When does this go away?
April 25, 2015 9:16 AM   Subscribe

I've been separated from my husband for about 18 months. I'm with the person I left him for (that's the short version) and we're very happy. Except. I still miss my ex every day. I dream about him at least a few times a week. When does this stop? I would like to hear from those who have grieved a relationship and moved on.

I am constantly reminded out of the blue of times we shared, holidays we took, memories which just come out of nowhere and leave me feeling like I've been winded. I know I still love him on some level but I could never go back. Too much water under the bridge and it wouldn't be fair to him for many reasons, and he wouldn't want to anyway. Even if by some miracle we were back together, the things which weren't right would still be there, so this isn't about me regretting the decision. We were together a long time - 13 or so years - so I guess I'm still adjusting to the loss. But when does he stop being this shadow figure in my life?

Even when I'm having a good time with my new partner, sometimes I'm thinking of him, even if its just in the sense of "ex wouldn't have enjoyed this". Sometimes I just ache to give him a hug and it's sad to know I never can again, but I made this decision and it was the right one so why is part of my brain clinging on? I know it's mixed up with guilt about how I handled things but I was in therapy for a long time afterwards and I'm trying to accept that what's done is done. The pangs of loss I feel when I think of the life we wont have and anniversaries we won't celebrate still feel as strong as when I first left. Due to where I live we cant divorce for another 6 months and I know thats going to feel devastating and I'm not sure if it will bring closure or open it all up again.

I know there are people here who have remarried or otherwise moved on from a relationship with someone they've loved. When does it stop hurting? Or maybe it's just always going to be there? And if so how do you deal with that?
posted by outoftime to Human Relations (21 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
Sometimes love hurts, terribly and perpetually. I just keep moving forward...I also would like to know the answer to your question.
posted by sninctown at 9:26 AM on April 25, 2015 [6 favorites]

I recommend you read the novel Tony and Susan by Austin Wright. It's about a situation somewhat similar to yours (a woman leaves her husband, and many years later he sends her his novel manuscript to read), and is about how love and connections fade with time. It helped me get over a serious relationship that was wrong for me, and I think it might help you, too.
posted by hazyjane at 9:40 AM on April 25, 2015 [9 favorites]

I left my partner five years ago for another man. I've dated a few men since and am with a nice guy now. I think about my ex every day. Not in a disruptive way, really. Just in an oh, he would love this, or oh, I remember that memory type of way. It's just part of my daily fabric. It doesn't really hurt anymore unless I let myself dwell. See, even though I am in a good relationship now, no one has loved me since I left my ex and I think probably I won't ever find another man who does. So that makes me sad. And what I did to him, the way I left him, that makes me sad. But I don't really think about that stuff.

So I don't know the answer. Everyone is different. Therapy has helped me accept the thoughts and turn them into constructive actions though, rather than just pangs and wallowing.

Some people say love is forever. I think that's true. I miss everyone I have loved who is no longer part of my daily life. It's not a bad thing, really. It just is.
posted by sockermom at 9:42 AM on April 25, 2015 [37 favorites]

In my experience, the two major factors that have helped were being the unhappy partner who ended things and time. I was married for about 17 years and engaged for about two; both times I was the one who was pulled up short, saw neither relationship was working, and I ended them. As the one who made those decisions and (obviously) forced them upon other people, sometimes I wonder if I was being hasty or didn't think things through. I wonder if I pulled the plug prematurely. But then I think about how miserable I was being with those people, and how I no longer feel nauseous pulling into my driveway, how I don't dread making meals, all of those little parts of my day that were negatively impacted by those people.

I can remember that sick feeling of never wanting to talk to them because I never knew when they'd explode and having to get up early and get all the kids up and out because when both partners woke up they were miserable grouches and we all had to tread lightly around them.

Being the one who ended things makes it easier because I don't second-guess why everything is over.

Time helps too. Sometimes I'll be doing a thing and like you, think how my ex would have enjoyed it. But honestly, over time it becomes harder and harder to picture them. They just fade away into "someone that you used to know," like a favorite teacher or elementary school friend. They get compartmentalized as more of a memory and less of a real person.
posted by kinetic at 9:52 AM on April 25, 2015 [6 favorites]

This is one of those things that time slowly fades. Think of it this way - of the last 15 years of your life, 13 of those were spent with that one person. Time marches on. Slowly but surely.
posted by Glinn at 9:54 AM on April 25, 2015 [4 favorites]

When does it stop hurting? Or maybe it's just always going to be there? And if so how do you deal with that?

I got separated in 2009, and divorced in early 2010. So far, my experience is that it doesn't stop hurting. In fact, it hurts more now as I have begun to understand things I didn't understand (or acknowledge/admit) then. I don't know how to deal with it, other than just endure it.
posted by jayder at 10:05 AM on April 25, 2015 [6 favorites]

Supposedly, it takes half of the time you were together. In your case, 6.5 years.

See! A concrete answer! You're welcome.

I have a lot of experience with this. Yeah, the formula pretty much holds true. As time goes on, this person fades from your mind. You have to let it go, though.

Don't take thoughts of your ex seriously. 13 years is a long time, your brain and heart are doing this out of habit. It's not Love.

Love is an active thing you do with your partner and the people around you. It's a verb, not a noun. People get that mixed up so often, this world would be less confusing if they didn't! Actively being in the moment with your current partner and sharing intimacy, kindness, improving yourself and the way you interact with your now partner is Love. Build trust. Do awesome things together and build memories. Be better than you were yesterday. That's Love.

Feelings and thoughts of your ex are your conscious and subconscious processing that old relationship. That's not Love, that's sorta an involuntary function you can't and shouldn't control. It's natural. You have to compare and contrast in order to do better today.

What you do is let those thoughts and feelings float by as they come up. Don't ruminate or place too much importance on them. Don't analyze these thoughts or feelings, just recognize them as part of the process of letting go and investing in your new life.

Hug your now partner when that urge strikes and mentally remind yourself how truly thankful you are to have a better relationship in your life today. I can't stress enough how important this last part is.
posted by jbenben at 10:28 AM on April 25, 2015 [46 favorites]

I have been divorced for eight years and I am very happily remarried.

The good news is that I had to do the math before I typed that first sentence. I stopped counting "days since" and "weeks since" and "months since" many years ago. This sounds sappy, but you know how some people break a bone and although it heals just fine, they forever have a small ache when it's rainy or cold? That is how my heart works. When there is a certain crispness to the air, or a certain song from 1997 plays, there is the tiniest of pains that reminds me that there was once a break. And it's healed, but it was once broken. I just don't see that going away, because that relationship occupied so much time of my life.

I think it's part and parcel of being a human bean that's living life.
posted by kimberussell at 10:39 AM on April 25, 2015 [25 favorites]

Check your memail.
posted by mibo at 10:43 AM on April 25, 2015

He's woven into your history. You can't think of that time of your life without also thinking of him; in that sense, it's a loss of your self, as well as a loss of your ex, and your shared hopes, your assumptions about the future - a whole orientation to a world with him very near its centre. Sadness at losing it all is real grief, like you'd experience if he'd died, except he didn't die, which makes it hard to let go of the alternate reality in which things worked out. All you can do is live with it. And be grateful for the closeness that was there for the time it existed, and for the things that you learned from each other and are just part of you now. When memories come, enjoy them, but don't let them linger too long. Wish him well, and try to be present with your new love.
posted by cotton dress sock at 10:44 AM on April 25, 2015 [7 favorites]

It hasn't gone away completely, and it's been years, and for me, that is okay. I figure that there was a strong attraction between me and my ex. If I didn't have positive recollections of them, that would be pretty sad. This way I know we didn't waste our time together. It's a hell of a lot better than thinking, "What was I ever doing with that person?"

But, you know, every breakup/divorce/whatever is different. In our case, a lot of the problem was not deep incompatibility but more things where the rubber met the road. I would not be able to go back for one week to the way my ex chose to live on a daily basis. So I have not had to second guess our breakup at all. It sounds like you are the same way: you would never go back.

You haven't been apart very long, for such a long relationship. As far as that winded, bottom dropping out feeling-- I know what you mean but that will get more and more infrequent. My guess is that actually getting past the divorce will help.
posted by BibiRose at 11:05 AM on April 25, 2015 [3 favorites]

I am closing in on three years post-breakup. This is the first time in a while that I've paused to consider the passage of time in the context of my ex. How I separate my my life into its timeline is now largely determined by 1) how I am living myself into the larger, beautiful story of my life, and 2) participating actively and fully in the milestones of friends and family. Time doesn't heal, for me, or at least not specifically time. The learning how to forget I had to do manually.

I was with my ex for 11 years, and even though we never married, we had grown roots into each other. We were intense and critical at each other, never figured out how to treat each other with the right kind of respect, but I made a home within it and he was my sun, moon and stars. It didn't matter how much he persisted in segregating me from parts of his life, or how living with him was a practice in daily eggshell-walking, or how much contempt he had for me near the end.

When he broke up with me, I had seen it coming for years. Afterward, I spent two months taking really long bike rides to nowhere, listening to the same three albums on repeat and just learning how to exist outside of the context of him. It was meditative.

In the period of six months post-separation, I let myself feel and process everything as it rose to the surface. There were some panic attacks and an emergency phone call to my mom, a lot of conversations with friends where I would just talk my processing out loud. I wallowed on some days. Sometimes I would resolutely ban him from my thoughts, only to be reminded of him two hours later. I hated both of us, confused by my strong feelings of love and attachment. My head was a mess, and the only relief on some days was the distraction of real life's demands on my time and energy.

Because I felt like I couldn't escape my own thoughts, like life wasn't happening fast enough, I decided to put as much temporal distance between myself and Ex. For me, that's what worked best. I learned how to live in my new circumstances by giving myself a ton of them in rapid succession. All of the memories and new experiences gave me a feeling of cognitive space between the before times and now, a place where I get to be myself and not worry about what my ex would think. That feeling you get when you feel like last weekend was two months ago: temporal distance.

I did a LOT of things in a very short period of time, met a lot of new people, I did a ton of traveling to places I had held back on because of my ex. I would note the things that were able to happen because we weren't together anymore as I lived inside those moments: surfing at sunset surrounded by sea turtles, a 17-day long date, three road trips, my warm little apartment full of cats and a new boyfriend and so much love.

Slowly but surely I have constructed a place in the world that doesn't feel like a web of strings reaching backward in time attached to my ex. Whenever he would pop into my head, I would acknowledge it and then put it down again. He would love these noodles I just made. His favorite band is on the radio. He would be so disgusted with me if he saw what I was doing with my life. Pick these artifacts up, turn them over in my head, put them right back down again and move on.

New memories will replace old ones, new favorite places, new favorite people. I think about how sad and lost I was before and am able to forgive myself for being so clingy and mournful. Therapy helps, it's a safe space for me to disentangle the whole mess of my past, ex included.

In my specific circumstances, thinking about my ex stopped hurting once I came to terms with the fact that whoever I had fallen in love with was dead. He is as different as I am now. And despite me saying that and wanting it to be true, it does still hurt once in a while -- usually when I'm by myself out somewhere having a moment and I wonder what it would feel like to share that place and time with Him That Was. But whoever he is now? We're strangers. It definitely helped me out that he started behaving in ways that make him less attractive to me. Someone else lives in the husk of his body and makes it do and say things that I can't even rationalize. No thank you.

Your ex might not ever do you the favor of showing you his ugliness, so I suggest the temporal distance. Take it day by day: make new memories, don't dwell on the old ones, and focus on what you're doing for you to have a better time right now. The expectation that something or someone else -- time, a new relationship, alcohol -- will take care of all the work of learning how to forget your ex is a great way to fossilize yourself inside that mourning state.
posted by Snacks at 11:14 AM on April 25, 2015 [43 favorites]

Love leaves scars. Or, rather, indelible marks. Your life with him will always be part of what made you who you are. As time passes, just as with a scar, the wound will hurt less and less but the mark will always be there. 20 years after my divorce, I still notice speech patterns I picked up from my ex-husband but it no longer bothers me.
posted by janey47 at 12:22 PM on April 25, 2015 [1 favorite]

So I haven't read Pema Chödrön, which means this sentiment might be a little mangled along the way, but her book's been recommended here many times. One time, in a question similar to this, another Mefite said that according to Chödrön, the memories keep coming back until you're actually ready to move on. Meaning that if the memories are still there, they still have something to teach you.

I'm not sure if that's true or not, but it rang true to me that my brain was still presenting me with these thoughts for a reason. And that when I had really finished with them, they would be gone - not that I wouldn't be able to remember any more, but they would no longer come to mind unbidden.

For example, one of the recurrent thoughts I had bothering me was about a best friend that I used to have who grew apart from me. I missed her so much, and I thought that the reason I kept thinking of her was because I missed her. I'm sure that was part of it. But the reason we grew apart was because she chose a philandering boyfriend over me (after he tried to grope me). I had so many dreams about the two of them. The dreams were usually the same - the two of them would be about to get married, and I would be back in the church somewhere, and I would try to shout or scream to break up the ceremony and to keep her from making a horrible mistake, but my voice would be gone and all that would come out was a squeak. I'm not really into dream interpretation or any of that sort of thing, but I probably should have spent time a few years sooner actually contemplating what the whole thing meant to me. Because it obviously meant something. A long time later it finally occurred to me that I wasn't just missing her and angry at him for tearing us apart. I was angry at HER, and I had never let myself think about that. Once I realized I had this anger I had been holding onto for so long, then whenever the mental images arose, instead of getting all maudlin or nostalgic, I'd be mad. It was like moving through the Kubler-Ross stages of grief - I had to get angry before I eventually just accepted the situation and got over it.

I apologize for the long anecdote, but I thought that telling the story might be more illustrative than just relaying the concepts. Good luck getting over it! You'll get there.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 12:35 PM on April 25, 2015 [6 favorites]

Due to where I live we cant divorce for another 6 months

Due to medical stuff and other complications, my divorce was a long, drawn out matter. It got a lot better after the final papers were filed, even though we had not been living together for some time. So I will suggest that part of why you hurt so much is because you have no closure here. This is still and open matter, thus it is still an open emotional wound. It can't close yet, due to circumstances beyond your control. It will most likely get better after you can officially divorce.

Also, I kept (still keep) a dream journal for a lot of years. I think of dreams about my ex as having symbolic meaning. It isn't really about him per se. I don't really know the man anymore. Those dreams are about using something that is a part of my life experience as a means for my brain to communicate with itself. That helps me be a lot less bothered by dreams about him. It's kind of part of the alphabet of my subconscious, basically.

Most of the time, I am not real sensitive about the topic of my ex. Once in a while, something still hits a nerve. I think you should focus on getting through the next 6 months. I really think you will feel differently after you can actually file the papers. It may not provide immediate relief. But, until then, you are living in limbo and that is always hard.
posted by Michele in California at 12:46 PM on April 25, 2015 [3 favorites]

After so many years together, he's hardwired into your brain. I mean, he's coded into the structure of it, into the very neurons themselves. That's not going to change over night...or even after 18 months. Even though the structure of your mind will change over time, and these old memories will become less and less important, they'll probably never go away entirely.

I'm not saying this to be a downer. I'm just trying to point out that there's real reasons why these memories might still be so strong. It's not like you're doing something wrong, though I guess you could be doing more to consciously re-direct your thoughts.
posted by sam_harms at 1:24 PM on April 25, 2015 [2 favorites]

In addition to the ideas that people have expressed above, we are often really good at suppressing bad memories, which leaves only the good memories behind. Mostly, that's a good thing but, in situations like yours, it leaves you remembering the good times you had with your ex and wondering (at least subconsciously) if you made the right decision. You store away a lot of memories in 13 years and there are going to be a lot of good times mixed in with that.

After being together for 17 years, I've been separated from my ex for over two years now and it's only recently I really let go of the dissonance that had me wondering why. After a long period of getting on quite well (we have kids, so no chance of completely disconnecting), she suddenly responded to something in a way that was (from my perspective, of course) both appalling and perfectly typical of her. This brought back a whole rush of light-bulb moments that somehow wiped out that dissonance I had been feeling.

We weren't married, so didn't have that 'official' ending that can bring on the realisation that things are really over and done, but the finalisation of the sale of our house coincided with the occurrence above. I think the official nature of that transaction helped me to just let go and accept that it was time for me to move on with my life. Hopefully, the finalisation of your divorce can work that way for you. Be prepared that it might open everything up again before it brings closure, though. Good luck.
posted by dg at 3:20 PM on April 25, 2015 [2 favorites]

I was with someone for 9 years, really deeply in love. It ended badly, but it still took over my brain and thoughts for a long time afterward.

Another thing that might be helpful is that I lost a brother in 1988, and that took many, many years to process and get through, so it's akin to that, losing someone you love. I still miss him very much, but the years have softened the blow and I remember the good times, his sense of humor and laughter and all the fun stuff we did together. He was really a nice guy.

Back to the ex, he had good and bad qualities, and it was so very conflicted because I still had all of these feelings churning up. Something would remind me of him, etc. However, it really does take time. At first it was like, jerk, jerk, jerk, then memories of times together, trips taken, etc.

Then all of a sudden I noticed that I was referring to my past as my past. Not our past. I would say, when I went on a trip to this great place, not we did this, but I did this. I seemed to have just pushed him away, and thinking about him is like thinking about a plant or a mushroom.

Part of this is out of respect for my current partner, not wanting to go on about past hurts and such but wanting to tell stories of my past experiences, because there were some great things, and he does the same for me, although neither of us are jealous of past lovers. It's kind of like cutting someone out of your photos, but in your head. And forgiving my past self, because I was young and stupid an in lurrrve.

Also, selfishly, I think of all of the crap I've gone through as great writing material. A writer friend of mine once said, "Divorce! It's good for art!" And that cracked me up, because it really is.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 3:41 PM on April 25, 2015

You might not regret the decision itself, but that doesn't mean you don't / can't / shouldn't regret what led up to the decision.

It seems a very common societal assertion, in this day and age, that a life of "no regrets" is something to aspire to. When my old life and relationship were blown apart, partly through my own doing, one of the core lessons I learnt in rebuilding myself was that this assertion is a short-sighted fallacy.

Regret is one of the hardest emotions to control and escape from, precisely because it's also one of the most human. Your brain is evolved to endlessly search for context, reason and meaning linking your current environment to your past life experience. Re-examining events that triggered intense mental responses, drawing connections between them, their genesis and occurences in your current life is a survival instinct - one which harks back to a time long before the complex rationality of life in a modern societal environment.

The memories that wind you are quite literally an expression of your brain's primary drive towards avoiding traumatic experience in the future. Objectively, the trauma of a broken relationship is less intense, but your brain is still reacting to it in the way it evolved to steer you away from circumstances that led to you hiding up a tree from a pack of lions...

This may seem like a rambling tangent, but honestly, it outlines one of the most valuable insights I have ever had. Regret is an emotion that has evolved to lead us towards ways of getting things right in the future.

The past is another country, and you can't undo what you did there... but you can accept what happened as a lesson which will allow you to do better, by others and for yourself; tomorrow, the next day, the day after that.
posted by protorp at 4:25 PM on April 25, 2015 [7 favorites]

Ask yourself this: do you think you have properly grieved for your marriage to your ex? Like someone you love dying, grieving losing someone in your life is a process. I have found that in circumstances where I have gone relatively quickly from spending time with one person to another, feelings lingered because I wasn't processing my feelings about the end of the old relationship, just moving onto something else. But the emotions were still there.

I had one very meaningful relationship that I only really started to move past when, about 18 months after the break up, I had a good month or two to myself to actually look at what happened in the face, and let myself feel all the emotions. Up until then I had had to be "on" pretty much all the time. It finally started to get better after that. Though it still took time.

Maybe it might be good for you to have a week or so to yourself to at least start to be present in what you're feeling?

I am NOT saying that you'll be all set after a week. And your mileage will almost certainly vary, but that might help. And maybe it's something your new partner will understand? Being able to talk to them would be really helpful because you ask for space to process.

I also want to second what sam_harms said above. It's partly a chemical reaction of your brain. We're creatures of habit and our brains form neural pathways around the routines in our lives. So when the routine changes, our brains REALLY notice. Personally I found it helpful when getting over a break up that my emotions were to a certain extent a chemical response.
posted by dry white toast at 7:23 PM on April 25, 2015 [1 favorite]

In my experience dreaming about my ex isn't about her so much as the cocktail of emotions and triggers she represents. After a long relationship it's to be expected that you are emotionally invested in your ex (which is a good thing! it means that you loved, you engaged, you opened your heart! That takes courage.) It will take a while to untangle. I found it incredibly worthwhile to examine very carefully what those emotions were - many of them had nothing to do with her, she just emobodied my issues!
posted by fingers_of_fire at 11:01 AM on April 26, 2015 [1 favorite]

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