Breaking up is hard to do

How do you stay in contact with an ex and remain emotionally stable?

By Cary Tennis
Published December 11, 2002 8:09PM (EST)

Dear Cary,

I ended a year-and-a-half relationship a few months ago. We met when we were both pretty lonely, had a few things in common, and before we knew it we were going out. I met her family (which became my surrogate family while I was attending college). Early in the relationship she wanted me to say "I love you," and I gave in. She was a good girlfriend, and I was a decent boyfriend, but gradually our differences became more and more apparent to me. She slept in, I woke up early; she loved watching TV, I preferred reading; she loved going to clubs and dancing, I hated it. She didn't quite click with my friends.

So I broke up with her and had months of blissful relief. All of a sudden I had all this time to myself, which was normally spent running errands with her. But gradually the depression of being single hit me -- also, I'm a college grad now living with my parents and working retail.

I stay in contact with my ex, and I want to continue, but I hate the way it makes me feel emotionally. She'll tell me something like "I was at a club last night and a guy told me I looked like a dancer," and my mind will immediately start working, wondering what else they said, and what else they did. Sometimes I find myself doing stalker-esque things. For example, a mutual friend (who's a bit of a player) recently started an account online, and sometimes when I log on I check and see that they both logged off at the same time at 3 a.m., which most likely means they were talking a lot late into the night.

I know none of this is my business. I've tried ceasing communication -- we only talk online and I avoided going online for about two weeks -- but I just can't burn a bridge like that. If I keep busy I don't think about it as much, but I can't go out every night. How do I stop feeling this way?

Obsessed With Ex

Dear Obsessed,

Maybe you need a little time to get over the romantic feelings you still have for her before you can comfortably be just friends. You don't have to burn the bridge. Just stop crossing it so often. You're not going to stop thinking about her, but you can decide on a course of action that allows you the time you need for the feelings to die down. First, just stick to the most innocuous forms of staying in touch: birthday and holiday cards, wishing her and her family well, that kind of thing. An occasional e-mail, but no more than once a week. And no instant messaging -- it's too immediate, too likely to stir up the old feelings. What I'm saying is consciously, deliberately transform the style of your communications from romantic ones to those of a friend. Your feelings won't immediately follow, but at least you won't be reinforcing them. Instead, you'll be building the foundation for a normalized friendship.

Meanwhile, keep trying to find meaning and pleasure in your own life. OK, you've graduated and now you're living with your parents and working retail. There's nothing wrong with that. That's a standard rite of passage, like being in the Army only with fewer calisthenics. You'll get through it with an honorable discharge if you just keep your nose clean. Pursue your interests. Save your money for a place of your own. Keep a journal. Read. See movies. Live your life. Try to make it interesting. It's going to be a long trip, so make sure you have plenty of magazines and games.

Want more advice from Cary? Read yesterday's column.

Cary Tennis

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