How to cope with someone who can't get over a former relationship?
November 22, 2008 1:45 PM   Subscribe

Need help in coping with the issues of being with someone who can't get over a relationship that ended five years ago. More inside...

I am in a relationship with an adorable guy, we have great fun together but...he still can't get over the end of his previous relationship five years ago. I knew him before we got together and am aware this has always been a major struggle for him. Apart from that glaring issue, our relationship is normal to the outside world.

But internally, things aren't that simple. He says he loves me, but only when 'prompted'. The reason, he claims, is that 'there is too much going on in his head'. We talked about it quite a lot lately and he agrees he needs to resume the therapy he stopped a couple of years ago and recognizes this is not healthy. Apparently, he thinks about her (who has moved on ages ago and is obviously sick of him still thinking about her in that way so many years after the break-up) every single day. Another point to mention is that his mum died shortly before the relationship ended, so it may be that he mirrored his mum on the girl and the break-up probably meant he was losing his mum again.

I sort of understand all of this and try to help by living the present, but this issue does cast a shadow in the relationship. Sometimes, I explode and get angry about it all and want to just leave him and his issues alone, but I always decide against it. This week though, we had an argument over the phone and I said things along the lines of 'you are wasting my time', 'it is her who you love, not me, so why are you fooling us both'...I realized later that what I said has not helped at all. He didn't call me after that.

A day later, still no calls from him and I went for after work drinks with a guy who turned out to be interested in me for some time. After a few drinks, he tried to kiss me, I sort of responded to it and felt awful after that. It is not something that I would like my bf to do by any means but if that can be justified at all, it is because I often feel that I am not doing enough for my relationship and thus feel rejected.

After leaving the bar I called my boyfriend and gave him the summary of what had happened, said I felt horrible and apologized, and he invited me over to his place. I was drunk, but told him about all about my evening. He seemed sort of unfazed by it all and said I would always have that sort of approach [from other guys] but he is the one who is WITH me, so I should think about that. I felt horrible still and burst into tears, mainly because I hate being in this position, where I need so much attention and reassurance from him as to how he feels and where do we go from here, etc.

Following all these events, I do feel he is more distant. I may have been so dramatic and put him under so much pressure that I may have jeopardized the relationship. I love him and want to be with and help him, but how do I cope with these issues, how do I 'revive' the relationship so that he is not constantly thinking about his ex? And how do I keep in peace with myself under these circumstances? Experiences from people who had a lot of trouble getting over a previous relationship particularly appreciated. Thank you!
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (14 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I often feel that I am not doing enough for my relationship

You can't fix this.

You don't have to feel insecure in a healthy relationship. That's what is so great about a healthy relationship. It is such a relief when you get in one and realize it can be like this.

What you describe is not a healthy relationship. A healthy relationship means you don't need constant reassurance because by your partner's actions and your comfort with each other you are already reassured. You should not have to be working so hard not to "jeopardize the relationship." Honestly, if it is that fragile, it already isn't working. If you are constantly feeling insecure, it's because the relationship is so insecure. You can't change the way he feels. You just can't.

This guy is simply not available to you for the kind of relationship you seem to want (and to which you have a right). He'll get over his ex (still not over it 5 years later is a little unhealthy) when he falls in love again. If he isn't over it, he hasn't fallen in love again yet. I am sorry, but I don't know what else could be going on here.

In the meantime, his needs are apparently being met by his relationship with you, at enormous cost to your emotional well-being and sense of self. Your needs clearly are not being met. This isn't fair. You deserve better.
posted by isogloss at 2:02 PM on November 22, 2008 [11 favorites]

Err, not to harsh on your drama, but you have chosen to partner with someone whom you know cannot fully commit to you. In all seriousness, the person who should be in therapy here is you, because that is not a healthy relationship choice to make.

His issues are his, and not a single thing you can do can change them. Your issues, however, are yours - and that's the only thing you can do anything about.

If you cannot be happy with this man as he is now, do not hang around waiting for him to change. Leave, and try again with someone ready for the same parity of relationship you are.

Really, what is the point of staying? You love him? Newsflash: you will love many people through your lifetime, including people who are no good for you.
posted by DarlingBri at 2:08 PM on November 22, 2008 [9 favorites]

He needs to get over his issues before he can have another real relationship. That might take a year or five years or twenty, and you cannot really affect it.

You sound like you need more than he's in shape to provide.
posted by rokusan at 2:21 PM on November 22, 2008

how do I cope with these issues, how do I 'revive' the relationship so that he is not constantly thinking about his ex? And how do I keep in peace with myself under these circumstances?

I've been where you are now. I dated a person who was still grieving the loss of a previous relationship. I constantly felt compared to the ex, was irritated by the distance, but genuinely cared for this person and believed we could be perfect together, if only they would just let go and move on.

Well, that didn't happen. The thing is, so long as you're there providing a distraction from the issues he needs to take care of, he's never going to address them. In addition, it's not healthy for you to be casting your feelings down a well. It's going to be a vicious cycle of trying to win him back from a ghost, him never being 100% there, you getting frustrated, lashing out, then feeling guilty, and coming back to him again.

You seem like a genuinely caring person. If you really care about this guy, let him go. He can deal with these issues as a single man better than he could in an enabling relationship. And your energies would be better spent on someone willing to love you back.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 2:30 PM on November 22, 2008

You don't want the guy you have. You want a guy who is almost exactly like the guy you have, but who doesn't have great, tangly, horrible issues about his ex girlfriend, who is open and available, and who is forthcoming with comfort and affection.

Unfortunately, the guy you actually want doesn't exist.

You need to realize that. You need to internalize it fully. Then, you need to take stock of the guy who actually does exist and decide if the relationship is worth pursuing. From what you've written, it sounds like maybe it isn't.

I don't mean to sound harsh or dismissive-- this is difficult, hearbreaking stuff. Best of luck.
posted by palmcorder_yajna at 2:31 PM on November 22, 2008 [10 favorites]

he still can't get over the end of his previous relationship five years ago.

As long as this is the case, he's not ready to be in another relationship. He sounds like he has a lot of issues and it's not up to you to put your life on hold while he sorts them out. He has to do that first, then he can work on building another relationship. It doesn't sound like he is happy or that he is making you happy. It would be best for you both if you went your separate ways and he got himself together, and you found someone who can be with you and think about the future rather than dwelling on the past.
posted by Dasein at 2:55 PM on November 22, 2008

Here's is the utterly heartbreaking discovery I've made about situations like these. It will sound harsh and I apologize, but I'd really like to save you five more years:

One day, this guy is going to meet some woman he falls madly, passionately in love with. He'll give himself to her completely and all of his excuses about not being fully available to you because of some five-year-old past relationship will go out the window. You are not that woman.
I've have been in this situation and I was not that woman either. It caused me a lot of pain but while dating me, the prince of a man I was with met a woman, fell in love with her and six weeks later, they got married in Vegas. (He informed me of this by email. Of course I'm not making this up. Can you make this stuff up?)

I spent a year dating him, all the while hearing about how his last relationship destroyed him and he just wasn't ready to love. It's been five years now. I know from friends that he's still married to the woman and they now have children. Plural. Children! Mr. "Oh I just don't want that kind of comittment."

Please do yourself a favor: Stop blaming yourself for his issues. Stop trying to fix him and clean up his mess. Stop finding fault with yourself. Adopt my motto: "If you come to me raggedy, you'll leave me the same goddamn way."

I'm sorry your dealing with this. It sucks, sucks, sucks ... but it gets better.
(I, for one, comfort myself with the thought that I would had to have sex with that man for the rest of my life. And sadly, as much in love with him as I thought I was, he was pretty damn bad in bed.)
posted by notjustfoxybrown at 4:31 PM on November 22, 2008 [27 favorites]

It sounds like you have a slow drift going on. You will (most likely) never feel like you are doing enough for the relationship or that he is giving you his full love and support. Him still thinking about her ever day* five years after the fact is a bit creepy, and obviously drove you away a bit.

I think you should at least take some time apart if not end this slowly decaying relationship faster.

*How did you find THAT out, by the way? That in not something I'd like to hear from a partner.
posted by piratebowling at 5:06 PM on November 22, 2008

listen to foxybrown, who said everything I came here to say. he is not emotionally available for you.

what you said on the phone to him is what you are feeling. maybe you shouldn't have said it but maybe being out there like that will be useful for you.

but back to foxybrown: some day you will meet a guy who will be there for you and is emotionally available and will say that he loves you without prompting. this is not that guy. and he is just not that into you. you are there and you aren't demanding much so it's okay for him.
posted by micawber at 5:43 PM on November 22, 2008

Wow. I read this and for a minute thought you were actually dating an ex-boyfriend of mine (but the details are different enough- whew!)

I completely understand how frustrated you are. I had a great boyfriend who had enough emotional baggage about an ex to choke a horse. He toyed with therapy, we even went to a few sessions together, and when he stopped showing up the therapist told me she wasn't surprised- every time they got down to core issues he bailed. Eventually he became even more distant and so we broke up. Four years later I hear from mutual friends that he has still not resolved these issues, and I am relieved I got out when I did. It does make me sad though- like your boyfriend he was a wonderful person, just one who was so busy thinking about the past that our own relationship couldn't move forward.

If you are deeply committed to this person, maybe couples counseling would help. Otherwise, like the posters above, I would suggest moving on to find someone who puts more emotional energy into being with you than he does angsting over an old breakup.
posted by Mouse Army at 6:27 PM on November 22, 2008 [3 favorites]


My ex was like this. For the 3+ years we dated, he continued to be semi-obsessed with his ex, under the guise of friendship. I didn't realize he was sending her flowers for important things (birthdays, valentine's day, her recital, "Just because") while he did NOTHING for me, because those are all "commercial holidays". He never went home with me for the holidays, never invited me home with him. Refused to commit, backed out weeks before we were supposed to move in together, dumped me a week before Christmas last year.

Months later, when I'd started seeing someone new, he suddenly decided he and I were meant to be, came begging for another chance and denied all the contact and gifts he'd had with his ex during the time we were together. He is still hung up on me now, although I know he has a new girlfriend who either does not know that he called me multiple times a day for four months or is able to explain it away the way I did at first. I refuse to be party to the situation, and I've refused flowers he's sent to me and don't answer the phone when he calls. The thing is, he's NOT in love with me, and he wasn't in love with his ex while he and I were dating. He's scared of commitment, and he latches on to the girl who will no longer have him as protection against the one who's standing right in front of him.

It's infuriating and frustrating. And it's a terrible way to treat people. Read the book He's Scared, She's Scared and then convince yourself that you deserve better than what this guy is offering you. Don't leave him hoping he'll come begging for another chance. Leave knowing that there's someone out there who's WILLING and ABLE to commit to you now.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 7:15 PM on November 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

My spidey sense tells me something is very wrong here. Listen to notjustfoxybrown, who speaks truth.

Don't take responsibility for his issues; you can't fix them, no matter how hard you may try. You are not "putting him under pressure" or "being too needy" by wanting reassurance and attention from him; you are simply being human. There's nothing wrong with you for wanting what you want. That said, you're in a precarious place right now, and if you're feeling tempted by the attentions of other men and he's even more distant now after the recent events, this downward spiral is only going to worsen.

I'm sorry you're in this situation. I know how much it sucks, and I know how hard it is to think about throwing in the towel when you love someone. But if he's still hung up on his disinterested ex and still pining away for her after five years, that's a huge red flag, and you can't change it. It sounds like your relationship with this man has run its course, and there may not be much you can do to save it at this point.

I don't know if I would have heeded notjustfoxybrown's wise words if I'd been given such advice when I was in a similar situation. I loved my ex dearly, our lives were deeply intertwined after 14 years together, and I did not want to face the harsh fact that "I'm just not into relationships" or "I'm not yet over my ex" really meant "You're just not the right person for me." I adored him, and I knew it would break my heart.

Unfortunately, my reluctance to face the truth only prolonged my misery, and in the end my heart got broken into a million pieces anyway. My ex - who had always sworn he didn't want marriage and children! - began a torrid online affair with a married woman who was cheating on her husband, and within a few months he moved across the USA to be with her and adopt her kids. As far as I know, they're still together. I, too, learned about all this via e-mail, and I was devastated.

I hope you'll be spared such a fate. You sound like a good-hearted person, and I wish you luck. If writing about this experience on AskMe can help someone else avoid the kind of pain I went through, I'll keep right on writing about it until my fingers are blue.
posted by velvet winter at 7:52 PM on November 22, 2008

Newsflash: you will love many people through your lifetime, including OTHER people who are no good for you.

Fixed that for ya.

Seriously, though, listen to notjustfoxybrown and run as far as you can and as fast as you can; lo, DTMFA, even. I'm sorry, this guy doesn't want to be with you, you're just his physical stand-in for this lost relationship he's pining for. This is his way to have his cake and eat it too--he gets the benefits of having a girlfriend, but gets to save his thoughts and emotions for someone who doesn't want to be with him, keeping you out of your rightful place of 'girlfriend' in his mind because she has taken up residence there.

I've been in relatable situations. I dated a guy for years who was always on the lookout for someone else, and though this is different in object from pining for a lost love, the results are the same. I always felt like I had to work harder to make the relationship work, that I had to be more appealing to him, and constantly came up with justifications for why he did the things he did. I told myself that relationships come in all shapes and sizes, that everyone's got problems, that this was just something to deal with, and not a reason in and of itself to split with him. It made me miserable, ran my self-esteem (never great to begin with, or why would I have stayed with the jerk for two years) through the wood chipper, and when I finally burned out on it and stopped calling him, all I felt was relief.

I've also been your boyfriend, though not as a relationship partner. A while back I posted an AskMe question about how to get over a lost opportunity/broken heart, which had been festering for the better part of a year (and still occasionally haunts me, if I'm going to be honest). I've had opportunities to get involved with people since then, but to this day have not, for two reasons: one, because I don't want any of these people as much as I want Guy, and two, because even during the times when it would be great to be in a relationship again, I know it wouldn't be fair to the other person unless I thought that what I felt for them would equal or surpass what I felt for Guy. That hasn't happened yet, so I've remained uninvolved. I'm not trying to pat myself on the back, just demonstrating that there is another side to the place your boyfriend is in, and his actions aren't justifiable.
posted by the luke parker fiasco at 12:49 AM on November 23, 2008

There's this great story by Silverstein about a little piece that was missing its whole - it had various other pieces try to fit it in, but the result never quite worked. Then it met something that had no missing pieces and was whole on its own, and at the end the little piece learned that it didn't need to fit anyone else, that it could roll all by itself. It's one of the most memorable stories I've ever read, and from then on defined healthy relationships for me.

You need someone who is not missing pieces like that - or if they are, someone who is willing to become a whole person and be complete in and of themselves. For five years, your guy has refused to take healthy steps towards normal relationships, so what makes you think he'll suddenly change? That he'll suddenly fall head over heels in love with you? You're not only dating something that has a missing piece, you have never fit into his true needs. The mold he has is not for your shape, and there's nothing you can do to reshape it if it hasn't already happened.

Find someone who wants you, truly and unbelievably and madly. Find someone who won't stop thinking about you and not their previous lovers. You deserve to be in a healthy relationship that is all about the people currently involved in it, no one else. If you have vital needs your current partner isn't fulfilling and can't bring himself to, you have no reason to plod along in the hopes that he'll one day wake up and realize what a wonderful person you are.

Life is too short. Don't waste it with people who wouldn't, and won't, miss you.
posted by Bakuun at 9:46 AM on November 23, 2008 [5 favorites]

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