When They Love Their Ex

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by Randall S. Frederick

Q: I feel like my girlfriend is still hung up on her ex and was wondering if you had any advice on how to deal with that. I think she’s still in love with him because he broke up with her, and sometimes it feels like she’s not really “with” me but stuck in the past with him. Advice?

A: Um, this is a no-brainer. You need to get out of this relationship and, when you break up with her, stay focused on one message: She needs to deal with the memories she’s living in because she’s losing the potential for a happy future by being stuck in the past. Look, I really hate to be so blunt but this really is a no-brainer. You need to break up.

What does require some thought, however, is why you’re still in the middle of this ‘ship and why you’re with someone who isn’t giving you their attention or love, but instead continues to give attention and love to someone who broke up with her? Her ex effectively told her he didn’t want to spend any more time investing in what they had… so she is holding on to every scrap left behind. What are you getting from this, I wonder? I don’t ask that in a judgmental way. I ask it in a very sober, “Been there, buddy!” way. I get it. Everyone will stay in a bad relationship longer than they should eventually. Hopefully, they learn something from the experience. But I’m not talking about “everyone.” I’m talking about you. Why are you staying with someone who loves another man and is allowing that phantasm lover to have a say on what the two of you are doing, where you’re going, and the capacity for loving and being loved?

In other articles, I’ve hinted at supporting polyamorous relationships, but this is not one of those instances. A key (cannot stress this enough) and vital, important, integral part of any relationship is being present. Being either “here” or “there” for someone – but being present. Wherever you are, if you’re in a ‘ship, it has to be together or not at all. Do it together or not at all. Or at least do it together, but name the places where you’re not together and whether that is okay. For example, no lover will ever be able to get me to eat seafood. I’m allergic and it makes me horribly ill. But, naming where we will never be able to share that experience, I would never try to prevent someone from enjoying seafood on their own time. But we’re not talking seafood and vacations. We’re not talking about “well, okay”kind of stuff. To me, reading your letter, it sounds like you’re not okay with this space she has created (dwelling on an ex) and the space where you’re not together (her memories of being with someone else). That’s not good.

Let’s repackage this.

When I was very young, maybe 12 years old or so, I had two really amazing neighbors named Lanie and “Big Al.” Big Al was, like his nickname suggested, a big guy. Maybe a former football player, I don’t recall the specifics, but if my memory serves me correctly he was very tall, very brawny, and had a deep, booming voice with a very generous and inviting personality. You knew when Big Al was around.

Lanie, on the other hand, was quiet and very often “not feeling well.” Sometimes, she would go visit her family for a few days. Sometimes, she stayed in bed. Even at 12, I knew not to poke around for details because something about it never really sat right with me. And then, one night, Big Al had come over for a fish fry and had a few beers with my parents (as ya do) and, sitting in a mesh lawn chair, began to tell everyone there why Lanie was so withdrawn. She had been “absolutely in love with someone” and he had died. “It broke something inside of her.”

A few years went by and more of the details began to be colored in. I would babysit Lanie’s son and picked up pieces of info here and there. The story was a bit complicated, but then again Life always is, isn’t it? Collecting all of those stories together, what emerged was that Lanie and Big Al lived together and he wanted to get married, like really wanted to get married. He wanted to adopt her kids, settle down, and do the Married Life. But, you know what? He never asked Lanie for that because “she’s in love with someone else.” He would always tell me that. “We’ll never get married because she’s in love with someone else.” Granted, this triangle involved a dead guy – not a living ex – but the triangle remains the same. Instead of living into the Exciting Now with Big Al, Lanie tucked herself away with the memory of her dead husband. One of the staggering memories of my childhood is Big Al standing in his driveway unloading on me – yes, even as a kid – and telling me, meaningfully, that “This is what it means to be an adult, kid. Sometimes you love someone and they will never love you back. It’s not your fault, it’s not their fault. They just love someone else.”

I’ve had almost two decades to think about that statement and see it play out in my own life, but I remain constant on one thing: It shouldn’t be like that. Maybe it is like that. But it shouldn’t be like that. That’s not the kind of relationship any of us should aspire to – settling for someone who loves someone else and who will always see what we are doing together, now, in this moment, as somehow lacking or not good enough because they compare it to what they did with someone else. No one wins in that situation – not you, not them, not the other person whether they are living or dead. You’re not honoring someone’s memory by destroying the potential for current and future happiness. Let me say again, no one will win. No one. You hear me? This is an epic setup for failure.

Coming back to your situation, I would strongly urge you to “take a break” or simply break up. Let your partner know this is not “another person dumping them” but a conscious, loving decision to allow them to work through their feelings about the other person. It’s a lot like saying, “I love this person too much to bring them to a hospital.” That makes no sense, so why do it in your relationship? Let your partner know you are breaking off the relationship not because of them, but because you can tell that they are still dwelling on the past, still turning over the embers of What Was and that you feel/think/believe they are not really in this relationship so long as their heart and mind are stuck in that relationship. Leave the door open for getting back together, if that’s what you want. Don’t force it or rush it. Don’t accept promises to “do better” or “work through it together.” This isn’t about you, either. It’s about their relationship with a previous lover.

Let me be sympathetic here. I’ve rushed into relationships too. I’ve dated people while I was still hung up on someone else. Granted, every. single. one. of those relationships failed because I was stuck in the past, but I absolutely get it. I get where your girlfriend is coming from. Sometimes we have really amazing relationships and it takes a while to get over them, to sort through the photographic memories, to stop seeing certain restaurants as “out place” or hear songs differently (sidenote: for the record, “You Make My Dreams Come True” by Hall & Oates sounds like curses, lies, and craziness because of an ex). And when we don’t take the time to deal with what happened, to sort through where we went wrong and grow from that, we will get into a new relationship broken or at least fractured in places that Netflix and Chill can’t repair.

In other words, for anyone dealing with heartbreak: It’s okay to take time and work on yourself. You are committing an amazing, loving act by taking yourself off the dating market and investing in yourself, by resisting people who are asking you out before you are ready, by telling someone “Oh gosh, thanks. I’m so flattered you would ask, but to be honest, I’m dealing with a breakup and don’t think I’m ready to date right now. I’m so flattered you would ask, though. That means so much to me right now. But, to be honest, I don’t think I can commit myself fully just yet. I’m still healing. Maybe ask me again in two or three months? I know that sounds like a long time, and maybe it is. But I promise you, Friend, I’m trying to get to a better place. Don’t give up on me just yet.” I’m not one to toss around popular words like “brave,” but that is an incredibly brave thing to say to someone who is interested in you. You are being honest (check one), you are taking time to heal (check two), and you are resisting the temptation to let Someone New fix what that they can never repair (check three). This idea that we can “fix people” comes from the poetic inclinations of Coldplay, not real life. We can’t fix people. Let’s admit our limitations, okay? We cannot fix people. But we can certainly help them. We can do right by them. We can love them. We can help them be fully human, be gracious and kind, be understanding and supportive. We can encourage. Some wounds, though, need to heal on their own through time and with the support of someone special. To heal properly, we have to resist that urge to rush in and touch it, prod it, poke it, question it, and get angry with it when it doesn’t do what we want. We have to resist that compulsion to “love” them by trying to fix them when or believing we can do more or mean more than we really do.

In other words, breaking up with your girlfriend is quite possibly the most loving thing you can do for her right now. I know that isn’t the answer you were looking for. I know you wanted me to give you a short, simple list like “cuddle more, make her dinner, and love her more than her ex” but, Friend, you are loving her and you are loving yourself by stepping back and allowing her to heal properly.

Hope this helps in some way, and keep me posted.

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