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June 11, 2010 10:37 AM   Subscribe

Ghosts-of-relationships-past-filter: How do I forget an old girlfriend, years gone by?

I have been severely depressed all my life, which is undoubtedly something that contributes to this. I've been in treatment for depression, cycling through a variety of medications, therapists, and other approaches for the last five years or so.

I'm a guy. Eight years ago, during my mid-twenties, a relationship I had with a woman ended. It lasted longer than a year. It had its ups and downs but I loved her and enjoyed the relationship and did not want it to end; that was her decision.

She was my first girlfriend. I've had two relationships since then, each lasting a few months, one of which I'd describe as a good relationship and one I'd describe as a bad relationship.

We were good friends for a few years beforehand and remained friends afterwards and had sex a couple of times over the years. Once I tried to renew the relationship with her but although she displayed some hesitant interest I didn't get anywhere. (At the time she was experimenting with all kinds of dating sites and I think that more appealing options arose before I could "close the deal".)

Ever since we broke up I have thought of her very frequently and missed her very much; she lives a couple of hours away from me and so I usually only got to see her on a handful of occasions each year when I'd be up in her area or she down in mine. It usually makes me sad when I think of her even though it often begins with me recalling something that made me happy.

I would get aggravatedly jealous of her boyfriends and guys she would date (and talk about with me) though I didn't meet most of them and I didn't have any sort of confrontations with the ones I did meet, I managed to keep things cordial.

She was a good and loyal friend to me and did not take advantage of my feelings for her.

She undoubtedly knew that I was emotionally dependent on her. I felt that this was unfair to her and unhealthy for me so about three years ago I intentionally broke off all contact with her and even isolated myself somewhat from mutual friends. I haven't seen her or talked to her or had any other contact with her since, though I've frequently had to resist giving her a call; I don't really want to forget her but I recognize that is what's best.

A month or so ago I accidentally found out through Facebook that she's pregnant which unfortunately has tended to make me think about her even more frequently. (Curse you, Facebook. It really was an accident that I found this out. It was through a note on the profile of a mutual acquaintance; I didn't go looking for her there and haven't seen her profile, so I don't know whether she's married, still lives in the same place, or even if she has other kids.)

Soooooo... I guess the standard advice is to pursue other women and move on. But that isn't happening very quickly so I thought I'd ask if the hive mind has any other ideas or cogent and pithy thoughts on the matter... Have you had a persistent pining like this, one that can be measured in decades or big fractions thereof? What did you do to try to resolve it and did that work?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (20 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
You have to face the facts and realize that she's not who you want her to be and she didn't want to be who you wanted her to be. And that she's in love with whoever she is with, extremely happy, and doesn't think about you or pine over you. She didn't like being in a relationship with you. There was no mistake about it, so she ended it.
posted by anniecat at 10:42 AM on June 11, 2010 [2 favorites]

Step 1.) Remove this girl from your life. You're certainly never going to be able to move on if you are living for those 4-5 times a year you can be near this girl. if someone tells you something about her, ask them to refrain from doing so. If they ask for an explanation, tell them that it would just mean a lot to you if they didn't talk about her and leave it at that. Remove the channels by which you can locate her on facebook.

Step 2.) Realize that you have idealized her. Everyone does this. Seriously. I have been in relationships that have dissolved in some of the most terrible ways imaginable, and still when I look back I can gloss over the garbage and find myself longing for the good times we had together. If you can't come up with any better reason, you should not want to be with someone who doesn't want to be with you. Unless you hate yourself, it doesn't speak very highly of her judgment.

Step 3.) Follow standard advice to pursue other women and move on...but that's a bit of an oversimplification. There is a life raft mentality that a lot of people get when they have just left home or are in high school that makes relationships seem extra intense and extra important that tends to lessen as you age. It makes those relationships in the past, even the imperfect or troubled ones seem appealing simply by the intensity with which they burn in your memory. You need to go out there and forge meaningful relationships with other people, men and women, as friends, and you will create for yourself a social circle that is more conducive to the romantic relationships you're looking for.

Hope this helps.
posted by orville sash at 10:50 AM on June 11, 2010 [7 favorites]

She didn't like being in a relationship with you.

You don't know that.

I had many girl friends (quite amazing since I started off as an Uebernerd), I loved them and guess what, I still do. I remember and value the times we had. Many of them are very good friends of mine today. Sometimes when I hang out with them, as a friend, I also realize why it did not word out with us in the long run. I am European and such friend relationships are much more common there than here in the US.
This being said, yes, you have to move on. Your problem and your solutions don't lie in the past, they lie in the present. You should be happy that a person you loved is happy now. You think that if you find the right person your depression will go away. Likely it will work otherwise around. You get rid of your depression and then you will find the right person.

I don't know how stable you are with your depression and what you do for a living. But a change of scenery could help. Maybe as an expatriate in another country?
posted by yoyo_nyc at 10:54 AM on June 11, 2010 [1 favorite]


You can email me if you'd like. I obsessed about someone for nearly 20 years -- and when I finally got together with them, it just about ruined me.

Why? Because while I was obsessed with this person, time and life kept moving on...just not me. And when I finally got her, turned out she wasn't the same anymore. Nope, she had become someone I didn't know anymore. The whole episode basically ruined my life.

Same thing with person two, only more benign: they just went from fab at 20 to boring at 50.

So, you need to move on. Apparently she has. That girl you obsess about now exists only in your mind. She is now a fiction. She is as real as Santa Claus.

And we all know there's no such thing as Santa Claus.
posted by kidelo at 10:56 AM on June 11, 2010 [26 favorites]

I know this is going to seem counterintuitive to trying to get over her, but I think your first step is to realize that you aren't going to stop caring about her/loving her. The problem is the "her" you have feelings for is not the same her that exists now; it's an idealized "her" based on your memory. And that's great. You said that you remember the great things about your time together and then it makes you sad. There's no reason for this to happen. Enjoy those memories. For all you know, if you had stayed together, she would have been awful to you and you'd have grown to hate her and those memories would be tainted by that. So appreciate them for what they are and don't beat yourself up over them. It's not fair to you, her, and the memory of what you had in the past.

I think we do damage to ourselves by insisting that we can only be in love with one person at a time. I'm not saying that when you meet someone new, you should ever say that you are also still in love with this girl. But in your heart, it's okay to still have fond feelings for someone you had in the past. There's no reason to compare them. It's two completely different things. Not better, not worse, just different. And obviously the one that is happening now is the one you will want to spend the most energy on.

Good luck.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 10:58 AM on June 11, 2010 [2 favorites]

I felt that this was unfair to her and unhealthy for me so about three years ago I intentionally broke off all contact with her and even isolated myself somewhat from mutual friends. I haven't seen her or talked to her or had any other contact with her since, though I've frequently had to resist giving her a call; I don't really want to forget her but I recognize that is what's best.

I think that's the best attitude you can have, really, so it sounds like you're mainly just having problems with obsessive thoughts about her. You've already taken difficult steps to stop interacting with her, so I think now you need to focus on not thinking about her, rather than trying to reconcile the feelings you have for her or trying to find someone else to have similar feelings for. I don't think there's really any easy secret to do get rid of those kinds of thoughts, just like it's not easy to get rid of negative thoughts when you are depressed, but you might be able to find coping strategies that work for you. But at least part of it is recognizing when you are having those kinds of obsessive thoughts and mentally switching gears into thinking about more positive things.
posted by burnmp3s at 10:58 AM on June 11, 2010

I've had some exes that I've been able to keep in touch with. There have been others that I could not. It was too hard. Emails, mutual friends, etc. Had to let them go to move on. My advice is if you really want to move on, then you have to move on. Let her go. No more emails. Don't call one another. Don't hang out. If you have mutual facebook friends who aren't really your friends but are actually just FACEBOOK friends, I'd let them go too.

There are just some exes that you can't stay friends with because you'll find yourself in some type of emotional-suspended-animation. And I say this all from personal experience. I was once in the same situations as you. And I held on, and held out for too long that hoping that things would go back. Casual conversations and ecounters only made it worse. I had to sever this person from my life. No I'm with someone I love so much more. You can move just actually have to move on.
posted by phelixshu at 11:00 AM on June 11, 2010 [3 favorites]

I've gone through periods of obsession with past girlfriends. In every case, I figured out that getting nostalgic about an idealized past was really just a symptom of current dissatisfaction. I also have some experience of depression and how it plays into this cycle--I'm unhappy, I was happy back then, I lost that happiness, now I have another reason to be depressed.

Treat your feelings for your ex as a symptom of your current depression, to be dealt with like any other symptom by treating the underlying condition. When you feel yourself getting worked up about her, think to yourself "this is about me being depressed now", and deal with that.
posted by fatbird at 11:02 AM on June 11, 2010 [6 favorites]

It's not her. First loves always hurt, and by always I mean both invariably and perpetually. Once you realize it's not her, you'll be able to let go.
posted by milarepa at 11:32 AM on June 11, 2010 [7 favorites]

Maybe it's an idea to try antidepressants for a while. Some of them diminish obsessive thougts. That period might give you room to pursue finding somebody else and falling in love again.
Also from the title of the post I gather that you are very unhappy with your current pining for somebody who's long gone. That's one more reason to consider medication for a while.
posted by joost de vries at 11:33 AM on June 11, 2010

This is a technical solution, but block her on Facebook. When you block people, it hides their comments on mutual friends' pages and your friends' comments on her updates won't show up in your News Feed.
posted by NoraReed at 11:37 AM on June 11, 2010 [3 favorites]

Make her into fiction. A beautiful, wonderful story you read once that you like to remember now and again during rainy days, but not anything that exists in the real world with you.

In a way, that's what all crushes are - a perfected, fictionalized superimposition of a dream onto a real person.
What you think about when you think about your ex is the dream. Keep it there and out of the reality of your real life now.
posted by L'Estrange Fruit at 12:12 PM on June 11, 2010 [12 favorites]

I feel your pain.
I did a bunch of different things when my situation was similar. One thing that's helped a lot is filling my brain with lots of "learning projects." Looking back at the past year I can be happy with some of my accomplishments.

It may sound funny but I'm concentrating on learning everything about the new field I'm in (and succeeding!) and finally learning a language I always meant to, but never did...until now!

These and other areas of focus I've filled my days productively with, have helped me take pride in myself, even if I do get depressed sometimes about the loss of that one relationship.

btw, in my language class I ended up one of 3 guys in a class of 12...and the one dude was retired, and the other never showed there were lots of reasons for me to make new friends ;)
posted by talljamal at 12:33 PM on June 11, 2010

I gotta run counter to what everyone seems to be saying here -- some broken hearts don't ever mend. I'm not saying you can't have a life, and/or have someone else in your life, or whatever else. But some people are sticky, and have tendrils wrapped around other peoples hearts and roots sunk deep into those hearts and to think you're going to get that to go away is a pipe-dream. I don't know why this is so. Neither does anyone else. And it doesn't happen to everyone, and mostly people who haven't had it happen to them just cannot understand it -- how could they?

anniecat: "You have to face the facts and realize that she's not who you want her to be and she didn't want to be who you wanted her to be. And that she's in love with whoever she is with, extremely happy, and doesn't think about you or pine over you. She didn't like being in a relationship with you. There was no mistake about it, so she ended it."

And regardless what I wrote above, and regardless that you might love someone with all your dang dumb heart, what anniecat wrote here can absolutely be the case, and though I know it to be true even to read it cuts to the bone like an axe. And anyone who doesn't believe this needs to listen to George Jones or Guy Clark or Toni Price, maybe especially Toni Price, listen to her sing "Just To Hear Your Voice" which hurts me even to listen to, because I've lived the son-of-a-bitching thing. It hurts but it hurts good, somehow, maybe to know I'm not the only one, and she nails it, she's right there. Listen to Willie sing "The Healing Hands of Time" and know that what he's singing is true, time is often what it is, and all that it is. And -- too bad -- it's not up to you how much time it takes.

So I can't give you advice on how to cut her out of your heart. Absolutely date other women, force yourself, unless your grieving your loss still, but I don't think you're still grieving, just hurting. And if you don't know how to date other women force yourself to learn -- if I could learn it, you can too. You'll have turned a corner of sorts maybe when you're in bed after love and telling this woman about the one that got in so deep, not that you want to be with her but just how it was and how you were and how you learned to change enough so as to find yourself in bed with her now, and loving her now, and how pretty she is, even if she isn't pretty, maybe especially if she isn't pretty.

You're not the only one. Two have gotten inside on me, big-time, others have stung really, really bad but I could see why it had to be. Quite frankly, the two that got inside on me still are inside but now they're pearls, not sand. But that didn't happen overnight. It's a process, not an event.

Last. Someone upthread talked about it being a piece of depression and I'm sure there's something in that, also, not that it's going to make you jump up and down for joy but ease you some, maybe, if you get the right medications happening for you. Better living through chemistry, etc and etc.. I've suffered depression all my life, and know the terrain, and finding the right stuff to jam into my head every day has been just swell. But I'm not so sure that getting yourself all lined out in this is going to shove this woman out of your heart. Honestly, having those pearls now, I'd not have wanted these women shoved out of my heart. But it's not a choice anyways, not been a choice for me.

Good luck.
posted by dancestoblue at 4:05 PM on June 11, 2010 [14 favorites]

I had a recurring desire to get back together with my first love for about a decade, though without the obsessive thoughts. For me, it wasn't about depression, and it wasn't about not dating others ... but I don't know exactly what it was about. There are sometimes just people who catch you this way, as dancestoblue said.

One thing I've realized is that most of what I love about this person is part of me: dreams I share and values I hold. When I am reminded of those beautiful days together, I try to use it to revitalize my own idealism and core dreams.

That said, that core idealistic part of myself was exactly why we needed to break up. It was childish and needed to cure and mature. I wouldn't have grown up (or not easily) if we'd stayed together. We connected so well only because that core part of me was so naive, and in it's naive state, it fit together with him very well. I couldn't have changed that part of myself while fitting so tightly with him. I'm not saying it's a bad part of me or him, but it's been an ongoing "double-edged sword" in my life, so I've learned to recognize it from every angle. Maybe he would even have supported my growth, who knows, but it would've been like trying to end my couch potato ways and go for a run, right when my favorite show just came on. I tend to think that this is common, that the very source of a strong attraction is often so close to one's core that its development can be the very reason people need to move on.

As I have seen how he has changed over the years, I still feel that idealized love, but I see how it's not exactly for him. I also feel danger, like I risk slipping into back into unhealthy patterns. That may or not be true for you. But my advice would be to focus on your own growth. You'll be able to carry with you what you want, and the distance that grows between you is distance that you may later welcome as a source of growth and health.
posted by salvia at 6:05 PM on June 11, 2010 [7 favorites]

I think this has turned out to become a sublimely "beautiful" thread.

I am not obsessive anymore but I went through a year in which all I could think about was my ex. Till this day i have to say that I think about her every couple of days or so but time is definitely helping and so have dated other people. Still though I am happy with the current person i am dating and more than content....she still comes to my mind every couple of days or so..... I was listening to Dan Savage's podcast and reader called in with the same issues me and my ex had. Dan Savage's advice really helped me:

"Being in love, does not mean that you will be compatible, that you will be happy, or that you should stay with that person, being in love means you are in love and thats it".

That phrase really really hit me hard because i was in love with someone I wasnt compatible with. Broke up with that person, was hurt for a year and I still pine for an idealized love that really was making me unhappy anyway......

So go out there and realize that not only you are not the only person that has gone through this but that it is ok....furthermore it is ok to have a little pain in there but that doesnt meant that you cant go ahead and live the rest of your life accordingly that eventually someone will take her place and that finally one day you'll understand that for some of us that period of loss and frustration makes us the better people we are later in life....
posted by The1andonly at 9:45 AM on June 14, 2010 [10 favorites]

I have had similar experiences to people here and to you; unable to forget a past love.

I think many humans (all?) have a desire to be able to cut out and cauterize the parts of ourselves that are difficult to handle; the parts of ourselves that, when we look at them, we can't understand why they are there. Why still be in love with someone ten years after breaking up with them (or if not "in love," then preoccupied with the memory of).

I think it's probably good to recognize one's own complexity -- the complexity of life and human relations in general -- and accept that. Try to accept that this person may be in your heart for longer than you want (because it seems irrational or without use). Try to enjoy her presence there -- for that time you had together probably did contain much beauty -- and move forward in your life, making choices irrespective of that feeling. Go out with other women, anticipate your future with other women, and know that you may be carrying around this gal for a while. She's a part of you for now, and perhaps forever, but it doesn't have to be a bad thing. It's company, it's memory, it's your life.
posted by PersonAndSalt at 1:00 PM on June 27, 2010 [4 favorites]

For a long time, I've felt like I've been living in the middle of a tiny Russian doll of ex-love. I broke up with Michelle over two years ago and she didn't seem to be over me in the intervening years. Not too long after that, I fell in love with Gina and she broke my heart, in part because of distance and in part because she was not over her ex (who seems quite unlikely to ever get over himself.) After Gina I went on a few dates with Megan. Megan was the only woman that has given me a hint of butterflies throughout dozens of first dates these past 18 months and she has become a friend instead. I've since learned that she's still enthralled with an ex from years ago. Courtney, my best friend from childhood, nearly had a psychotic break this summer because of some dude she gave a BJ to three years ago.

But about Michelle. I was Michelle's first love. We were pretty good together. Silly, sweet, etc... She had occasional mental health emergencies and at first I was proud that I handled them so well and I was smart about this kind of stuff and was able to help her out so much. But as time went on and life happened, each difficult time I felt more distant and I had the occasional niggling thought that maybe Michelle deserved to be with a guy who felt closer to her when bad things happened instead of farther apart. I saw her through a particularly rough patch where I was very scared for her safety. A little bit down the line, when things were better for her, the niggling thoughts came up again. One day the thoughts were way too close to the surface to hide and she noticed and asked me about why I was acting distant.

I told her we would go home and talk. I broke up with her. It was hard. I fought my instincts to comfort her. I did some things in the separating out of our life together that I knew would help her be safe, but that the unknowing world would judge as cold. I gave her a ton of distance for months and let her initiate contact. My mom almost disowned me because Michelle stayed friends with her and I wasn't going to tell my mom about everything that happened out of privacy. Michelle had a pretty lame workaholic boyfriend and we started talking a bit again. When I did initiate contact, Michelle would almost always reply immediately and eagerly.

She's finished a Master's degree now and she is living on her own successfully for the first time. She dumped the workaholic boyfriend. She's started a career in her chosen field. She's put up some posts about a new boyfriend on Facebook. He's artistic and it looks like they do silly and sweet things together.

I wrote her a not-very-important email about the pet that we had together that is now her pet. It's been almost a week and she hasn't written me back. After reading this thread, I am feeling really, really overjoyed for her.
posted by Skwirl at 10:26 PM on November 17, 2010 [2 favorites]

We idealize whatever is absent and whatever once felt emotionally profound; your relationship with this woman is both of those things, and so quite naturally you idealize it. And when we have little else in our lives to idealize, we fixate on our few idealized-things still more intently.

Read and reflect on "The Great Gatsby"; take active steps towards getting yourself undepressed; seek out salient new experiences so as to gain perspective about the what (this cherished but completed relationship) really represents in the broader context of your current life.

A thing can at once be (wonderful and powerful and significant), and (well and truly over); by moving on you are not diminishing or denying the import of what once was.
posted by foursentences at 11:16 PM on November 20, 2010 [2 favorites]

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