I can't let go of the one I loved, betrayed and lost

It has been three years since she left. Everything else in my life is great. But I can't get over her.

Published September 11, 2008 10:30AM (EDT)

Hi Cary,

At no point in my life did I ever think that I'd be writing to an advice column. My Midwestern roots predispose me to be skeptical or even shun such things as therapy, psychoanalysis and self-help. That being said, I do recognize that something isn't working out. I'm at best treading water and could use some help figuring some stuff out.

There is a lot about my life that is great. Grad school swept me away to the Bay Area and I love it out here. After I received my MFA from a school that I've always dreamed about going to, I landed a dream job with a company that I have always had great admiration for. Not only is the work I do satisfying for the worker bee in me, but it also directly feeds my creative side, helping me develop new tools and skills for my art and music practice. I have great old friends and exciting new ones. I live in an amazing house with genuinely good people. My family, though far away, is very dear to me, and we have great relationships. I stay relatively active with regular jogging and yoga. On the side, I make music and sometimes people even pay to come hear me play. In almost every way, my life is expanding in all of the directions that I've always wanted it to. But there is one thing missing.

I am in love with someone who is not in love with me. To top it off, this person used to be madly in love with me ... until I cheated on her. Not once, not twice, but three times. And now, despite having a life that by all accounts I should be happy with, I simply can't be.

I actually just wrote a mini-history of my completely insane romance with this wonderful woman, whom I'll call N, but I won't bother you with all the details. It's a convoluted tale spanning eight years, with all sorts of murky twists and turns. But what it really boils down to is the fact that I cheated on her, repeatedly. It wasn't just a drunken screw-up or a one-night stand; it was a problematic way of being that I had fallen into without really knowing it at the time. I became the thing that was her greatest fear. I embodied all of the negative things that made her question our relationship. And it took the most over-the-top insane spectacle for me to come to my senses, during which N understandably left me. All this happened while we were living across the country from each other. I've learned so much from this horrible experience and have a much clearer vision of how relationships work, for me and for other people. But, of course, my coming to my senses after the fact is little consolation to me or probably her. As she said on the last day that I saw her, "You are going to get better, but you are going to get better for someone else." Those words still ring in my ears.

I'm well acquainted with the concepts of accepting responsibility, grieving, growing and moving on. I actually understand how to do all of that. The problem here is that I don't want to do that last part. It has been three-plus years since N and I broke up, and this loss has only become amplified over time. I've tried to have other relationships, really, I have. But not a single time did any of these women come close to capturing my mind or heart like N. I've always had to end these relationships because I felt like a fraud for still being in love with N. It has gotten to the point where I've just stopped dating, because it's so embarrassing. I've described it as a bit like being an adult bed-wetter. It is almost like an addiction, come to think of it. Part of me wants to get over it, but the other part of me knows that there is really no one else for me and I am happiest loving her, even if I can't be with her.

N continues to be the most intellectually stimulating, kind, beautiful, intelligent, tasteful and thoughtful person I have ever met, and I am convinced that I will never meet anyone who comes close to matching her in any of these areas. And despite that sounding like a score card, what it comes down to most is that I am inextricably and madly still in love with her. Beyond all of her amazing attributes there is the simple fact that I am drawn to her in a way that is not completely rational or explicable. I feel like we were made for each other and that every day we stay apart is a wasted one. There is a resonance that I feel with her that exceeds any kind of logic.

We share a deep psychic connection that is eerie to the point of being disturbing. Everywhere I look, everything I experience, I am reminded of her. I will be thinking about her and she will, right then, text me, after months of no contact. I'll dream about her, and she will dream about me. We have actually had the same dream on the same night. The list goes on. Whatever it means, it just reinforces the feeling I have that we should be together. Ironically, it's because of the things that I learned from this breakup that I feel like a whole person, capable of truly loving N in the way that she deserves.

But I'm pretty sure that she doesn't feel the same way. How could she? What person in their right mind would want to be with someone who had hurt them so much? She has told me point blank that even if she wanted to get back together with me, none of her friends or family would ever let her. I just hurt her too badly. But I know how much I have changed, and feel that if she just were able to see that somehow, then we could be together again, and for good. But this is the old line, right? Who is going to believe that the jerk that screwed over the supposed love of his life has been rehabilitated? How can you believe such a thing? And even if it's true, why even bother?

We write very occasionally, and talk rarely. My heart aches more and more with each passing day. I don't want to be with anyone else, but I also understand that it's probably impossible for us to be together given the circumstances. Have I sealed my own fate -- or is there some way to reconcile how I feel with the reality of things? Lately, I've tried to have a slightly more celebratory take on it all, trying to be happy that I can feel about anyone the way I do with N, even though we can't be together. But it hasn't really worked; it's just made me more depressed.

I've had plenty of time to mull this stuff over, and I'm no closer to understanding a trajectory for healing. How do you get over something that you don't want to get over? How do you reconcile the past with the future if there is a critical piece missing from the present? Is it possible to stop loving N, and is that the most loving thing I could do for her? These feelings are like termites eating away at me. Although the structure looks fine on the outside, it's about ready to crumble from the inside.


Dear B,

I went through a similar thing. It took about five years to get over. So I am going to say things to you that other people might not say. Other people may not have gone through what you and I have gone through. I am going to say things that may sound harsh and dogmatic or unforgiving.

You talk like an addict. You concentrate on the feeling that she gave you and how you've lost it and crave it and fear you'll never get it back. You're living without her and have nothing to replace her with. Nothing else will give you that feeling. She was your heroine and your heroin. What you did when you were with her sounds like what we do when we're high. You talk like an addict who's white-knuckling it.

You abused her, as it were, the way one abuses a substance. You took too much of her. You got drunk on her. When she ran dry you needed more. So you went out and got more. You didn't care where you got or who you got from or how it made her feel. What you felt for her was not as much love for her as love for what she contained, what she promised, what she brought to you. You loved her like an addict loves the bottle the whiskey comes in. You loved the whiskey that she was. You loved the high she gave you.

Maybe this sounds harsh. The phenomena you describe -- the connectedness, the paranormal awareness, the intoxication -- sound like the romantic love that poets talk about. She understood you like no one else. She understood you in a way that could be magical or could be pathological. Your love of this understanding of you, this also could be romantic or could be pathological. Your love of this one feeling is a love of feeling understood.

Addiction and love are different. Love is hard. Addiction is a better high.

But addiction will destroy you. Addiction will leave you wanting more. Just look at you. You are still reeling. You are still craving that future of limitless highs, smothered in the butter of her endless fascination. To dwell on this will only excite more hunger, more desire, more self-interested seeking after conquest and orgasm and acceptance and adrenaline and intimacy and release. You saw it yourself: As great as she was, she was not enough. She was not enough because it wasn't about her. It was about your high. You were using her to get high. To maintain the high, you found the high wherever you could find it. In doing so, you hurt her. You professed to not know why you hurt her, because to admit why you hurt her would be to admit that she was an object. Since she was an object, in a sense you tried to destroy her. We attempt to destroy the objects of our addiction. In our delusion, we see them as the cause of our addiction.

I suggest you consider the possibility that you have a kind of sex and love addiction. There are groups that deal with this. I suggest that you consider the possibility that in being the wonderful person you are, talented and successful and creative, you are, like so many of us talented and successful and creative people, deeply flawed in the classic way, flawed like Byron and Jim Morrison, flawed like Shakespeare and Don Juan, flawed like Richard Burton, flawed like JFK and Bill Clinton, flawed like a rock star, flawed like Sinatra.

This flaw will not leave you in the physical gutter the way an alcohol addiction will. It leaves you in a cultural gutter, despised by women and men alike, outcast, unable to live within society's rules, unable take care of your family.

So it's a tricky thing to figure out, whether you're just a red-blooded cocksman or an addict. It's a hard thing to figure out. But what you're telling me, this is what it sounds like: Your psychological structure drives you to seek a high through other people, and this self-centered seeking of a high prevents you from genuinely encountering the other. The other will not make you high. The other will not always be psychically connected to you. The other will not always have the same dreams. The other is genuinely the other.

You say, quite understandably, "I'm well acquainted with the concepts of accepting responsibility, grieving, growing and moving on, I actually understand how to do all of that. The problem here is that I don't want to do that last part."

Well, my friend, no addict wants to move on. No addict wants to willingly give up the only thing that makes him feel OK. But it doesn't matter what you want. Nor does it matter what you think. You think you know how to grieve and move on. You think you know how to do these things. But grieving and moving on are not things that you do. They are things that happen to you. You might know how to walk in the rain. But you don't decide when it rains or how long it rains or how hard it rains. You just carry an umbrella and keep your head down.

Here is the other thing that is paradoxical but makes it sound like an addiction to me: You are so great in every other way. What this says is not, "Gee, then how could he be an addict?" but, "Gee, so of course he's an addict!" The essential characteristic is present: The split. The void. The discomfort. The space between your perfection and your craven emptiness, your public satisfaction and secret craving, your placid exterior and need for a high, your intellectual competence and spiritual longing.

After years of Lacanian psychoanalysis, you might actually be able to be with the woman you love. But this also may be some kind of dream akin to the dream alcoholics have of one day drinking normally. It is more likely that you will have to learn to live with a new way of relating to women that is more difficult, more nuanced and more centered in the give-and-take between two independent, self-governing individuals.

It doesn't mean you can't have sex and love. But it means that the fundamental mechanism that you have mistaken for love must be altered.

She's gone. She's gone and it's over. What you are left with is yourself.

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