Getting "you" back after a relationship ends
November 20, 2014 10:00 PM   Subscribe

I've recently ended a very intense emotional relationship with someone and now I've lost my sense of identity. So much of who I was was tied up in her, I don't seem to know how to be me now she's gone. Has anything helped you, in a similar position?

Full disclosure, I've had issues with continuity of self, memory loss and self-identity in the recent past (5 years or so). I made the mistake of allowing this relationship with another person come to define me, to an extent, to the point where I felt secure and stable in who I was. But the relationship has gone and the definition it provided has totally fallen apart.

The relationship won't be coming back.

I suspect a common bit of advice here is to seek out the other relationships in your life and remember those aspects, but honestly, it was mostly just me and her. I don't have a lot of friends, but the close ones are mutual friends, and that's both painful and awkward. She doesn't have any of my stuff, I don't have any of hers. We didn't live together as we're in different cities. None of this is physical, really, apart from the "absence". I have an enormous hole in my life where she used to be. We used to spend hours a day talking, even when I was at work via messenger.

Now I'm very, very aware of the silence/stillness which is left. I shift between anxious, depressed, angry. I write angry words, I delete them. Nothing changes. I guess to an extent is all normal end-of-relationship stuff, but the worrying thing is I feel that if I wasn't in the flux of all these emotions, there wouldn't be anything there at all. Sometimes I just feel.. dead? I don't remember how it was to be me before her and I don't know how to get back to it. And realistically, I'm not the person I was. So who am I?

This is incredibly emotive for me and if I seem either pointlessly whiney or cold and detached in my message, it's because I'm trying to find a balance between honest enough to let you see where I am, but also practical enough to invite real ideas rather than requesting a pity party. Thanks.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (21 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
I think it's important to remember that 'getting you back' after something like this, is an impossibility. Something has happened that has changed you, and so from that moment on, you are a new person.

In a way, you get to take this opportunity to become whoever you want to be.

Stop thinking 'who am I?' and think 'who shall I be now?'

These things take time to heal, and that's ok. Accept that you're allowed to feel lost and alone for as long as it takes to not feel that way any more. Plan for the day when you are ready to become the new and better you. What will you do first? Read a book you've meaning to read? See a movie on your own? Ask a friend to catch up?

You can be grateful for this experience because it can make you a better person if you wish.
posted by Youremyworld at 10:14 PM on November 20, 2014 [25 favorites]

I've been there to some extent. It's a slow and gradual process, so please be patient. One day you'll realise that you're okay, even though you didn't particularly notice yourself getting there.

When my relationship ended, I set myself some goals: I wanted to pay off my debt, save some money, do an extra year of uni, and take a trip. And I worked my arse off and got all those things done, without having to worry about anyone but myself and my cats.

Maybe you don't have pets (my cats got me through a lot of the hard times), but are there any hobbies that you want to do but never made time for? You have time now, so go do them.

Try not to rush into a new romantic relationship to replace this one.
posted by kinddieserzeit at 10:15 PM on November 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

I don't believe that trying to get back the person you once were, exactly as you were, is what makes the period after a significant break up empowering... I think it's in the acceptance that you are a new version of yourself, a version that has had the enriching experience of that relationship - and of this break up. Even if it ended badly, and even if the relationship itself wasn't all that great, all of it informs who you now are. And I think experience can only be a good thing in the long run.

I was once in a serious long distance relationship as well. Once it ended I started noticing and appreciating my own surroundings more. My mind was no longer elsewhere... half in my city, half in his. The little things around me started feeling mine again, in a way. And that also helped me reestablish my sense of self. Hopefully this might work for you too.

A creative outlet might also be great right now. It can be amazing to give all of that confusion and pain some kind of shape. A journal, poetry, drawing, whatever it is that might feel right for you.
posted by BestCoaster at 10:34 PM on November 20, 2014 [5 favorites]

I would also consider your surroundings. Where you live, the city you live in, etc.

Are they really what you want? Are they appropriate for what you think you might like in the future? Do they challenge you to get out and engage in your new life? Do they help you to find yourself? Or are they a trap through memory lane?

After having one very important relationship end, I realized just how much of me was sacrificed for the needs of her... so I moved, challenged myself, tried to make absolutely sure my relationships were based on growth and change, and having a life of my own. I left my house in the suburbs, moved into the city, pursued my interests, improved my fitness level, etc.

I went against my nature and got a bit more selfish, at least for awhile, because that is what was good for me, and necessary to move on.
posted by markkraft at 10:35 PM on November 20, 2014 [4 favorites]

You cannot be who you were before.

But! You can remember who you were before. Were there things you liked before her that you subsumed/ignored while you with her? Remember those and re-engage.

it sounds to me like you're not so sure how to fill up the space she inhabited--which isn't quite the same as identity. How did you fill that space before? What were the things that engaged you?

Maybe sit down and make lists. Things you liked Before Her. Things you liked With Her. Where are the differences?

Not to make it about me but I have BPD. One of the problems we have is an unstable sense of self (continuity of self, as you said)--which often ends up getting defined by those we love, romantically or otherwise. Who were you B(efore) H(er)? Connect with those things.

And/or, try something new you always wanted try, or just now want to try, that she wouldn't have been into.

(I am not asking you questions that you, anonymous, cannot answer. I'm suggesting the questions that may be fruitful for you to ask yourself.)
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 10:41 PM on November 20, 2014 [4 favorites]

It's a MeFi cliché to suggest therapy, but it really sounds like you could use feedback from a professional, if you're not talking to one already, about coping with the past history you allude to and how it matters in connection with this event and your feeling of having lost a sense of who you are. Maybe you'll just talk and bounce ideas off of them, or maybe they'll have tips for you more relevant than we can suggest without knowing more.

I would suppose that time is the greatest factor in recovering from something like this, but you could do stuff like make lists of things about yourself: preferences, interests, favorite books/movies/music, personal belongings that sort of symbolize who you are, and so on. You could take personality inventories or Facebook quizzes or whatever--not because they're accurate, but because they're opportunities for you to decide what could be the case. Or you could develop new hobbies--preferably nice and easy ones like watching old movie musicals or reading manga--to give yourself sort of a fresh start.

None of those things by themselves answer any "big" question about who you are, but it was really a problem that you had only one answer to that for a while. Finding yourself in lots of different small things that give you even very small amounts of pleasure probably isn't a bad approach to this.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 10:54 PM on November 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

I think what's helped me in similar times is remembering that you don't need to get "you" back. The you who was before is not going to be the you now, so you don't have to be that person. You have to be you-now. So, who are you now? The way to find that out is experimental. Try things and see what sticks. Take notes, if it helps you feel like you're making progress. If you don't feel like you like the things you used to like, try new things. As soon as you find something that feels like you-now, branch out from there. See what people you like enjoy as far as things like hobbies and TV, but just use that as a starting point, don't feel wedded to it. If there's something you've always wanted to try, you might as well try it now.

Now that I'm a little past it, I can see the connections better now between me-now and me-then, but it took a little bit to figure that part out. In the moment, it was easier to just, like, watch first episodes of a lot of TV shows, try on a lot of new clothes, get a new haircut, all that. I think I like the results quite well.
posted by Sequence at 1:31 AM on November 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

I was in a serious, long-term long-distance relationship which ended a few years ago, and what people write above about 'reclaiming' your surroundings chimes really well with my experiences too.

If you experienced it like I did, you may have found, even if you weren't doing it consciously, that you were subconsciously planning a future away from where you live. You possibly weren't making much of an effort to make new friends or pursue new activities in your current city - after all, why would you when you're building your life around someone who's a long way away, and you're likely to end up living in her city at some point? Perhaps you have a dull job, but didn't spend too much time looking for something more fulfilling because you spent all day talking with her on IM, which made the days tolerable.

When that relationship comes to an end, it's totally normal and natural to feel a big hole in your life, because you haven't been living your life to its fullest - you've been 'on hold,' waiting for your relationship to progress to the next stage, to physical closeness. There's absolutely nothing wrong with that - if you're in a relationship with someone, it's normal to have those feelings. But now that it's over, you need to reclaim your life, your physical surroundings.

I'd agree with markkraft above that this is a great time to take a look at where you're living, what you're doing, where you're working, and take stock, question yourself and ask if this is what you really want in life. It may be that once you've got the relationship blinkers off, you find that you're actually really happy where you are, and that's great. But you also might find that you want to make some changes, and that's also great!

Good luck - this is a really sad time, but it's also going to be really exciting. :)
posted by winterhill at 1:37 AM on November 21, 2014 [2 favorites]

I know myself well enough to know that I'd be considering how she would think about this thing I'm considering, or that thing I'm considering, and won't she be sorry when she finds out that I've become a master swordsman, or that I now make my own shoes, or have become an oral surgeon or whatever.

I would be thinking these thoughts even though I'm strong enough to know that I'd not seek her out, or try to somehow let her know this or that about my life. About me.

Which is to say, I'd still be there with her, in my head, in my dumb, stupid, hurting heart, seeking out her love, or approval, or something, even though she's as gone as yesterdays train.

I would do this to prevent myself from the pain of grieving the loss. If I'm still thinking about her responses or reactions, I've not set this thing down, and let it be there, where it belongs, in the past.

I'd been able to set it down with Elena pretty fast, to not see myself in relation to her. I was *obsessed* with writing her, calling her, smoke signals, whatever, the right words would show on the page, I just knew they would. I was such a mess, I turned myself to the care of a wise friend w/r/t this thing. He said yes, I could write her. As soon as I no longer wanted to.

It was an ice-cold knife in my heart.

He was dead right and I knew it. I set it down.

But the pain. Ah, the pain. The energy released from the pain of a broken heart can be at least the equal of the energy released in new love. You could bomb cities with this shit, turn them to dust.

I'd had a hold on Christianity, my own version to be sure but Christianity nonetheless; my understanding of crucifixion, the concept of ego death on the cross of itself -- I just dug the shit out of that. I had crosses all over my condo, and on necklaces, whatever. I'd created this one huge, gorgeous, simple triptych which dominated my living room.

All of that shit was gone in two months, and so was Christianity. Adios. Vaya con Dios. Beat it. Get the fuck outta here. I still have a faith, I still pray, I still meditate, blah blah blah. But though my fkn ego certainly still hangs me all the time, I'm goddamn sure not going to celebrate it. Fuck that noise. Easter would be a better Christian holiday, really, a celebration of New Life after ego death, etc and etc, but fuck Christianity, really, they can have the whole show.

Though I confess here and now that I still burn those Tex-Mex prayer candles -- I'm burning two of them in my bedroom as I type this, their yellow glow is nice, you just can't in any way beat the insanity of the imagery conjured up by Mexican Christianity, and printed on cheap paper and pasted to the glass on these candles. Have you ever looked closely at these things? They're the best, you'll laugh till you cry.

Except some of them truly are beautiful, and I damn sure don't laugh at those peoples faith, which is deep, and honest as they know how to make it. One of the coolest sortof hidden secrets in South Austin is this prayer grotto, in front of a big Catholic church, and it is filled night and day with flickering candles, each a prayer set loose with sincerity and dignity, all of them together a beautiful sight, and powerful, even to a mope such as myself.

ANYWAYS, this is pretty much a good time to dig into anything -- or nothing at all -- so long as it is not in reaction to her. Always wondered about Peruvian cuisine? Read about it, or if you *have* read about it read some more, or if you've read enough take a class in it, or book a flight to Peru already and shake a leg.

One man I really trust told me that the best thing any Westerner can do to blow their world-view and shake them to their shoes is to head to flippin' India, and not just some tour where you're with lots of your compatriots but maybe more a mixed bag, some travel with your own mixed with some footloose rambling. Yeah, part of it is that you can do some spiritual retreat, some Eat Pray Love type hogwash, but maybe part of it spent with some lower caste people in a poor city, somehow gain their trust and enter into their world, it'd be more a shock to your system then entering into Dickens 1800s London, or so it would seem to me.

All of that only if you've never discussed Peruvian cuisine or India with the ex, of course.

Last, I promise I'll shut up after this. Don't do a goddamn thing. Sit. Still. Allow the pain to wash over you, and through you, time and again. "Don't just do something, stand there!" That can be heroic, and no, I'm not using the word loosely. Buy an eight dollar ivy plant at Home Despot, put it in a place where it gets enough sun but not too much, water it enough but not too much. Once a week put it into a bucket of water with some plant food mixed in, let it sit in that water all day, soaking it in. Take it out of the bucket, let it drain some, put it back in it's place in the not too much sun. Be amazed at how alive the thing is now; a good soak makes the plant look how I feel after a full body massage. It shines life, or whatever. Notice that the plant is growing, it's alive, under your care it's flourishing. Wash the dishes. Buy a nice pair of nail clippers and tweezers, etc -- buy the right kit and it's a lifetime implement, I've had my kit over forty years -- and take good care of your nails. Take a hot bath. Buy yourself a hat. Sit still, with your plant. If you don't have a comfortable, stylish chair, buy one. Pray, if it comforts you, and meditate. Then sit still, with your plant.
posted by dancestoblue at 2:15 AM on November 21, 2014 [39 favorites]

Visit old friends. I had a long relationship end early this year, and I spent a week in the summer going back to where I grew up, seeing family, and old friends, some of whom I hadn't seen in years.

It doesn't matter how long it's been. Reconnect, take time out to do so. Don't expect them to be the same, or your friendship with them to be the same, or for all of the times you see people to be 100% positive. Some of the people I saw were strange and distant, some were loving, warm, and wonderful to reconnect with. I found it interesting (and even somewhat helpful in regaining my sense of balance, and place in the timeline of my own life) in the former case and enormously heartening in the latter.
posted by greenish at 2:43 AM on November 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

Make decisions mindfully, large and small, and seek out opportunities to do so. Decisions and the subsequent analysis of their success is how you define preferences and re-establish yourself as a distinct and discerning person in your own mind's eye. What to cook/order/eat, what to wear, what to keep or pitch, what to read... make those decisions mindfully to increase your sense of agency and validity as an individual.
posted by carmicha at 3:57 AM on November 21, 2014

What's going to help is time. You just broke up ... Of course you are reeling.

If you don't know who you are, consider who you want to be, and move in that direction.
posted by bunderful at 5:10 AM on November 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

Dancestoblue...I'm not the OP but I'm going to read your comment everyday for the rest of my life. Thank you.
posted by shibori at 5:28 AM on November 21, 2014 [4 favorites]

You can't step into the same stream twice. Every day our experiences change us in small and large ways. So don't think so much about who you were before this relationship, it's pointless. You've already changed too much to be able to go back to being that person.

The good news is that you can be who you are right now.

Breakups take about as much time to get over as the total years of the relationship. So if you were together for two years, it may take that long for you to really be 100% over the relationship. And by over I mean having very neutral feelings, no anger, no sadness.

That doesn't mean that you can't be ready to be in another relationship before that time, but generally, it works better if you wait it out.

So what do you do while you're waiting to not feel like you've had the stuffing kicked out of you?

1. Get a degree or a certificate
2. Learn to cook a new cuisine
3. Move the furniture around
4. Get into a rigorous physical program (boot camp, cross fit)
5. Take long walks
6. Volunteer
7. Explore a new hobby
8. Go into therapy to process your experiences.

This shouldn't be mindless time wasting, it should be engaging with the world in a different way. When you look back on your life, you don't remember how you felt, you remember what you did.

Your life will move on, you will have other loves, other friends and other interests. Don't let feeling bereft in the wake of a break-up rob you of making each day, hour and minute count in your life.

You will get over this, you will feel better
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:40 AM on November 21, 2014 [4 favorites]

Three years ago I had a breakup from a fifteen year long relationship which I discovered in hindsight was very isolating, controlling and codependent. At the time I thought I was happy but when it ended I had concrete reasons for remembering it as having been betrayed and lied to and gas lighted.

Part of what I did was get therapy and I discovered what was a sort of apathetic complicity with the reality she had wrapped around her. With the boundaries she claimed. With the stories she told about her world, her life, her career, her success (or lack thereof).

During our ugly and prolonged breakup she blamed me for her lacks of having things and of having success. And I, shamed and desperate, took on those burdens uncriticized.

So I know what you mean about immersing yourself in a relationship and then having it end and wanting to get yourself back.

I moved 2800 miles, returned to the town where I grew up, and as an only child placed my Dad in a home that's local where he could be reasonably happy and moved onto the same property (but not the same domicile) with Mom. I took on their care. I reconnected with old friends who knew me before my ex. I renegotiated friendships with folks I met while I was with my ex. I took CBT therapy and reevaluated my place in life. I assumed or reassumed hobbies and chores that my ex had kept me from and then blamed for leaving to her and not doing: housework, cooking, dressing myself, working with contractors or directly doing house maintenance. I learned to enjoy myself while alone. I found things to create and invent. I immersed myself in TV that she hated. I started a policy of saying Yes to new experiences. I also lucked into finding a new sweetie who is self sufficient in particular important ways but who is also very sweet and devoted in others. I started writing my story in my own voice. I eventually found a place and a person who I could call me again. And I eventually stopped having to obsess about the old relationship and am able to attend the new.

And I still agree that it'll be a while yet before I never think of the shitty things that happened in that old, long relationship.
posted by kalessin at 6:13 AM on November 21, 2014

What really helped me was getting out of the city for a few months. It sounds cliche, and I don't think it works in every case, but physically removing myself from that same environment really helped clear my head. I was over-attached to my ex and had a dead end job, so in my case there wasn't much to lose. Landing in a different country, learning the customs, the felt like I was finally coming up for air after being underwater for so long. Things became clearer. Being physically away helped pull me emotionally away as well. Again, this doesn't work for everyone, and I'm not suggesting taking a sabbatical to everyone with a broken heart, but perhaps even a short trip to a place you've always wanted to visit could be something to try.
posted by monologish at 7:34 AM on November 21, 2014

the worrying thing is I feel that if I wasn't in the flux of all these emotions, there wouldn't be anything there at all ... realistically, I'm not the person I was. So who am I?

"Who am I?" is one of those so-called Big Existential Questions that are pretty much just monsters under the philosophical bed; it's only scary if you believe it's got actual teeth. And the only way it gets those is if you agree to pretend that the reason you can't see your own face is because you don't have one, rather than because it's the only one you can use to look out through.

Best answer I know for "Who am I?": slap yourself vigorously on the chest and say "I am THIS. Now describe THIS."

You are not your mind. You are not your memories. You are not defined by your relationship with any person, your membership of any identifiable group, your family, your gender, your preferences and proclivities. You are described by these things, but what you are is a brute fact that has to be taken as given before you even begin to analyze or describe or understand it. You're a conscious, embodied being, regardless of how much you might prefer to believe otherwise; you are under no obligation to behave the same way today as you did yesterday, and if you don't like that you can lump it.
posted by flabdablet at 7:50 AM on November 21, 2014 [2 favorites]

in addition to the wise strategies mentioned above, i encourage you to be as present with and as accepting of your feelings as you possibly can be. you can implement each and every one of these suggestions in either a productive or non-productive fashion - either from a place of genuine curiosity or else in a frantic effort to dam up the sadness/anger/etc. just study and own your feelings, as mindfully and compassionately as you possibly can.

failing all else - exercise.
posted by fingers_of_fire at 8:02 AM on November 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

Exercise is indeed good medicine for those who have retreated into their heads.
posted by flabdablet at 10:01 AM on November 21, 2014

I am separated and working on a divorce from someone who I've been with for literally half my life. One thing that's helped me has been to fill out this daily, 5 year Q&A journal.

It asks you the same simple question on each date, with spaces to fill in your answers over a five year period. It doesn't take long and it helps me focus on myself and my feelings for five minutes every day, no matter what else is going on. And I look forward to seeing how these answers evolve over the coming years, which will be basically my mid-30s. Nice to have the record, in the same way that I like to be able to look back over my metafilter history to see what I was like up to 8 years ago. So keep commenting and posting here, I think!
posted by Kwine at 11:58 AM on November 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

"To be nobody-but-yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody but yourself -- means to fight the hardest battle which any human can fight -- and never stop fighting. " -- E.E. Cummings

"Hope begins in the dark, the stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come. You wait and watch and work; you don't give up." -- Anne Lamott

“In a life that’s long and well-lived there’s going to be pain and darkness that can’t be understood by those who live day-to-day like it’s any other. You loved her, she loved you, and you’re never going to be the same. And these are all good things.” -- Hemlock Grove

Dr. David Schnarch calls it differentiation. The ability to hold onto your self while in a relationship with another person. While you are working to get your self back, read up about how to keep from losing it next time. His book Intimacy and Desire is an excellent resource. It is geared towards committed couples but the parts on differentiation apply to you now.

Interestingly, Schnarch observes that we typically make relationships with people who have essentially the same level of differentiation that we have. So, as you strengthen yourself and your self, you will find that you are drawn to a different type of partner, and they to you.
posted by trinity8-director at 5:00 PM on November 21, 2014 [5 favorites]

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