Learning to make better decisions in relationships filter:
October 25, 2009 7:52 PM   Subscribe

Help me get over a broken heart uber-style. I'm taking my recent relationship experience to the max and looking at why I do what I do. Can you help me?

About two months ago, I went through a pretty non-descript breakup that hurt, as all breakups do, but had a fantastically heartbreaking unexpected coda that left me in a deep depression. Without getting into much detail: We knew each other for a while, dated, had an awesome time together, things started to get funky with both of us playing a part and that led to us not being together. Not what I wanted but life don’t always do what we think it’s ‘sposed to do. After the breakup, I was privy to an overwhelming flow of information about my ex that involved lying, cheating, secrecy and all around bad form and behavior behind my back (I did not seek out the information, it came to me.) To say the least, I was devastated.
I decided to take this opportunity to look at myself, my choices and my relationship “resume”. Needless to say, I’ve made bad choices in partners before (surprise!) and vowed to get a handle on this situation. I began therapy, write regularly and spend time with good friends. But, is that enough? I know it’s only been two months but I cry. All.The.Time. I’m having a hard time processing this recent experience not to mention looking at a lifetime of dating disasters. I can see some of my patterns, you know? I see that I have made some romantic decisions based on immature reasoning: The chemistry is good, the sex is fantastic and turning a blind eye to inappropriate behavior for fear of failing in relationship. Again. This last one was a doozy ‘cause I thought I was being smart and mindful. Communincating clearly, being vulnerable and honest and all that good stuff but it was probably the most painful ending yet. I really want to learn how to make better partnering choices but don’t know how. I mean, seeing my pattern and knowing how to change it are two very different things. Not to mention, I am human. Prone to make mistakes. Does that exclude me from having a loving relationship?
So, have you been able to change your relationship patterns for the better? How and what did you do? I don’t expect that I will do an automatic 180. I expect a little two steps forward, one step back action but god damn! I need some help on the two steps forward. I feel I reek of this experience and don’t feel like I’m moving in any direction at all. If this sounds familiar, the making bad relationship choices part, how were you able to change? Anon but email can be sent to changemypatterns@gmail.com
Thanks a bunch for any and all insight.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (16 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
Not sure whether you are down in the dumps because of what you learned about the person or if it mostly the hurt suffering from a breakup or bad feeling in general about your seeming inability to get and keep a relationship. Or a mix.

I can not offer any advice but this: if you have had a number of relationships that have turned sour, try to figure out what attracted you to that person in each instance and see if there is a pattern of who you choose, why those choices, and what goes wrong in each instance.
You may find a pattern that begins to tell you something.
posted by Postroad at 8:13 PM on October 25, 2009 [3 favorites]

What you're going through isn't so unusual for a major relationship failure. Actually, "failure" is a bad word. Every relationship is a failure except for the one you die in, you could say, hehe.

Because you've not provided me with enough information, I'm going to make lots of outlandish assumptions. Enjoy!

If you are a boy, note that some of my (former) good friends were more likely to cheat on their boyfriends if they showed their vulnerable side. Women seem to be more likely to cheat when they ovulate, and when they ovulate they're more attracted to "manly" men, not people who believe in open, honest communication. Most girls of my generation are uninterested in men who cry more than them, are more emotional or sensitive than them, are shorter, are smaller, are weaker, etc. Feminism is a beautiful dream that exists only in my brain. One of my platonic male buddies used to be a "nice guy geek" who got no action, and over time he increased his "numbers" by learning how to hide his true self. I'm not sure how his soul is doing, mind you.

If you are an introvert, note that extroverts (and I'm going to guess she/he is one) speak an entirely different language. Introverts are the easiest people to cheat on, because their grasp of interpersonal relationships isn't so hot. I once cheated on an introvert boyfriend with two boys and three girls in a single week, and he never found out. I tried something similar on an extrovert boyfriend and he found out and got so angry that we only broke up and got back together two more times before he had really had it with me. Introverts don't pick up on the signs. Introverts should date other introverts, if it can be helped. I think this advice works for people who are emotionally sensitive, as well.

Most of my relationship failures are due to me not dealing with my bipolar well enough, and chasing people away with my initially endearing by eventually frustrating antics. The only way to learn, really, is to keep on trying and never give up. What's the difference between someone who has had ten partners and someone who has had one? The person with ten got their heart broken a hundred times, while the person with one only got their heart broken twice. Etc.

Here's my doctor's advice for me: take things slow, avoid sex for at least a month, because the moment you have sex your brain changes and you see the world differently and it might be too late to avoid the warning signs. I know you knew each other for a while before, but I think it is a good idea to be "dating" for a while before you hit a home run. This is coming from someone who got invited to an orgy in Montreal but turned it down because there was totally going to be another one before Christmas.

Here's my advice for you: make sure you are not passive. Do not be afraid to "fail" if you see things that disturb you. Being passive and overly nice is a great way of saying "cheat on me I won't notice or care". Some people think of disagreement/fighting as a sign of affection.

God, I ramble.
posted by Her Most Serene Highness at 8:20 PM on October 25, 2009 [4 favorites]

These kinds of AskMe questions are always hard to answer. Keep going to therapy. You are doing the right thing in being smarter and more mindful in relationships. Unfortunately no good deed goes unpunished :) Keep learning and trying. Plus, like you said, you played a part in the breakup. Working on whatever caused you to do that will help you to be a better person who attracts, is attracted to, and gets together with better people. Finally, understand that you do not need a romantic relationship to be happy or live a good life. Hope that helps!
posted by halonine at 8:24 PM on October 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

Actually, you should ignore this whole thread and just continue to nurture your introspection, haha. After all, you cannot change other people, only yourself. (Cue sweeping music~)

Now that I've thought on it, no amount of advice or caution has ever been able to guide my heart (though I'm not especially prudent). I always had to learn the hard way, through experience. It isn't a normal month for me if I'm not introspecting on some romantic blunder of past or present. The heart doesn't take direction well. Listen to lots of music, create things, experience art, try to see yourself in those experiences. If you've never watched weird foreign language art-house romances, now is the time to start. Art and empathy is the key, since as Rabindranath Tagore said (ho ho pretentious reference) the essence of love is seeing yourself in someone else.
posted by Her Most Serene Highness at 8:41 PM on October 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'm going to answer your question in a roundabout way.

If I understand you correctly, you've had a shock to the system that's caused you to re-assess your whole relationship history, and it's caused you to finally get to the bottom of why you do some repeating patterns, and towards that end you've gone into therapy -- and you're two months into therapy and you feel like crap and you're just thinking "God-DAMN! Now that I know how I DO this crap, how do I learn how to NOT do it? Can't someone just tell me? Because this feels like crap right now, and I want to stop feeling like crap and just get going!"

Do I have that right?

If that's correct, then -- actually, you ARE already doing exactly what you need to be doing to break out of those habits.

Your question was "how do I not fall back into these patterns," but I'm reading the subtext "and how do I stop feeling crappy." But -- that's the catch. This crap and angst and agita you're going through right now is because you are digging up and unearthing the evil gunk that is in your psyche and tripping you up in the first place. It's messy. It's long, it's painful, it's uncomfortable. Hell, that's why so many people don't like going into therapy -- because you GO through crap like this, and it SUCKS. But it's kind of like surgery - the reason you operate on someone, usually, is because something has to come out.

The reason there is no one answer for how you move forward in a relationship -- or anything else -- is becacuse there is no one way of being. You are unique unto the world, and nothing we say or recommend is going to suit you 100%. The only way to really know what works for you is for you to really intensely get to know yourself, and really intensely know what things you do to trip yourself up -- and WHY you do them. Once you know all that, then you can answer those questions for yourself. You'll still make mistakes now and then -- we all do -- but at least you'll be able to learn more from them, and correct them more yourself, because you'll have more of a grasp on "oh, duh, I'm about to do THAT again. Okay, I've learned that approach doesn't work, let's try something else this time..."

And unfortunately, that process of finding out what makes you tick is sometimes messy and uncovers some unpleasant stuff, and some of that unpleasant stuff that gets uncovered takes a while to process itself. You may suddenly realize that "holy shit, the reason I keep looking for this kind of person is because...I never really trusted how my family felt about me!" Or some other huge epiphany like that. And shit like that takes a while to wrap your brain around, and sometimes you have to let yourself be sad about some of that -- because you never gave yourself a chance to do so before.

I realize this doesn't sound promising, and it doesn't necessarily answer your question. But I promise you, it works. This painful and uncomfortable part will pass, and you will have a better understanding of yourself -- and that better understanding of yourself will help you answer those questions for yourself.

Good luck.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:50 PM on October 25, 2009 [14 favorites]

anonymous: I decided to take this opportunity to look at myself, my choices and my relationship “resume”... I’m having a hard time processing this recent experience not to mention looking at a lifetime of dating disasters. I can see some of my patterns, you know? I see that I have made some romantic decisions based on immature reasoning: The chemistry is good, the sex is fantastic and turning a blind eye to inappropriate behavior for fear of failing in relationship. Again. This last one was a doozy ‘cause I thought I was being smart and mindful. Communincating clearly, being vulnerable and honest and all that good stuff but it was probably the most painful ending yet. I really want to learn how to make better partnering choices but don’t know how.

You can't.

You're doing everything right. And you're doing absolutely everything you can. The trouble is that people don't end up in good relationships because of "good partnering choices;" that's one condition, but you are only one person. You don't have the power to create good relationships – you only have the power to respect yourself and take care of yourself. Your only real mistake, really, is blaming yourself when this situation is not your fault. Even the very small examples of actual mistakes you've made have to do with your blaming yourself; you say you 'turned a blind eye for fear of failing again.' That's because you thought that it was your fault if it failed. But it's not.

The tough thing about love is that it's not really up to you. It requires faith. It requires giving another person a chance to do a whole bunch of things that make you miserable for a long time; if that person actually took that chance, it's not your fault. It actually means you did the right thing; you trusted somebody even though you'd been burned before. And you'll be able to do it again; it'll just take a while for you to get back to the point where you can trust.

Go easy on yourself. You did nothing wrong here; in fact, you were trusting when you could have been cynical. Good for you. Stop giving yourself all the blame. You've learned some lessons; just try to remember them, and use them when you can. That's all anybody can do.
posted by koeselitz at 9:12 PM on October 25, 2009 [27 favorites]

I decided to take this opportunity to look at myself, my choices and my relationship “resume”.

I suggest holding off on the review until you've sufficiently grieved the loss. Just focus on, well, feeling crappy for a while. It could be that your review is an attempt to avoid feeling hurt--the crying is the hurt trying to get out. Usually we do this when a hurt reminds us of a larger hurt back in the past which we are still reacting to.
posted by Ironmouth at 10:06 PM on October 25, 2009 [7 favorites]

posted by koeselitz at 11:12 PM

koeselitz, what a great answer. It's what I thought and you expressed it perfectly, damn sure better than I would have. What a writer!

OP, there is no way out -- that I know of anyways -- no way to avoid getting creamed if we are really putting ourselves out there. And we've got to put ourselves out there to win the big prize, we've got to lay our trembling heart on the line, we've got to place the keys to it into the hands of another, look 'em dead in the eye and hand them over.

This isn't for girl scouts. This thing takes guts.

Sometimes people get lucky their first time out -- seems unimaginable to me, but we've all seen it. And then I get to thinking that I should have done that, or at least done it 'right' by now, blah blah blah.

I have done it right, least as best I can, I've been a citizen, I've done all in my power to be honest as I can, I've not wanted to hurt anybody, damn sure not in these past thirty years -- I was what you gals call 'a bastard' when I was young but I got over it soon as I could; I was just hurting, myself, and taking it out on anyone closeby. Maybe that's what's up with your last beau; no telling.

You didn't fail. You did great. And you're doing great now, in therapy, to look closely, determine if there are any patterns for which the responsibility of these 'lost loves' lies at your feet. I do see one pattern, right off -- seems to me that in each of your loves you've had the jam to get out there.

Seems to me that you rock, Ma'am

Breaking up is hard to do -- they write songs and shit, you're not the first, won't be the last. Etc and etc. What I hope you'll learn in therapy is to keep on keeping on, and maybe learn some containment strategies, for there at the first -- someone saying upthread to keep your shorts on for a while, I think that's probably a good plan, though I'll confess it's not one I'm terribly experienced with. But I'm young yet -- not but 54 -- and probably I'll learn it soon, right?

Sum: The biggest gamble has the biggest payoff -- we're not going to find love, or it's not going to find us (whatever) if we're not out there. You are a citizen, you're being honest as you can, you're not doing anything wrong that I can see. It's life, is what it is, and you're living it.

I'm damn sure sorry you're hurting tonight, I truly am.

Good luck.
posted by dancestoblue at 10:36 PM on October 25, 2009 [5 favorites]

Oh, OP, I'm truly sorry for how you're feeling right now. I'm going through a tough breakup myself right now, although it's a lot more recent than yours.

I found myself thinking some of the same thoughts you described having: wondering how I can avoid getting myself into this situation, and why I seem to have so much trouble with love. Analyzing my patterns. The whole nine yards. I've found it difficult to avoid going overboard with self-recriminations at times, but I try to remind myself to be kind and that I'm not the sole reason for my past relationships failing. It takes two to tango, after all.

I've arrived at this much conclusion so far: every relationship you have is different, as at least one of the people is a completely different person (most of the time, unless you're getting back together with past flames?) and you are likely to have changed and grown since the last one. No one person is responsible, except in perhaps rather extreme extenuating circumstances, for a relationship going well or badly. Sure, it's important for you to be able to look back and analyze your behavior so as to learn from it and handle tough situations better in the future. However, you shouldn't beat yourself up about it. I know, I do this. A lot.

I agree with Ironmouth - you should really try to be kind to yourself as you get through this grieving time and back on your feet, physically and emotionally. I believe that just pulling yourself through a tough situation is going to teach you a lot. You'll have time once you're feeling stronger to work on any character flaws you may think you have.

Now, if only I could take my own advice.

Again, I'm sorry that you're going through this. Keep your head up, try to keep busy - explore some of your interests or hobbies if you can, do nice things for yourself, don't get too hungry, lonely, tired, etc. This will pass, and you're going to be ok.

You sound like an incredibly thoughtful and introspective person. Given that, I think things will not only be "ok" for you, they will be fantastic. Soon. We all go through shitty times. It's an unfortunate part of life:(

I think you're going to be fine, and I hope that one day, you find yourself in a loving, giving, healthy relationship that lasts a while, if not forever. Good luck.
posted by jacquilinala at 2:53 AM on October 26, 2009 [4 favorites]

Ahh, this. I know this feeling so well. Decent relationship, unexpected breakup, then slowly amassed information that things were not what I thought they were.

What I've learned in the year+ since that happened: most people aren't complete dicks. We mostly serve ourselves primarily and try and then do good by others - in that order - with varying results. But the outright flat out lying, cheating, blindsided-by-deception people are pretty far and few between. It's taken me until very recently to realize this. I have dated exactly one person in the last year, just for a few weeks, and I realized since I completely was not in a place to even try and trust someone, that I was SO not ready to date, I stopped. I didn't want to be ready, I did not want to trust anyone. If you are in that place, then don't force it. If you do, you will put yourself in a position where you are overruling your gut instincts, and that is exactly how we get into fucked up relationships in the first place.

On gut instinct - one good thing I learned from my split: a litmus test I finally figured out to use in the future about people I date. Is there anything I am hiding from my friends about us/him because I think that it can be interpreted badly? Because I think they will not understand, or that he will look bad? (Like: His two divorces? Loaning him money? His penchant for drama, things always being about him?) In my case, I did not mention any/all of these things not only to my friends, but to my shrink. Looking back, that was the #1 warning sign to myself that some part of me knew something was amiss. Because I knew if a friend came to me and told me all of those 'slightly off' things about their new partner it would raise a red flag.

About the things you turn a blind eye to: these are the things you cannot ignore. You seem to be aware of this, which is huge. So what do you do with it? Personally, I'd suggest giving yourself a concrete action when one of those things arises - like, telling your best friend or your shrink. Immediately. Make sure there is at least one individual who knows ALL of those things, no cheating by parceling it around several people.

For now, just live and breathe. Don't date, that's too much pressure right now. And for god's sake stop judging yourself. Castigating yourself is just another insult added to injury, which is not productive for healing. You say that people make mistakes, which is true. Just don't make the same ones next time. That's all any of us can do.
posted by 8dot3 at 7:13 AM on October 26, 2009 [11 favorites]

This last one was a doozy ‘cause I thought I was being smart and mindful. Communicating clearly, being vulnerable and honest and all that good stuff but it was probably the most painful ending yet.

It takes two to tango. Communication was hard and she clearly wasn't great at it. That doesn't mean that you failed. You can be the best partner in the world, but if your partner isn't, it ain't gonna work.

Hang in there with therapy. I think we all hit that point where it's clear what we're doing wrong but unclear how to move forward, and it's uncomfortable as hell, but it passes.
posted by heatherann at 7:20 AM on October 26, 2009 [2 favorites]

First, take time to mourn and to heal. Different people do this at different rates. It sucks to be crying every day weeks or months after a breakup, but it's what you need this time, and it's okay. You are only human, and you invested a lot of yourself in this relationship, allowed yourself to be vulnerable, and you're hurting. Be gentle with yourself.


1. Be honest with yourself. Don't beat up on yourself by taking more of the blame or responsibility than you deserve or by invalidating your feelings, and don't shift blame for choices you made.

1a. Be honest with your dating partners. Relationships built on deception cannot last and are unsatisfying while they do last because you can never know whether it's you or your deception that your partner wants.

2. Look at your patterns. They're nearly always there and usually related to your upbringing and/or early romantic/sexual relationships. When you can recognize the patterns, you can break them.

3. Take care of your self-esteem. Good self-esteem will help you to recognize red flags and enforce your boundaries, which leads to healthier relationships. If your self-esteem is lagging, set some goals for things that will make you feel better about yourself, then take action to reach those goals.

4. Improve your communication skills. Communication is the bedrock of relationships, and we can virtually all use some improvement in that area. A useful book to read might be How to Be An Adult In Relationships: The Five Keys to Mindful Loving, which is also useful in terms of relationship dynamics.

5. Forgive yourself. Every mistake we make is a learning opportunity. We all make them, and you have to live with yourself, so look for the lessons and move on.

You can do everything to the best of your abilities and it still go wrong somehow at times. That's usually a lot easier to take when it's work or sports or other situations with less emotional involvement than romantic relationships, but it's true nonetheless. Sometimes it just isn't meant to be, but our lives are richer with more experience and we're better equipped for the next go-round.
posted by notashroom at 9:22 AM on October 26, 2009 [3 favorites]

I think it's very difficult to control who you meet and how you click. I think maybe, and I don't even know if this is possible, you should not concentrate any energy on romance and relationship and learn to live like a single person who isn't going to ever meet anybody. Because it isn't anything you're doing on purpose; it's just the way it is.
posted by anniecat at 12:04 PM on October 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

Well, my therapist says "no fixer-uppers." I'll share with you what this means... don't date anyone that requires "fixing up" to be right for you. In more explicit terms, do not date anyone if two or more of the following are true:

1. This person has serious financial problems, especially those brought about by irresponsible behaviors that have not been addressed. Feel free to ignore this if your beloved's credit problems are currently being dealt with in a responsible manner.

2. The two of you share an age gap that will cause trouble when you're connecting with on a friendship level (because you may be attracted to someone with a 25 year age difference, for example, doesn't mean this is a relationship with long-term potential unless you have significant shared interests).

3. This person has a current drug or alcohol problem and has shared this with you. Also be wary if this person has a prior drug or alcohol problem and has only recently become sober/clean and is not currently taking part in maintenance of his/her sobriety.

4. This person doesn't have a job or a means of reliable transportation (public transportation is reliable, as is a bicycle). My point being, do not open yourself to being used financially or otherwise.

5. This person has had an ongoing history of bad breakups, violence, arrest or being fired from jobs (getting with someone who cannot handle basic courtesy in relationships, dealing with society or former employers is NOT wise).

6. This person has a history of mental health issues and is currently without medication, a therapist or using long-term coping strategies as outlined by a medical and/or mental health professional. (FYI, you cannot cheer up a clinically depressed person, and you cannot stop someone on a manic episode with logic.)

Finally, I would say this; no relationship should be based on pity, guilt or empathy. If you meet someone who gives you ANY gut indication that there is something wrong, i.e. you feel as if that person is deceiving you, or taking part in behaviors that you would not tolerate from a family member or close friend, do NOT pursue a relationship with that person. You cannot change anyone except yourself.

One more thing; do you believe you deserve someone damaged because you have behaviors, physical traits or a lifestyle that is defined as unacceptable in society? Don't believe your own hype. Also, being in a relationship doesn't make you better than a person who's uncoupled. There are TONS of miserable people in relationships that would be happier alone.

I hope you are brave enough to be alone for a while and focus on becoming a person who deserves a great, amazing romance in your life, because I promise you, it'll come to you once you know who you really are and what you can live with. Take all you've learned about your negative patterns and listen to your gut the next time you meet someone and there's a twinge of recognition there -- don't follow that pattern again. If you meet someone amazing and have great chemistry and sex together and later find out they have the same traits as Doomed Ex 1 or 2 or all of them, break up instead of waiting for him/her to change. You can explain the reason for the breakup, but don't issue ultimatums and don't ask him/her to change. Good luck.
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 2:24 PM on October 26, 2009 [26 favorites]

Jesus, Unicorn, where were you and your checklist when I started dating my ex? I love it. I'm calling you for advice when I actually start dating again.
Anon: listen to her, there's a whole lotta wisdom packed into that comment.
posted by 8dot3 at 6:45 PM on October 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

I concur with Unicorn. You can shift your patterns if you can draw a line (or lines) in the sand and stick to it. I don't know how often me and my friends have said, "I saw that behaviour when we were dating but I ignored it." When you get the rosy glasses on, everything looks good, even the GRF (giant red flags). Red in this case means danger. Don't ignore them the next time.
posted by bfoster at 7:07 AM on October 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

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