I hope it teaches him something.
A: Well, first off your feelings are completely normal. Let’s get that out there and say it before going any further. Breakups are hard and tend to leave damages that reappear in surprising ways at surprising times. You. Are. Completely. Normal.
Let’s start with what you say is “the worst part.” You don’t trust men and don’t see that happening any time soon because “no part of you feels like trust is a good decision.” That’s a heavy statement, so I want to respond to it in like kind. My first thought is to say, “I get it.” I get where you’re coming from – you were hurt by someone you trusted with your most intimate, most authentic self and they vanished on you without so much as an explanation. Just woke up one day and they’re gone without even discussing it with you. As you know well enough, that leaves open wounds that scar over into really dark spots of the psyche (ex: I hope his new relationship fails). Being candid, I felt the same way after I found out one of my exes got married. I was taken aback. “Wait. What? She what? She got married? The girl who said she never wanted to get married?” I wanted to call her up and say all kinds of crazy things – but instead what I did was reopen old wounds and let them fester a little more.
Which is kinda what you’re doing. You’re taking out your frustrations with your ex on yourself and, worse, The Next Guy by not giving yourself, your trust, and your heart to him. At least you are aware you are doing it – that’s a start to finding a better way of life. But by doing taking out your past hurts on your present circumstance (i.e. not trusting someone new), you’re still “in a relationship” with your ex and not in a relationship with The Next Guy. Do you realize that? You’re still holding on to the past (even if it feels bad) as a way of holding on to Your Ex Guy.
Using my own life, what I came to see in all of my hurt and anger was that because my ex left me abruptly and without explanation, there was never that sense of closure, so my brain kept telling me I couldn’t move on. I couldn’t do it! I was, in my mind, still in a relationship with her! Instead of coaching myself to a place of accepting what happened, I was stuck on repeat, saying things like “I knew I couldn’t trust you” to my next girlfriends. “You’re going to hurt me again” to my next girlfriend. “I don’t want to forgive you” to my next girlfriend. And on, and on, and on. You see what I was doing? I was “breaking up” with the new person I was going out with and was cutting off all possibility of a healthy love in the future because I was still stuck in the past. I needed to work on that so I could move on.
- Your ex deserves love. You know this more than anyone – he was great! That’s why you love him (present tense). You may still want him to love you, there might even be some part of you that wants to get back together. But in your heart, if you are being honest, you know this is impossible. Too much has happened since he left. You’ve grown and changed, he has grown and changed, and that time together is over. It’s not coming back. Despite what has happened since he left, I know your love for him demands that good things happen to him and for him. You want him to love someone and be loved in return. Call this to mind regularly, especially when you find yourself wishing bad things for him and his relationships.
When L vanished on me, I was devastated and it took me a long time (years!) to come to the place where I could consistently say, “She deserves a stable, consistent, and safe love.” Like you, I wanted it to fall apart for a long time. I wanted her to fall in love and then have someone hurt her the way she had hurt me – ruin her, break her spirit, and vanish without the decency and dignity of an explanation. But, in those moments, I really focused on three things: 1) I loved her, so I know first-hand that she is lovable. 2) She didn’t want to spend her life with me – that’s okay. Even a good thing. I can’t fault her for that. And 3) She deserves to be loved the way she wants and needs to be loved. Now, I can say that I wish her the best, wish her happiness and success, and do not see “us” as a mistake. It was a good chapter of my life, and I’ve moved on. Carrying around baggage like that – wishing your exes bad mojo – is a desperate effort to “keep” them. You need to let them go completely and wish good things for them the same way you would wish good things towards a stranger. That is what they are now. Do you look at strangers and go, “I wish someone would hurt you.” I hope not! Well, in the same way, that’s what Your Ex Guy is now. He’s a stranger – you’ve changed, he’s changed, and you’re not the same people anymore.
- You deserve love. When this person left you, you probably felt like shit for a long time. Didn’t you? You did. This person, your ex, just really broke you inside and it took a long, long time to get back up again. Like any deep hurt, you were sensitive for a while. Maybe years. But if you’re ever going to heal and let yourself settle the right way, you need to do something really difficult. You need to love yourself until you believe again that you deserve love. You need to replace this person who meant so much with yourself, brace yourself, wrap yourself up tightly and let those bones set right. Use ointments. Take it easy. Because what you want deep down is to be loved. Why? Because you deserve to be loved.
When the body suffers any kind of damage, it works to “rewire” itself. A tooth breaks, you will begin holding your mouth in a different way. Have a stroke, your brain will develop new pathways to communicate motion. This isn’t always a good thing because we can develop maladaptive behaviors, but I’ll get back to that in a moment. For now, I want to focus on the idea that you suffered a big hurt and now you need to “rewire” yourself. This person communicated that they did not love you, so you feel unlovable. Now you need to rewire that damage – that feeling that you’re not lovable – and “rewire” yourself to believe that yes you are. You are lovable. What I love to do when I meet someone new – not even romantically; I do this at work and when I’m just casually meeting people – is I look for the lovable parts and I try to focus on those. I’ll give them a compliment. I’ll talk to them and say, “Oh, you sound so smart!” or “You’re so funny!” because what I know of myself from the last decade or so is that everyone is lovable, but sometimes they need someone to notice. Maybe they need convincing. But life has a way of break us down, and I enjoy looking for the good in people and pointing it out to them. “Oh my god, those shoes are amazing. And this dress?! I love your style!” or “I’m pretty educated, but you’re smarter,” or “You are so funny! Where did you get your sense of humor?” Whatever people are telling you, listen. See the good, lovable parts of yourself and let that be the way you rewire yourself.
- You have to move on. A relationship with an ex-partner is like a used car. Yeah, maybe you can put it in the shop. Maybe things can, one day, be fixed. But the worst thing you can do is set a broken car out in the front yard on cinder blocks. That’s what most of us do with old relationships – it dies (for any number of reasons) and we adapt, we move on, but it still sits on cinder blocks until someone comes along and convinces us to get rid of the trash. Make no mistake: your old relationships are trash. If they could have worked, they would have worked. Don’t wait on someone else to convince you it’s a good idea to give that old broken down jalopy of a dead relationship to the scrapyard. Do it yourself – you’ll feel accomplished and can plant some flowers in that part of the yard. The Next Guy will comment on how amazing it is and you’ll have more space for beauty and good things in your life.
Now, I said a moment ago that we can learn maladaptive behaviors. When we “rewire” ourselves, sometimes we rewire in really negative ways. We absorb the damage and learn “All men will leave me” or “This person who I loved so much stopped loving me, so I must not be lovable” or worse, some version of No one will ever love me. I’m unlovable. I can’t trust people. That’s not true, but it’s how you feel so it can become true. The only way you will heal and get things right is to get rid of the trash. Let Your Ex Guy go. Get him off the cinder blocks, stop saying “well, maybe it’ll be better some day” and get rid of the trash in your life.
- Trust is earned. The thing I’m hung up the most with your letter is the way you talk about trust as though it is given, not earned. I’m a big believer that trust is earned, never given. Your current guy doesn’t just get trust overnight or as soon as he asks you out. His actions, words, and behaviors are either building or breaking down your sense of trust with him and in him. Visualize trust as a container; what is put in it is what can be taken out of it and it is only full and overflowing when you’ve put a lot in it. Trust is one of the hardest things to have and hold on to in a relationship. It starts early – in high school and college, everything is moving so fast that we get into and out of relationships faster than we can really process them and, as a result, the trust and happiness of childhood erodes really quickly. By the time we are adults, we approach every relationship feeling like “you’re going to hurt me just like this person did ten years ago, eight years ago, last year.” Your partner is probably doing the same thing, so what this amounts to is two people playing Relationship Hokey-Pokey. They’ve got one hand in, one hand out, but at any moment they can step outside the circle, turn themselves about, and keep walking.
One, remind yourself that trust is earned. Is he earning your trust? Are you earning his? And two, don’t play Relationship Hokey-Pokey. Do a self-inventory. Are you loving and trusting the person you are with the way you, yourself, would want to be loved and trusted? I know it’s hard to trust someone. I get that. But be the person you would want to date – being someone they can trust can never hurt a relationship.
- Don’t let your the past hurt you today. It’s okay if you don’t always feel these things. Sometimes, you will think back and all of those bad feelings will return. You will feel angry again. That’s okay. In fact, it’s better than okay; it’s healthy. Your intense feelings are indicators that it hurt – and it did. Those painful feelings are also signs that you are healthy and growing. Just don’t confused healthy growth for an infection.
If you dwell on that pain too long and do not allow for new, healthy growth, what you’re doing is allowing the wound of your previous relationship to infect your current relationship. Think about what happens when you burn yourself in the kitchen or with an iron – it hurts like a motherf%^&@$ and, days later, it begins to hurt in a new way because cells are regrowing, the scar itches because nerves are regrowing. Bad feelings can be a sign that you are growing, that you are realizing how unhealthy that relationship was, that – at least in my case – maybe there were signs of imminent doom that you ignored. But, the other thing here is, those same sensations can also indicate that an infection has begun to spread. Let me ask you this – when you look at Your Next Guy, do you see Your Ex Guy? Are all men “the same” to you? I hope not. Because when the pain of the past becomes the pain of the present, your relational health is in jeopardy. So, acknowledge what happened. It happened! But when you find yourself moving on and returning to these questions, “Will this person hurt me the way I’ve been hurt before?”, do a self inventory. Look at the wound. Is it healing or is it infected? Remember that this is a new person. This is a new situation. And that you’ve learned a lot since the last time you got hurt.
- Completely letting go and wishing happiness for your ex is not a betrayal of the time you shared together. You loved Your Ex Guy so much. I can tell that from reading your letter. While I share your sadness about the loss of that relationship, I’m also very happy that you had a chance to love someone that much, that you loved in a way where you felt things deeply. But now that you are moving on and letting go, remember that letting Your Ex Guy go and allowing yourself to stop feeling things for him, to see him as a stranger, to stop idealizing that time, none of these are a betrayal of what you had. Loving someone else, allowing yourself to love Your Next Guy, is not a betrayal of the things you felt with Your Ex Guy.
When you begin to “move on” and love someone else, there’s a guilty feeling there, isn’t there? It’s as if moving on makes you question whether what you had with your ex was “real” the way this new relationship is “real.” I like what Baz Luhrmann said in his song, Everybody’s Free to Wear Sunscreen. Nostalgia is a way of looking at the past, wiping it off, painting over the ugly parts, and passing it off for more than it’s worth. So when you look over your shoulder and move on, it’s okay to be sentimental about that time. It was a good time! But be sure to remember that – hey! – that relationship is over. And this new relationship can be a really good thing too – maybe just as good, maybe better, maybe not at all. But whatever happens with Your Next Guy, at least he’s not Your Ex Guy. Like I said, if things could have worked, they would have worked. The fact that they wouldn’t work is proof that it couldn’t have worked. Move on and be happy in the now; don’t idealize the past.