I broke up with him, but I can't let go

My boyfriend has finally moved on, and now I'm the one who's clinging to the past.

By Cary Tennis
August 4, 2005 11:41PM (UTC)
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Dear Cary,

I know that in general, there is no "standard" way to move forward in life, but recently I have started to worry about myself.

The crux of the situation is an imbalance between me and my ex-boyfriend. A year and a half ago, I broke up with him after over five years together. He had briefly cheated on me, but I told myself that that was only an excuse for me: I'd been wanting to break up with him for a long time. I moved far away, back near where my family lives. I got a new job, a new apartment.


It was a horrible year. Aside from a handful of friends, I felt utterly out of place in the new/old environment. My job was boring and the hours were long. I went out every night to avoid loneliness and only did my creative things (writing) on weekends.

I was conflicted. I knew I was only in this city because I needed to be far, far away from him. (He is very emotional, very charming and intelligent, and wanted me back.) But I also knew that my real life, even without him, was in his city. I had moved there in part to be with him, but I truly had always wanted to live there anyway. So, nearly a year after I'd left, friends of mine found me an apartment there and I decided to quit my job and move back. This was in December.

Seven months later, I have been living in this city, though in a different neighborhood than when I was with him. I still feel lonely if I'm at home in the evening, so I tend to go out with friends every night. I still have not managed to accept any dates or other more-than-friendly intimacy. Suddenly, with summer here, I can't help remembering our vacations, our travels and how happy (I think) I was with him -- at least, how secure.


We had dinner three evenings ago. It was only the third time we have seen each other since the breakup. I have surmised that he has been with someone for at least half a year now. (He is very private -- I would even say secretive -- and won't tell me anything about this person, not her name or profession or how they met or how long they have been together.) At this dinner, strangely enough, it was as though not a day had gone by for us: We laughed, talked, held hands across the table, and when I walked with him to the subway afterward, he kissed me on the nose, cheek, eyelid. He said he would call me the next day.

He called two days later and said he was sorry not to have called, had been super busy and now was out the door for several weeks' vacation. He said our dinner had been "joyful" but also "troubling." I wanted to know more, but I pretended to be happy and told him it was great he would be getting some rest and be able to go swimming. All I was thinking, though, was about the woman who would be sitting in the passenger seat of his car.

I am bereft. Clearly, he still has feelings for me, but just as clearly (despite hints that he doesn't feel as strong about the new woman as he did about me), he is moving on with his life.


My question is this: I left him. I knew I didn't want to be with him for many reasons I considered (and still consider) sound. So why can't I move on, too?


Dear Lagging,

You can move on. You will move on. It will take time. But you can speed up the process. There are things you can do.


Certain ways of thinking and acting are holding you back. Other ways of thinking and acting can help you move forward. You may be ambivalent about letting go of some of the things you are doing that are holding you back. There may be pleasures associated with these behaviors. Having dinner with him, for instance, may have felt good in certain ways. But it was an indulgence you could ill afford. It set you back.

But if you want to move forward, you can. There are things you can do. You can harden yourself with the facts. Get the facts in your head. Hammer them in there. Say these things to yourself: He is not coming back. This thing is over. He is the ex. He is gone. That relationship is in the past. He has moved on. You don't need him. You made the right decision. You were smart to break up with him. You had the courage and the intelligence to do the right thing, in spite of how hard it was. What he's doing now is of no concern to you.

As you try to cleanse your mind of him, also cleanse your house. Whatever keepsakes you have around the house, get rid of them. Do not know his phone number. If his phone number is programmed into your cellphone, delete it. If his picture is displayed in your house, put it away somewhere. (If in cleaning the house you find yourself pausing with keepsakes, stop it! Don't pause to remember! Just put it away!) Do not discuss him with friends. Refuse to learn anything about his new girlfriend. Do not picture her in his car. Do not picture her at all. Do not picture either one of them. Banish him from your mind. Do it forcefully.


You will be happier once you do this.

But you may encounter resistance from yourself. After all, you are waging an internal struggle. So if you find yourself unable to stop thinking about him or imagining the future with him, try this: Sit quietly somewhere, when you have an hour or so of spare time. Perhaps when you are lying in bed about to go to sleep, or in the afternoon sitting in a park, or in the morning with coffee, or -- I don't know when, why am I suggesting times? That isn't important! What is important is that you consider carefully the content of each thought you have concerning this boyfriend.

What do you feel when you think about having broken up with him? Do you feel regret? That's OK. You can feel regret. It doesn't mean you have to change it. It's done. You may regret your decision. But it is a material fact: You are broken up. It is over. He is not coming back. He is an ex-boyfriend. Feel the regret. But know that it's done. Embrace these phenomena independently. See how different they are. One is something you do yourself, within yourself. The other is external, done, beyond anyone's control.


Consider also the habitual ways in which you refer to him. If we are having trouble accepting a fact, sometimes we find ways of not saying it. Do you refer to him as your ex-boyfriend, or do you talk around that fact? Make sure in your habits of speech that you say the truth: He is your ex-boyfriend. If someone asks, say you are glad you did what you did, even though it has at times been hard. Do not go into detail. Do not rehearse the emotions you have. Let them die out.

You also say, "Suddenly, with summer here, I can't help remembering our vacations, our travels and how happy (I think) I was with him." Let me suggest to you that even if you believe your are powerless over these memories, try to exercise some control over them. Refuse to luxuriate in them. When you find yourself remembering those times with pleasure, stop. Don't do it. Turn your thoughts to something else.

And above all, if you should find yourself thinking about having dinner with him again any time soon, douse your head in ice water. Dinner with your ex is needless torture. Don't do it. Just don't do it.

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