Ask Dr. Nerdlove by Harris O'Malley

Why Am I Unable to Get Over My Ex?

DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: I’m a long-time reader and I first and foremost I want to thank you for sharing so much helpful advice in a healthy and progressive way – it has helped me a lot.

I hadn’t been in a relationship in my life until I turned 25 when I met – let’s call her M. We were co-workers and also studying in the same field so we had a lot of things to talk about, pretty similar views on many issues and, additionally, had been through some of the same painful experiences in life with bullying and loneliness. Needless to say, we quickly became very close friends in a way I hadn’t been with someone in quite a while – and initially, that was all there was to it since she had a boyfriend and I really didn’t want to get mixed up in something like that.

Well, sometimes life happens and when you spend a lot of time working and studying and just generally going through a lot of things together, and when so many other things align as well, it’s hard not to fall in love. And boy were we starstruck. Despite the fact that she was in a long-term relationship at the time we quickly spiraled into something that didn’t really resemble an affair, but was more akin to a relationship as well, only that it had to be hidden. I had never been this intensely in love in my life. Being apart from her almost physically hurt – and this is probably where the problems started.

The following months were an intense ride of ups and downs with us splitting up several times only to quickly get back together a few days later, and her eventually promising me to leave her boyfriend for us to be together but then never really committing to it because the “circumstances weren’t right that day” and other excuses. When things were good, they were intensely good, but when they were bad – it hurt a lot. There were many times when she’d even text her boyfriend while we were traveling together. As someone with low self-esteem and being terribly afraid to lose her, I never really enforced my boundaries and basically just swallowed my pride, a decision I now deeply regret because of the pain it caused me and her boyfriend who never found it – how she managed to hide the whole thing is beyond me. At the same time, it is important to point out just how good the “highs” were, how romantic things were, how good the sex was and how much I learned about myself through her.

Skip forward a few months, we are still illegitimate, and she leaves for a semester abroad. I even visited her a few times – once with a friend who I insisted to fill in about us because I was close to snapping and couldn’t stand hiding the truth anymore. This is where things started to really go downhill: After that she grew both very depressed and distanced herself from me. We would have a lot of pointless arguments about ridiculous things, and I eventually grew resentful because she never split up from her boyfriend. We spoke less and less, and then at some point, there was a call where she told me how she had gotten closer again with him and that she didn’t feel like she missed me anymore. At that moment I snapped and ended the whole thing and just blocked her everywhere. The last months had been very painful and at this point, it felt like the realization of something that had been true for quite a while already.

Once she came back, however, she basically begged for us to meet once where she confessed to me that she lied to me about wanting to end things because she “wanted things to be easier for me”, which felt so intensely manipulative. I was truly confounded by this and we didn’t speak again after this. Soon it was my turn to leave the country to study abroad and I wanted to work on my healing process. It felt great, I met new friends, and I went on a few dates – only that I would always end up disappointed or even disgusted at myself, and every time there was this tiny thought creeping up on me how things had been better with M and how no one would ever be able to truly compare to what I had felt for her. It sometimes felt like I was just forcing myself to accept a sort of substitute for something profound that I had lost. Needless to say, no one of these dates went any further than a one night stand.

After coming back from my semester abroad, with many friends having left town by now, I fell into a minor depression and struggled to rebuild my life at home. It was at this time that I ran into M again – and realized just how much I still felt for her. Contrary to me, however, she seemed to have fully rebuilt her life. A few weeks later we even kissed, only for her to tell me afterward how things didn’t feel the same and it had been a mistake. I was devastated, and humiliated by my own stupidity and lack of pride.

Ever since then I’ve been working on improving the other aspects of my life: Being more social, actively meeting new people and going on dates, and overall it is working as long as I don‘t run into M. But every time I‘m on a date I start comparing how well we match to how things felt with her, and every time I run into her I am just feeling depressed afterward. I’ve just been on a date with someone who I certainly have a minor crush on, with her being smart, beautiful, hard-working and very cute, but at the same time, it always felt like I never could really hold a relaxing conversation with her.

I just don’t know where to go from here. I think I suffer from a bad case of Oneitis, but it’s just so hard to not compare potential partners to the immensely intense way I felt for M back then. How do I start healing? Or, even better: How do I find someone who will make me feel the same or even more than her? Where do I go from here?


– Feeling Broken and Alone

DEAR FEELING BROKEN AND ALONE: There’s a lot here, FBA, but the short version is that the reason why you’re still hung up on your ex is because you’re addicted to her… in a way. The clue is in something that you said in your letter:

“The following months were an intense ride of ups and downs with us splitting up several times only to quickly get back together a few days later, and her eventually promising me to leave her boyfriend for us to be together but then never really committing to it because the “circumstances weren’t right that day” and other excuses. When things were good, they were intensely good, but when they were bad – it hurt a lot.”

What you’re describing is what’s known as intermittent reinforcement. You get those moments of good feelings interspersed with a whole lot of bad experiences. There’s just enough good — and the highs from the good are strong enough — that you crave them, especially when they come increasingly rarely or paired with greater levels of disappointment. The patterns of splitting up only to get back together later, promises that never actually get fulfilled, doing things “because she wanted them to be easier for you”… these all end up serving to create this sense of uncertainty that you can never fully resolve. As a result, you put more and more effort in to get those highs — the great sex, the sense of validation — to try to offset the constant anxiety and fear of losing her. It puts you in a position where you start accepting patently unacceptable behavior because you’re hoping for another of those moments of relief.

It’s shockingly easy to fall into this pattern and even to convince yourself that it’s fine. When you’re young and/or relatively inexperienced, the idea of “incredible highs and equally incredible lows” can seem a little romantic, even exciting because LOOK AT HOW GREAT THOSE HIGHS are. But those lows hit you much harder and do more to you than those highs can alleviate. It’s ultimately a losing equation, one that leaves you worse off than when you started. At the same time, though, it can be incredibly addictive. It’s the same sort of psychology that casinos use to keep you throwing money at slot machines and card tables.

It’s also the sort of psychological manipulation that you find in Red Pill circles.

Now this doesn’t mean that she was doing this intentionally… but at a certain level, I think she was aware that she was keeping you on a string. Much as with Still Waiting from last Thursday’s letter, I think you had a very different idea of what your relationship was from her. While you were seeing this as a Love To Last The Ages, I think that she was seeing you as an easy distraction from her boyfriend. And past a certain point… well, she decided that maintaining things with you wasn’t worth the price. Especially since you apparently were far more invested in things than apparently she was.

All of this is to say: it’s entirely understandable why you feel the way you do. And understanding that is going to be key to moving forward. Intellectually, you understand that this was a bad relationship. Emotionally, on the other hand… well, you’re still hung up on her because of what she represents. Here was this woman who you felt you had this incredible connection with, who was with you despite having a boyfriend and all the validation that came with it. By the same token, the part of you that got so hung up on her recognizes that it was a bad scene. So you’re stuck in this place where she represents the pinnacle of what could be — the validation, the sex, the sense of being The Man because you had her — and your being foolish enough to let her treat you like this.

So there’re two things that I think you need to do. The first is simply to let go of her and what she represents. The version you’re comparing every date to is your fantasy of her, not the reality, the version that you remember with all the bad parts cut out. Taking each new potential date as an individual, seeing them for themselves instead of in comparison to your ex is an important part of moving forward. The more you focus strictly on them as themselves, the less you’ll be comparing them to the imaginary version of your ex.

The second is to forgive yourself. You were, as many are, someone who loved not too wisely but too well. You wanted to believe in something that ultimately couldn’t happen. There’s nothing wrong with hoping for a dream to come true. You don’t deserve blame for caring for someone who didn’t care for you the way you deserve. You need to forgive yourself for all of this, for letting her get under your skin like that and for not standing up for yourself when you needed to.

When you do that, you put yourself in a position to learn and to grow. Your next relationship will be all the better — and all the stronger — for it.

Good luck.

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