Save me from my dumb brain
April 16, 2014 2:59 PM   Subscribe

How can I stop thinking about the woman who broke my heart?

This fall, I had an intense fling with a woman I've known for years. We were both in a vulnerable place coming out of breakups. We both thought we needed to be single, and had intended for it to stay casual... which was naive. But because we thought the stakes were low, and we were both so raw, the emotional connection felt stronger than anything I've ever felt. We were so open and honest and intimate.

We were separated by distance in the winter, and I was distant toward her because I was afraid of letting something more serious develop. So she started seeing another man. I took it very badly. She told me she wanted to be in something real that was going to go somewhere, and said if I wanted to talk about making a future, living together, and having kids, we could. I thought hard about it and decided I really wanted to have that with her. I've never been there before, but I opened myself up to it. After a lot of talk we decided we would give it a real shot.

I came to where she lived, and everything seemed to have changed. She was irritable, impatient, critical, unwelcoming, distant. My attempts to talk about what was going on mostly made her angry. There were moments where I could feel the same connection as before, but after a messy and complicated two weeks, she concluded she just can't be in a relationship right now. It seemed like she wanted to leave the door open for some day in the future. I left.

We stayed in touch for a while, which she wanted, but I continued to demand more than she could give, she got colder and colder, and the conversations became just us getting mad at each other. I decided I needed to go a while without talking to her, and told her I'd get back in touch in May. It's been six weeks since I saw her and three since we talked.

I think she is right, she can't be in a relationship right now. Maybe I can't really either. I can see a lot of ways in which this was unhealthy and bad for both of us. I know if we're ever going to have something that works, we both need to be in a better place. I know maybe what we thought we had in the first place was just temporary and brought on by circumstances. I know I can't control her or this situation. I know right now I need to be focusing on making myself a happier and better person.

But I can't stop thinking about her. I can't stop fantasizing about a happy ending for us. I feel so much loss and disappointment. And then hurt and anger. How could someone say such big this about commitment and the future, and just change their mind? I can't stop worrying about what will happen when we talk again, and I keep fighting out worst-case scenarios.

There have been times when I am distracted and with friends, when I feel okay. But any time I am a little bored, I start to feel lonely, and everything makes me think of her. It's very sad but at this point it is also maddening. I don't want to be thinking about her, I want this to go away. I feel like I'm going crazy. I can't get to sleep at night, and I wake up thinking about her. Right now I am in a foreign country visiting some friends. I have a lot of travel plans in the near future. This should be a really good time for me, but thinking of her is making it really hard to enjoy myself.

Broken hearts take time to heal. Is there anything I can do to make my brain stop churning pointlessly like this?

Thank you for any help you can give.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (15 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Therapy. Good friends. Good food and drink. Movies in movies theatres. Good concerts. Art Galleries. Live theatre. Hanging out with young children. Trying new recipes. Engrossing novels. Exercise. Reading AskMeFi. Dating someone great who likes spending time with you. Time.
posted by miles1972 at 3:24 PM on April 16, 2014 [2 favorites]

Keep an elastic band on your wrist. Every time you catch yourself thinking about her, snap it. Then focus that mental state onto something else. Make plans for your upcoming trip. Research were you're going. Do this every time you think about her, and you'll wean yourself off those thoughts. The pain of the snap is there to jar your brain, giving you a chance to count your times tables, or whatever thoughts you choose to focus on. Don't try to fight the thoughts, just get your mental train off the track it's on and onto another. You'll find yourself having to do this a lot at first. Over time, it will get easier.
posted by Solomon at 3:32 PM on April 16, 2014

Broken hearts take time to heal.

That's a slight misconception. It's not time so much as experience. Having new experiences is what creates the neurological distance. Time allows you to have new experiences, constantly piling up and overwriting on top of the old ones, and that process is what shuffles and flattens the broken-heart feeling. But just "time" won't do it alone. If you sit on the couch perfectly still for five years, you're going to feel just as bad as today.

I know if we're ever going to have something that works, we both need to be in a better place.

Maybe. People do reconcile, reconnect, have second chances. But it also happens that two people who are an excellent match on paper will make mistakes with each other, due to bad timing or poor judgment or just dumb luck, and those mistakes will "break" the chemistry beyond repair. There are almost certainly people you've left behind—from high school, college, jobs, whatever—who would have made excellent matches with you, but for whatever reason things didn't align that way, and now the chance is gone. That happens. Point being, don't pine for something that might just be lost. Allow yourself some time to be sad, then get back on your feet so you're ready when the next opportunity comes along. They are coming along constantly. They really are.
posted by cribcage at 3:33 PM on April 16, 2014 [20 favorites]

this is helpful

buddhist teacher pema chodron says "feel the feelings, drop the story." next time you think of that woman, just stay in that feeling, sit with it, talk to yourself in your head about what it actually feels like and notice it. you will also notice nothing is happening - you are just sitting there - what a relief.

for me when i've felt like you are feeling now, i feel a sore sensation in my stomach and tightness in neck and shoulders. when i observe the sensation i sit up, breathe deep, pause. when you're in pain, try to just sit there and observe it. this will make it less agonizing. you will be less afraid of thinking about her, the vicious cycle will ease up. eventually once you observe enough it just becomes another passing thought.

time will help, and you'll be ok.
posted by zdravo at 3:38 PM on April 16, 2014 [29 favorites]

I have used an exercise when I get to the same state that you are, OP (obsessive about a past person and are likely to not be able to directly communicate with the person). I have posted about this before in the green (alternate version if this helps).

I actually did use this before to get over someone, too, and will add those pieces in addition to things that you state about your particular case.

• Write a letter to the person. This is not to be sent, it is for you to process how you feel. Say things that you may not have been able to say - the pain, the hurt, but don't stop there. Acknowledge the good and fun times. But then continue onwards about why this can't work (either now or in the future). Try to write a draft or two until when you read through it, you feel neutral.

• Now write a letter to yourself. Mine was an apology (won't let this happen again), but maybe for you it could be - would you let someone be angry with you for no reason?

• Make plan for future 2.0 You or 2.0 Relationship. Even though this sounded very painful at times, OP, I think that you can take out things that you enjoyed or made this more worthwhile than other relationships. Look at your letters, look at the past and ask: What made this special? What part of it do you want to have again in the future? Maybe it is intimacy. Maybe it was the promise to make plans (you have to look at it and decide what you valued). Now what skills do you need to acquire to do this in the future? (I can't tell, I only know your side...). But would improved communication skills help? On your list, then add read book X about communication, see a therapist and work on communication -or whatever things that you think would help to improve the odds of the relationship that you wanted working. Keep on going with your plan because it sounds like at the end of so many months, you re-establish communication (and what do you need to hear?) or you go in your own direction and meet new people, so then the contingency plan could include where and how to meet people.

This may be harder because it sounds like you are in a transient state (check in so many months).

But anyway, when my thoughts started circling around person X again, I would reread the letter and remember how I felt and see the reasons why it wasn't good unless whatever was resolved, and then started pecking away at the next plan.
posted by Wolfster at 3:43 PM on April 16, 2014 [3 favorites]

Nothing is going to make this just vanish, like, tomorrow. But while you're ruminating and being torn up, you might try making it into a productive rumination: look for the lessons you can take away from the experience and what you can do about them.

But because we thought the stakes were low, and we were both so raw, the emotional connection felt stronger than anything I've ever felt. We were so open and honest and intimate.

The lesson to take away from this is to allow yourself to be open, honest, and intimate *when the stakes are not low.* Because as you've seen, it forges a powerful level of connection, which is the opposite of what you want in a casual fling. But it's exactly what you want in a relationship.

Consider: if you had started out seeing this woman seriously, would you have squelched all that great openness, because you feared rejection and embarrassment? Probably--and you two probably wouldn't have had a very interesting, or very long, relationship. So in the future, when you meet someone but know you don't really want a relationship, consciously choose to close off that deep connection. And when you meet someone and you do really want a relationship, consciously choose to be vulnerable.
posted by like_a_friend at 3:47 PM on April 16, 2014 [3 favorites]

You're already doing everything right. You need distance in time, distance in space, and distance in thought. Your travel plans are going to treat you really well, and they won't be ruined by thoughts of her. I swear. She will pop into your head that first night in Barcelona after one cocktail too many, but the memory will be faded and distant, and you will see the situation for what it really is: something in the past that didn't happen.

If it ever does happen with her in the future, it will be something completely new, something completely different. You will be a different person and she will be a different person. So put aside forever that thing that didn't quite happen. Start your new life. Terminate that old one. You're a new man, having great new experiences, with plenty of new things to look forward to. Every day will be better than the last.
posted by tapesonthefloor at 3:49 PM on April 16, 2014

How could someone say such big this about commitment and the future, and just change their mind?

The exact same way that she said that she wanted to be single and casual, and then just changed her mind. People change their minds all the time, especially if they’re in a state of emotional tumult. She said that she wanted a thing, and then when she got it she discovered that it was less pleasing than she had imagined, so she decided to try something else.

After my first serious long-term relationship, I started dating someone who informed me on our first date that she would be moving four hundred miles away a few months later. I completely opened up to her, much faster and more intensely than I normally would, because I figured that our situation would be ending soon and I wouldn’t have another chance to do so. Then she decided, at least partially because of our relationship, not to move (I had told her that I didn’t want her to stay on account of our relationship, but my warning went unheeded). Suddenly, I was in a much longer-term relationship than I had anticipated, and I couldn’t maintain the sort of break-neck pace that I had been going. She read this as me becoming distant, and what could have been a really awesome three-month fling turned into an absolutely Hellish three-year relationship.

It’s neither her fault nor yours that the two of you were in bad emotional states when you started seeing one another. It’s neither her fault nor yours that neither of you fully knew what you wanted. It’s neither her fault nor yours that what she thought she wanted changed (more than once).

From what you’ve written, I don’t think that it is advisable for the two of you to get back together. Even if it’s what you both want, you’re always going to have this anger and confusion hanging over the relationship. The only way to really get her out of your head is to mentally exile her to the Land of Relationship That Didn’t Work Out. Forget about getting back in touch in May. Enjoy your trip to the extent that it’s possible, and when you get back home try finding someone with whom you don’t have so much painful backstory.
posted by Parasite Unseen at 4:13 PM on April 16, 2014 [2 favorites]

In your mind speak to this person, understanding that you are actually speaking to a repeating thought that's recurring and unwelcome. Tell the person (your mental version of this person) they are no longer welcome in your mind or your life. Tell them firmly, repeatedly, over and over until you see them finally pack up, depart and go away. Repeat every time you find them in your mind again. Repeat with any aspect of your life that is related to this person, editing the memories until they pack up and go away. You can also deflate the memories, watching the person or memory deflate and disappear into the ground, demoting them into insignificance. Understand it's not the person that's the problem, it's the thought that's hijacking your attention. Firmly and repeatedly tell it to go away and move out.
posted by diode at 5:10 PM on April 16, 2014 [2 favorites]

Love is weird. It’s a really weird, complex, strange thing. A whole lot of different emotions fit under that umbrella word.

I think maybe, you are experiencing a type of love that is very heady and exciting and fun.

But there is also a type of love that is very quiet, very sweet, almost sad.

There is a really mature, really calm type of love in which you let other people be themselves, and you just kind of watch and smile.

I think maybe you need to alchemize your love for her from one to the other.

I think maybe you need to just be happy that she exists, you know? Just be grateful that you had anything at all. Just let go, and imagine her living a most excellent life and being happy.

I find when I really love someone else, if they’re happy, it’s okay if it’s not with me. It hurts a lot, no joke, but it’s ultimately an okay feeling, deep down. All is right in the universe.

Aim for that.
posted by quincunx at 6:25 PM on April 16, 2014 [20 favorites]

I find when I really love someone else, if they’re happy, it’s okay if it’s not with me. It hurts a lot, no joke, but it’s ultimately an okay feeling, deep down. All is right in the universe.

Love is at its core completely unselfish. If you can't be unselfish and find joy in her happiness with someone else, it wasn't really love, and you need to disabuse yourself of the illusion that it was. Infatuation is not love. The feelings you have for someone else which only feed YOUR needs is not love.

And if it was really love, then what quincunx just said sums it all up. If all is right in her universe, then all is right in yours and use that strength to go forward.

Great advice quincunx.
posted by three blind mice at 5:24 AM on April 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

It can be hard to reach that state of love that quincunx describes above. I love my ex boyfriend, who I was with for eight years and engaged to, very much - but finding out he is marrying someone else still felt like being punched in the stomach. I get tears in my eyes just now realizing what I threw away and wishing we were married.

Then I take a deep breath and thank the Universe for the brief love we had and I feel grateful for having had that in my life. I'm lucky I had the time I had with him. And it hurts that he is not with me anymore but god it also feels good in a very deep way when I stop feeling sorry for myself for a moment because I realize that he still has that love in his life. And thank god for that.

Love is a complicated emotion and while it should be unselfish at the core there are some selfish layers that you might need to peel back and slough away before you feel that happiness for her doing what she needs to do for herself.

Best of luck to you on this journey. A breakup is awful but it is also a wonderful gift to find things out about yourself and to learn to love yourself more.
posted by sockermom at 7:31 AM on April 17, 2014

First of all, you never had a good relationship with this woman. I mean, if you wrote it all out (like you did above) it just sounds like a bunch of arguments held together with resentment and fear.

What you're broken-hearted about is the fantasy of the relationship. You prepared yourself for a deep and meaningful relationship and it never materialized.

You don't want a realtionship with this particular woman, you just want a deep, meaningful relationship. You're not brokenhearted, you're disappointed.

The more you think about it, the further you get away from the reality, and the more the fantasy aspects loom large in your memory. So what you're mouring isn't what really happened, but what you wish would have happened.

So be out of the relationship business for a while. Concentrate on accomplishing stuff. Build a bookcase, get a new degree, learn to cook Punjabi food. Get out and about. Join a bowling league.

I promise, once you start moving around in the real world, and meeting real people and not indulging in mope sessions, you'll get some perspective and you'll feel a LOT better about it.

It takes half as long to get over someone as your relationship lasted. So if you were together for 3 months, it'll take about 7 or so weeks to get it all out of your system.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 10:32 AM on April 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

Actually, there's no hard timeline for getting over a heartbreak. I once mourned a few-month something-or-other for three years. Don't feel like there's something wrong with you if you're not over it in a predetermined amount of time. Everyone processes grief differently.

All I've ever managed is to cry a lot, and try to remember that I've gotten over things that hurt this badly before (even if it did take three years), and try very, very hard to believe that it will hurt less soon. For some value of "soon". I'm not crying about last summer very often anymore...
posted by Because at 4:08 AM on April 19, 2014

Telling someone it takes a prescribed amount of time to recover from heartbreak has precisely the same value and rationale as telling a child with a skinned knee, "It's supposed to hurt; that means it's healing." It is meant to be therapeutic. Some people thrive on expectations, and sometimes on having expectations fed to them, and for those people a placebo can definitely be helpful. What you want to be careful of, however, is not propagating your home-remedy advice as if there were actual substance behind it, because you don't want to create fictional problems for someone who happens to recover "too quickly" or who takes "too long."
posted by cribcage at 7:41 AM on April 19, 2014

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