Ask Dr. Nerdlove by Harris O'Malley

How Do I Move On After My Break Up?

DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: Funny story, my [now] ex introduced me to your column many years ago, as he felt you gave practical advice to all those who had perhaps, lost their way.

I now feel I am that person and I honestly have no clue what to do about my current predicament.

We met under unusual circumstances, I had an accident and he was the law abiding person assisting me with my situation. We went out on a couple of dates, once the matter had cleared and I just felt he was too immature and wasn’t feeling it (he was 21 and I was 23). Unfortunately, he was. However, we attempted to remain ‘just friends’ for a couple of years after. But we knew when we would catch up, there would always be kissing at the end (or maybe in the middle of the date).

Jump to to New Years Eve, and he came and picked my friend and I up from the city after his lengthy shift (it was 2am and he had driven a long time to pick us up). He and I got into a disagreement about ‘finally’ taking that step and sleeping together or just progressing in general.

I was scared because my previous relationship ended with the guy cheating on me.

So, we did it. We met a few days after New Year’s Eve, went on a date and I initiated the sexy times. And that’s how our little love story began.

We dated for the next three years and you could say there were a few issues. Our first year of dating, he moved in with a few housemates — one being the girl he lost his virginity too. She had a new partner, but she made it clear she never liked me one bit, even though I attempted to gain her trust. Nothing worked. My boyfriend was finally forced moved out after discovering a torrid secret about one of the flatmates, meaning it could affect his job.

The year after, I went through a stressful work situation, and so did he. I thought we really stuck by one another.

I’ve never felt feelings before until he stepped into the picture. We just clicked. In every aspect. We were best friends and lovers and we could mess around and have fun, yet, still have a serious conversation when the moment called for it. We spoke about marriage and kids and even our kids names.

Right up until a few months prior to our eventual break up, he was showing me engagement rings.

2019 — my parents were going through a divorce and I was trying to be there for my mother. However, my boyfriend and I had made arrangements to move out at the end of the year. He did not believe I was going to go through with it. Stating that I would move in with her, or just up and leave him. We had a few serious discussions and I tried EVERYTHING to ensure he KNEW I was moving in with him. He was my future. We were ready to take that next step.

I don’t think I was convincing enough, and a week before we broke up, things had started to really affect me. My parents’ divorce, my stress at work… and even my boyfriend. We tried to go out one Saturday night to a comedy festival and a good friend of mine tagged along. It was a complete and utter mess! She got lost at another train station and my directions kept getting her lost and when I went to try and find her, I couldn’t. So I went back inside to where my boyfriend and I were waiting, and he said he would go and get her. He finally found her and when he came back inside to where I was eating, he made a snarky response and I blew a fuse.. The entire night was in shambles, however, we continued onto the comedy show and I tried to remain ‘calm’ and ‘in control’

Later that night, he asked what was wrong and I brushed it off. I wasn’t in a good head space and I (now) realise I was putting my relationship on the back burner and I wasn’t communicating well with him… at all.

He broke up with me a week later.

‘I love you…I’m just NOT in love with you anymore.’ He was crying as he said it, yet part of me knew he had shown up randomly at my house to break up with me.

We parted ways. For a few months (at least). Then we started sleeping together for the next 6 months. I was also trying to meet guys off Tinder and went on dates with them. One guy really appealed to me, and we started seeing each other every weekend (but it was strictly casual). I always knew though, that I was still into my ex. I tried to break things off with my ex, and that didn’t go as planned. My ex knew about this guy as well and he thought that things were getting serious between the Tinder dude and I.

My ex and I were texting a month ago, when he told me he had met someone a few days prior and wanted to ‘give things a go with her.’ That’s when I cut all communication and sent him a message saying my feelings had resurfaced, however, I was done. With him.

I then proceeded to block him. On everything.

Stupid, right? I didn’t get to see his reply. Maybe he didn’t? But I couldn’t face another rejection from him. I was still in love with him, whilst he was clearly moving on.

Sooo. Dr. NerdLove, as you can see, I still love my ex and care for him deeply. I realise the mistakes that we were made on my part, albeit too late.

My 30th birthday is coming up and I honestly thought I would be spending it with him celebrating… still together. Clearly I was REALLY wrong.

Can you please help me move on?

Hopelessly (still) in love.

DEAR HOPELESSLY (STILL) IN LOVE: So I think there’re two things going on here that are making it hard for you to move forward.

The first is the story of your relationship. One of the reasons why it can be hard to move on from a relationship is the way we tell the story of that relationship to ourselves. Like I said to Round and Round, our beliefs are the filter through which we see the world. That doesn’t just mean the things we expect to see or the things we want to see but the story we tell ourselves about our lives and experiences. This can affect the way we interpret what happened, colors our expectations and directly affects our emotional relationship to things. If, for example, your story is how awesome your relationship was and how it all fell apart out of the clear blue sky, it sets up a filter where we have a hard time moving on because we had perfection in our hands and we lost it.

The problem is that this is very rarely the case; a lot of times, we tend to gloss over the cracks and the flaws or not realize just how bad things could be. We as a species tend to focus on the beginning and the end and sort of just… overlook a lot of the middle.

The movie Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind is a great example of this; Joel Barish has a hard time understanding how Clementine could just wipe her memory of their relationship because it wasn’t that bad, right? Then, as he is living through his own memories of things, he starts to realize just how flawed and conflict-filled things were. The golden glow of nostalgia — especially for the times when everything was great and it was all easy — can cause us to overlook or paper over the hard times and the times when things were a lot rougher than we realized.

It’s also possible to tell the story about how you “ruined” things and take on undeserved guilt. Just as people will tell themselves the story of how perfect their relationship was until it wasn’t, people will tell the story about how they destroyed their relationship because… well, because it ended and if they had loved hard enough or worked hard enough, they could’ve saved things. And unfortunately, that’s not always the case. Sometimes relationships come to an end; no amount of effort or love or talking things through can stop that. It doesn’t mean that anyone involved made mistakes or f--ked up or that the relationship wasn’t strong enough. Sometimes a relationship comes to the end of its natural life. That doesn’t mean that someone killed it or could’ve saved it. Not every relationship is meant to last until someone dies in the saddle, and that’s fine. But holding onto unearned guilt or self-recrimination is another way that we make it hard to let go and move forward.

I suspect things were starting to fracture earlier than you realize. From what you describe, it sounds like two of those there years were pretty contentious and stressful. From both of you having dire work situations — which can take a toll on relationships — to your parents getting divorced and the clear doubts and insecurities he seemed to be having about your relationship, it sounds like times were pretty damn rocky. And while I get that it seems like a judgement on the quality of your relationship, the truth is that purely external factors can detonate incredibly strong and loving relationships. Job loss, the death of a loved one, disease or disability… these all can trigger the cascade that leads to a relationship coming to an end. Sometimes it can be worked through. Other times it can’t.

That doesn’t mean that you and your partner didn’t love each other or care for each other; it just means that circumstances changed and the relationship you had wasn’t necessarily the one that met your needs in that moment.

I think understanding this will help you move forward.

The other problem is that you seem to be holding onto guilt for taking the nuclear option on your ex, even though you still have feelings for him. But also like I told RaR: you are allowed to prioritize your own emotional health and well-being. And while you may have strong or complicated feelings for your ex, the fact is that staying in contact with him, especially right now, is going to do you more harm than good. Pulling away, closing off avenues that would make it easier for you to reach out and — in the process — reopen old wounds… this is how you heal. You need time to process your feelings, to heal and to recover, and you can’t do that when you’re either hooking up, or you’re dying inside because he started seeing someone else. Closing that door is vital for you to move on. While it absolutely sucks and it absolutely hurts — stitching a wound is gonna do that — it’s necessary. The lesser pain is the price for healing and avoiding worse pain — both now and in the future.

So here’s what I think you need. The first thing you need to do is forgive yourself — for the relationship ending, for what you feel was your part in it and for your (understandably) complicated feelings. You also need to forgive yourself for doing what was necessary and prioritizing your own emotional health and healing.

The next thing is to give yourself permission to feel the ever-loving f--k out of your feels. A relationship ended. That’s something to be mourned. So mourn. Give yourself some time to cry it out, then find the forms of self-care that’ll help you recover. It may be drinks over Zoom with friends, long walks out in the sun, even giving your place a deep, floor-to-ceiling cleaning to symbolize a new start. Pick something that’s going to be useful for you.

The third is to give yourself time. The cliche is that it takes half the time you were with someone to get over them; that’s not actually true, but moving on after a break up takes time. Especially when the break-up was protracted in some ways; in your case, it’s not the day you two officially called it quits, but starting from the day you told him you were done and blocked him. That’s your starting point. And it’s going to be a slow process. It’s not gonna be a matter of a couple weeks and you’re good; you’ll have days when you’re convinced you’re better and absolutely over him and then you’ll be hit by a wave of feels. And that’s normal. But it’ll happen less and less over time, and the day will come when you realize that you don’t hurt as badly and that you haven’t for a while. And while you may not be ready to get out there and date again… you’ll at least realize that this wasn’t the end of love for you. It’s just the end of one chapter; soon it’ll be time to start the next one.

You’ll be ok.

Good luck.

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