DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: I can’t move on from my ex. Or, really, I don’t want to move on. I’m still in love with her and I feel like we can make things work somehow—even though we’re not speaking at the moment.
The story: At the beginning of 2020, I separated from my wife of two and a half years (call her A). We had been long-distance for most of our relationship, and having problems for a while, although I didn’t acknowledge them until they blew up in our faces. I was sad and conflicted about our separation, but also relieved. It felt like the right decision for both of us.
About a month later (the end of February), I connected with B. I wasn’t looking to get serious with anyone, and I told B that. B was looking to date seriously, so I sort of thought we wouldn’t go anywhere. But we had such a strong connection, physically and emotionally.
After we’d been on a few dates, B left town to visit family. It so happened that this is when the COVID lockdown started, and she ended up staying with her family for almost 3 months. During this time, we texted every day. Soon this escalated to regular sexting, and then phone calls and Skype sessions. We talked for hours on end. At one point during this time I tried to break things off, because I didn’t feel ready for the kind of relationship she wanted. B was understanding. But, I texted her again a few days later and we went back to the same pattern.
We kept this up until she came back to town at the end of May. By this point I was all in. I told B I was in love with her and wanted to be exclusive. She told me she was in love with me too and wanted to date me. She did ask whether I thought I wanted to have kids, because up to that point I had told her I was unsure. I told her I was still unsure, but open to the idea. That seemed to satisfy her.
Things were great at first. We spent a lot of time together. The sex was (I think) the best the either of us had ever had. We were extremely open and emotionally vulnerable with each other. Most of the time, I felt totally at ease with her. But my uncertainty about having kids seemed like it started to weigh on her. In July she started expressing serious concerns about the fact that I wasn’t sure about having kids. She was also looking for a partner who would be the primary breadwinner, and she was worried that I wasn’t interested in this — or that I was interested in it only because it’s what she wanted. (Some more background: I was just finishing up a graduate degree program and unsure on my next steps — and likely many years away from making the kind of salary that could support a family.)
When these issues came up I would say things to assuage her, and we would carry on as if things were normal. But they kept coming up every couple weeks or, sometimes seemingly triggered by unrelated issues. (E.g., one time I liked the post of someone I had hooked up with in the past; B saw this and took it as evidence that I wasn’t ready for a committed relationship with the prospect of kids, etc).
In August, I made a trip out of town to see A, to close the door on our relationship–this would be our first in-person meeting since the prior fall. B and I had discussed this, and she was very supportive of my going to see A. But when I got back, B said she wanted to end things. She said she felt like she was getting in the way of my and A’s relationship, and didn’t want to feel like our relationship was caught up in the middle of that. I argued with her because I was so sure of my feelings for B and that things with A were over. We ended up deciding to take a break.
But, although B continued to insist we were on a break, we continued seeing each other, sleeping together, acting in every way like boyfriend and girlfriend. This continued for a couple weeks, during which we had more tense discussions about the issue of whether I really wanted to have a family and be a provider. I insisted that yes, I wanted this. And I did want it. My relationship with B had changed my perspective: I had never been with someone I was so passionate about. Unlike with A, I was excited about the prospect of having kids and building a family with B. But B felt like I only wanted these things because she wanted them, and that this put too much pressure on her.
At the same time, by the end of August, all of these conversations and the uncertainty about our relationship had started to make me insecure and needy. I was hyper-sensitive to her being less physically or verbally affectionate, or to her not wanting to have sex. When I expressed these things to her, she seemed to react both with understanding and attempts to soothe me — and frustration. The last week of August was filled with tension, with both of us getting frustrated with each other over small things. B broke up with me at the end of the month.
But we kept seeing each other. I sort of thought that this would be like the last time we “broke up”. Things were different, though. B expressed that she felt like she wasn’t in a place to have a relationship. I told her that I was fine with this, that I just wanted to know if she was dating or looking to date other guys, and she agreed. While we kept acting “relationship-y” in many ways and we continued to be sexually intimate, she wanted to stop having intercourse. As the weeks passed, she was comfortable with fewer and fewer sexual activities–she said she didn’t feel comfortable being so intimate with someone she wasn’t dating. She was also cagey about whether she was looking to date other guys, and expressed frustration when I asked about seeing a dating app on her phone, for instance. (I wasn’t snooping–an app notification popped up when she was showing me something on her phone.)
Our hangouts were usually pleasant, though, and B seemed genuinely more relaxed / at ease now that we weren’t dating. But this new arrangement only made me more needy and insecure. We would frequently have conversations negotiating our status (e.g., whether she was seeing other guys, what kind of sexual activities she was comfortable with, why we couldn’t just dating). I tried to say I was fine with the new situation, but obviously I wasn’t, and it would keep coming out. We agreed to stop talking/hanging out for a week at the end of September. After briefly resuming our quasi-romantic relationship, a final conversation about a month ago led to B insisting that we stop talking altogether.
I know this story sounds crazy. But I haven’t felt so strongly about someone ever. Despite our problems, I still feel like our chemistry is incredible. I can’t stop thinking about how to get her back–how much time I should go before reaching out, what I should do or say to convince her that I really want the things that she wants, whether I should try to be friends with her again, and so on.
I’ve been doing all the things you’re supposed to when you go through a breakup — focusing on personal growth, exercising, hanging out with friends, going on dates, etc. But I can’t get B off my mind.
I think I probably just need to hear some hard truths, so lay it on me.
Stuck in Love
DEAR STUCK IN LOVE: OK SIL, here’s the hard truth you’ve been looking forward to: B isn’t in good working emotional order and your going back to her would be a bad idea.
Now let’s back up and talk about why you can’t get over her or get her out of your mind.
Your relationship with B always felt precarious, because she seemed to blow hot and cold, and you never quite felt secure with things. The most consistent thing about your relationship with her is how inconsistent it was. At first, you and she weren’t on the same page with relationships: you wanted something serious and she didn’t. When there was this enforced separation, things got hotter and heavier and you wanted to end things… except you didn’t. This apparently defined your relationship until you were in person again, having amazing sex and being vulnerable and you decided that you were all in.
The problem is that B wasn’t. B always had at least one foot out the door. You were barely together for two months before she started expressing doubts about you — whether you were going to be the primary breadwinner, whether you actually were open to the possibility of kids. That, in and of itself isn’t a great sign. I mean, at the very least, she didn’t seem to accept that as a grad student, your career was only just starting and that it was going to be a while before you were making “raise a family” money. But she would stay and things would feel normal… except for the seemingly random moments when she would be on the verge of dumping you again. You’d reassure her, things would go back to normal… and then you would commit some error — one that you could never possibly anticipate — and she would be using this as proof that you didn’t care for her or were lying about wanting a relationship with her. Worse, she would never believe you when you tried to tell her how you felt and then would accuse you of putting pressure on her.
And it’s worth noting that this was very much the other way around. She was the one pressuring you.
This continued well into when she broke up with you — except she continued to act like your girlfriend. You were still being intimate and behaving in ways that other people would, reasonably, assume meant that you were dating. At least, until she decided that she was done… right up until she wasn’t again.
The thing that’s notable is how unsecure you felt in the relationship and how hyper-vigilant you were about the state of things. This isn’t surprising; B was so hot and cold, alternating being lovey-dovey and accusing you of lying about changing your mind, it’s not surprising that you were always on your guard. You had reason to be; you could never know what was going to set her off and make her accuse you of lying or take some random interaction as “proof” that you weren’t in it to win it. So now you’re always trying to figure out exactly what would bring back the lovey-dovey B, instead of the B who would accuse you of putting pressure on her to be in this relationship. Even after she dumped you, she was continuing to treat you like a boyfriend, until she didn’t anymore… and then brought you back again for your “quasi-romantic” relationship. And then she dumped you again.
This is a form of what’s known as “intermittent reinforcement”, where her approval and affection were seemingly given at random, as were the punishments. This ends up exploiting a quirk of human psychology; we work harder for rewards when they’re erratic and inconsistent. The part of our brains that look for patterns become convinced that if we work hard enough, we’ll figure out the triggers and get those rewards more consistently. Since you never knew whether she was going to accuse you of lying to her or not really wanting children or if you were going to go back to the hot, hot sex, you were working harder and feeling more unstable. Nothing was consistent enough for you to find the pattern or feel secure. Even when the relationship ended, it didn’t end, end at first. That consistent inconsistency, those constant mixed messages, keep you on the hook and make you put more and more effort in because your brain is sure that you’re closing in on what will make this work.
This is the exact same sort of psychological phenomena that games like Candy Crush and slot machines exploit to keep you coming back over and over again. Those tiny hits of dopamine from the rewards are enough to make you keep trying to power through the punishments, while the anxiety makes you feel like you need to work harder to keep her around.
So it’s small wonder that you’re still drawn to her and can’t get her off your mind. The things that she did were almost perfect for getting you literally addicted to her. The uncertainty — are you “broken up” again or not? — means that there’s just enough doubt and hope that you feel like there’s still a chance.
Now I can’t say whether she was doing this to you deliberately, or her weird unwillingness to believe you just made her luck into this behavior. Ultimately it doesn’t matter, because whether it was intentional or not, this behavior is toxic. Even if this was entirely unconscious and unintentional on her part, then at best it’s an indicator that she’s not in a good place emotionally to date. No relationship can survive when one person is saying “I love you and I want to make this work” and the other is calling them a liar. Nor can it work when break ups aren’t actually break-ups, except when one person wants them to be. Again, under the best of circumstances, that’s somebody stringing you along. At worst… they’re keeping you around because they like the attention and don’t want to be without intimacy and sex until they find a new partner.
And honestly… your relationship lasted approximately 6 months — longer if you factor in the “broken up” parts. That much drama in six months is not good, nor is it an indicator that you and she have any sort of future together.
Even if you were to get back together with her, all that’s going to happen is that you’re going to have the 12″ dance remix of your previous relationship: the exact same thing, only faster and more intense.
You need to write this off as a lost cause, SIL and go cold turkey on this addiction. That means that you need to take the full nuclear option; not just going no-contact, but deleting her number from your phone, blocking her on social media… even getting rid of photos, emails, the lot. All these represent is the temptation to relapse. Keeping her number or those old emails or what-have-you will just make it easier to give in to temptation and try to reach out again. The more barriers you can put between you and your ability to get in contact with her, the easier it will be to resist the urge. The more you can excise her from your life, including reminders of her, the easier it will be for you to let go and move forward. It sucks and it’s going to hurt… but it’s going to be far better for you than holding onto the false hope that you can still make this work. She is not in good working order, she treated you badly and you want someone who actually wants to be in a relationship with you.
That’s not her. There will be others. I promise.
Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, email@example.com