Singletude: A Positive Blog for Singles

Singletude is a positive, supportive singles blog about life choices for the new single majority. It's about dating and relationships, yes, but it's also about the other 90% of your life--family, friends, career, hobbies--and flying solo and sane in this crazy, coupled world. Singletude isn't about denying loneliness. It's about realizing that whether you're single by choice or by circumstance, this single life is your life to live.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Advice Q & A: Getting Back Together with an Ex

A little while ago, a 16-year-old Singletude reader, Victoria Gothic, sent in a question about getting back together with an ex. Since that's a dilemma that many singles confront at every age, I thought it might be helpful to give this question and answer a blog entry of its own.

Q: Elsie, I need some advice. To get to the point, a relationship that ended almost two years ago on my birthday is coming back around. To make clear, I’m not even sure if anything will happen. It's just a fleeting thought, but since this is her last year at the school as a senior, it's now or never. To begin, she was my first ‘real’ relationship, and as we all do in the first, we give it too much focus, and think it will last forever. That illusion is usually quickly shattered, leaving us to more realistic relationships later on. The only thing is, I had one other relationship since, and it was short and meaningless--I was only attempting to fill a huge void in my life. Come to think of it, it's one of the things that started me writing.

But the thing is, I miss her so much. For the longest time, it's just been wanting to find ‘someone.’ But just recently, it's not just someone that I want to find--it's her. It's true, we were a nightmare of a couple; we were both egocentric, I was a little more pessimistic than her, but not by much, and we were really obsessive, so we were always thinking about each other. In short, we drove our friends, each other, and ourselves completely and wholly insane.
But, despite all the horrible times, the chaos that reigned during and the emptiness that ensued afterward, I would do it all over again. When I was with her, I was happy, truly happy. Just thinking of her would make me feel better. I no longer felt powerless, hopeless--like I couldn’t amount to anything. She made me think I was someone who actually had an effect upon the world. Now then, I hate that phrase, ‘you make me a better person,’ but it’s true. I was happy, outgoing, optimistic (scary huh?), but then that all came crumbling down.

Late March of 2006-- my birthday. She dumped me for some guy I didn’t really know, and haven’t met to this day. I didn’t care at the time. I felt numb--like I had just been removed from the arctic ocean and the pain was just searing my flesh. Afterwards, I became who I am today: someone who doesn’t believe in love, and who despises all who are happy because of it. (Except a few. There are a few that have reason to be.) It made me an even more pessimistic person. I didn’t believe anything good could come of anyone, and so I’ve been alone all this time waiting, waiting for that ‘someone’ who I’ve now come to realize about two years later--its her all over again. Should I do it all over again?

A: Let me first say that I'm sorry you experienced such a serious heartbreak two years ago. It's so painful to lose someone you love, especially that first love, which is so intense. And I'm sure that was compounded by the fact that there was someone else involved, which inevitably leads to feelings of rejection and self-doubt. So you had to recover from two blows--the end of the relationship and your ex's choice to give her love to somebody else. I've been there, and I know how devastating that is.

After a betrayal like that, it's natural to feel hurt, and some people do become bitter about love. It's terrifying to contemplate opening up to someone and getting hurt again, and it can be easier to protect ourselves by just writing off relationships. And, in fact, avoiding new relationships is a good idea while you're still recovering from the last one. But eventually, as the hurt subsides with time and space, it usually becomes clear that we've been transferring our negative feelings about the ending of one relationship onto the potential for new love, and at that point, we can let go of the old bitterness and look towards the future. It sounds like you may be reaching that point.

In your case, though, the situation is complicated by the fact that the person you've reached that point with is your ex, the same girl who hurt you so deeply when she left you before. On the positive side, from things you've said in the past, this relationship was based on a longtime friendship that outlasted the messy breakup. That shows that you and your ex have a strong bond and that you can weather storms together in a mature fashion. On the other hand, based on what you've told me, I'd also advise you to ask yourself--and her--a few questions before you jump back into the relationship.

I don't know all the details about your former or current relationship with your ex, but there are two important factors in your decision to reinvolve yourself with her romantically--how you've changed and how she's changed. Anytime you consider returning to a past relationship, that's the number one question: What's different this time that will prevent this relationship from ending up where it did last time?

Obviously, you're both older, and especially when you're young, two years can make a big difference. One of the great difficulties of dating in the teens and even early twenties is that, even though we all grow and change throughout life, there's a particularly dynamic restructuring of identity that takes place in youth. While we're still figuring out ourselves, it's hard to know what we want in someone else. Add to this the fact that dating is brand new in the teens, which creates a powerful urge to explore, and you have a recipe for the high dating turnover that you've noticed among your friends!

Has your ex explained to you why she left you for someone else as well as what's changed that she wants to give it a shot again? When you're 15 or 16, it's normal to want to experiment and get to know different people. But did her experimenting teach her something about why she'd rather be with you? Two years later, perhaps it has. But at 17 or 18, remember that she's still young and may still have more exploring to do before she knows what she wants in the long run, no matter how sure about it she seems now. And because she's a senior, if she's planning to go off to college, that distance could put a real strain on your relationship.

Then there's the question of what's changed for you. Up until recently, you seemed sure that you weren't ready for a relationship and mentioned several times that you think you're too self-absorbed. First of all, I just want to reassure you that focusing on yourself in adolescence is totally normal! As I said before, this is a time when you're discovering who you're becoming, so it's natural to be caught up in your own thoughts and feelings. Only you can know whether or not this will prevent you from giving time and attention to someone else, though. In the past, you've expressed concern that it might, so it's something to think about.

Finally, I want to address something you said that really stood out to me:

...We were a nightmare of a couple; we were both egocentric...and we were really obsessive, so we were always thinking about each other. In short, we drove our friends, each other, and ourselves completely and wholly insane. But, despite all the horrible times, the chaos that reigned during and the emptiness that ensued afterward, I would do it all over again. When I was with her, I was happy, truly happy...I no longer felt powerless, hopeless- like I couldn’t amount to anything. She made me think I was someone who actually had an effect upon the world.

Now I'm going to make some guesses here because I don't know the details of your situation, so if I'm wrong, feel free to correct me. You said that you and your ex were "a nightmare of a couple" and followed that up with some comments that suggest your relationship was pretty tumultuous. Again, I can't look inside your heart and see what's going on, but what jumps out at me is that the things you miss aren't things about your ex but things she made you feel about yourself. Powerful. Hopeful. Like you could have an effect on the world.

Victoria, you can have an effect on the world. You can live a life that's influential, and you can do great things, whether for a million people or for the people who know you and love you best. Although I don't know you personally, I know that you're a very intelligent, insightful, mature young woman, and that's a foundation that can take you many places. But those talents are yours, Victoria. No one else can give them to you, and no one else can take them away. People will come in and out of your life--lovers, friends, coworkers--but those gifts will always be yours, and you are the only one who can determine how they will be used.

Maybe you have other reasons for getting back together with your ex. Maybe you also love her laugh or the great conversations you have with her or the thoughtful way she brings you soup when you're sick or how trustworthy she is with your secrets or how you both share an interest in books...Whatever her personality traits are, maybe those are the things you love, and those are reason enough to be with her. (If you have any doubt about this, by the way, you might want to try making a list of things you love about her as well as things that rub you the wrong way.)

But if what you really miss is what you discovered about yourself when you were with her, then think carefully about whether you want to get back together. Ask yourself what will happen if she doesn't make you feel those things about yourself anymore. In an earlier post, you alluded to the roller coaster nature of your relationship and how your moods became dependent on hers. If she lashes out at you or ignores you or brings you down in some other way when she's not happy, will you then start feeling powerless and hopeless again? A sense of self-efficacy is something that you build for yourself through time and experience as your competence is tested in various ways and you pass those tests. Another person can't give you self-efficacy, though they can give you the illusion of it because their attention, affection, and belief in you are a boost to your confidence. But sooner or later, those tests arise, and as comforting as it is to have the support of others, only you can pass or fail them.

Bottom line: You and your ex have undoubtedly grown a lot in two years. What has changed about her that leads you to believe she will be more careful of your heart this time? What has changed about the two of you that will make your relationship dynamic healthier than it was? And what, if anything, has changed about your feelings toward her? Do you really love her, or do you love the way you felt about you when you were with her? Have you forgiven her completely for the past so that you'll be starting out without hard feelings? Are you hoping to relive your past relationship? (Remember that you're both older and somewhat more experienced now, so it will never be exactly the same.)

Whether you get back together with your ex or not, I truly hope you'll realize that you are a capable person on your own. It's easier to know that intellectually than to feel it, I know. A lot of the time, it really does just take some time and experience as life gives us challenges to meet in the form of higher education, job opportunities, volunteer positions and the like.

Here's something I want you to try, though, whether or not you get back together with her: Make a list of at least ten things you've accomplished in the past two years since the two of you broke up. They don't have to be awards or prizes. They can be things like the Yule dinner you organized on your own recently. Then, next to each accomplishment, write down what skills you learned you have from that success. For example, next to the Yule dinner, you might write "I am a good organizer" or "I can plan a fun event for a large group." Hang up that list somewhere you can see it, and reread it often, especially when you're doubting yourself. Remember that you achieved those things because you had the ability to achieve them, not because of who you were or weren't dating.

What do you think about getting back together with an ex? Have you ever gotten back together with an ex? If so, how did it work out?

If you have a question for Clever Elsie, please send it in! Singletude makes every effort to republish questions in their original form but reserves the right to edit your question for length and clarity.

Disclaimer: Clever Elsie is not a licensed mental health professional and does not give professional advice. Her answers are based on experience and what she hopes is more common sense than displayed by her eponymous Grimm Brothers character. She cannot be held legally responsible for your choice to follow her advice, although she thanks you for thinking it clever.

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